Indian man risked his life for 32 years to save the Brazilian Amazon
Aamidst the lush Amazonian forests of Brazil, young Shaji, then still in his mid-twenties, worked with the Quilombola community. They are descendants of Afro-Brazilian slaves who escaped slave plantations in Brazil by going deep into the forests and settling with existing tribal communities. This was one of Shaji’s first missions to work for the rights of various communities in the Amazon.
Shaji was sent here to understand the culture and way of life of the community. “Before coming here, I had heard all kinds of things about tribal communities living in the Amazon forests, how they kill people, among other things,” he says. The best India.
What Shaji found instead was love and acceptance when the chef invited him to sit and have dinner together, and offered the young man the first plate of food – an important part. binding communities. He felt so comfortable with the group that when he left he promised them that one day he would come back here to work with the members again.
This is just one of the many stories Shaji Thomas has to tell. The Kerala-born lawyer has spent more than three decades in Brazil, working with diverse communities in the heart of the Amazon, to ensure their well-being, dignity and rights, as well as the preservation of the “lungs of the earth” .
Find a new home
Shaji is from a farming family from the village of Ramapuram in the Kottayam district of Kerala. He says since he was a young boy he knew he wanted to work for the interests of marginalized communities. “I was involved in social movements for the Adivasi community from an early age,” says Shaji, whose father was a local village politician. “I have volunteered with several NGOs in different cities including Mysore, Indore, Pune and wherever I went to study.
Shaji had heard a lot about the Amazon forests and dreamed of visiting the area one day. In 1989, when he was 23, he finally had the opportunity to make his dream come true when he arrived in Sao Paulo for a training program abroad.
At that time, there were no direct flights between India and Brazil, so Shaji spent a week traveling before finally arriving. Without the luxury of cell phones, he sent a fax to the team that was supposed to pick him up. However, the fax never arrived in Brazil on time, so there was no one to pick it up at the airport.
Shaji spent hours going to college. Almost no one knew English and he himself did not know a single world of Portuguese or Spanish. “I didn’t have enough money to get to my destination but the taxi driver was kind enough to take me there anyway,” he says.
When he finally got to college, Shaji was given a traditional Brazilian alcoholic drink, which is usually consumed before lunch. Assuming it was lemon juice, he swallowed the drink. “I hadn’t eaten or drunk anything for hours. I was so drunk that I passed out in the room for hours, ”Shaji laughs. “When I woke up, I had no idea what had happened. I didn’t drink before, so I was sick.
It is safe to say that Shaji’s assimilation with this new country has been slow and gradual.
His university in Sao Paulo arranged for him to learn Portuguese. The institute has also been involved in several social movements across Brazil, so one of Shaji’s first missions was to work for the Landless Workers Movement, one of the biggest social movements in Latin America. “The experience changed my life,” he notes.
The university asked Shaji to study with them and he obtained a degree in theology. At this time, the liberation theology movement was raging in Brazil. This movement works for the political liberation of oppressed peoples and to fight against inequalities such as race or caste. “It helped me integrate into the marginalized communities there,” he says.
In 1991, Shaji had the opportunity to travel to the Amazon forests. He took three flights to reach Santarem, then arrived at the village in the forests after 16 hours by boat. Here he met the Quilombola community and learned about their life and culture.
In 1993, when Shaji finally graduated, he returned to the Amazon forests. So began his work for various causes – social movements, rights of indigenous peoples, leadership training, environmental conservation and sustainable development, among others.
Amidst the violence, death threats and gunfire
“I worked with 64 communities, and they are all located in extremely remote and remote areas deep in the forests,” says Shaji. He spent six years living alone on a boat on the Amazon River. “You couldn’t travel in the river at night. We didn’t have navigation tools like GPS. I have traveled thousands of kilometers on this boat. I filled about 2,500 liters of diesel for my boat, returned to Santarem to refuel, then hit the road. My food would mainly be fish from the Amazon River.
This continued until 2006, when Shaji began to study law. “Legal rights are the most important for these people. The only way to give them a better life is to make legal changes. If they don’t have legal aid, they won’t be able to fight for their rights. So I decided to pursue law.
Somewhere around this time he decided to apply for Brazilian citizenship. He explains, “The land, mining, drug and timber mafia – all of these groups cause big problems for indigenous communities here. When I tried to intervene, I was told that I had no right because I was a foreigner. So I took Brazilian nationality to let them know that I am, in fact, a Brazilian and that I care about the rights of the people. “
Shaji notes that there are many threats to his life at all points. “Many tried to kill me. They fired machine guns at my boat to try and sink it. Before, I had to keep weapons with me to protect myself, because I was all alone on the boat, ”he says. Shaji also worked alongside Dorothy Stang, an activist working for the welfare of tribal communities in the Amazon, who was shot dead by the forest mafia.
“The problems with the land are huge in Brazil,” says Shaji. “The Amazons form a large part of Brazil and are home to millions of people. But the real problem is that the forests are controlled or owned by a few people, mainly the rich, who control almost half of Brazil’s wealth. The inhabitants of the Amazon therefore have a large amount of land, but no legal rights.
In 1988, the Brazilian constitution included in its scope that land rights be returned to the indigenous population. “My first step is to make these people aware of these rights. I take them to the capital, prepare their court orders and help them defend their cases, ”he notes.
Until 2002, Brazil had a center-centric government, so Shaji’s work had no real support. However, when Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva came to power in 2002, things changed slightly, Shaji says. “He was the leader of the Workers’ Party, so we saw a lot of reforms and changes in the social sector in Brazil,” he adds.
However, subsequent changes of government have since resulted in the suppression of many social rights. “There are no measures to control land grabbing and illegal projects on indigenous lands, especially under the recent government regime,” Shaji said. “Due to several hydroelectric projects, parts of the region are sinking. The immense biodiversity of the Amazon – the biggest in the world – go underwater.
The majority of Amazonian forests are located in Brazil. According to Time magazine, with the current rate of deforestation, 27% of the forests will be gone by 2030. The same report suggests that 2,628,229 square kilometers of forest were cleared between 1985 and 2004. Mongabay says that last year, the Amazon brazilian saw as much as 2,500 major fires between late May and early November. Meanwhile, a Guardian’s report from last week states that the Amazon now emits more CO2 than it can absorb.
Shaji says many of his fellow lawyers and social workers were killed while fighting to protect the Amazon forests. “Even I have to keep moving from one city to another because of the threats associated with the work I do,” he laments. “We have no support.”
Shaji is married to Ely, a Brazilian from a small farming village in the country, who is also a social worker. Ely graduated from the University of Kerala and is working on a mangrove forest preservation project, a collaboration between India and Brazil. She is also a lawyer and the two work together to protect the Amazon forests. Ely is the first person in his village to graduate.
In the midst of COVID, with the increasing suffering of people, violence and unrest has also increased. “There are no jobs, a lot of thefts, murders and other crimes just to survive. The government also changed gun laws, making it easier to buy guns. But Ely and I are working for people regardless, ”Shaji says.
He has just completed the coordination of a project on “the influence of climate change on small-scale agriculture” in Peru, Colombia, Ecuador and Brazil. He is also working on a project aimed at the upliftment of women in the Amazon region, as well as providing ongoing legal assistance to around 60 communities in the region. At the moment, they are working on a case against the ground mafia.
Shaji and his wife come to India every few years. “A few years ago, I organized the World Social Forum in New Delhi. I have met a lot of people from the development sector in India, I have lived with them throughout the duration of the forum and I have built a great relationship. I visit them every time I come back. My wife and I recently visited the Agricultural University of Kerala to teach some lessons while she was studying there. I maintain a lot of ties with my home country, both academic and personal.
Summarizing his 32 years of experience in protecting the Amazon region, Shaji says, “I am just a human being who wants to see a better world. It is devastating to see the state of the forests today. Every day, when I look outside, I see the equivalent of 20 to 30 forest football fields on fire. You can see the smoke emanating from here. You can also see the consequences of mankind’s actions: rainfall patterns are changing, the climate change crisis is getting worse, the heat is rising. It is the world’s responsibility to protect the Amazon forests. We must prevent ourselves from going towards our own destruction.
Edited by Yoshita Rao