Erwin Kräutler

(2010, Brazil)

...for a lifetime of work for the human and environmental rights of indigenous peoples and for his tireless efforts to save the Amazon forest from destruction.


Erwin Kräutler, a Catholic Bishop motivated by liberation theology, is one of Brazil's most important defenders of and advocates for the rights of indigenous peoples. Already in the 1980s, he helped secure the inclusion of indigenous peoples' rights into the Brazilian constitution. He also plays an important role in opposing one of South America's largest and most controversial energy projects: the Belo Monte dam.

Contact Details

Erwin Kräutler
Prelazia do Xingu
Av. João Pessoa, 1212
Bairro Catedral
68371-040 Altamira PA
Tel./Fax: +55 9335151935
Website Prelazia do Xingu
Website CIMI


Kräutler was born in Austria on July 12th, 1939, became a priest in 1965 and shortly after went to Brazil as a missionary. In 1978, he became a Brazilian citizen (though also keeping his Austrian citizenship). He worked among the people of the Xingu-Valley, who include indigenous peoples of different ethnic groups. In 1980, Kräutler was appointed Bishop of Xingu, the largest diocese in Brazil. From 1983-1991, and since 2006 he is the President of the Indigenous Missionary Council (CIMI) of the Catholic Church in Brazil. 

Kräutler is motivated in his work by the teachings of liberation theology. He teaches that a Christian has to take the side of the powerless and to oppose their exploiters. 

Working for indigenous peoples' rights

For five centuries, the population of Brazil's indigenous peoples has constantly decreased - and the downward trend still continues. Today the causes are well-known and documented, including direct (yet rarely investigated) violence in connection with the appropriation of indigenous land; land grabs for energy, settlement, mining, industry, farming, cattle, and agribusiness projects; and military projects for national security that aim to open up areas.

During Kräutler's presidency, CIMI has become one of the most important defenders of indigenous rights, with a focus on land rights, self-organisation and health care in Indian territories. In 1988, CIMI's intensive lobbying helped secure the inclusion of indigenous people's rights in the Brazilian Constitution. The Council has also raised awareness within the Church about indigenous people's issues and rights. 

Since 1992 and besides CIMI's advocacy work, Kräutler has continued working tirelessly for the Xingu on the ground. The projects he has initiated include building houses for poor people, running schools, building a facility for mothers, pregnant women and children, founding a 'refugio' for recuperation after hospital treatment, emergency aid, legal support, and work on farmers' rights and land demarcation. 

Opposing the Belo Monte dam

For 30 years, Kräutler has been very active in the struggle against the plans for the huge Belo Monte dam on the Xingu River, nowadays heavily promoted by President Lula, which would be the third largest dam in the world. The dam would destroy 1000 square km of forest, flood a third of the capital city, Altamira, and create a lake of stagnant, mosquito-infested water of about 500 square km, which would make life in the rest of the city very difficult. 30,000 people would have to be relocated. 


Kräutler's commitment and outspokenness have put him at constant personal risk. In October 1987, some months before the decision to grant full civil rights to indigenous peoples was taken in the constituent assembly, he was seriously injured in a, suspected planned, car crash. Since 2006, Kräutler has been under round-the-clock police protection, partly because he insisted on a full investigation following the murder of the environmental activist Sister Dorothy Stang in 2005 who, since 1982, had worked closely with him. More recently he has received death threats because of his opposition to the Belo Monte dam and because he took legal action against a criminal group involved in sexual abuse of minors.

Awards & books

In 1989, Kräutler received the Grosser Binding-Preis für Natur und Umweltschutz (Principality of Liechtenstein) and in 2009 an Honorary Doctorate from the University of Salzburg, Austria. The citation called Kräutler "the personification of outrage against societal conditions that violate human dignity for all those who consider that human dignity and the preservation of Creation are more than just void words without meaning, and he embodies for us the hope that another world indeed is possible". 

Kräutler has written a number of books, most recently Rot wie Blut die Blumen - Ein Bischof zwischen Leben und Tod (Flowers Red as Blood: a Bishop Between Life and Death), published in German in 2009.


Acceptance Speech by Bishop Erwin Kräutler

6 December 2010

Mister Speaker, Hon. Members of Parliament, dear Recipients of the Right Livelihood Award, Excellencies, dear Friends,

In this very special and unique moment I traverse the Atlantic Ocean in thoughts and emotions. I am leaving Stockholm for the southern hemisphere and embarking on the majestic Amazon, sailing up river to reach one of its major tributaries, the Xingu River. For forty-five years I have journeyed with the peoples of that region. They are the indigenous peoples who have lived there for thousands of years. They are the river people who have their homes on the river banks. They make their living from fishing and small family farming. They are the thousands and thousands of families who have migrated from all the States of Brazil in search of better living conditions during the last decades. 

They are the people to whom I dedicate my life, they are the people whom I love and I know and they are the people who love me. The reason for that is simple: 45 years ago, in 1965, when I came to Brazil, to Amazonia, to the Xingu, they realized that I did not come in search of wealth or advantages. I came to serve these daughters and sons of God. They are women and men who journey with me. Together we defend their dignity, human rights and our environment, our common home on mother earth. Eco - logy - from the Greek οἶκος - means: "home"! These people know very well that they will not survive if Amazonia continues to be disrespected and razed. And they know that planet Earth will suffer irreversible consequences by this cruel destruction. This will be the true apocalypse.

It is a fact that those who are against the unscrupulous destruction of environment, against those, who have not the slightest respect for the human being, against those who seek immediate and incredible profits, who oppose the ambitions of many politicians and entrepreneurs, put their lives at risk. Slander, defamation and death threats are the weapons to frighten and silence those who raise their voices against the aggressions to human dignity. 

This is one of the reasons why the Public Security Authorities decided to put me under the protection of the Military Police of the state of Pará on June 29th, 2006. These authorities consider themselves responsible "for the physical integrity of the bishop of the Xingu". From that day on, armed military police accompany me wherever I am and go in my home-region around the Xingu. This evening, they have a day off. 

I accept the Right Livelihood Award in the name of those who fight with me today, on behalf of the indigenous peoples, Amazonia and human rights. I accept it also in the name of the dozens of people who have given their lives, whose blood has been spilled and who were brutally assassinated because they opposed the systemised destruction of Amazonia. Among these murdered, I cite two people, who worked with me side by side.

US-American born Sister Dorothy Mae Stang lived twenty-three years on the Transamazon Highway and was murdered there in 2005. I remember my first meeting with her in 1982 very well. She said: "I want to work among the poorest of the poor." It wasn't the first time that someone spoke to me this way, and I told her several things to give her an idea about the reality at the Xingu. To my amazement, she didn't ask any further question and started to live in the midst of the poor. From time to time she returned to Altamira, to get in contact with representatives of the administration to demand the rights of the farmers or denounce abuses and threats from land robbers or large land-holders. 

It didn't take that long for the first threats to appear. The self-called "owners" of the lands began to slander and defame her. This difficult, tiring and most exhausting life, Dorothy lived until that fateful Saturday, February 12th, 2005, until seven thirty in the morning, when she was shot. This crime was programmed in minute detail. Those responsible for her death were not those men who were convicted and who are in jail. It was the 15th of February 2005 when I buried Sister Dorothy. Never in my life have I felt my heart so invaded by so many sentiments. Even today I cannot describe what I really felt at that moment.

The second person I want to remember here today is Ademir Alfeu Federicci called "Dema". For many years a new category of conquistadors has appeared in Amazonia. They are the notorious land grabbers who usurp public lands. They use paramilitary forces to defend their interests. They use political and financial influence to maintain their ownership of immense areas of land. The families of small farmers are targeted by these so-called proprietors. One of these victims was Dema. Ademir Alfeu Federicci rose up against these proprietors. As a community leader, he always defended the rights of the small farmer and fought for better days for the rural man and woman.

On August 23rd, 2001, Dema wrote a letter in support of the investigative work the Federal Police was doing on the land grabbers. Two days later he was brutally shot in his home in Altamira. He fell down in front of his wife Maria da Penha. His last words were: "Maria, take care of our children!" Then he passed away. Until today the investigation of Dema's murder has not been completed. He was killed, because he raised his voice against the hydroelectric project of Belo Monte. 

The Belo Monte Project appears to be sacrosanct, unquestionable and assumes the air of being a veritable historical subject. Human beings, families and communities are no longer protagonists of their own history. They were not heard, they were silenced before the project was planned and elaborated in Brasilia, a project that never took into consideration the legitimate rights and preoccupations of the population of the Xingu. All those who are quoting this project are immediately labled as "enemies of progress", or "against development".

It is amazing, when we think of the size of Amazonia (a little more than half the size of the whole Brazil), that the principal problem has to do with the ownership (possession) and use of land. The majority of the other problems have their roots in this principal problem:

- Rural violence is linked to the concentration of land ownership and the most shameful impunity with which the criminals are honoured. They kill and nothing happens! If they are arrested, they will be released the next day! If they are convicted, they are circulating freely on the streets on the next day .

- There is a lack of public policy that encourages the preservation of Amazonia, this gigantic biome. Amazonia is "unique" its biodiversity is "exceptional"! Nothing in the whole world exists that is comparable to this region, the marvel of God`s creation. Brazil is responsible for the largest part of this biome, Amazonia.

- Another huge problem is the trafficking of human beings. Young people of both sexes are lured with the promises of a better life and ample wages into the exterior. They are caught in the international network of prostitution! They dream of waging a better life, they have dreams for the future. But they are forced to live in the hell of slavery and brutality.
Child-prostitution in Amazonia is often organized by people from the upper strata of society. They are politicians, business people or merchants. They lure, promise, use and abuse and nothing happens to these sexual criminals - corruption is their language. 

This award has been given to me because of my commitment on behalf of the indigenous peoples, their human rights and dignity. I have always found a specific mission in defending these people, who are the survivors of centuries of massacres. In the decade of the 1980's in the context of the National Constituent Assembly, we considered it our goal to implement indigenous rights in the Federal Constitution. It was essential to encourage the indigenous peoples? own leadership to assume their own protagonist action and to write their own story. We started to build an 'alliance' between the indigenous peoples and organizations of the non-indigenous society.

Tonight, I take the opportunity to call the international community's attention to the pain, despair and insecurity of the Guarani-Kaiowá people in South Mato Grosso. The indigenous people are confined to small areas, their young people see no prospect for their future and the suicide rate among them is alarmingly high. Factory owners who use modern slave labour are treated like heroes by the official administration. I am totally worried about the violation against the Guarani-Kaiowá. The current government is ignoring this cruel genocide in progress before their eyes. But we must not close our eyes to these crimes!

Ladies and Gentlemen of the jury! I gratefully accept the award on behalf of all these women and all these men who have been together with me in this struggle and who have never lost. I would like to thank all those, who have supported me during the last years, and those who have proposed my work to the Right Livelihood Award jury. I would like to express my deep gratitude for the Right Livelihood Award. I am honoured with the award at a moment, when our struggle on behalf of the indigenous people, dignity and human rights are taking on new dimensions and greater importance in the face of the development projects that threaten Amazonia. Those anti-ecological projects of enterprise will have a huge and destructive impact on everyone sitting here in Stockholm this evening, on all people living on earth. 

I am honoured to accept this award by the Right Livelihood Foundation as international recognition and support of our total commitment to this work. I promise to continue for as long as God grants me life.

Thank you very much!


Erwin Kräutler - Portrait

Documentary on DW - In English




Interviews with Erwin Kräutler

Interview conducted in September 2010 -- free to use!

Bishop Kräutler answered the questions in German, therefore the original German version is given below each answer.

Q: Why did you decide as a young priest to go to Brazil? What were your expectations?

When being a young priest, going to Brazil felt like a natural thing to do: Two uncles from my mother's side were living at the Xingu already in the 1930s. Three or four times a year we would receive letters from them which were handed to everyone in the family. Therefore, already when I was a child, I knew about the indigenous peoples' problems. There were pictures of Kayapó families and we regarded these people as distant parts of our family: Relatives we did not know but who we loved dearly. 
When I finished my studies at the University of Salzburg and just before my ordination to the priesthood, I told my Superior that I wished to realize my mission as a priest at the Xingu. 

Meine Entscheidung, als junger Priester nach Brasilien zu gehen, wurde mir irgendwie schon in die Wiege gelegt. Zwei Onkel mütterlicherseits waren schon in den 30er Jahren am Xingu. Drei oder vier Mal im Jahr erhielten wir Briefe, die dann in der ganzen Verwandtschaft herumgereicht wurden. So war ich schon als Kind mit der Problematik der indigenen Völker vertraut. Es gab Fotos von Kayapófamilien und wir sahen in diesen Menschen so etwas wie weit entfernte "Verwandte", die wir zwar nicht persönlich kannten, aber die wir sehr liebten. Als ich dann meine Studien an der Universität Salzburg zum Abschluss brachte, habe ich kurz vor der Priesterweihe meinen damaligen Oberen den Wunsch unterbreitet, meinen priesterlichen Einsatz am Xingu zu verwirklichen. 

Q: What does missionary work mean according to you?

Right at the beginning I knew that I would not go to Brazil to practice religious colonialism: to "civilize" the people or to force my or the European culture on them. I wanted to approach them with respect and love. I also wanted to respect their cultural and religious forms of expression - and I still do. To put it short: I wanted to become one of them. It was very important to me to speak their language without any accents and to be able to communicate with the indigenous peoples in their native language.
In the Second Vatican Council's Decree on the Missionary Activity of the Church it says: The Church is "sent by Christ to reveal and to communicate the love of God to all men and nations" (Chapter II, 10). This sentence has impressed me very much. It doesn't refer to a fixed and definite set of beliefs, but rather to the "revelation" and "communication" of the love of God. This "mission" has to adjust to the realities the respective people live in. 
If the physical and cultural survival of people is threatened, if others want to erase complete ethnic groups in order to get access their land - then it is our prime responsibility to reveal and to communicate "life" to the threatened people. If the world of these people is destroyed, then the Gospel requests us to protect their native land and thus to ensure their survival.

Von Anfang an war mir klar, dass ich nicht nach Brasilien kam, um religiösen Kolonialismus zu betreiben, um die Menschen zu "zivilisieren" oder ihnen die Kultur meiner Heimat oder Europas überzustülpen. Ich wollte - und will das immer noch - den Menschen mit Achtung und viel Liebe begegnen, ihre kulturellen und religiösen Ausdrucksformen respektieren. Ich wollte einfach einer von ihnen werden. Es war mir wichtig, ihre Sprache akzentfrei zu sprechen und auch mit den indigenen Völkern in ihrer Muttersprache kommunizieren zu können. Ein Wort aus dem Missionsdekret des II. Vatikanischen Konzils hat mich immer wieder besonders beeindruckt: "Die Kirche ist von Christus gesandt, die Liebe Gottes allen Menschen und Völkern zu verkünden und mitzuteilen" (AG 10). Es geht nicht um die Übergabe eines fest verschnürten Glaubenspaketes, sondern um die "Verkündigung" und "Mitteilung" der Liebe Gottes. Und diese "Mission" muss sich natürlich an die Realität anpassen, in der ein Volk lebt. Wenn ein Volk im physischen oder kulturellen Überleben bedroht ist, dann ist unsere erste Aufgabe, diesen Menschen "Leben" zu verkünden und mitzuteilen, wenn andere interessiert sind, ganze Volksgruppen schlicht auszulöschen, um an ihr Land heranzukommen. Wenn diesen Völkern die "Mit-Welt" zerstört wird, dann sind wir im Namen des Evangeliums aufgefordert, ihr angestammtes Land zu verteidigen, und damit auch das Überleben zu sichern.

Q: You are doing your work under considerable threats - what has motivated you to carry on all these years?

My commitment for the poor, for the excluded, for the indigenous peoples does not only make me friends, but, unfortunately, also enemies. These are people, who ruthlessly want to access the natural riches that are located in the indigenous territories and elsewhere. If a Bishop stands up and puts his foot down - he has to be "eliminated" and it doesn't take much time until the first unmistakable threats are heard.

A Brazilian proverb says: "One cannot light a candle for both, God and the Devil!". This means: I have to put the cards on the table; I cannot hide my position in public. I owe this to my people and I am convinced this is my mission as a Christian and a Bishop.
Many of our people have been subject of attacks and assaults. But this has not paralyzed us - to the contrary: it gives us the courage and the strength to continue. 
I am not able to surrender and turn my back on the people of the Xingu, on the indigenous peoples, on the people living at the rivers or in the cities and villages -  despite the threats of a mafia which, even though small by number, is very dangerous. It is my responsibility as a Bishop to defend these people, to protect them with my life - including those who do not necessarily avow themselves to the same faith.

Mit dem Einsatz für die Armen, für die Ausgegrenzten, für die indigenen Völker schaffe ich mir nicht nur Freunde, sondern, leider Gottes, allzu oft Feinde. Das sind Leute, die rücksichts- und skrupellos an die Naturreichtümer herankommen wollen, die sich in indigenen Gebieten oder sonstwo befinden. Und wenn sich da ein Bischof quer legt, dann muss er "eliminiert" (sic!) werden und es dauert nicht lange, bis die ersten unmissverständlichen Drohungen kommen. Ein brasilianisches Sprichworte sagt: "Man kann nicht gleichzeitig Gott und dem Teufel eine Kerze anzünden!". Das heißt: ich bin gefordert, Farbe zu bekennen, meine Position auch in der Öffentlichkeit nicht zu verheimlichen. Das schulde ich meinem Volk und ich bin überzeugt, dass dies auch meine Sendung als Christ und Bischof ist. Viele unserer Leute sind Opfer von Anschlägen geworden. Diese Tatsache hat uns bisher nicht gelähmt, sondern gibt und weiterhin Mut und Kraft, den Weg weiter zu gehen. Ich bin nicht imstande, aufgrund einer zahlenmäßig verschwindend kleinen, wenn auch sehr gefährlichen Mafia, den Völkern am Xingu, den indigenen Völkern, aber auch den Flussbewohnern und den Leuten in den Städten und Dörfern den Rücken zu kehren und aufgrund der Drohungen das Handtuch zu werfen. Es liegt in meiner Verantwortung als Bischof, diese Völker zu verteidigen und mein Leben für sie einzusetzen, und dies auch für alle jene, die nicht unbedingt denselben Glauben bekennen.

Q: Please describe the situation of those whose lands are grabbed.

Millions of people in Brazil have been displaced from their property. Agribusiness is responsible for this and the government, also the Lula-administration, has always been against agricultural enterprises run by families, claiming they are not as "productive" and "profitable" as the large-scale plantations of soy and sugarcane or the pastures created on areas that used to be tropical rainforest. 
The fate of the families that are displaced, who have been fobbed off with symbolic reparations and become landless farmers, is incredibly sad: They often move to the outskirts of the bigger cities, trying to get along with barely enough to keep body and soul together.
Standing up for the families and insisting on their rights to their land inevitably leads to conflicts with the large landowners and too often, these conflicts end badly. A sad example is the murder of the US American Sister Dorothy Stang, who had been working with me since 1982. Large landowners have private militia and don't shy away from murder and manslaughter - but they hardly ever convicted. Even if found guilty in a trial and being sentenced to prison, they often come free within no time. Impunity is a big problem in our region, and a dangerous one, as the assassins and their principals don't have to fear any harsh punishments and can count on a mock trial. 

Es gibt in Brasilien Millionen von Menschen, die von Grund und Boden vertrieben wurden. Das Agrobusiness ist weitgehend dafür verantwortlich und die Regierungen Brasiliens, auch die Regierung Lula, sind immer gegen die familiären landwirtschaftlichen Betriebe gewesen, weil sie anscheinend nicht so "produktiv" und "lukrativ" sind wie die großangelegten Plantagen von Soja oder Zuckerrohr oder Weideflächen, denen der tropische Regenwald zu Opfer fällt. Das Los der vertriebenen oder mit einer nur symbolischen Entschädigung abgespeisten und zu "Bauern ohne Land" verurteilten Familien ist denkbar traurig. Meistens siedeln sie sich in den Randbezirken der größeren Städte an und fretten sich durch, "zum Sterben zu viel, zum Leben zu wenig". Wer sich für diese Familien einsetzt und darauf beharrt, dass sie Recht auf ihr Anwesen haben, kommt sofort in Konflikt mit den Großgrundbesitzern und oft gehen diese Konflikte fatal aus, wie es der Mord an der US-amerikanischen Schwester Dorothy Stang beweist, die seit 1982 mit mir zusammenarbeitete. Großgrundbesitzer verfügen meist über Privatmilizen und schrecken vor Mord und Todschlag nicht zurück und werden auch nur in ganz seltenen Ausnahmen zu Gefängnisstrafen verurteilt. Selbst durch einen Gerichtsentscheid in aller Form verurteilt, sind sie meist in kürzester Zeit wieder auf freiem Fuß. Leider ist die Straflosigkeit in unserer Region wohl das größte Übel, das immer mehr Opfer fordert, weil ja die Mörder und deren Auftraggeber kaum etwas zu befürchten, oder eben nur mit einem "Pro-forma-Prozess" zu rechnen haben.

Q: You have opposed the Belo Monte dam for 30 years. Is it a success that it hasn't been constructed so far, or are you rather pessimistic about the future?

The military dictatorship initiated the Belo Monte project and we opposed it. I say "we", as I have never been alone in this: The National Conference of Bishops in Brazil and their chairperson decided to back our position in opposing the dam. I feel connected to a number of organisations in Altamira that also fight against this monstrous project. One cannot underestimate the fact that we have managed to prevent the project for 30 years. Nowadays the contested project is renowned worldwide, as are the campaigns against it.

Right now, we are waiting for 15 court cases to be completed. The Brazilian prosecutors hold that the project breaks the constitution and does not comply with international treaties, signed by Brazil. Unfortunately, President Lula believes to stand above the constitution, which threatens the rule of law in Brazil. The truth is that Lula acts just like a dictator when it comes to Belo Monte. Should the project be completed, there will be apocalyptic consequences for the Xingu region and for its people. I hope that common sense will win in the end. 
In any case: We won't give up and will continue fighting.

Belo Monte war ursprünglich ein Projekt der Militärdiktatur und wir haben uns dagegen gestemmt. Ich spreche von "wir", denn ich war in dieser Opposition nie allein. Ich habe Rückendeckung von der Brasilianischen Bischofskonferenz erhalten, deren Vorsitzende entschieden, meine bzw. unsere Position zu unterstützen und sich gegen das Kraftwerk geäußert haben. In Altamira fühle ich mich mit vielen Organisationen verbunden, die genauso gegen dieses Monsterprojekt ankämpfen. Dass wir durch 30 Jahre hindurch das Projekt verhindern konnten, darf nicht unterschätzt werden. Das umstrittene Projekt ist inzwischen weltweit bekannt und unser Einsatz dagegen ebenso.

Im Moment warten noch 15 Prozesse auf einen gerichtlichen Entscheid. Die Brasilianische Staatsanwaltschaft klagt wegen Verfassungsbruch und Nichtbeachtung internationaler Abkommen, die Brasilien unterzeichnet hat. Leider wähnt sich Präsident Lula über der Verfassung. Damit ist die Rechtsstaatlichkeit Brasiliens gefährdet. Lula führt sich im Zusammenhang mit Belo Monte wie ein populistischer Diktator auf. Das ist nun einmal die pure Wahrheit. Sollte das Projekt tatsächlich zur Durchführung gelangen, hat die Xinguregion und die Völker, die dort leben, mit apokalyptischen Konsequenzen zu rechnen. Und ich hoffe, dass zu guter Letzt, doch Einsicht und Verstand den Sieg davon tragen werden. Wir geben jedenfalls nicht auf und kämpfen weiter. 

Video interview in Portuguese


Indians and ecology in Brazil. Catholic Institute for International Relations, London 1990. 

My life is like the Amazon: From a Bishop's journal. Messenger Press, Carthegena 1994.

A selection of German books can be found here:



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