Brazilian Indigenous Leader Wins Major Environmental Award


Alessandra Korap, an Indigenous activist from Brazil, is one of six recipients of the 2023 Goldman Environmental Prize for grassroots activism. Korap was born in an Indigenous village in the Amazon rainforest that was once secluded, but as she grew up, the nearby city of Itaituba crept closer and closer, bringing with it tens of thousands of settlers, illegal gold miners, and loggers. This influx posed a grave threat to Korap’s Munduruku people, who were still struggling to have their lands recognised. Illegal mining, hydroelectric dams, a major railway, and river ports for soybean exports choked their lands.

Korap and other Munduruku women took up the responsibility of defending their people, overturning the traditionally all-male leadership. Organising in their communities, they orchestrated demonstrations and presented evidence of environmental crime to Brazil’s attorney general and federal police. They vehemently opposed illicit agreements and incentives offered to the Munduruku by unscrupulous miners, loggers, corporations, and politicians seeking access to their land.

Korap’s defence of her ancestral territory was recognised with the Goldman Environmental Prize on Monday. The award honours grassroots activists around the world who are dedicated to protecting the environment and promoting sustainability. Korap received the Goldman Environmental Prize in San Francisco, California, for her work in Brazil’s Amazon rainforest.

“This award is an opportunity to draw attention to the demarcation of the Sawre Muybu territory,” Korap told The Associated Press news agency. “It is our top priority, along with the expulsion of illegal miners.” Sawre Muybu is an area of virgin rainforest along the Tapajos River spanning 178,000 hectares (440,000 acres). Official recognition for the land, or demarcation, began in 2007 but was frozen during the far-right presidency of Jair Bolsonaro, which ended in January.

Studies have shown that Indigenous-controlled forests are the best preserved in the Brazilian Amazon. Almost half of Brazil’s climate pollution comes from deforestation. The destruction is so vast now that the eastern Amazon, not far from the Munduruku, has ceased to be a carbon sink — a net absorber of the gas. Instead, it is now a carbon source, according to a study published in 2021 in the journal Nature.

Korap, however, knows that land rights alone do not protect the land. In the neighbouring Munduruku Indigenous Territory, illegal miners have destroyed and contaminated hundreds of kilometres of waterways in search of gold, even though it was officially recognised in 2004. Now Brazil’s new government has created the country’s first Ministry of Indigenous Peoples and, more recently, mounted operations to drive out miners. But Korap remains sceptical of current President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva. She sees his actions as contradictory, noting that while he advocates for forest protection, he also negotiates trade deals with other countries to sell more of the country’s top exports — beef and soybeans — which are the main drivers of deforestation in Brazil.

“When Lula travels abroad, he is sitting with rich people and not with forest defenders. A ministry is useless if the government negotiates our lands without acknowledging we are here,” she said.

Other Goldman Environmental Prize recipients this year are Tero Mustonen, a university professor and environmental activist from Finland; Delima Silalahi, a Batak woman from North Sumatra, Indonesia; Chilekwa Mumba, a Zambian community organiser; Zafer Kizilkaya of Turkey, a marine conservationist and conservation photographer; and Diane Wilson, an American shrimp boat captain who won a landmark case against petrochemical giant Formosa Plastics over the discharge of plastic waste on the Texas Gulf Coast in the United States.