LEICESTER, United Kingdom – An indigenous leader has won what is often called the “Alternative Nobel Prize” for environmentalism, a move one Catholic aid agency said “comes at a crucial moment” for indigenous people in the Amazon.

Davi Kopenawa, a leader of the Amazon-based Yanomami people, was one of four winners of the 40th edition of the Right Livelihood Award.

Kopenawa’s Hutukara Yanomami Association, which works to protect the forests and the culture of indigenous peoples, is supported by CAFOD, the international aid agency of the bishops of England and Wales.

The Right Livelihood Award was established in 1980 after a Swedish benefactor asked the Nobel Foundation to establish two new prizes he would fund – one for environmentalism and the other to promote knowledge and perspectives of people in poor countries.

When the Foundation refused, the new award was established. It is now handed out in Sweden’s parliament the day before the Nobel prizes are awarded.

Since then, it has offered prizes to 178 people from 70 countries. Past winners have included Edward Snowden, liberation theologian Leonardo Boff, and Congolese human rights activist Denis Mukwege, who later won the Nobel Peace Prize.

Kopenawa is one the most prominent indigenous leaders in Brazil, and has advocated for his Yanomami people for decades as they faced an invasion of miners and others illegally exploiting their traditional lands.

“I suffered greatly, because our place was polluted and dirty,” he told Catholic News Service in July.

“The Amazon is rich in water, timber, underground minerals, wild game and other things, and white people are utilizing it,” he said.

There are around 35,000 Yanomami people in Brazil and Venezuela, making it one of the largest indigenous groups in the Amazon.

“We are thrilled that the tireless efforts of Davi Kopenawa and the Hutukara Yanomami Association have been recognized with this prestigious award,” said Cecilia Iorio, CAFOD’s Brazil Country Representative.

She said the Hutukara Yanomami Association “is on the frontline of the fight for indigenous rights and the protection of the Amazon forest.”

CAFOD has been supporting the organization since 2007.

“Davi Kopenawa has been fighting for the rights of his people for over 25 years. This deserved recognition comes at a crucial moment, as indigenous peoples like the Yanomami face unprecedented threats,” Iorio said.

Although she didn’t mention him specifically, the CAFOD representative was alluding to the administration of rightwing President Jair Bolsonaro.

RELATED: Invasions of Brazilian indigenous land rise under Bolsonaro

Bolsonaro ran a populist campaign reminiscent of the successful 2016 run of U.S. President Donald Trump, whom Bolsonaro openly admires, and promised to open up indigenous areas to greater development.

The 1988 Brazilian Constitution declared that all indigenous lands should be demarcated into special “indigenous territories” within five years, but only 400 demarcations were ever completed.

The new president has vowed to freeze the demarcations and to revoke the protected status of others, to free up commercial farming and mining on territories such as that belonging to the Yanomami.

Since Bolsonaro took office at the beginning of the year, indigenous leaders from around the country have complained about the invasion of their lands by local farmers, miners and logging companies – frequently accompanied by intimidation, threats and violence.

RELATED: Brazil indigenous communities seek to protect lands from populist government

“Brazil’s government has weakened environmental legislation and implemented policies and budget cuts that violate indigenous rights, putting the hard-fought gains of previous years at risk,” Iorio said.

Ole von Uexkull, the executive director of the Right Livelihood Award Foundation, commended Kopenawa for “resisting the ruthless exploitation of indigenous lands in the Amazon, protecting our common planetary heritage.”

Kopenawa is not a stranger to the award. In 1989 he accepted the honor on behalf of Survival International, a London-based indigenous rights organization.

Now, Kopenawa said he was “happy” to receive the award, both for himself and his own organization.

“It comes just at the right time and it is a show of trust in me and Hutukara and all those who defend the forest and planet Earth,” he said, adding the recognition “gives me the strength to continue the fight to defend the soul of the Amazon forest.”

RELATED: Brazil’s right wing government says it’s ‘monitoring’ – not spying on – Amazon synod

“We, the peoples of the planet, need to preserve our cultural heritage as Omame [the Creator] taught – to live well caring for our land so that future generations continue to use it,” he said.

The recognition comes just weeks before the opening of the Vatican’s Synod of Bishops for the Pan-Amazon region. The Oct. 6-27 event is bringing together bishops and other leaders to speak about the issues facing the Church in the Amazon. Pope Francis has put indigenous rights at the top of the agenda, calling indigenous communities “a living cry of hope.”

RELATED: As Amazon synod approaches, new focus given to indigenous rights

The other three winners of this year’s Right Livelihood Award are Swedish teenage environmental activist Greta Thunberg, Western Saharan human rights activist Aminatou Haidar, and Chinese lawyer and women’s rights advocate Guo Jianmei. The prizes will be handed out on Dec. 4.

Follow Charles Collins on Twitter: @CharlesinRome

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