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Brazil’s biggest elected Indigenous caucus to face tough 2023 Congress

Image by scarlettrphoto.

  • In Brazil’s Oct. 2 general elections, five self-declared Indigenous candidates were elected as federal deputies and two as senators, the highest number in the country’s history. The most celebrated victories were those of prominent Indigenous activists Sônia Guajajara and Célia Xakriabá, who were elected as federal deputies.
  • Experts, activists and celebrities cheered the “Bancada do Cocar”(Feathered Headdress Caucus) to halt the escalating anti-Indigenous and anti-environmental agenda in the legislative power since President Jair Bolsonaro took office in January 2019.
  • The success of the Indigenous and other left-wing caucuses will depend on the outcome of the presidential runoff on Oct. 30, given a more conservative elected Congress with more seats of supporters of Bolsonaro and the agribusiness lobby in both the lower and upper houses, experts say.

In the 200-year anniversary of Brazil’s independence from Portugal, Indigenous people achieved a historical milestone: the highest number of Indigenous candidates elected to the National Congress in the country’s history, a key move for the future of their rights, which have been under attack since the colonization period, researchers say.

In the Oct. 2 general elections, five candidates who self-declared as Indigenous were elected as federal deputies and two as senators. Although not all of them are aligned with the Indigenous cause, fighting for their ancestral rights and protecting the environment, experts and activists celebrated the act as a growing — and needed — resistance to halt the escalating anti-Indigenous and anti-environmental agenda in legislative power since President Jair Bolsonaro took office in January 2019.

“This mobilization of the Indigenous peoples fills us with joy, it fills us with hope,” historian Ana Paula da Silva, a researcher at the Program of Studies of Indigenous Peoples (Pro Índio) at Rio de Janeiro State University who holds a PhD in social memory, tells Mongabay in a phone interview. “And it shows us that we have to go to the fight.”

The most celebrated victories were the election of prominent Indigenous activists Sônia Guajajara and Célia Xakriabá as federal deputies for the Bancada do Cocar(Feathered Headdress Caucus) through the first-ever “Indigenous Campaign” run by the Articulation of Indigenous Peoples of Brazil (APIB), the country’s main Indigenous association, with the aim to “aldear a política“(Indigenize politics).

“Women have always been protagonists, but in the works, in the studies about Indigenous peoples, men have always stood out. But you see that the women’s strength is very great,” says da Silva, highlighting the visibility of the Indigenous movements and the protagonism of Indigenous women, especially since 2019.

With 156,963 votes, Sônia Guajajara was elected federal deputy for São Paulo state. “Let’s go through the front door into the National Congress!” she posted on Twitter right after the results. “Brasília, we are coming to Indigenize politics!”

In the 2018 elections, Sônia Guajajara entered the history of Brazilian politics as the first Indigenous woman to run as vice president. Born in the Arariboia Indigenous Territory in northeastern Maranhão state — one of the most endangered Indigenous lands — she has a master’s degree in culture and society and a postgraduate degree in special education and she coordinates APIB. She has received several  awards, including the Fred Packard Award by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and the World Commission on Protected Areas in 2019. Earlier this year, she was quoted by Time magazine as one of the 100 most influential people in the world.

With 101,154 votes, Célia Xakriabá was elected to represent southeastern Minas Gerais state in the lower house of the Congress. Born in the municipality of São João das Missões, she holds a PhD and a master’s in anthropology from the Federal University of Minas Gerais (UFMG) — she was the first Indigenous woman to get a PhD at UFMG. She represented the Indigenous peoples at COP26 and actively participated in the denunciation of Bolsonaro for crimes against humanity and genocide before the International Criminal Court in The Hague.

“Our victory is not only for the Indigenous peoples, it is for Mother Earth, education and culture,” posted Célia Xakriabá on Twitter right after her election. “We will arrive with the strength of our headdress, echoing our voices and maracas!”

The positive reaction on social media from activists, advocacy groups and celebrities for the election of the two Indigenous women was immediate, including praises from actor Leonardo DiCaprio. “The Amazon, and the health of our planet, are in great hands with these incredible leaders,” he posted on Twitter.

In 2018, Joênia Wapichana was the first-ever Indigenous woman elected to Brazil’s Congress as federal deputy for northern Roraima state. Although she is the only Indigenous person in the 594-member Congress today, she played a key role in defending Indigenous rights, including halting Bolsonaro’s plans to place Funai, the country’s Indigenous affairs agency, under the Ministry of Agriculture as one of the first acts of his term.

Despite having received 11,221 votes — more than three of the eight elected representatives for Roraima — Joênia Wapichana wasn’t reelected due to an electoral quotient calculation. On Twitter, she said she was proud of the election of Sônia Guajajara and Célia Xakriabá “two warrior Indigenous women who will continue the work in the National Congress. … I always said I was the first, but I would not be the last nor the only one.”

Joênia Wapichana became Congress’s second Indigenous member more than three decades after Mario Juruna, a native Xavante, who served in the Chamber of Deputies representing Rio de Janeiro state from 1982-1986.

Two other Indigenous women were elected as federal deputies in the October elections. One of them is Juliana Cardoso, the first-ever elected Indigenous woman who was previously elected São Paulo’s city councilor and now will represent São Paulo state as federal deputy. The other is Silvia Waiãpi, elected for northern Amapá state by the same right-wing party that supports Bolsonaro. Holding a second lieutenant position, she was the first Indigenous woman to become an officer in the army. During Bolsonaro’s administration she led the Secretariat of Indigenous Health (SESAI) and got involved in controversies, including accusations from prosecutors of creating obstacles for Indigenous health.

For the Senate, two men who self-declared as Indigenous were elected: Wellington Dias, representing northeastern Piauí state, and current Vice President Hamilton Mourão for southern Rio Grande do Sul state. Dias was previously elected to the Senate in 2011; Mourão had his Indigenous identity called into question during the 2018 campaign. Two self-declared Indigenous candidates who are Bolsonaro supporters were also elected as state legislators: Amanda Brandão Armelau in Rio de Janeiro and Lucinio Castelo de Assumção was re-elected in Espírito Santo.

A record 186 candidates who self-declared as Indigenous ran in Brazil’s general elections, up 40% from the 2018 elections. In the 2020 municipal elections, the number of Indigenous candidates running for mayors, vice mayors and city councilors rose by 20% from the previous municipal elections.

Prominent Indigenous activists Célia Xakriabá (left) and Sônia Guajajara (right) were elected as federal deputies. They are part of the Bancada do Cocar (Feathered Headdress Caucus) that aims to halt the escalating anti-Indigenous and anti-environmental agenda in legislative power since President Jair Bolsonaro took office in January 2019. Composite: Image courtesy of Célia Xakriabá and Sônia Guajajara.

Uniting forces through identity alliances

A key ingredient for the success of elected Indigenous candidates derives from their alliances with other social movements focused on identity, social orientation or the fight for land rights, including Quilombola (Afro-Brazilian descendants of runaway slaves), landless and the Black and the LGBT movements, says sociologist José Carlos Matos Pereira, a researcher at the Social Movements Memory Program, from the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro.

He cites the case of Célia Xakriabá, who was elected with votes equating to five times the Indigenous population of Minas Gerais, which means that she established alliances. “I was looking at her agenda. She talks about the demarcation of Indigenous lands but she also talks about the titling of Quilombola lands. And she refers to a thousand Quilombola communities in Minas Gerais,” Pereira told Mongabay by phone, adding that there is also indication of dialogues with labor unions and land reform representatives.

The increase in visibility for Indigenous people in cities, including protests, public debates and social media, as well as the inclusion of urban reform claims, are also highlights from Pereira’s view. “You have to think about the strategic importance of the city’s role in the electoral process. Even [for] rural candidates, Indigenous candidates, any other kind of categorization. It has an important role because it is in the cities where the main decisions are made. And that’s where most of the electorate is,” he says. “So, these movements are fights that can legitimately come from the rural area or from Indigenous land. But it is in permanent dialogue with the city.”

According to the sociologist, it is a key approach to promote a democratic and participatory management of the city, including the decision making process for the use of public funds that tend to exclude Indigenous people. “Because what is at stake is the legislation. And from the point of view of money, where will the public resources be applied? Is it going to the university, is it going to agribusiness, is it going to a series of other activities that do not concern the interests, especially of the Indigenous people?,” he says. “If you think from the point of view of the budget, the Indigenous people are not in the PPA, which is the Federal Multi-Year Plan, many times [not in] state [budget plans], many times [not in] municipal [plans]. They are not in the Budget Guidelines Law. And they are not in the LOA, which is the practical application, the annual budget law.”

On Oct. 13, APIB published a letter supporting the candidacy of former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who pledged to create an Indigenous Ministry.

Indigenous demonstration for land demarcation. Image courtesy of Christian Braga via APIB.

What’s at stake in the presidential election results?

Despite the historical Indigenous seats at the National Congress, the Bancada do Cocar and other left-wing caucuses will have challenges to defend the rights of traditional peoples and the environment amid a more conservative elected Congress with more seats of supporters of Bolsonaro and the agribusiness lobby in both the lower and upper houses, experts say.

They argue the outcome of the Oct. 30 runoff will be key to determining the future of the Amazon and other biomes, as well as the rights of Indigenous people and other minorities, as the center-right Centrão caucus, which has a relevant representation in the Congress, allies with whoever is in power.

“We are here in a debate that has to do with this national polarization and that the Indigenous people represent some of this idea. Or in a very firm way the question of two logics: the commodification of the life of nature,” says Pereira. “There is a market logic that is structural, that is long-lasting. That is the incorporation of Indigenous lands into the land market. … So, the Indigenous people are an obstacle to this logic.”

For da Silva, the historian, it’s urgent to have in Brazil a government aligned with the defense of the environment and the fight for Indigenous rights and against climate change to halt the setbacks from Bolsonaro’s last four years. “The Brazilian state has always had its back to the Indigenous peoples. Today, as at no time in history, the state is anti-Indigenous with this government. And we need to give an answer at the ballot box, that we don’t want this government,” she says.

According to her, it is urgent to set up a dialogue from the whole society with the Native peoples and with the social movements to fight for a type of society in which “capital and development go hand in hand with the forest peoples.”

“For 200 years the country has been an independent country. But what kind of independence is this? Who is this independence for? Who is this country for?” she asks. “Because it is not for the Indigenous peoples. … And today, it is much more evident that the Brazilian state has its back to the Indigenous peoples.”

Banner image: Indigenous leader Tingui-Botó blessing presidential candidate Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva in a ritual during April’s annual gathering of Indigenous groups, called the Free Land Encampment, in the capital, Brasília. Image courtesy of @scarlettrphoto via APIB.

Karla Mendes is a staff contributing editor for Mongabay in Brazil. Find her on Twitter: @karlamendes

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