On World Indigenous Peoples Day, Celebrating a Woman who Must Be Nameless

As a scientist and conservationist, I have spent much of my professional life in the rainforests of the world trying to understand and preserve these incredible and irreplaceable ecosystems. To many it seems unusual that a former NFL cheerleader would choose to go and live in some of the most remote places on Earth and brave all the undeniable challenges and occasional dangers of living in a tropical rain forest.

Mostly my dangers were parasites and disease, although I also had my run-ins with poachers, hunters and rebels. One of my inspirations for going into this line of work, Dian Fossey, was murdered in an attempt to save her beloved gorillas. To me, however, it seems perfectly natural that I do this work, because like Dian, I think these forests and its creatures are spectacular, not to mention biologically important. But some people think I’m brave (or mad) and, for my exploits, I’ve been labeled, by more than one media maven, as the female Indiana Jones.

But I want to share with you the story of a woman who’s recently come to my attention and who has faced far more real-life danger than me or any cinematic archaeologist. She comes face to face, not with gorillas, but rather guerillas, and unlike the gentle giants, these are armed and dangerous. To me, she is the Dian Fossey of the Amazon.

I cannot tell you her name or her exact location. Far from a household name, she’s an indigenous woman with little outside communication or access to the web. For years now she has faced multiple death threats warning her to stop the work she is doing to preserve their lands and conserve tradition.  She continues to do it…but lives her life with a constant armed guard.  Now that is really brave…and I am in awe of what she’s doing.

So, rewinding just a bit…I’ve always been well aware that the indigenous people are more knowledgeable and wise about the rain forests they call home, and have throughout my career been welcomed, taken in and, on occasion, even rescued, by the generosity and kindness of these local people. My research teams not only have always included the villagers in their work, but we were dependent on their knowledge and wisdom of these remote and often little explored areas. This is true whether it was in Congo, South America or Madagascar.

But the latter is particularly true during my time in the Amazon region. The Amazon contains over half of the planet’s remaining rain forest. It comprises the largest and most biodiverse tract of tropical rain forest in the world. One in ten known terrestrial species in the world lives in this forest. The Amazon houses more varieties of plants and animals than any other place on the face of the Earth. Biologically, it is unparalleled.

Simply put, the Amazon is the largest wildlife biome on Earth.

While the Amazon forests are abundant in jaguars and monkeys, these are not their only inhabitants, or the most endangered. The Amazon is also home to hundreds of indigenous tribes. These people are repositories of thousands of years of ancestral knowledge about their unique environment. Without them, important resources, medicinal compounds, diagnostic wisdom, and ecological process would be unknown to all of science.

But the Amazon is under great and increasing threat from illegal mining and logging.

Deforestation has already claimed nearly 20 percent of the Amazon’s original primary rain forest, and continues at a steady rate. If the Amazon forest is severely degraded or disappears, so diminishes our opportunity to understand this ecosystem and its relationship to other life on Earth, to find new medicines and to fight climate change – the defining environmental challenge of our time.

One and a half acres of rain forest are lost every second.

As Dr. Mark Plotkin, ethnobotanist and co-founder of The Amazon Conservation Team said: “Every time a shaman dies it is as if a library is burned down.”

My conservation focus up until just recently has always been primarily on the wildlife and the rain forest itself. It has only been in the last six months while I have exclusively been working with The Amazon Conservation Team (ACT), an organization that protects the rainforest by working in close partnership with indigenous peoples, that I have become aware that indigenous people and their culture are equally at risk of disappearing. Across the globe, there are an estimated 370 million indigenous people, spanning 90 countries. They speak the majority of the world’s estimated 7,000 languages and represent 5,000 different cultures. Yet how much do we hear about them, their plight, or their achievements in mainstream media?

By resolution 49/214 of 23 December 1994, the United Nations General Assembly decided that the International Day of the World's Indigenous Peoples shall be observed on 9 August every year. The date marks the day of the first meeting, in 1982, of the UN Working Group on Indigenous Populations of the Sub-Commission on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights.
By resolution 49/214 of 23 December 1994, the United Nations General Assembly decided that the International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples shall be observed on 9 August every year. The date marks the day of the first meeting, in 1982, of the UN Working Group on Indigenous Populations of the Sub-Commission on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights.

This week, while at ACT headquarters, it was brought to my attention that a little-known celebration, “The International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples” is observed every year on August 9 to promote and protect the rights of the world’s indigenous populations. That day is today.

While the day is not recognized as a public holiday, it is used to teach about indigenous culture, traditions, religion, arts, and history, along with recognition and celebration of the contributions of indigenous individuals to all of human society.

This occasion also identifies achievements and contributions that indigenous people are making to improve world issues such as environmental protection.

So I started doing a little research, and that led me to this piece. In searching for indigenous people around the globe who are really making a difference, but are unsung heroes to the rest of the world, I came upon an extraordinary woman. More than extraordinary. She is a by all definitions of the word: a hero.

As an environmental activist who has gone head to head with local government, mining companies, and even armed militia, she has, so far, survived numerous direct attacks against her life. Her latest mission has resulted in even more threats. Her fear that every day may be her last, are not unfounded. According to Global Witness, 185 environmental activists were murdered in 2015.

While I cannot name her, I can say that she is not alone. Indigenous people are at the forefront of these environmental wars. She is one of many shining examples of the perilous work that indigenous people are doing to save their lands, cultures and traditions. Even in the persistent face of danger.

While these are not often stories or people that make it to mainstream media, this woman should be a household name. And yet, because of the very risky nature of her work as an accomplished environmental activist, she, like many others on the ground fighting the fight, may never be given the acclaim she deserves.

If you want to honor the indigenous people risking their lives to protect their lands, our forests, please consider helping organizations like the Amazon Conservation Team, who together with their indigenous partners, are making a real difference.

National Geographic explorer and television correspondent Mireya Mayor was part of a science team that discovered a new species of mouse lemur: "A cute, nocturnal creature weighing less than 2 ounces that fit in the palm of our hands," was how she described it. This little primate went on to become a huge ambassador for all things wild in Madagascar after she brought it to the attention of the President and Prime Minister of Madagascar. More than 95 percent of lemurs are considered critically endangered due to habitat loss, Mireya says. The cute, wide-eyed mouse lemur is no exception. And yet, they are a critical part of one of the world’s most diverse ecosystems. Photograph by Mark Thiessen/courtesy of Mireya Mayor.
Photograph by Mark Thiessen/courtesy of Mireya Mayor.

National Geographic explorer, anthropologist, primatologist, and conservationist, Mireya Mayor, joined the Amazon Conservation Team to help communicate news of vital projects and expand global awareness about the plight of the Amazon region, the nonprofit organization dedicated to preserving South American rainforests. She has more than a decade of scientific fieldwork and conservation related research to her name and is credited with the discovery of the world’s smallest primate while exploring Madagascar. This discovery and Mayor’s research enabled her to persuade the Prime Minister of Madagascar to create a new national park.

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Meet the Author
Scientist, explorer, wildlife correspondent, and inspirational speaker, Mireya Mayor, a Ph.D. in Anthropology, has reported on wildlife and habitat issues to worldwide audiences for more than a decade. Having dedicated her life to unlocking the mysteries of the natural world, she ventures into previously unexplored parts of the planet to study rare species, working closely with indigenous people in the process. In 2000 Mireya co-discovered a new species of mouse lemur in Madagascar. Mireya is the author of Pink Boots and a Machete: My Journey From NFL Cheerleader to National Geographic Explorer, in which she shares her transformation from cheerleader to scientist and her many adventures in the wilds -- including surviving a plane crash, sleeping in jungles teeming with venomous snakes, rappelling down a 14,000-foot sinkhole in search of frogs, and being charged by an irate silverback gorilla. Read more about Mireya on her website. Watch a Nat Geo Live! video of Mireya talking about her life and work.