A religiously committed environmental warrior


The new Olympic Park where the former Vila Autodromo "favela" community used to be located (Photo: Mario Tama / Getty Images)

The new Olympic Park where the former Vila Autodromo “favela” community used to be located (Photo: Mario Tama / Getty Images)


By Roy Gachuhi


In May this year, Heloisa Helena Costa Berto, an Afro-Brazilian Candomblé priestess, also known by her Candomblé name Luizinha de Nanã, whose home and spiritual center in Vila Autódromo were demolished to make way for the Olympic Park, received the Dandara Award from the Rio de Janeiro State Assembly.


The Dandara Award is named after the colonial era warrior woman who fought alongside her husband Zumbi, the last leader of the historic runaway slave community Palmares. State Deputy Flavio Serafini delivered the award established to recognize the exceptional work of Afro-Brazilian, Latin American and Caribbean women in the State of Rio de Janeiro.


Heloisa Helena was the award’s first recipient. She had also recently received the Pedro Ernesto Medal from the City Council of Rio de Janeiro in recognition of her fight for housing and religious rights.


On receiving her award, Heloisa said: “This prize represents a recognition of our everyday struggle. Blacks who suffer veiled prejudice daily and are treated as if we exaggerate, as if racial prejudice doesn’t exist in this country. But those who suffer know that yes, it does exist, disguised in pleasantries and hidden through jokes.


Heloisa Helena Costa Berto receiving the Dandara Award from the Rio de Janeiro State Assembly in May, 2016. (Photo: Rio On Watch)


“The award also represents a victory for us practitioners of Candomblé. Even though I wasn’t able to reach my main goal of remaining by the lagoon in the home of my mother [Orisha] Nanã, I consider myself victorious. I was able to reach so many other goals. I see this in the number of people who have joined me in this cause. People of various religions who support me in the right to freely practice my religion and to own the house of my mother Nanã. This true and permanent support always moves me.”


But the warrior priestess just won’t let go. She has an obsessive commitment to the environment. She told RioOnWatch, the community reporting and advocacy NGO:


“I want my home back, I want my lagoon back. I want the peace I felt when I was out in my yard watching the lagoon with my cats and dogs around me.


“I have a deep desire to work in defense of the lagoon, to work tirelessly, with the knowledge and understanding I have for the lagoon. My affinity with the cause is immense, and it truly is a part of my life. I’ve been studying a lot on the subject. My children and I, along with various members of the community, have already discussed the possibility of establishing an NGO to protect, preserve and clean the Jacarepaguá Lagoon.


“I am a religious person, and my happiness comes from serving and guiding others through their various problems. How can I live without being able to watch over and manage the house of Nanã in the place that she chose?”


Roy Gachuhi is in Rio de Janeiro as a writer-in-residence with Agencia Publica, an independent Brazilian investigative journalism news agency.


Read more about Heloisa’s work here