Sonia Guajajara and the Indigenous spring in Brazil

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Last week Sonia Guajajara, Brazil’s first-ever Minister for Indigenous Peoples, landed in London accompanied by two younger Indigenous activists: Txai Surui and Thiago Guarani.  Guajajara’s trip to the United Kingdom follows two productive weeks in New York, where she joined Brazil’s official delegation at the United Nations General Assembly and the Climate Week. ‘Brazil is back,’ as President Lula da Silva likes to say. And, yet, in many ways the official face of Brazil does look different.

Guajajara is a well-known feminist Indigenous activist who, after decades of fighting for Indigenous peoples’ rights ‘from the outside’ decided to run for elected positions. Last year she was elected federal deputy, later accepting President Lula’s invitation to head the recently created Ministry for Indigenous Peoples. ‘It was about time for us Indigenous peoples to occupy politics,’ she said to the group of UK-based academics, activists and businesspeople who flocked to Canning House to listen to her.  

After years of anti-Indigenous and anti-environmental agendas under Jair Bolsonaro (Brazil’s president between 2019 and 2022), Guajajara is convinced that working with the State and, more importantly, within the State is the way to go now. ‘We are in a very special moment, a moment of opportunity. While it cannot be considered permanent, it remains a moment of opportunity,’ she claims. Her task is now to rebuild and, crucially, expand Brazil’s legal and institutional frameworks for Indigenous peoples. Under her leadership, the new ministry is working to raise the visibility of Brazil’s Indigenous peoples, and make public policies responsive to the diverse ways of being Indigenous in Brazil. This includes strengthening the Indigenous health system, expanding initiatives to promote access to college education, and creating tailored responses to deal with violence against Indigenous women.

Guajarara and her ministry are also key for Brazil’s ongoing efforts to build a coherent national climate change policy. Both in Brazil and abroad, the linkages between the protection of Indigenous peoples’ rights and climate change are well-established. In places of strategic climate importance, like the Brazilian Amazon, this means securing land titling for Indigenous groups, removing invaders (illegal loggers, illegal miners, and land grabbers) from Indigenous lands, and promoting sustainable management of existing Indigenous territories.

Guajajara’s claim that she and her ministry are helping Lula to rebuild Brazilian international credibility rings true. It shows the country is not only committed to fighting climate change, but has also understood that halting deforestation requires protecting nature’s major guardians: Indigenous peoples and other traditional communities who have long lived alongside forests.

While this connection is increasingly clear for many people in Brazil, the long battle to secure land rights for Indigenous peoples is not over. Guajajara’s international travels coincided with a ground-breaking Supreme Court victory for Indigenous peoples and allies in Brazil, overturning restrictions on Indigenous land claims proposed under the marco temporal (time limit, in English) doctrine. Marco temporal has been championed by powerful interest groups, including farmers, miners, and land investors, in whose view Indigenous peoples’ access and collective rights to land prevent the economic exploitation of territories rich in resources. Yet despite the Supreme Court’s ruling, Indigenous peoples’ land rights are far from secure. Both at the National Congress and on the ground across the country, the agribusiness sector, other economic actors, and political allies in Congress and beyond remain ready to dispute the federal government’s renewed Indigenous agenda.

When many Brazilians took to the streets in 2021, amidst a deadly global pandemic, to oppose former President Bolsonaro’s denialist policies on Covid-19, indigenous organisations wittily reminded protesters that ‘Indigenous peoples have been resisting the State since 1500.’ Interestingly, however, Indigenous mobilisation has expanded and diversified significantly in the last decade. Its many contemporary facets include the indigenous women activists that now occupy the streets of Brasilia annually; the policy and legal work of Indigenous organisations and lawyers to secure collective rights through institutional channels; and the many self-help groups who organise at the community level across the country, monitoring and defending territories from invasions and containing environmental degradation, pollution, and disease.

While Indigenous mobilisation is certainly not new, it was spurred in recent years by an urgent resistance to a government openly attacking Indigenous peoples and their rights. With the new Lula-led government, the relationship has changed. Many of these outsider voices were incorporated into the new ministry as well as into the Indigenous Affairs Agency (Funai), for the first time also led by an indigenous person: former federal deputy Joenia Wapichana. While such proximity can and will bring its own set of challenges, this is a unique chance to advance a reformist agenda from within, and Indigenous women like Guajajara and Wapichana are acutely aware of what this narrow window of opportunity means. The road to securing Indigenous land rights, and the Indigenous agenda more broadly, is a long and rocky one. The good news is that, working from outside or inside the State, the Indigenous spring in Brazil and its pressure to implement the long-awaited, unfulfilled Indigenous agenda in Brazil is here to stay.

Laura Trajber Waisbich

Laura is a Brazil-born political scientist and international relations expert working on issues related to foreign policy, international development cooperation, policy transfer, citizen participation in policymaking, state-society relations, open government, and human rights.

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