Activist Nina Gualinga Connects Indigenous Women Leaders Through Amazon Watch’s Women Defenders Program

“I worry for my children, for all our children and the future generations. Despite our fight to keep the earth in balance, to protect our territory and our tradition, the Amazon is in danger.” – Mayalú Txucarramãe 

I am a woman defender of the Amazon from the Kichwa community of Sarayaku in the Ecuadorian Amazon. In my work as an advocate for women’s rights and climate justice, I serve as an international spokeswoman for Mujeres Amazonicas and am currently the Women Defenders Program Coordinator at Amazon Watch. 

In early 2022, I was joined by documentary photographer, filmmaker, and campaigner Alice Aedy, as I traveled across the Amazon, connecting with other Indigenous women leaders. Alice’s work has focused on social justice issues including forced migration, climate justice, and women’s stories. She is the co-founder of Earthrise Studio, a creative studio dedicated to communicating the climate crisis and through this work, she captured the beautiful portraits featured in this piece about my journey. 

Indigenous women across the Amazon are coming together like never before to protect and defend our lives, rights, bodies, and territories in the face of ever-increasing threats. 

In September 2021, the National Association of Ancestral Indigenous Women Warriors gathered over 5,000 Indigenous women from 172 nationalities to march in resistance to the attacks by the Bolsonaro government on Indigenous peoples’ rights. 

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A rainy season in the Xingu. Dark clouds approach the Metuktire community

In solidarity, a delegation of Mujeres Amazonicas — a collective of Indigenous women defenders working against extraction in the Ecuadorian Amazon — joined the historic gathering. Together, we marched, danced, sang, and shared stories and strategies of resistance. There, I met beautiful and inspiring women, including Mayalú Txucarramãe. She is a mother and rising woman leader of the Kayapó Mebêngôkre and Wauja peoples. She is the daughter of Cacique Megaron and granddaughter of Cacique Raoni Metuktire, globally recognized Kayapó warriors who have fought to defend Kayapó territory in the Xingú Indigenous Reserve from the Belo Monte mega-dam, industrial agribusiness, land-grabbing, and the Brazilian government. 

A few months after meeting Mayalú, I had the opportunity to visit her and her family in sacred Mebêngôkre (Kayapó) territory together with my friend Alice Aedy, documentary photographer, filmmaker, and co-founder of Earthrise Studio. We also were joined and supported by Jack Harries, Eric Marky, and my sister Helena Gualinga. 

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Swimming in the Zingu river. From left to right: Mayalu Txucarramae, Irepoti Metuktire and Nina Gualinga

The journey into Kayapó territory is exhausting and devastating. It requires days of travel via car and motor canoe from the nearest town. On the road, we passed cleared forests, heavily loaded trucks, and miles of soy fields which were once forests and Indigenous lands. This is what surrounds the Xingu, a sacred Indigenous land and river. 

While in Mebêngôkre territory in the community of Metuktire, we reunited with Mayalú and met her family, including Raoni, which was an incredible honor. Until we arrived, Raoni had not seen outside visitors since last year, when his wife passed away and he survived Covid-19. We also met Irepoti Metuktire, a young Kayapó woman leader who is learning and following in the steps of other Indigenous women leaders, and who is supporting Indigenous health via Casas de Apoio à Saúde Indígena. 

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Irepoti having her face painted with Achiote by an elder of the community

Together, they welcomed us as family into their homes and community. We shared stories of our peoples in resistance to land grabbing and extraction, and our distinct experiences as Indigenous women. We exchanged knowledge about Wituk painting. The women of the community painted our faces and bodies in their Mebêngôkre traditional way with Wituk, which they call Jenipapo, and Achiote. My sister and I dyed our hair in our traditional Kichwa way with Wituk. 

Mebêngôkre women are fierce, just like Kichwa women. We are on the front lines of all of the threats facing our peoples and territories, and we continue to face gender-based discrimination and violence. But that is not stopping us. On the contrary, we are standing together and rising up. 

This is just the beginning! We are building partnerships of Indigenous women defenders across the Amazon. As our sisters at ANMIGA say, “We are the cure of the earth.” 

To learn more about the nonprofit, and to support its work, visit the Amazon Watch website.

Amazon Watch was one of the winners of the 2021 Make It Better Foundation Awards.

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