The story of Shaji is an unusual one — from Ramapuram to Mysore to St Louis University to São Paulo to the Amazon. Shaji Thomas is an Indian man from Ramapuram, Kottayam in the south Indian state of Kerala. It was at the end of the year 1989, when Shaji left India for São Paulo, Brazil as part of an overseas training program. He left India without knowing anything about Brazil. After a long travel (4 days!) he reached in São Paulo. He had sent a fax to his supervisor in Brazil about his travel plan. Unfortunately, the fax came to his destination after he had reached in Brazil. There was nobody to pick him up and he had no option but take a bus and then a taxi to reach his destination. He had U$100 with him for any emergency and he changed this money in the airport. To his amazement, he got about 60 million cruzados (Brazilian old currency)! The inflation in Brazil at that time was about 5000 percent. Somehow he could catch the bus and pay the taxi till where he was supposed to reach. New surprise! Nobody in his destination knew English and he had no knowledge of Portuguese! After a long time explaining to them him and about the fax he had sent, they welcomed him with a Brazilian drink which left Shaji totally drunk!

Shaji has not only been living in Brazil for 20 years, he has also been a part of the Brazilian social justice movement. He is one of the few people who has lived with native Americans deep in the Amazon forest and helped them fight their battle in court, in the media, through mobilization and advocacy. He came to Brazil on an Intercultural Learning Fellowship, an exchange program between St Louis University and the University of São Paulo in 1989, and never went back to the USA. While he was a student he worked with the trade union of President Lula. He then moved on to work with MST, the largest and most influential social movement of landless people in Brazil. This soft-spoken and unassuming researcher-activist is one of the few people who stood up against the land and forest mafia in the Amazon.

A lot of things happened during the last 27 years! He came to Brazil for one year of experience, but now it is almost 3 decades. Did two graduation, post-graduation, masters, Ph.D., post-Ph.D. Worked with local tribal people, landless people´s movement, social movement, the environmental movement, etc. Long and long histories.

The last 20 years in Amazon forest, living 6 years on a boat in Amazon river. So many histories, that he almost lost his Indian identity. Shaji dreamed of going to the Amazon when he was a teenager, inspired by the lecture given by a visiting priest about the unique character of the Amazon forests and the plight of the indigenous people in the region. He followed his dream and went to live deep inside the Amazon forest. He lived on a boat for many days, moving from one village to another, helping and educating one of the most marginalized communities in the world. Though Shaji does not come across as a leader, he has demonstrated rare leadership qualities in not only following his dream but also demonstrating the courage of conviction to stand up against land mafias and other power cartels. He worked closely with the famous Sister Dorothy who was killed last year by the land and forest mafia. He says he loves the Amazon and wants to dedicate his life to its most marginalized people. These are stories that are not heard or told often.

His wife Elysangela aka Ely is a Brazilian. She is a senior official in the judicial service and looks more like a pretty Indian while Shaji looks more Brazilian. Ely is graduated in Law from the Federal University of Pará, Brazil and post-graduated in Public Law. Shaji has a masters in Environment and Urban Development from the Amazon University in Brazil and a Ph.D. in Sustainable Development from the Federal University of Pará (UFPA), Brazil. At present, he is doing his Post-doctorate in Sustainable development from the same university. This Indo-Latino couple works for social justice and peace. Brazil is a melting pot of cultures and races and Shaji has been a Brazilian citizen for many years. While he is a researcher at the Amazon University, he spends most of his time fighting for the cause of the African community and indigenous community in the Amazon forests. He can talk to you about the African communities, the Quilombolas — those who escaped from slavery and found refuge in the thick Amazon forests.

As of May 2017, Eli and Shaji visited Shaji’s hometown in Kerala. Also, they also took the time to visit the Kadalundi bio-reserve, the first community reserve in India, which is known is home to various migratory birds during certain seasons.

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