By Rebecca Nathanson
When Artemisa Xakriabá took the stage in front of tens of thousands of young protesters at New York City’s climate march on September 20, donning her tribe’s traditional headdress and speaking passionately in Portuguese, the 19-year-old Indigenous activist, student, and musician spoke of her home in Brazil, of the commonalities that link her to someone like Greta Thunberg, and of the dire situation facing not only her people and their land, but also the rest of the world.
“We fight for our Mother Earth because the fight for Mother Earth is the mother of all other fights,” she said. “We are fighting for your lives. We are fighting for our lives. We are fighting for our sacred territory. But we are being persecuted, threatened, murdered, only for protecting our own territories. We cannot accept one more drop of Indigenous blood spilled.”
Xakriabá, a representative of Indigenous and traditional communities that are part of the Global Alliance of Territorial Communities, has been working on environmental and Indigneous rights issues for over a decade. She is a member of the Xakriabá people, whose land covers what is now the state of Minas Gerais, a landlocked region about 70 miles inland from the Atlantic coast in southeastern Brazil. It is far from Amazonas, the northwestern state home to much of the Brazilian Amazon, but it has not escaped the reach of the fires ravaging the rainforest. There, she’s seen first-hand how the climate crisis has devastated her homeland — including damage encouraged and perpetuated by Jair Bolsonaro, Brazil’s far-right, anti-Indigenous president, who on his first day in office slandered Indigenous communities living on protected lands.
Since Bolsonaro took office in January 2019, the INPE, Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research, noted a marked increase in the number of wildfires in the world’s largest rainforest. In June, the deforestation rate was up 80 percent from the same month in 2018 — before Bolsonaro had taken office. He has since cut funds to the government agency charged with protecting Indigenous tribes and spoken about opening Indigenous land up to mining. In response, Indigenous peoples have repeatedly taken to the streets of Brasília, the capital city, protesting these attacks on their rights, land, and health. In August, Xakriabá joined women from over 110 ethnic groups in the country’s first March of Indigenous Women.
Xakriabá’s message — to Bolsonaro, to the protesters that day in New York, and in the conversation below — is in part a show of global solidarity for her fellow young people, bolstered by an urgent warning of the perils of ignoring Indigenous peoples and undervaluing the environment. MTV News spoke with her about the experiences that led her to activism, life under Bolsonaro, and the inextricable link between Indigenous rights and climate justice.
MTV News: To go back to the beginning, how did you first became aware of the climate crisis?
Artemisa Xakriabá: I’m from Xakriabá, from the north of Minas Gerais. It’s southeast in Brazil. When I left my territory and went to the city [of São João das Missões, in northern Minas Gerais] for the first time at 7 years old, I was [shocked] by the pollution and how warm it was. I could feel that it was a bad situation, not just for me but also for everyone who was living in that city. So that was the first time I felt that I could do something, and I decided to start fighting not just for the rights of Indigenous people, but also for the rights of everybody. As soon as I realized that what I was feeling was what everybody was feeling, I decided to start fighting for everybody.
MTV News: What was your next step?
Xakriabá: From 7, me and my family and all the people from my territory, we started planting trees because there was a lack of water. So for a few years, we worked a lot on this: planting trees, planting trees.
When I was 15, I moved to Ribeirão Preto, the biggest city close to my territory, to study. It was not healthy for me. I felt really bad all the time living in Ribeirão Preto because of the pollution. I couldn't breathe well; it was very warm. And then I decided to increase the way I was fighting for nature.
At that time, I was already doing music. I’m a composer and I play guitar. I started composing music to attract attention to those problems in my territory. And then there were some Indigenous women who organized a march in Brasilia in August this year, and I decided to go [and] participate in the Indigenous women's march, which was organized for Indigenous women's rights and for climate change. So I composed music that talks about that, and I put into the music the problems of the Brazilian Indigenous people that have been going on since the year 1500, when the white man first invaded Brazil.
MTV News: What do you want people to know about the link between climate justice and Indigenous rights?
Xakriabá: We talk about climate change and Indigenous people. For me, it's the same subject. It's all related. It's just one thing. I understand that the government of Brazil now, they’re provoking ecocide, genocide, and ethnocide against Indigenous people. For me, it's why there's this dry period. The sun becomes stronger, biodiversity is disappearing, and the homes of my parents and relatives are burning — not just the forest but the homes and villages. The government is fighting for territory to exploit minerals. The Indigenous people are very important to protect the forest. The forest exists the way it does now because we have been protecting the forest forever, because we were here [hundreds of] years before Brazil was first invaded. I understand clearly how important Indigenous people are for taking care of the forest, taking care of the planet. We know how to, and that's why the government wants to kill us. They don't want us to continue protecting it because they want to destroy it. Recently, in Amazonia, they killed [one] of the oldest Indigenous leaders.
MTV News: The fires in the Amazon brought a lot of attention to Brazil in the United States, but Bolsonaro’s environmental policies were hurting the environment and Indigenous communities long before the fires. What of Bolsonaro’s impact are you seeing on the ground?
Xakriabá: When we talk about a forest, Mother Nature, we are talking about something sacred. I’m very proud of recognizing this because it's this sacred nature that keeps us alive. It's very sad to see nature screaming, asking for help, needing help. Not just me as an Indigenous person, but all human beings see what's happening. It causes a broken heart.
When I talk about fighting for Mother Nature, it's fighting for survival and resistance. I know that it impacts [everyone] when the forest is burning. The forest will attack the whole world — not just Indigenous people, not just Brazilians — because that’s the way that nature reacts. I’m feeling it immediately because they are killing my family. They are burning our houses and maybe the Americans won't feel this reaction now, but soon everybody will understand what we were talking about and what we are feeling. It will also happen to you — not just Americans, but Europeans, too. The whole world will suffer the same impact we are suffering now.
MTV News: How do you feel about being part of a global movement of people who are fighting climate change together?
Xakriabá: I’m very emotional now. I felt a huge connection with other Indigenous people — and with other kids. I saw kids that were supposed to be at school and they were there fighting. After the strike, when I went to the stage to talk to 40,000 people, I felt that we are not alone in this battle. There are many people fighting for the same thing.
MTV News: You touched on this earlier, but how has living in a city for school has changed the way you think about the environment?
Xakriabá: I study psychology and I’m living in Ribeirão Preto, but I come quite often to Sao Paulo and I just went to Costa Rica. The main goal is, together with other young people, to show the adults that we should be listened to. The adults should listen to us because what we are saying is serious, serious stuff. That’s what I see most being with other young people in cities.
MTV News: What would you say to people who want to get involved or help in some way and don't really know how to start, or who feel that the climate crisis is such a big, overwhelming problem?
Xakriabá: First thing, if somebody comes asking how they can help, I thank them just for this interest. And then the second thing I would say to this person is, learn more about the Indigenous situation and help us, listen to our suggestions. That's why I’m interested in meeting more and more Indigenous people from other countries — and young people from other countries. I believe in the power of this voice, in unifying the forces of everybody for the same goal.