Maria Amélia Leite helps indigenous groups to reclaim and value their cultural identity, to join together as a politically powerful indigenous movement, and to defend their rights to land and public services.
The New Idea
By helping disenfranchised indigenous groups value and regain their fading cultural identity, Maria Amélia empowers them to interact as equals with outsiders. In northeast Brazil, indigenous people have a long history of oppression, to the point that their existence is largely unacknowledged by the government. In this context, Maria Amélia has found that a new sense of self-worth and group unity gives indigenous people the foundation from which to proactively defend their land, fight for legal recognition, and obtain access to public services. Ultimately, in unifying small, fragmented groups into a broad-based movement with ties to the strong indigenous movement in the Amazon, Maria Amélia is increasing their political power. Since land rights are linked closely to cultural identity as well as legal recognition, Maria Amélia promotes land rights as a critical lever to validate indigenous culture and people. By working at the grassroots level and focusing on long-term cultural shifts, she teaches local people to push their initiatives forward and to create their own organizations when needed. Under Maria Amélia’s counsel, indigenous leaders have improved public health care systems and manage income generation projects which build cultural pride. After having secured the legal recognition of over 50,000 indigenous people in the northeast, Maria Amélia is writing, promoting research, and spreading her methodology. Her work has implications for indigenous groups everywhere who struggle to relate to their surrounding communities and governments.
Around 1 million indigenous people in Brazil face widespread social, economic, and political discrimination. They are generally excluded from mainstream society and have much higher rates of poverty and disease than other groups. When compared with other indigenous groups, the approximately 100,000 indigenous people in northeast Brazil are particularly disenfranchised. This is due in part to their location on the coast and their early history of contact with European traders and missionaries. Intense contact with outsiders has gradually eroded their ability to defend their cultural integrity and land rights. As early as 1863, a legal decree declared “indigenous settlements [as] extinct” in the northeastern state of Ceará. Though anthropologists have recently raised awareness about the existence of indigenous peoples in the northeast and pushed for their recognition, the Brazilian government largely continues to deny their existence. The fundamental problem that must be addressed is that indigenous people do not have the strength of identity or ability to demand their recognition. Many indigenous people no longer view themselves as indigenous, but are unable to rid themselves of perceived societal contempt. Alienation from culture and self-identity has devastating implications, but self-denial means these groups cannot access their legal rights as indigenous citizens of Brazil. Legal recognition would assure their land rights (and improve economic security) and access to special public services such as health and education programs, meant particularly to address indigenous peoples’ needs. An additional result is that indigenous people do not adequately defend themselves against outside interests. This is particularly damaging in relation to land rights, as land is the cornerstone of their culture and worldview, the foundation of kinship, and spiritual beliefs. Yet land rights have become increasingly contentious: Agricultural companies have fought (in some cases with lawsuits) the legal recognition of indigenous people to enable them to use their land for profit. As Brazil becomes increasingly developed, the struggle for land is intensifying. The indigenous movement in the Amazon rainforest has been relatively strong, and groups in the Amazon have long had designated territory. Yet even in the Amazon, indigenous areas are being increasingly taken over by land-hungry farmers and companies. As this trend continues indigenous groups across the country need to learn to organize; to defend their rights to land, identity, and culture.
In 1985 Maria Amélia founded the citizen organization, Tremembé Mission Association (AMIT). AMIT employs six full-time staff members and is funded by the Federation of Industries of Ceará, the Ministries of Education, Health, and Justice, foreign embassies, and international cooperation agencies. Maria Amélia intentionally keeps a low profile; A necessary strategy to work effectively in the indigenous cultures of Brazil. Instead of implementing top-down and foreign projects through her organization, Maria Amélia works primarily through local leaders in a network of indigenous organizations she has created. Maria Amélia begins by strengthening the cultural pride of indigenous groups who have lost their sense of cultural identity. She teaches youth to seek out and learn from older people who adhere to stronger cultural practices and she revives traditional spiritual beliefs and rituals such as the Torem (the creation myth dance of many groups in northeast Brazil). She also facilitates cultural exchanges between different ethnic groups, and promotes collective self-recognition as indigenous people. Maria Amélia brings together diverse groups around an agenda they all share: Land rights and ultimately legal recognition by the Brazilian government. She has identified land rights as a critical lever in unifying indigenous groups around shared action which also reinforces pride in culture. As indigenous groups learn from each other, their sense of self is strengthened. In 1993 Maria Amélia kindled the “Campaign for Indigenous Lands in Ceára” composed entirely of proudly diverse ethnic groups. The campaign launched with a massive demonstration of indigenous groups in Fortaleza, the capital of northeast Brazil. AMIT taught leaders to use national legislation—which mandated the creation of environmental reserves for indigenous people—to get the Public Prosecution Service and the Attorney General’s Office in Ceára to intervene. Through a Dutch Foundation, Maria Amélia mobilized countless Europeans to pressure the Brazilian government to grant their rights to the land. As a result of her efforts, over eight ethnic groups have been officially granted territory. Over time, Maria Amélia has built links between her campaign in the northeast and the highly visible indigenous movement in the Amazon. The national indigenous movement Maria Amélia helped build has significant political power and is calling for Brazil to implement an international convention it ratified on the right of indigenous groups to be self-determined. Ethnic groups in the northeast take turns hosting one another in annual assemblies in order to create strategies for achieving national political objectives. Maria Amélia has also tied them to the support of countless European organizations.Through AMIT, Maria Amélia also works for the creation of public services geared towards the particular needs of indigenous people. She created an indigenous health care program with the National Health Foundation. This program is managed by an indigenous citizen sector group she helped to create and continues to advise. Maria Amélia also developed a training course for teachers of indigenous children to incorporate culturally relevant issues in their teaching. This course has been adopted and replicated across the state by the Ceára Secretary of Education.Maria Amélia has created income generation projects for indigenous people that also serve to reaffirm the value of their culture. One initiative in partnership with a business association and a citizen organization in Ceára markets and sells traditional indigenous handicrafts. Another project encourages indigenous people to re-learn the traditional organic cultivation methods of cashews, a sacred food to many northeast groups. Maria Amélia implements this project through a consortium of technical facilitators which include a local environmental organization, university academics, and international organizations, to bring the cashews to market in Europe.Through these projects and more, Maria Amélia has built a new generation of indigenous leaders in northeast Brazil who have learned that they have the capacity to create change in their communities. They are the multipliers of the many dimensions of her work. After achieving significant impact in the northeast, Maria Amélia realized she must begin to document her methodology. From what has been largely based on intuition, she must put in to a systematic model that can be spread to other regions across Brazil and outside its borders. She recently made a partnership with the consulate of Finland to found a cultural center for research about the cultures of the northeast and the impact of her work.
At age 77, Maria Amélia is a widely respected role model for many of the indigenous leaders she has influenced. Though she is not indigenous, she was raised in an indigenous community in Ceára in northeast Brazil and was deeply informed by her upbringing and the spiritual dimensions of life in the traditional culture of the region.Maria Amélia started helping her peers as a school girl, beginning on a trajectory of public service that led her to become a teacher, nurse, and eventually an active leader in the labor rights movement for rural workers. Though she always demonstrated forward-thinking vision for what was needed in the rural communities where she worked—training teachers, exposing conflicts over land—Maria Amélia did not truly begin her career as a social entrepreneur until after her retirement from the workforce in 1977. After her retirement, Maria Amélia worked for the Northeastern Missionary Indigenous Council, where for eight years she lived with and came to intimately understand indigenous communities in the northeast. At one point, an elder who told her, “Where there is Torem, there is an indigenous person, and where there is an indigenous person, there is land.” Maria Amélia founded AMIT to carry out this insight.In 2004, Maria Amélia was awarded the Cultural Merit Medal by the Ministry of Culture.