In the Brazilian Amazon, Telma Taurepang inspires indigenous women to fight for their land and rights

March 1, 2021
Photo: Telma Taurepang

Telma Taurepang comes from a long line of activists. She lives in the Brazilian state of Roraima, in the Amazonian region of Amajari, where her family has fought for decades for the demarcation of indigenous territories. Her grandparents and uncles were leaders in their communities.

“As my uncle was a cacique (the highest indigenous leadership rank), I grew up seeing how people followed his fight in our territories,” Taurepang recalls. “Over time, this drew my attention.”

Although her grandmother provided her a strong example, such activism was mostly left to men. Today, Taurepang is working to change that. She leads the Union of Indigenous Women of the Brazilian Amazon, or UMIAB, a local organization that promotes the rights of indigenous women. UMIAB is a partner in the USAID-funded SCIOA project (Strengthening the Capacities of Indigenous Organization in the Amazon), a Pact-led effort that is increasing indigenous people's influence in the governance of the Amazon region in order to protect the region's environment and the rights of its indigenous people. Through SCIOA, Pact, the Instituto Internacional de Educação do Brasil (IEB) and other partners are building the capacities of indigenous organizations like UMIAB to access and manage financial resources and take ownership of their own development planning and priorities in the Amazon rainforest of Colombia, Peru, Brazil, Suriname and Guyana.

“UMIAB is in this struggle for the territories, to empower indigenous women so they can occupy decision-making roles,” Taurepang says. “Not only do we fight for land rights but also for women’s rights – to give visibility to women, knowing that within their territories, women suffer from violence, and to help them understand that they need to speak, be heard and make their own claims.”

Taurepang has served as UMIAB’s coordinator since 2016. For six years before that, she led the Indigenous Council of Roraima (CIR). In her time with UMIAB, she has seen progress, such as increased representation among women in influential regional and national organizations, and Brazil’s first march of indigenous women.

“These types of mobilizations are very important advances for indigenous women,” Taurepang says.

More recently, UMIAB has made progress against a hurdle that has long vexed the organization – connecting indigenous women from across Brazil’s nine Amazonian states. With support from SCIOA, UMIAB installed internet in villages and is using technology for the first time to gather its members via video calls.

“Through computers, we talk and we define the criteria to raise the demands of anyone whose rights are not being fulfilled. We seek ways for these women to become the very protagonists of their stories.”

“We need to break these paradigms that systems impose on our lives and that makes us invisible.”

Yet Taurepang acknowledges there is much work left to do. Among the challenges she names are gender-based violence in indigenous communities and “institutional violence – the violence of the governmental system itself.”

“An indigenous woman fights so that the system understands that she needs to be taken care of within her daily life, in health, in education, in her intellectual development,” Taurepang says. “This will always be the struggle of indigenous women. She needs to be strong, to move forward. She breaks the system when she acts directly using her own voice and gives visibility to other women.”

She says the Covid-19 pandemic has only added to these struggles, isolating women further, although digital connection is helping. “We can talk and take care of each other, and also be seen and heard in the outside world.”

As for the future, Taurepang is thinking of the next generation. “My hope is that no matter whatever government system comes, it will provide us with adequate education for indigenous peoples, adequate health.”

She hopes that indigenous communities – and especially indigenous women – gain more ground in taking up decision-making roles, including within Brazil’s national congress, “where we can directly overturn the laws that afflict indigenous peoples.”

“We need to break these paradigms that systems impose on our lives and that makes us invisible,” she says. “If we want to have the capacity to make this system change, we need to do it together. Only unity will bring us quality of life within our territories.”