Women of the Amazon Series

The new coordination of COAPIMA (from right to left): Marcilene Guajajara, Maria Helena Gavião (vice-coordinator), Ricardo Kanela (treasurer) and Danilo Guajajara (secretary)
Marcilene Guajajara opens paths for Indigenous women and youth leadership

April, 2023 - "As representatives of the Indigenous movement, our role is to strengthen organizations, demand public policies, and defend the rights of our peoples," says Indigenous leader Marcilene Guajajara, the new general coordinator of the Coordination of Organizations and Articulations of Indigenous Peoples of Maranhão (COAPIMA).

Marcilene was involved in COAPIMA for seven years and was unanimously elected to the position. Five hundred  Indigenous representatives held a general assembly in the São José village, in the Krikati Indigenous Land last month.

In addition to meeting the different demands of the eleven distinct Indigenous peoples from the state, the challenges include encouraging the participation of women and youth and expanding the projects’ reach in the next three years. There are 17 Indigenous Lands  in Maranhão

"We had a very positive experience in the project with USAID, in partnership with CTI and ISPN. We discussed what criteria should be applied to make it easier for Indigenous Peoples to have access, and it worked," says Marcilene, who lives in the Maçaranduba village, in the Caru Indigenous Land.

The Integrated Environmental and Territorial Management in Eastern Amazon Indigenous Lands project is supported by USAID/Brazil in partnership with the Indigenous Work Center (CTI) and Society, Population and Nature Institute (ISPN). It was implemented by COAPIMA, Wyty Catë Organization of Timbira Communities of Maranhão and Tocantins, and  Maranhão Indigenous Women Network (AMIMA).

A mother of five and the first woman to be the chief of her village, Marcilene is currently studying Natural Sciences at the State University of Maranhão (UEMA) and talks about the challenge of juggling all her tasks.

How did you start working with the Indigenous organization?
Marcilene - In 2016, I participated in a COAPIMA assembly for the first time. By 2019, I was in the vice coordinator position,  until now. This year, the leaders said that my name would be well received for the election. It was very difficult to make the decision to run because I have been in coordination for almost nine years. I have my family that depend on me, my degree, and so, I had to evaluate and see what would really be more viable. I was unanimously elected.

How do you balance family, studies, tasks at COAPIMA, and fighting for Indigenous rights?
Marcilene - I am torn. When I come home, I feel there isn’t enough time with my children, but then I end up understanding that there are other Indigenous people who need us. At the university, I live the struggle, because I have to explain how Indigenous people succeed to colleagues that don’t always know about Indigenous people’s fight. It is still very new to see groups of Indigenous peoples at the university, but we need to be there. Occupying spaces is important.

What are your plans for the next three years at COAPIMA?
Marcilene - We have many ongoing projects. We also need to look at the Indigenous Peoples living in all regions of Maranhão. We have Indigenous people living in urban contexts who need health care and education. There are isolated peoples with other needs. And then these responsibilities come to us too, so that we can help our people in some way.

How do these projects help the communities?
Marcilene - We had a very positive experience in the project with USAID, in partnership with CTI and ISPN. When we started, we thought about a project that would cover not only one territory, but the whole of Maranhão because the inequalities were great. Some people were in great need. We discussed the criteria so that it would be easier for Indigenous people to access the project and it worked. Going back to some territories where there was nothing, I have the pleasure of now seeing the results for food security and income generation, such as raising chickens, planting cassava, flour, and even a pond to provide water. I was very happy to know that I contributed something there.

What message do you leave for other women?
Marcilene - If we don't go out to experience reality-the fight as it really is, we will never learn. And our role as women is not just to be in the kitchen, as many men still tell their wives. Our role is to be where and how we want to be.

Series – Throughout 2023, the PCAB newsletter will share stories of women's struggles and success, as told by women themselves. They include Indigenous and riverine women who work and contribute to the development of their traditional communities, and who live in protected areas of the Amazon rainforest with all its ecological diversity.