- A record 186 Indigenous candidates are running in Brazil’s general elections in October, up 40% from the 2018 elections.
- Candidates and activists say the surge is pushback against the increased attacks on Indigenous rights, lands and cultures under the administration of President Jair Bolsonaro.
- There’s currently only one Indigenous member in the 594-seat National Congress, a body whose lower House has overwhelmingly supported legislation considered detrimental to Indigenous rights and environmental protection.
- Only two Indigenous individuals have ever been elected to Congress, but Brazil’s main Indigenous coalition hopes to improve this representation with a coordinated campaign to support Indigenous candidates.
It was 35 years ago that Ailton Krenak, while painting his entire face with the black dye of the jenipapo fruit, protested against violence against Indigenous peoples in one of Brazil’s highest seats of power: the speaker’s podium in the lower House of Congress.
“There is Indigenous blood in every hectare of Brazil’s 8 million square kilometers,” Indigenous leader Ailton Krenak said, speaking on behalf of the Indigenous movement during the 1987 Constituent Assembly.
The following year, a new Constitution was promulgated, establishing fundamental rights for Brazil’s Indigenous peoples for the first time in history. But 34 years later, it’s under attack like never before, Indigenous activists say. They blame the anti-Indigenist rhetoric promoted by the government of President Jair Bolsonaro since 2019, which has triggered widespread violations against their culture, lands, and lives.
“This government has decided not to demarcate Indigenous lands, and to reconsider lands that have already been demarcated,” prominent Indigenous activist Sônia Guajajara told Mongabay in a video call. “When Bolsonaro did it, we had no choice but to fight. And we have decided to fight directly, through the electoral dispute.”
Today, Sônia Guajajara is running for a seat in the lower House, known as the Chamber of Deputies, in October’s elections. She’s standing for a constituency in São Paulo state, and also representing the Guajajara people.
A record 186 candidates who self-declare as Indigenous are running for public office in the upcoming elections, an increase of 40% from the 2018 elections. Of this total, 63 have their sights set on one of the two Houses of Congress — either the Chamber or the Senate — where they say they will fight to protect their hard-won Constitutional rights.
“Considering that we only have one Indigenous representative, it is urgent to raise the Indigenous voice in Congress,” Sônia Guajajara said, referring to Deputy Joênia Wapichana, who in 2018 became the first ever Indigenous woman elected to Brazil’s Congress.
“We really need the Indigenous representation. To raise a voice for Earth, for water, for biodiversity through institutional politics,” Sônia added. She spoke with Mongabay after a morning of handing out leaflets and speaking with potential voters on the streets of São Paulo. This isn’t the internationally renowned activist’s first stab at electoral politics; in 2018, she ran an outside campaign for vice president.
At 21, Junior Manchineri is the youngest Indigenous person running for public office this year. He says he became an activist at the age of 5, when his parents, whom he described as “historical militants” of the Workers’ Party in the northern state of Acre, introduced him to the movement.
“They taught me since childhood that I needed to get involved within this political context because it is within politics that we begin to shape everything that happens to us,” says Junior Manchineri, who is running for a seat in the Acre state legislature, representing the Manchineri people. “And then, I started to think about the importance of having an Indigenous candidacy that could actually reach the legislative assembly of our state.”
He says he was also inspired by Sônia Guajajara’s speech urging Indigenous people to occupy political spaces, and by his grandfather, who was instrumental in winning the demarcation of their Manchineri territory, fought against adverse policies in the 1970s and ’80s, and was one of the Indigenous leaders in the dialogues of the 1987 Constituent Assembly.
“This candidacy will go through all this history. It is the result of these various struggles, which started with my grandfather, passed on to my father, and my father passed it on to his children.”
‘A big step backward’
The Constituent Assembly was a landmark for Indigenous rights in Brazil. It ended the long-standing approach that, until 1987, held that Indigenous peoples would eventually integrate into the rest of society and “assimilate” into non-Indigenous culture.
“[Previous] constitutions spoke of promoting a forced integration,” Márcio Santilli, founding partner at the Instituto Socioambiental (ISA), a nonprofit that advocates for the rights of Indigenous and traditional peoples, told Mongabay in a video call. “They spoke of making the Indigenous person leave the Indigenous person’s ‘condition.’ From the moment they left this ‘condition,’ Indigenous rights would no longer need to exist.”
After the Constituent Assembly, Santilli said, “Indigenous peoples started having the right to live as they have always lived, to have their cultures, languages, the right to administer their territories their own way. They became permanent agents in Brazilian society.”
After the 1988 Constitution came into being, the government also established public policies for native peoples, including a service under the Ministry of Health dedicated exclusively to Indigenous communities, said Santilli, who helped mediate the debate between Indigenous groups and Congress during the Constituent Assembly.
But under the Bolsonaro administration, there’s been serious regression on all these achievements, activists say.
“We are experiencing a big step backward,” Rosani Fernandes, an Indigenous researcher at the Federal University of Pará, told Mongabay in a video call. Fernandes, a member of the Kaingang people from southern Brazil, pointed to the closures of departments dedicated to Indigenist policies, budget cuts for policies promote Indigenous rights, “and the aggravation of hatred attacks we are experiencing every day.”
Sônia Guajajara said that while attacks against Indigenous rights have become more frequent since the start of a neoliberal mandate under the presidency of Michel Temer (2016-2018), no government has assumed such an openly anti-Indigenous agenda as Bolsonaro’s.
The federal government did not reply to Mongabay’s request for comment.
Only one Indigenous member of Congress
The record number of Indigenous candidacies in the upcoming elections is, in part, a concrete response to the violence that has been perpetrated against Indigenous peoples under the Bolsonaro administration, activists say. It results, too, from the mobilization of the Indigenous movement in Brazil to bring its agenda into spaces of power, they add.
Indigenous peoples’ participation in Brazil’s institutional politics has been growing since 1988, Santilli said, with a sharp rise in the 2020 municipal elections, when the number of Indigenous candidates running for mayors, vice mayors and city councilors rose by 20% from the previous municipal elections.
But this year’s general elections, according to Fernandes, represents a paradigm shift. “The Indigenous movement is perceiving these political spaces as strategic spaces, as spaces of resistance,” she said, noting that most of the candidates are from the country’s north and northeast, where Indigenous lands have been increasingly invaded by loggers, miners and fishers.
The rise of Indigenous candidates is a journey that’s been years in the making, said Dinamam Tuxá, an Indigenous activist and executive coordinator at the Articulation of Indigenous Peoples of Brazil (APIB). Indigenous people have served in local legislatures since 1969, when Manoel dos Santos, a native Karipuna, became Brazil’s first Indigenous city councilor, in the Amazonian city of Oiapoque. But at the highest level, Brazil’s Congress has only ever had two Indigenous members in its history.
The first was Mario Juruna, a native Xavante, who served in the Chamber of Deputies representing Rio de Janeiro state from 1982-1986. Mario Juruna was a prominent voice for the demarcation of Indigenous lands before it became a constitutional right. In the 1970s, he became famous for walking through the headquarters of Funai, the federal agency for Indigenous affairs, in Brasília, always carrying a tape recorder “to record everything that the white man says” and proving that the authorities almost always didn’t keep their word.
More than three decades after Mario Juruna left office, Joênia Wapichana, of the Wapichana people (sometimes also spelled Wapixana), became Congress’s second Indigenous member, and its first Indigenous woman.
Although Joênia Wapichana is the only Indigenous person in the 594-member Congress today, her presence as a bulwark of Indigenous rights shows the importance of having Indigenous representatives in Congress, Santilli said. He noted that Bolsonaro wanted to put Funai under the agriculture ministry early on in his term, but this effort was defeated in Congress, led by Joênia Wapichana.
“And she was an important person in leading this movement and not allowing this aberration,” Santilli said. “Deputy Joênia was [also] important in approving a law that would make the government establish a specific health care program for Indigenous peoples during the pandemic.”
To improve Indigenous representation in Congress, APIB, the coalition of Indigenous groups, is spearheading the first ever coordinated campaign to elect multiple Indigenous lawmakers in the upcoming polls. The “Indigenous Campaign,” as it’s known, aims to provide legal and political marketing support to Indigenous candidates from 31 different ethnic groups, most of them from Brazil’s Amazonian region.
“Along with the regional organizations, we have been showing why it is important that we, Indigenous people, occupy these offices with strategy,” APIB’s Dinamam Tuxá said.
“We are supporting candidacies who are aligned with the Indigenous movement,” said Sônia Guajajara, one of the candidates supported by the Indigenous Campaign. “Candidates affiliated with progressive parties, who have concrete chances to win, and are well articulated with other social movements and organizations.”
‘We won’t give in’
But getting the support of the own political parties with which they’re affiliated hasn’t been easy for Indigenous candidates, Sônia Guajajara said.
“They don’t always give the support we need. Neither political nor financial,” she said. “The structures are very unequal, especially when compared to candidates who already have financial resources, or for those who adopt welfare strategies in their campaign.”
For her own campaign, Sônia Guajajara has turned to online crowdfunding. She added she expects to see at least three Indigenous candidates win seats in Congress; Joênia is considered a favorite as she runs for reelection.
Once elected, the challenges won’t end for progressive Indigenous candidates, especially in the Chamber of Deputies. An analysis of sponsored bills and voting records, carried out by Repórter Brasil, an investigative news outlet, found 68% of deputies had a track record of supporting bills considered detrimental to the environment, to Indigenous peoples, and to rural workers.
Among these bills that are currently pending in the Chamber are those that would legalize mining inside Indigenous lands (which is banned under the 1988 Constitution); weaken the powers of environmental protection agencies; and legitimize the illegal grabbing and occupation of public lands. A handful of these bills are considered so controversial that they’ve been dubbed the “Death Package.”
“If we don’t get to have the majority to approve our projects, we will, at least, disturb their plans,” Sônia Guajajara said. “We may not be able to advance, but we won’t lose more than we already have. We won’t give in.”
Dinamam Tuxá agreed that negotiating won’t be an option once Indigenous candidates are installed in Congress.
“We are coming to confront the dismantling of rights that have been taking place over the past four years,” he said. “Congress will become the space to take back our rights and to enforce our Constitution.”
Banner image: Indigenous groups participate in the Free Land Camp (ATL) set up at Ministries Esplanade, Brasília. Image by Valter Campanato/Agência Brasil.
Related audio from Mongabay’s podcast: In a new dialogue with Mongabay’s top tropical forest news commentator (and CEO), Rhett A. Butler, we catch up on the biggest trends and news, starting with the upcoming Brazilian presidential election’s possible ramifications for Amazon forest conservation, listen here:
See related coverage about Brazil’s 2022 election, here:
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