- In this video interview a week before her official inauguration, Sonia Guajajara tells Mongabay what the four years of former President Jair Bolsonaro’s government meant for Native peoples, and she describes the turnaround preceding the creation of a Ministry of Indigenous Peoples — an unprecedented act in Brazil’s history — with a behind-the-scenes account of her appointment.
- “It was really [like a] hell. Everything we talked about was monitored,” she recalls the Bolsonaro government while speaking at her office in the newly created Ministry of Indigenous Peoples in Brasília.
- She says she never imaged herself a minister but she took the position due to the need for Indigenous peoples to participate directly in the country’s public decision-making powers, which she says she believes will also help end prejudice against Native peoples.
- After four years of consistent dismantling of Indigenous policies, she says a task force is working on the main “urgencies and emergencies,” including the Yanomami Indigenous Territory, in northern Roraima state, where a public health emergency was declared Jan. 22 given high levels of death due to malnutrition and diseases, including malaria, as a consequence of 20,000 illegal miners in the area.
BRASÍLIA, Brazil — Hell, tragic and terror. These are the main key words used by Minister of Indigenous Peoples Sonia Guajajara to describe to Mongabay what the four years of the government of former President Jair Bolsonaro meant for Native peoples. “It was really [like a] hell. Everything we talked about was monitored.”
She recalls a “terrible” episode when she was threatened by General Augusto Heleno, former head of the president’s institutional security office (GSI), after accusing the government of negligence and the genocide of Indigenous peoples during the COVID-19 pandemic. “He threatened me on Twitter, saying that I had to be arrested. It was terrible.”
For her, Bolsonaro’s government was tragic for Indigenous policy and for Indigenous peoples, for the environment, for human rights and for women. “We lived a moment of great fear and terror. It was a government that brought terror to society and also to the civil servants. Everybody worked very scared, afraid, persecuted.”
In this video interview a week before her official inauguration, Sonia Guajajara tells Mongabay about the turnaround in the last months that led to the creation of the Ministry of Indigenous Peoples, an unprecedented act in Brazil’s history, and the behind-the-scenes account of her appointment.
“I never imagined myself a minister. I never imagined myself a congresswoman, because my work in the Indigenous movement has always been very fulfilling for me,” she tells Mongabay at her office at the newly created Ministry of Indigenous Peoples in Brasília.
But she says she accepted both the congresswoman candidacy — she was elected federal deputy for São Paulo state — and the minister position afterward, due to the need for Indigenous peoples to participate directly in the country’s public decision-making powers. “The ministry represents a retaking of Brazil by the Indigenous peoples.”
Watch the interview in the video below.
“Urgencies and emergencies”
After four years of consistent dismantling of Indigenous policies, she says “everything is priority,” but a task force is working on the main “urgencies and emergencies.” One of the highest priorities, she says, is the Yanomami Indigenous Territory, in northern Roraima state, which is facing a public health emergency with high levels of death due to malnutrition and diseases, including malaria, as a consequence of 20,000 illegal miners in the area.
On Jan. 21, President Lula visited the area with Sonia Guajajara and declared a public health emergency, following reports of children dying of malnutrition and other diseases triggered by illegal gold mining.
The Ministry of Indigenous Peoples also had to react immediately to escalating violence in the northeast region with the murders of two young Pataxó Indigenous leaders last week, prompting the creation of a crisis office to monitor land conflicts in the region. Sonia Guajajara tells Mongabay she is “in a very close dialogue” with Minister of Justice Flávio Dino, who is “fully committed to present a plan to combat violence and impunity.”
According to her, the most critical areas are: the Yanomami Territory; the Javari Valley, in northern Amazonas state, where Indigenous expert Bruno Pereira and British journalist Dom Phillips were brutally murdered in June 2022; the Munduruku Indigenous Territory, in northern Pará state; and the Guajajara’s Arariboia Indigenous Territory, in northeastern Maranhão state, “which are all at the same level” of violence and attacks and persecution of the Indigenous people, she says.
“It is necessary to have a resumption of the investigations of so many crimes that happened and that nobody was penalized for,” she says. “This violence happens because of the certainty of impunity.”
Another front of urgent action, the minister says, is to carry out a plan to expel invaders from Indigenous lands — mostly illegal loggers and miners, with the Yanomami Territory again being “one of the most serious cases.” She says she is aware, though, that “it is not an easy task,” and a successful operation requires coordination with other ministries, including justice, environment and defense.”
Moreover, there is also a task force to speed up the demarcation process of Indigenous lands that were completely stalled under Bolsonaro, keeping with a campaign promise he made during the 2018 election.
According to the minister, there are 13 Indigenous territories with the due processes fully concluded, ready to be fully demarcated. “These are processes that have already been on the desk of [former] Minister Sérgio Moro when he was minister of justice. But he simply returned the processes to Funai [Brazil’s Indigenous affaris agency,] requesting a review.”
These Indigenous lands are located in the states of Bahia, Paraíba, Ceará, Santa Catarina, Rio Grande do Sul, Amazonas and Acre, she says, and the minister is also setting up a plan for land demarcation in the next four years of this government’s term.
“We are part of all this”
When Mongabay interviewed Sonia Guajajara on Jan. 5, her official inauguration had been scheduled for Jan. 10. But following the Jan. 8 terrorist attacks led by supporters of Bolsonaro, who invaded and vandalized key government buildings in the nation’s capital, the ceremony was rescheduled for Jan. 11 at the Presidential Palace, despite the missing glass on the walls, the destroyed gallery of photos of former presidents and a wide swath of destruction in the building as witnessed by Mongabay.
“We are here, standing up! To show that we will not surrender,” Sonia Guajajara said in her inauguration speech. “We know that it will not be easy to overcome 522 years in four. But we are willing to make this moment the great recovery of the ancestral strength of the Brazilian soul and spirit. Never again a Brazil without us!”
At her office, she tells Mongabay her dream: “Justice and freedom for the Indigenous peoples, historically so wronged. And the demarcation of Indigenous lands is the first step toward this freedom.”
For her, the creation of the Ministry of Indigenous Peoples and having Indigenous peoples in several of the government’s high-level positions will help to end prejudice against Native peoples, “showing that we are capable, that we are part of all this.”
“It is also a way to guarantee respect. So, I think that it comes from this now, from this opportunity that we are having for Brazil to get to know us. Because, unfortunately, even though we are Native peoples, we are still very much unknown within our country.”
Banner image: Minister of Indigenous Peoples Sonia Guajajara poses for a photo at her office in the newly created Ministry of Indigenous Peoples in Brasília. Image by Fellipe Neiva for Mongabay.
Karla Mendes is a staff contributing editor for Mongabay in Brazil. Find her on Twitter: @karlamendes
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