- In this video interview two weeks before the health disaster outbreak in the Yanomami Indigenous Territory, Joenia Wapichana, the first Indigenous woman named president of Brazil’s national Indigenous affairs agency, Funai, says one of her priorities at the institution is the expulsion of 20,000 illegal gold miners from the area.
- “Indigenous health is a chaos there. Children are dying of malaria and malnutrition. So, it is not simply a matter of removing the miners, but you have to take immediate action to ensure security there,” she tells Mongabay at Funai’s headquarters in Brasília.
- Joenia Wapichana says coordinated actions are required among several governmental entities with “permanent oversight” to put an end to this crisis: “It’s not simply remove [the wildcat miners] and leave no one there to protect.”
- Given Funai’s precarious budget of 600 million reais ($118 million) per year, she says cooperation agreements with other countries, a successful strategy in the past, will be key to carrying out the demarcation of Indigenous lands in the Amazon that were stalled under the government of Jair Bolsonaro.
BRASÍLIA, Brazil — “I want to see the Yanomami and Raposa Serra do Sol territories free of invasions,” Joenia Wapichana, the first Indigenous woman named president of Brazil’s national Indigenous affairs agency, Funai, tells Mongabay, describing one of her dreams for northern Roraima state.
Like a premonition, she says prominent Indigenous leader and shaman Davi Kopenawa dreamed about her leading the expulsion of illegal gold miners from these Indigenous lands. “Davi Kopenawa told me that he had a dream that I was in front of the expulsion,” Joenia Wapichana tells Mongabay in an interview at Funai’s headquarters two weeks before the health disaster outbreak in the Yanomami territory.
On Jan. 21, Joenia Wapichana went to the Yanomami territory with President Lula and Minister of Indigenous Peoples Sonia Guajajara, following reports of 570 children dying of malnutrition and other diseases triggered by 20,000 illegal gold miners a public health emergency was declared.
In a video interview with Mongabay on Jan. 5, Joenia Wapichana highlighted the “urgent and humanitarian” issues in the Yanomami territory. “Indigenous health is a chaos there. Children are dying of malaria and malnutrition. So, it is not simply a matter of removing the miners, but you have to take immediate action to ensure security there.”
Joenia Wapichana says that in order to put an end to this crisis, coordinated actions are required among several governmental entities with “permanent oversight,” including the Ministry of Indigenous Peoples, the Ministry of Justice and the Ministry of Health’s special secretary for Indigenous health, SESAI. “It’s not simply remove [the wildcat miners] and leave no one there to protect,” she says. “It is [also necessary] to do a study [of] what was left [behind] by [illegal] mining.”
In fact, the Brazilian government is preparing a task force to expel the illegal miners from the Yanomami territory, Joenia Wapichana said in a press conference on Jan. 31. President Lula also ordered a crackdown on supplies to illegal miners and the Minister of Environment and Climate Change Marina Silva said money from the Amazon Fund will be allocated to fight the Yanomami crisis.
Joenia Wapichana also urges to hold politicians accountable for “absurd” situations in which they defended illegal mining on Indigenous lands. “It is not an ideological political positioning. It is a crime,” Joenia Wapichana says. “Our legislation prohibits mining on Indigenous lands.”
Born in Roraima, Joenia Wapichana was the first-ever Indigenous woman elected to Brazil’s National Congress in 2018 and played a key role thwarting the bid of former President Jair Bolsonaro to undermine Funai.
On the first day in office on Jan. 1, 2019, Bolsonaro issued a provisional measure that moved Funai from under the Ministry of Justice and sent it to the Ministry of Women, Family and Human Rights. It also transferred Funai’s decision-making power to demarcate Indigenous territories to the Ministry of Agriculture.
But Joenia Wapichana’s collaborative action with other political parties hampered its approval in Congress. “Despite receiving many threats for my positionings from the first moment I arrived, I never felt like giving up,” she says, highlighting the adversities she faced as the only Indigenous representative during an anti-Indigenous-and-environment government. “Everything is a challenge in my life.” She will be sworn in as Funai’s president on Feb. 3.
Watch the interview in the video below.
‘It’s not no man’s land; it is Indigenous land!’
After four years of consistent dismantling of Funai and Indigenous policies overall under Bolsonaro, Joenia Wapichana says she is aware of the challenges ahead to lead the institution. “I know that it will be difficult. It is not going to be overnight that we are going to pull Funai out of the hole, redeem all these years of lack of investment, lack of attention, lack of respect,” she says. “But we will do our best to recover everything that was taken away, both in terms of rights and principles.”
Resuming the land demarcation process — 13 Indigenous territories with the due processes are ready to be demarcated — and expelling invaders from Indigenous reserves, she says, are Funai’s highest priorities. “Indigenous people always have this concept ‘my land first.’ So, for me, this is very important in the sense that I am at the forefront of this defense, in the responsibility of seeking any visibility and viability to fulfill an obligation that Funai has.”
One of the main pillars to comply with this mission, she says, are the civil servants who “have to be valued and have to have good working conditions.” For her, it’s “absurd” public servants are receiving salaries as low as 2,000 reais ($390) to go into the field to confront loggers and drug dealers in Indigenous areas to protect the lives of Indigenous peoples who take care of 14% of the Brazilian territory. “They give their life, leaving their family, [taking] the risk.”
She recalls the case of Indigenous expert Bruno Pereira, brutally murdered with British journalist Dom Phillips in June 2022 in the Javari Valley, in northern Amazonas state. She says she aims to “precisely strengthen this mission he had of oversight.”
One of the main challenges, she says, is Funai’s precarious budget of R$600 million ($118 million) annually, of which R$400 million ($78.8 million) is just to keep it running. She says she is looking at how to maximize the existing funds, including the request of a government building for its headquarters to free up R$1.5 million ($296 million) yearly spent on rent “totally incoherent with the reality of Funai today.”
According to Joenia Wapichana, it’ll also be necessary to raise funds through cooperation agreements with other countries and government bodies, a successful strategy in 2004. “It was thanks to these international cooperation agreements that the demarcation of Indigenous lands in the Amazon advanced. I accompanied several demarcations related to these terms of cooperation.”
She says the resumption of the Amazon Fund whose funds were immediately unblocked after Lula’s inauguration is an alternative, and several institutions and countries want to help Funai.
Joenia Wapichaba highlights the meeting with U.S. Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland who, according to her, said Brazil “has all the support there from the Biden administration for whatever it takes to help the Indigenous peoples.” Haaland is the first Native American to serve as a cabinet secretary for a U.S. president, and she led the U.S. delegation to Lula’s presidential inauguration. “There is much we can do together to give Indigenous peoples a seat at the table and protect the Brazilian Amazon ecosystem, which many call home,” Haaland tweeted Jan. 1.
Joenia Wapichana highlights the long-standing history of collaboration with the U.S. on environmental efforts, including the investigation led by a department under Haaland’s umbrella that prompted troubled former Minister of Environment Ricardo Salles to be ousted after charges in a probe into alleged illegal exports of Amazon timber.
She urges the importance of tracking Brazil’s exports, adding that one of her projects is to track gold buying, selling and transporting.
For the next years, Joenia Wapichana says she aims to be reelected congresswoman and see more and more Indigenous representatives in the Congress. “I bring in my trajectory precisely the issue of pioneering, you know? Of being the first to open doors for others.” As the first Indigenous woman to became a lawyer in Brazil, she says she dreams about being appointed justice in the Federal Supreme Court in the future.
“My dream is to see the Indigenous peoples with their rights protected, respected, fulfilled,” she says, adding that she really wants to carry out Davi Kopenawa’s dream to lead the expulsion of invaders from Indigenous lands.
“Many Brazilians aren’t aware of the question of the guarantee of Indigenous lands. They don’t know that there is exclusive Indigenous usufruct there,” she says, adding that many times people think “it is not ‘no man’s land.’ No, it is Indigenous land!”
Banner image: In a video interview with Mongabay, Joenia Wapichana highlighted the “urgent and humanitarian” issues in the Yanomami territory. “Indigenous health is a chaos there. Children are dying of malaria and malnutrition. So, it is not simply a matter of removing the miners, but you have to take immediate action to ensure security there.” Image by Fellipe Neiva for Mongabay.
Karla Mendes is a staff contributing editor for Mongabay in Brazil. Read her stories published on Mongabay here. Find her on Twitter: @karlamendes
FEEDBACK: Use this form to send a message to the author of this post. If you want to post a public comment, you can do that at the bottom of the page.
Sonia Guajajara: Turnaround from jail threats to Minister of Indigenous Peoples