- Some 300 people reunited at the headquarters of Brazil’s Indigenous affairs agency, Funai, in Brasília to mark a “new era” for the institution and its “reopening” under the government of President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva.
- Under the government of former president Jair Bolsonaro, Funai’s officials said they were “forced to not fulfill our mission” regarding Indigenous peoples’ rights.
- Joenia Wapichana, who was the first ever Indigenous woman elected to Brazil’s Congress played a central role thwarting Bolsonaro’s bid to undermine Funai, has been appointed the president of the institution.
- Funai’s formal name has also been changed from the National Indian Foundation to the National Foundation of Indigenous Peoples — a request from Native peoples leaders accepted by Lula and issued on his very first day in office.
BRASÍLIA, Brazil — “We, civil servants, are reopening Funai to Indigenous peoples,” anthropologist Janete Carvalho announced in a recent act at the headquarters of Brazil’s federal agency for Indigenous affairs. Under former president Jair Bolsonaro, she said, Funai officials were “really forced to not fulfill our mission” over the past four years. “We, civil servants, are reopening Funai to its institutional mission.”
The act reunited some 300 people in Brasília in the morning of Jan. 2, the very first day after the inauguration of Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. It also marked the start of a “new era” for the institution, whose formal name was changed that day from the National Indian Foundation to the National Foundation of Indigenous Peoples — a request from Native peoples leaders accepted by Lula.
“We spent four years with a feeling of being suffocated, of [Funai] being occupied by people with no legitimacy to work with Indigenous issues,” said Fernando Fedola, the head of Indigenistas Associados (INA), an Indigenist association of Funai officials. “They took over Funai to work from inside Funai against Indigenous rights.”
Fedola called it “a very emotional moment, of really retaking [Funai],” as attacks on Indigenous peoples and their rights under Bolsonaro also constituted an attack on Funai’s employees.
“It is almost like a catharsis. Like in soccer, celebrating the goal,” he said. “It’s an exorcism. We have rock salt here, to remove bad energies from the environment.”
The crowd also cheered the new minister of Indigenous peoples, longtime activist Sonia Guajajara, and Funai’s new president, Joenia Wapichana: “Funai is ours!”
“Today, a new era begins,” announced Sonia Guajajara, who was sworn in as minister the previous day during Lula’s inauguration. Her appointment was an unprecedented act in the history of Brazil, which has never before had a Ministry of Indigenous Peoples.
“On the day that Bolsonaro took office, on the same day, January 1, 2019, the first thing he did was to try to put an end to Funai. The first thing,” the minister said , referring to a provisional measure that moved Funai from under the Ministry of Justice and sent it to the Minister of Women, Family and Human Rights. It also transferred Funai’s decision-making power to demarcate Indigenous territories to the Ministry of Agriculture.
“We fought, we fought. And we didn’t let Funai fall apart like that,” Sonia Guajajara said, highlighting the role of Joenia Wapichana — the first ever Indigenous woman elected to Brazil’s Congress — to hamper this provisional measure from being approved.
Despite being the only Indigenous representative in the Congress during Bolsonaro’s presidency, Joenia Wapichana succeeded against the measure that placed Funai “in the mouth of the foxes.” She credited this to collaboration with other political parties that had more representatives in Congress and the constant presence of Funai’s officials and the Indigenous movement in the halls of Congress carrying plaques that read “whole Funai.”
“And today, Funai is here, as a whole, even if it is in pieces,” said Joenia Wapichana, the first Indigenous person to head Funai. She said she didn’t understand why an organization that is responsible for the lives of Native peoples and administering 14% of the country’s territory had been overlooked for so long.
Before accepting President Lula’s invitation to such a “challenging” position, she said she asked for a meeting with him accompanied by Indigenous leaders. “Because he won’t be committing himself only to Joenia, he will be committing himself to the Indigenous peoples,” Joenia Wapichana said.
One of them was world-renowned Indigenous chief Raoni Metuktire, of the Kayapó people, who is now 92 years old. ” I was the one who asked [Lula] to appoint one as minister and the other [as Funai’s] president,” he said tat the Funai’s headquarters, referring to Sonia Guajajara and Joenia Wapichana.
“Once, I told Lula that he was going to win. And I dreamed about this. So today is a very good day for us. I attended the inauguration. So it’s a beautiful day for all of us today,” he added to intense applause.
Raoni Metuktire recalled how Bolsonaro had acted against Indigenous people: “He was trying to finish us off. Wanting to wipe out our territory, with resources from our territory. But he already left.”
During his presidency, Bolsonaro refused to demarcate any new Indigenous territories, in keeping with a campaign promise he made during the 2018 election. On his watch, deforestation and violence against Native groups soared, along with measures to open up Indigenous lands for mining and agribusiness — in clear violation of Brazil’s Constitution.
“The last time we were here at Funai, we were received with pepper spray and rubber bullets,” said Celia Xakriabá, who was elected to Congress representing southeastern state of Minas Gerais.
[We can] say that today here the three powers are present: executive, legislative and judiciary,”she said. “But here is the greater power. Struggle is the fourth power.”
Celia Xakriabá recalled the many times when there were no microphones and the doors to Congress were closed to Indigenous people. “And it was through the ancestral chant that we sustained many struggles.”
She said Brazil was being “reborn” that day and there was no solution to climate change without the Indigenous peoples. “We told President Lula, ‘The only reason Brazil has not lost leadership and international prestige in environmental issues is because we [Indigenous peoples] support Brazil. In four years of absence from the Ministry of the Environment, we were ministers of the environment.”
Officials and Indigenous leaders also celebrated the appointment of Weibe Tapeba, a lawyer and Indigenous activist from northeastern Ceará state, as the first Indigenous sworn in Ministry of Health’s special secretary for Indigenous health.
Wearing a necklace gifted to her in the Vale do Javari “as a symbol of responsibility” and “strength,” Joenia Wapichana cried talking about the murders of Indigenous rights defender Bruno Pereira and British journalist Dom Phillips.
“I can’t understand why they killed a person in the line of duty,” said Joenia Wapichana, who authored a request to create a commission in Congress to investigate the murders. “Bruno was in my office talking about the danger. This government was responsible, the one that passed, for the death of people, not only Bruno, but the Yanomami who are dying because of mining, the attacks toward the Pataxó, the Guarani, whom I know, in Mato Grosso do Sul [state].”
“There are many who supported the Bolsonaro government, who also had a hand in everything that happened,” she went on. “Because when you spread hate, when you spread racism, when you spread fake news, you are also responsible for all these crimes.”
Joenia Wapichana said she cried a lot seeing Chief Raoni walking up the ramp with President Lula at the inauguration, which represented “the ascent of Indigenous peoples.”
“Those who didn’t cry are heartless,” she said.
“Those of us who have accompanied him, have seen how the cacique Raoni, a 92-year-old leader, was mistreated by Bolsonaro. They wanted to take away his legitimacy as a leader. They tried to tarnish his image by saying that he didn’t represent them. I am from Roraima, I am Wapichana. But I feel represented every time Raoni speaks.”
Joenia Wapichana called on Indigenous people to take advantage of this new phase in Brazil, under President Lula, to strengthen the Indigenous cause. But she said it wouldn’t be easy, given the systematic dismantling of Funai by the previous government, adding that she warned Lula that she wouldn’t tolerate any political interference at Funai.
“From the moment they start wanting to negotiate our rights, wanting to make our rights more flexible, we will also rethink. Because for me, I am not tied to a job title, no. What I am is on the side of the indigenous peoples,” she said to strong applause.
But Joenia Wapichana added that what’s urgently needed now is to overthrow all anti-Indigenous acts: “Down with evil.”
With Indigenous peoples united, Sonia Guajajara said: “Starting today, we can say: never again Brazil without us.”
“Funai is ours! Funai is ours!,” the crowed chanted as they also pushed for land demarcation: “Demarcation now! Demarcation now!”
In a cleansing ritual with Indigenous rattles and rock salt, Indigenous leaders and Funai officials went through the departments of the institution, including the presidency, to “clean” the space from the bad energy from the previous government, as witnessed by Mongabay.
Banner image: From left to right: Indigenous leaders Raoni Metuktire, Sonia Guajajara, Joenia Wapichana, Weibe Tapeba and Célia Xakriabá in Brasília marking the restoration of the country’s Indigenous affairs agency. Image by Karla Mendes/Mongabay.
Karla Mendes is a staff contributing editor for Mongabay in Brazil. Find her on Twitter: @karlamendes
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