Winner of the Women Who Make a Difference award empowers her people

Telma Marques Taurepang is very articulate and is always ready to speak up for indigenous rights, particularly for women. With firmness in her voice, she is a regular on social media events, lectures and TV shows, telling the story of her ancestors and giving visibility to the Indigenous peoples protecting the forest. She is also a strong supporter of projects aimed to revive ancient indigenous traditions in Roraima, her home state.

In recognition of her work and environmental activism, Telma was one of seven people selected by the US Embassy and Consulates in Brazil to receive the 2021 Brazilian Women Who Make a Difference award. The award acknowledges the role of women who excel in their field to the point of drawing national attention to their work, generating structural changes in society, and serving as role models for others (learn more about it here).

Telma belongs to the Taurepang ethnicity, and lives in the Mangueira community, at the Araçá indigenous land in Roraima. With a degree in Anthropology from the Federal University of Roraima, she believes in education as a form of empowerment and has been actively engaged in promoting training and capacity-building programs aimed at Indigenous women. 

Telma is the general coordinator of the Union of Indigenous Women of the Amazon (UMIAB). The COVID-19 pandemic encouraged her to promote the revival of traditional indigenous medicine, and the creation of vegetable gardens in each village as a way to ensure local food supply.

UMIAB is one of the organizations involved in the PCAB’s project Capacity Building of Indigenous Organizations in the Amazon. It aims to increase the influence of indigenous peoples in the region´s governance, so as to protect the forest and the rights of local communities.

Descending from a matriarchal line, Telma explains that key references in life are her maternal grandmother, Olindina Tenente, and her mother, Zenilda Tenente, both Taurepang. She adds that her inspiration also comes from indigenous activists such as Tarcila Rivera Zea from Peru, and Sônia Guajajara from Brazil (learn more about Tarcila and Sonia). 

Below are some excerpts from Telma’s interview for PCAB’s website:

How did you receive the news of the award?
We have been working very hard to increase the visibility of indigenous women and help them to report rights violations. Disseminating this message is very important, and so this recognition touches me deeply. The partnership with USAID/Brazil has strengthened these projects, despite the pandemic. 

What was the impact of COVID-19 on indigenous villages in Roraima?
It was very cruel, mainly because it came at a time when indigenous people were fighting against the violation of their rights, pressures on their territories and lack of public policies benefiting our peoples. We have lost and are still losing many lives, together with our memory and history, that is, our elders, pajés (healers), and leaders. We even had to appeal to the Federal Prosecution Service and the Federal Supreme Court (STF) to get support against the pandemic, and to ensure that vaccines would reach our villages. 

How did you deal with fake news trying to discourage people from being vaccinated?
Indigenous organizations had to devise strategies and train young people to communicate with everyone and fight fake news. In this sense, UMIAB's partnership with USAID was extremely important. We managed to install internet points in the villages, and that enabled us to train our people and communicate more effectively. Now, women can tell us in real time what is going on in their land, the struggles they are facing, and whether their rights are being violated. 

What final message would you like to share with us?
It is only by working together and caring for others that we can make a difference for future generations. We, indigenous women, make a difference because we care for the well-being of our people. The Earth is like a mother taking care of her child. We, indigenous women, look after our future generations and the forest. 

** In 2020, one of the winners of the Brazilian Women Who Make a Difference award was the coordinator of the Association of Remaining Quilombos Communities of the Municipality of Oriximiná (ARQMO), Claudinete Colé de Souza, another important USAID partner. Learn more about her here.