By Amanda Perobelli and Pilar Olivares and Bruno Kelly
SÃO PAULO/RIO DE JANEIRO/MANAUS (Reuters) – A record number of indigenous leaders, mostly made up of women, are running for federal office in the October elections, in a reaction against the policy of president and reelection candidate Jair Bolsonaro (PL).
With the increase in the destruction of the Amazon forest, the invasions of indigenous lands and the violence against their people during the government of Bolsonaro, several of these candidates say that they are entering the political dispute with a sense of urgency.
“This year is crucial to try to combat or increase the violence and the murders, or the increase in extermination,” says Sonia Guajajara (PSOL), chef of the Articulação dos Povos Indígenas do Brasil (APIB), who is attending a meeting in the Câmara dos Deputies. “Hoje, the mulheres are assuming many struggle fronts and leading the struggle of two indigenous people in Brazil.”
The Superior Electoral Tribunal (TSE) registered 60 indigenous candidates for the Chamber of Deputies of the Senate this year, including 31 women — or a greater number ever registered.
Many say that the main objective of the candidacy is to undermine the policies of Bolsonaro, who stopped demarcating indigenous territories and pressured mining and agriculture into existing reserves, which have been invaded with violence by illegal garimpeiros.
Bolsonaro defends that the indigenous people should adopt the costumes and economic activities of the Indians, and cites the protection of native reserves as a barrier to progress.
The Planalto Palace and the Fundação Nacional do Índio (Funai) did not respond to requests for comment.
On the other hand, former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (PT), leader of the investigations for the October presidential election, promised new financing to contain or dismantle and protect indigenous rights, proposing a new ministry to attend to 1 million indigenous people of the country.
“We want a ministry with an indigenous minister… to be part of a possibility of governing Lula,” Guajajara told Reuters.
Indigenous leaders are also under pressure to block legislation supported by Bolsonaro and the powerful ruralista caucus to rule out new reserves em terras that are not occupied by natives in 1988, when a constitution is enacted.
The indigenous people say that the so-called temporary framework is illegal because their rights to the land are guaranteed by the Constitution, even though they have been cleared.
“This time frame is how the government will hand over our lands to be destroyed by illegal mining, wood extraction, grillers and agribusinesses,” says Tereza Arapium (Rede), who attends a conference in the Legislative Assembly of the State of Rio de Janeiro.
The destruction of the Brazilian Amazon reached its highest level in 15 years under Bolsonaro, threatening the habitat of many of the country’s nearly 300 indigenous communities, considered by environmentalists as essential to protect the tropical forest.
“Environmental activism is what we do as our way of life. We are our own environment,” said Célia Xakriabá (PSOL), candidate for federal deputy for Minas Gerais.
Another priority cited by the indigenous candidates is the reform of institutions aimed at protecting their lands and territories, together with the biodiversity of the forest.
They say that Funai will have to be restructured after the government of Bolsonaro destroyed the agency or reduced officials and replaced anthropologists with police officers and reserve soldiers.
The first indigenous deputy of Brazil, or Xavant Mario Juruna, was elected in 1982. He carregava un engraver because he said he did not trust the word of Brazilians non-indigenous.
Almost four decades passed before the election of another indigenous representative in Congress, a woman, Joenia Wapichana, from the State of Roraima, in 2018.
In recent years, women have assumed more and more leadership positions in indigenous communities, with more chefs of the female sex leading the fight to defend their rights.
“I highly believe the power, in força dessas mulheres, in the capacity of them to be in Congress”, says Vanda Witoto (Rede), from Manaus, candidate for federal deputy.
They face a great challenge in a Chamber of Deputies where agricultural interests and a large evangelical caucus are dominant, frequently attacking indigenous rights, she affirmed.
“It is for this, we have a gigantic demand to create all these projects that do not aim to demarcate indigenous lands, that open up our territories for mining and agribusiness. People aim to fight this head-on,” said Witoto.
(Reporting by Amanda Perobelli and Leonardo Benassatto, in São Paulo; Pilar Olivares, in Rio de Janeiro; and Bruno Kelly, in Manaus; Additional reporting by Anthony Boadle, in Brasilia)