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 indigenous peoples’ rights into the Brazilian Constitution. He has also played an important role in opposing one of South America’s largest and most controversial energy projects: the Belo Monte dam.
During his periods as president of the Indigenous Missionary Council (CIMI) of the Catholic Church in Brazil, it has become one of the most important defenders of indigenous rights, focusing on land rights, self-organisation and health care in indigenous territories.
A history of displacement
For five centuries, the population of Brazil's indigenous peoples has constantly decreased - and the downward trend 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.
Millions of people in Brazil have been displaced from their property. Agribusiness is responsible for this, and the government, including 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 displaced families, who have been fobbed off with symbolic reparations and become landless farmers, is unfortunate: They often move to the outskirts of the bigger cities, trying to get along with barely enough to keep body and soul together.
Working for indigenous peoples' rights
Erwin Kräutler became a priest in 1965 and shortly after went to Brazil as a missionary. It felt like a natural thing to do, in his words, as two uncles from his mother's side were living at the Xingu already in the 1930s. Three or four times a year, they would receive letters from them handed to everyone in the family. Therefore, already when a child, he knew about the indigenous peoples' problems. There were pictures of Kayapó families regarded as distant parts of the family.
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 2006-2016, he was the President of the Indigenous Missionary Council (CIMI) of the Catholic Church in Brazil.
During Kräutler's presidencies, CIMI has become one of the most important defenders of indigenous rights, focusing on land rights, self-organisation and health care in indigenous territories. In 1988, CIMI's intensive lobbying helped secure 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, 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, making 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, he was seriously injured in a suspected planned car crash. Some months later, the constituent assembly decided to grant full civil rights to indigenous peoples.
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, backed by the National Conference of Bishops in Brazil, and because he took legal action against a criminal group involved in sexual abuse of minors.
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. 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 the 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.
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.