- Born in the northern reaches of Brazil, in the state of Roraima, Joenia Wapichana is the first indigenous lawyer in Brazil and in 2018 she became the first indigenous woman to be elected to the country’s lower house of Congress. She also holds a master’s degree from the University of Arizona.
- In her first year in office, she wrote a bill proposing that the funds collected from fines for environmental infractions committed on indigenous lands be reverted back to the native peoples.
- In the bill’s text, Wapichana presents her justification: “The fires in the Amazon region were a recent news story, both nationally and internationally, a fact which also fostered the need to protect the indigenous peoples of the Amazon.”
When crimes and environmental impacts in indigenous territories are identified and punished, where the does money from the fines go? To the government, as is the case with any other process. But Joenia Wapichana, the first indigenous female federal representative elected in Brazil, wants to change this law to benefit the indigenous peoples.
As such, she authored Bill 5467/2019, which calls for amendments to the Law on Environmental Crimes (No. 9.605/98) and the Statute of the Indian (No. 6.001/73). The bill is currently circulating in the Chamber of Deputies, the lower house of Brazil’s National Congress, and will be analyzed on an exclusive basis (without being deliberated in a plenary session) by four committees: those on the environment and sustainable development; human rights and minorities; finance and taxation; and the Constitution, justice and citizenship.
In the bill’s text, Wapichana presents her justification: “The fires in the Amazon region were a recent news story, both nationally and internationally, a fact which also fostered the need to protect the indigenous peoples of the Amazon.”
She says that among the non-natural causes of the burning, fires set illegally by farmers stand out, including on indigenous lands. “Considering this situation, with all the damage done to the indigenous lands, affecting the communities that inhabit them as consequence, nothing could be more fitting than to revert, for the benefit of the indigenous peoples, the funds collected through fines from environmental infractions committed on their lands.”
The text also says this money can serve as revenue for the indigenous peoples, to be used for environmental preservation and to compensate for the impacts that environmental violations crimes have had on the people and the lives of the communities.
A voice for the rights of indigenous peoples
Wapichana’s life story is unusual. Born in the indigenous community of Truaru da Cabeceira in Roraima state, she became the first indigenous person in Brazil to earn a law degree. She enrolled at the Federal University of Roraima in 1997, then went on to earn a master’s degree from the University of Arizona in the United States. From 1999, she worked as coordinator for the legal department of the Indigenous Council of Roraima (CIR).
In 2008, she became the first indigenous lawyer to argue before the Supreme Court of Brazil after defending the process of demarcation in the Raposa Serra do Sol Indigenous Territory (a target of then-congressman Jair Bolsonaro, now Brazil’s president) at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR). On that occasion, Wapichana represented the communities of Barro, Maturuca, Jawari, Tamanduá, Jacarezinho and Manalai, delivering a historic speech.
In 2013, she was appointed the first president of the National Commission for the Defense of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. In 2018, she received the U.N. Prize in the Field of Human Rights. Last April, she revived the Parliamentary Front in Defense of Indigenous Peoples.
In December, Wapichana participated in the U.N. Climate Change Conference (COP25) in Madrid, Spain, where she presented documentation of the violence against the indigenous peoples of Brazil. She then traveled to San Francisco in the United States to meet with Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, the U.N. Special Rapporteur for the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, and deliver the same document.
This article was originally published online at Conexão Planeta on Jan. 9, 2020.