Last year in October 2019, environmental/human rights activists, scientists, anthropologists and indigenous forest defenders gathered alongside the Xingu River, in the Amazon Rainforest. Scheduled to discuss the safeguarding and preservation of the significant ecosystem which produces 20% of our planet’s oxygen each year. The protection of the Amazon forest. This assembly of innovative individuals was known as The Amazon Centre of the World meeting.
Ahead of my trip into the Amazon Rainforest, I was oblivious that this meeting was going to leave such a massive imprint on my life and completely change the way I view the western world and opened my eyes to the extremes people take to gain economic wealth. I had predetermined ideas of what I would learn, what I would do and the impact the trip would create in my personal life plus the impact in the school strike for climate movement. I thought it was going to be a trip where I would experience a different culture, far different to my own. Where we would share food and places to sleep, almost like an exchange of lifestyle. To learn from a different perspective; where I would get an insight into how the indigenous communities viewed the climate crisis and what their solutions would be. And finally to learn and raise awareness about how climate equity and social justice are so dependent on one another.
People often view climate justice to be sourly focused on environmental mistreatment and respect, however the term ‘climate justice’ includes the acknowledgment and liberation of people currently in the front lines of climate impact: Developing countries and unrepresented communities like the indigenous population. Communities as such are currently facing fatal effects of the climate emergency which directly impacts the places they live and the resources they need to survive. This is not usually represented in the media, so for our movement this systematic misconduct has paramount importance.
Arriving at Middle Earth
I felt apprehensive before the endeavour. I was 15 at the time and still studying towards my final GCSE exams, previously the feeling of underestimation and judgment from my peers and adults chipped away at my confidence and self-worth because of the traditional idea that children should been seen and not heard. The thought that people were not only ready to listen to such a young voice but people wanted to hear what I had to say was a serial experience within self.
It can be very easy for people who follow the western culture to visit marginalised communities with the mind-set of a gracious action of charity they would be giving. I believe if people enter situations with this narrative, it eliminates opportunities for educational exchanges of knowledge and also impacts the fundamental equality of a human to human connection. The main principle of the trip went completely against this idea: it was not focused on shallow media stunts to make western people look elite, humble and giving. It was an equal educational learning experience where everyone was given an opportunity to exchange experiences, create lifelong alliances and put our powers together to strategies for real change. I believe people in the UK didn’t understand this before I left. That misunderstanding of the basic idea and principle of the gathering really escalated the backlash of my attendance.
People believed the trip was intruding into the cultures of others without invitation whilst creating a power imbalance against the communities. Therefore furthering the idea of colonialism. Although this was of course not the case, heading into the experience; I was cautious of this concern. My intentions were as explained however the perception of my actions were far from my control.
Arriving in Brazil alone was contrasting to London, England. Firstly the heat was completely dissimilar to any English summer day, yet alone British autumn weather (which was the season the meeting was scheduled). I then arrived in the city of Altamira, in the Amazon, which was the closest city to the location of the assembly: a particular area called ‘Middle Earth’ which is pinpointed along the Xingu River.
The moisture in the air immediately became very apparent to me, this was parallel to what people told me beforehand about the high levels of humidity. A moment which shall never leave my mind was when I first saw the colour and masses of vegetation. The rainforest is something which I wished to see all my life, something which little kids across the globe dream to see one day. I was greatly astonished about how green and rich the trees and plants were.
The next step of the trip was to travel with 30 of the other participants deeper into the Amazon Rainforest to all gather at the set destination; to then commence the 2 day conference. The voyage approximately took 3 days including side educational exchanges and rest in different communities located along the Xingu River. All the food we ate was locally sourced and grown by the villages and communities around the area we were. Additionally, each community we stayed at, another participant would join from that community; building our group as time went on.
Throughout my journey to Middle Earth, I sensed many cultural clashes to my daily routine in London. Firstly the means of travelling was unique to me; we mainly travelled on water via motor boat or handcrafted log boats paired with beautiful wooden paddles.
No one describes the noises that are heard when in real nature. I could hear monkeys, crashing water, branches and leaves hitting against each other. No vehicles or sirens, no advertisements or store music. I could only sense the noise of purity and life.
The water was rich in nature: water snakes, tropical fish and alligators swimming around us. Commonly that would be unsettled and scary. However, following the feelings of community members who we were travelling with, I shortly realised that cars and modern technology are much more hazardous than life in the river. And that fear would be irrational compared to my everyday life in a capital city.
From admiration to the desire to protect
I remember a plethora of images and situations which happened while travelling. The first night sleeping in a hammock was surprisingly comfortable. I tried manioc for the first time, again surprisingly appetizing considering I am an over-particular eater. Manioc is the equivalent to the western potato, it is a root vegetable which is used and processed in countless ways. To bath, we had the option to use a shower in the community which used filtered rain/river water or wash in the river which was more commonly used. One of my personal goals during this expedition was to engulf myself in, and learn about, the culture/lifestyle of traditional communities. I decided to wash in the river with most of the other participants excluding a few. Shockingly I found it very soothing and relaxing; the water’s temperature was warm with no debris in its flow.
Slowly the surroundings of the forest became familiar to me over the days of travelling. So when we arrived at Middle Earth, my attention switched from admiring the wilderness to becoming more eager to gain knowledge on the strides taken by individuals in the group to fight for preservation of the Amazon Rainforest and the rights of the people defending it. The Amazon Centre of the World meeting participants were all inspirational and powerful people who stood up for human/environmental justice. So I was in the ideal place to learn about the history of resistance against western corporations and corrupt farmers who harmed the natural world and chose profit over the protection of traditional people. I connected with many local participants during our travels deeper into the forest (through a translator most of the time due to language barriers). I connected with two people particularly during our travel. The assembly was a great time to open up my struggles and experiences and for them to do the same.
Maria do Socorro Silva belongs to a community known as the Quilombolas. The Quilombolas are a group of descendants of run-away African slaves whom arrived in Brazil in the 17th century. To escape capture and keep concealment, the group decided to trek deep into the Amazon Rainforest where only indigenous were homed. From then on, their people have been rebelling against human and environmental injustice. Socorro first approached me at the beginning of the trip, she touched my hair and asked me in Portuguese: “Do you drink a lot of milk?” while stroking my head. (At the time my hair was platinum blonde/white so she thought it was that colour due to my diet instead of hair dye) We both were laughing and from then on we both were connected.
When we made our first stop just after our departure to Middle Earth, we broke our journey by visiting and rewilded rejected and uninhabited land which was previously used for cow grazing. The practice and technique we followed was developed hundreds of years ago by forest defenders. The technique was to not only plant diverse tree seeds; but to grow a variety of other planets amongst the trees. For example beans and sunflower seeds. This ensures that any ant or other animal which would usually eat growing trees would chew and ingest the other growing planets instead. The other plants act as a defence layer to give the infant trees a greater period of time to grow strong and tall until they do not need any more protection from intruders (apart from humans) Once the eaten plants die, they compost and enrich the soil.
This experience I shared with Socorro, she demonstrated how to scatter the seeds and then we held a tight grip to each other’s hands while we distributed seeds throughout the land in unison. At this point, I believe we both gained each other’s trust and I felt that she accepted and welcomed me into her ‘world’. It was more than that though, it wasn’t just an acceptance or welcome into her life, but it was a common felt bond where we both understood that we were allies and were fighting for the same goal: To save the Amazon Rainforest. Looking back on this time, it was even more important than I acknowledged at the time.
During the assembly in Middle Earth, Socorro unveiled some harrowing truths about her upbringing. “My body was given to the white men when I was younger.” A mining company came into her village and decided to ‘set up camp’ and completely destroyed the environment around her, leaving her young self, stripped of all she knew and loved. Her Uncle profited from these people however he gave his principles in return. Socorro then went on to tell us about her life in the present day: Her people are battling cancer due to mining waste which had been dumped into the river where her village is located. They can no longer sell their agricultural goods in exchange for money to put towards education and necessities. Why? Because the same water which has poised them, has poisoned her people’s food and water.
The Quilombolas have not expected defeat though. Maria do Socorro Silva is now leading a rebellion against the Norwegian mining company who has polluted her peoples’ waters and killed many animals and humans. There is only one common denominator in Socorro’s pain… white men. All the torment, grief and suffering Socorro has faced during her lifetime has been caused by ‘my people’. The very country I live in and the very continent I travel around spending my money is funding the destruction, of not only the environment, but people’s lives. Stripping childhoods, land and fundamental means to live. Above all of this, Maria do Socorro Silva still welcomed me into her life with open arms, no hatred, sorrow or resentment. Only love and peace.
Although it is very uncommon that the media covers indigenous mistreatment; there are numerus articles, sources and accounts repeating stories similar to Maria do Socorro Silva’s trials. Western land invaders treat indigenous people as toys and view them as objects, nothing more. The dehumanisation of any individual or group of people has never been tolerated however from this meeting, we have something new… An international alliance. We will now fight hand in hand to put a stop to the genocide of the forest protectors.
‘The river is their existence’
Another person who has truly changed my life is called Yakawilu Juruna (commonly known as Anita Yudjas) Anita lives in the village called TI Paquiçanba in the vouta grid of the Xingu, in the region of Altamira Pará. Her age is similar to mine, 18 years old, in education, learning language and fighting for climate justice. We however live polar lives at first glance. Anita is not learning a modern language for a grade at school. Instead her quest is to relearn her people’s native, original word to then reiterate and teach future generations of her people. This is principle to many communities in the forest. Language gages identity to one’s specific faction. Language gives a person identity. Yudja ancestors have suffered greatly due to western invasion on land and mistreatment of people.
Anita’s community is a fishing community and can easily navigate the Xingu River. The river is their existence. No river, no life. In the Xingu River her community bath, fish and drink.
She crossed the river with friends and family daily for fun when she was growing up. Always riding a hand–crafted canoe. However… After 13 years this all changed she expressed to me through a translator. A dam called Belo Monte was built in her region dismantling all structures of her people’s way of life. Take what you need and respect everything as if it is living… because it is.
The Xingu River changed, the fish supply changed, the water purity changed; and my life changed.
‘The river is dying’
In the year 2020, the Xingu River is very toxic, her people are now (for the first time) ineffectual to navigate as usual. Fish are dying. All for the money made by Belo Monte Hydroelectric Dam. Belo Monte Dam is the fourth biggest dam in the world (by installed capacity) and claims to have followed presages and guidelines set by Brazilian government to mitigate the environmental damage and abide by human right policies (according to an article written by Elaine Brum in Atmos magazine.)
“Today when I bathe in the river my skin gets rashes. When I open my eyes in the water they get very hot and burn. Not to mention the water temperature has increased drastically. The river is dying. Me, and everyone who lives in my community have witnessed the river that has always been so beautiful, so full of life, transform to today… where it is toxic and harmful, where it is dead!” This is not the end of the wrecking of her region: A mining company from Canada, Called Belo Sun, announced they would be planning a mine directly alongside Anita Yudja’s community. Toxic chemicals like mercury are bound to be leaked into her waters and poisoning her people with cancer, leading the Yudjas down the same path as the Quilombolas health wise.
I heard this from Anita during the end of our trip; before-hand we became best friends. We sat together on the coach at set-off when the journey was new. On the first night of arrival she made skin ink out of a special seed and painted my body like hers with traditional meaningful patterns and symbols. The main symbol used represented the turtle shell. I discovered through Anita this was because the turtle represents power in resistance. A passive and peaceful creature with a strong exterior to protect from predators. This was a symbol of The Amazon Centre of the World meeting to her. We all gathered in harmony (with respect for each other and the environment) to discuss how to dismantle the racist, money obsessed world we are currently living in; to finally prioritize the environment and people over economic business growth. Aggression and violence was (and still is) the opposite of strategies and tactics we use to create real change. Just like the turtle. I still wear that pattern around my wrist on a traditional bracelet her people gave me during the trip to remind myself what really matters on this earth.
Strength is about love and values
Language was no barrier, Anita and I did not share common spoken word however that did not prevent us from communicating. The translator could not shadow us the whole journey; we took matters into our own hands and started to make our own gestures and draw in the dirt on the ground, carve images in the sand and make sounds/facial expressions to convey our wanted messages. I believe that this made our relationship even more special. We subconsciously created our own little language, made just for us to understand with inside jokes added as time went on. Our lives, battles and experiences couldn’t be more opposite; nonetheless we are actually very similar. We are both teenagers trying to figure out who we are, we both take selfies, listen to the same music and want the world to change for the better.
In hindsight, mine and Anita’s path should have never crossed in the way they did. I should have never needed to travel deep into the Amazon Jungle for a meeting about the dying earth, Anita should have never needed to enter into a group of innovatives trying to save the future. This meeting was and still is the last resort to save the world; which means humanity in previous history has failed.
I often miss the atmosphere and connections I felt during the meeting and voyage. I truly long to feel the hope I felt when we were all dancing around a campfire singing traditional protest songs holding hands. I do however get reminded of the phrase ‘power in resistance’ when looking at my wrist and then remember that no matter where any of the participants are located, no matter how far we are physically, we are all living for the same shared goal. Climate justice. And that this is only the beginning of something much bigger.
From all of this, I have learnt that strength isn’t about economic status or power. Strength is about love and values; morals which hold you high and pure. The love everyone had for one another and the living planet is something that can never be manufactured in western systems. The passion and connection holding the trip together despite many differences speaks volumes. The future of the planet is not yet determined and there is still hope left. The future of Earth was this meeting.