AILTON KRENAK: THE FIGHT FOR INDIGENOUS RIGHTS
Ailton Krenak. Photo by Matthieu Jean Marie Lena / ISA
Ailton Krenak Speech at the Brazilian National Congress, 1987
“Humans only talk about human rights, and environmental law is anthropocentric, it has no interest in whether the forest will die, the river will be polluted.”
Ailton Krenak is a writer, researcher, environmentalist and Indigenous leader from the State of Minas Gerais, Brazil. A member of the Krenaki tribe, he dedicated himself to the Indigenous movement in Brazil. His work explores alternative ways to imagine the world and humanity’s relationship with nature. In this regard, Ailton criticises colonial thinking and oppressive mercantilist perspective. In 1987, he captured media attention when he delivered a remarkable speech in the National Congress, during which he covered his face with black ink – a gesture of mourning for the loss of Indigenous rights. He advocates for the need to build a collective memory – respectful of ancestral habits – and to honor the diversity of ways of thinking and living.
According to him, Western colonialism is also deeply related to the climate crisis we are facing. In his words: “It is a sensitive intelligence to understand that there are things that need to be stabilised in the Earth’s organism. Colonialism does not recognise natural borders, it invades everything furiously”. Colonialism implies a view of the world in which the needs of humans are placed above nature. Ailton continues: “Colonial thinking is powerful because it uses instruments such as economics, which globally institutes the possession of things and land. It is associated with the appropriation of technologies that accelerate extractivism in ecosystems, oceans, mountains and deserts”.
Moreover, his work addresses the concept of “environmental racism”, a form of systemic racism whereby communities of colour and Indigenous people are disproportionately burdened with health hazards through policies and practices that force them to live close to sources of toxic waste. He draws on his personal experience: “I’m on the banks of the Doce River, which was turned into a sea of mud by the extractivism of [mining company] Vale. Indigenous peoples have suffered from the invasion of their world by chaotic, predatory practices. The man outside the forest, who eats hamburgers in Europe, needs it dead.”
At the 2022 Verbier Art Summit, Ailton will participate in the online debate Multiple Ecological Truths where he will be in conversation with the Indigenous filmmaker, journalist and activist Olinda Tupinambá.