Brazil's indigenous women run for Congress to fight Bolsonaro policies
A record number of indigenous leaders, most of them women, are running for federal office in Brazil's election next month, in a backlash against the policies of President Jair Bolsonaro.
As the destruction of the Amazon rainforest, invasions of indigenous lands and violence against their peoples have surged under Bolsonaro, several of these candidates say they are joining the political fray with a sense of urgency.
For Sonia Guajajara the election is crucial. Guajajara is the head of Brazil's main indigenous umbrella organization, the Articulation of Indigenous Peoples of Brazil (APIB), and is running for Congress. "Today, it is the women who are taking up the fight and leading the struggle of indigenous people in Brazil."
Brazil's electoral authorities have registered 60 indigenous candidates for the two houses of Congress this year, including 31 women – the most on record.
Many say their main objective is to unwind the policies of Bolsonaro, who has stopped demarcating indigenous territory and pushed for mining and industrial farming on existing reservations, emboldening violent land grabs and illegal miners.
Bolsonaro says indigenous people should take up the customs and economic activities of their fellow Brazilians and has decried the protection of native reservations as a barrier to progress.
His office and federal indigenous agency FUNAI did not respond to requests for comment.
By contrast, Bolsonaro's leftist rival, former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, has vowed fresh funding to curb deforestation and protect indigenous rights, proposing a new ministry attending to Brazil's 1 million indigenous people.
"We want a ministry with an indigenous minister," Guajajara told Reuters.
Indigenous leaders are also pushing to block legislation backed by Bolsonaro and the powerful farm caucus to rule out new reservations on land that was not occupied by native people in 1988 when Brazil's constitution was ratified. Indigenous people say that policy is illegal because their land rights are guaranteed by the constitution even if they had been evicted.
“My worst fear is that Bolsonaro will be reelected and my greatest hope is Lula will occupy power,” said Tereza Arapium, running for a seat in the Rio de Janeiro state legislature.
Deforestation of Brazil's Amazon has risen to a 15-year high under Bolsonaro, threatening the habitat of many of Brazil's roughly 300 tribes, considered by environmentalists to be essential in protecting the rainforest.
"Our relationship with the land, has saved the environment, the savannah, the Amazon, the Atlantic Forest, the Pampas and the Caatinga region," said Celia Xakriaba, who is running for Congress from the state of Minas Gerais.
Another priority cited by indigenous candidates is reforming institutions meant to protect their peoples and territories, along with the biodiversity of the rainforest.
They say FUNAI will have to be restored after Bolsonaro gutted the agency by reducing staff and replacing anthropologists with police and former military officers.
Brazil's first indigenous congressman, the Xavante tribesman Mario Juruna, was elected in 1982. He carried a tape recorder because he said he did not trust the word of non-indigenous Brazilians. Four decades passed before the election of another indigenous representative in Congress – a woman, Joenia Wapichana, from the state of Roraima.
In recent years, women have been increasingly common in tribal leadership roles, with more female chieftains taking up the fight to defend their rights.
" I strongly believe in this power, in the strength of these women, in the ability of these women today to be in Congress making this journey and raising these voices in favour of this collective," said Vanda Witoto, running for Congress from Manaus, the largest city in the Amazon.
They face a steep challenge in a lower house where farm interests and a large evangelical caucus hold sway, frequently attacking indigenous rights, she said.
Witoto said they have a gigantic task ahead to try to stop bills that ‘open up their territories to mining and agribusiness.