Brazil’s Minister of Indigenous Peoples on Land Rights, the Climate Emergency and Empowering Women

Brazil’s Minister of Indigenous Peoples on Land Rights, the Climate Emergency and Empowering Women

It’s been a busy few weeks for Sônia Guajajara. When Brazil’s first ever minister of Indigenous peoples met with TIME in September, she was speaking on a panel at iconic London private members club Annabel’s alongside activist Txai Suruí, having just been in New York for Climate Week. The Indigenous Voices panel was facilitated by The Caring Family Foundation, a big backer of reforestation efforts in Brazil.

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Guajajara, 49, appeared rejuvenated by the biggest win for Indigenous rights since her appointment in January by Brazil’s President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. In September, nine of 11 justices on Brazil’s supreme court voted to block efforts to place a time restriction on Indigenous peoples’ claim to ancestral lands. “Marco temporal” (time marker) is an agribusiness-backed notion that would require groups to prove they physically occupied lands up until Oct, 5. 1988 to stake a legal claim to it.

Speaking before attendees, Guajajara described the landmark ruling as a huge victory. “The Brazilian Supreme Court decided against this thesis of the time frame ruling. A thesis that was very frightening to us,” said Guajajara. “It was an attempt to prevent the demarcation of Indigenous lands in Brazil,” she added, referring to the process by which protective boundaries are laid out in the rainforest to prevent illegal logging. 

Days after the event in London, Brazil’s Senate moved to approve the bill anyway, and on Oct. 20 the President used his veto on core aspects of the bill.

“President Lula is very much on the side of Indigenous peoples’ rights,” says Guajajara. “Now, instead of going back we can move forward.”

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It’s a stark difference to Brazil’s path under the previous administration. Within eight months of her historic appointment, Guajajara says, her ministry was able to sign and demark more land than in the past 8 years, which included right-wing former President Jair Bolsonaro’s four year term. Guajajara also noted that tackling illegal cattle farming and gold mining are an essential part of the climate emergency. “It’s not enough just to protect, we have to return to the forest everything we took from it,” she told attendees. This includes the protection of the Yanomami peoples who are facing a humanitarian and health crisis which has left many, including young people, susceptible to disease. The indigenous reserve the Yanomami population live on—located between Brazil and Venezuela—has long been a target for illegal gold miners, which led to soaring malaria rates. It has also left the Yanomami culture and way of life at risk.

Guajajara’s career is defined by a number of remarkable firsts. Born to illiterate parents on Araribóia land in the Amazon, in the northeastern Brazilian state of Maranhão, Guajajara left her city to study and earned a degree in literature and nursing. Since then, she became a symbol of resistance against the oppression of Indigenous people, and in 2018, she became the first Indigenous woman in Brazil to appear on a presidential ticket. 

Guajajara spoke to TIME through a translator about the new ministry’s progress so far, and what her priorities are looking ahead. 

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

You were appointed Brazil’s first-ever minister for Indigenous peoples at the start of this year. What did this milestone mean to you and what are your priorities in this role?

Being minister is a great opportunity for the Indigenous peoples to really participate in political debate but also it’s also a window into being open to break with preconceived ideas, with prejudice, and to be able to help. In terms of priorities, first of all to secure the territories of the Indigenous people. To protect the territories as well as the environment, and to make sure that there is security for the Indigenous peoples within the territories and to manage the practices that we already have in place.

What has it meant to Indigenous communities to see increased representation at a political level?

Today we have the maximum possible representation that we could have wished for in the instances of power. And I really feel that this recognition that people speak about and believe in it. So this creates good expectations in terms of actually being able to implement all rights.

Has it been a fight for you and other Indigenous figures to be taken seriously in political spheres? Do such barriers still exist?

These sort of barriers to Indigenous participation have always historically existed and we are working on taking them down and increasing participation in different spaces. But it doesn’t mean that it’s easy, there’s still a lot of resistance and lack of understanding, particularly by the decision makers. The participation process is a struggle, it still encounters a lot of resistance. A lot of people don’t understand the importance of Indigenous peoples as an alternative as a solution to the climate crisis. We may have a ministry in Brazil, but not all countries do. We’re trying to work towards that as well—to have a role in other parts of the world—so that we can really drive home the importance of Indigenous peoples and territories as a solution for the climate crisis.

As we know, you’re connected with the Caring Foundation, what role does outreach with wider organizations play in your work?

This sort of support is very important for actions in civil society as a whole and also for the Indigenous movements. And it means that actions that are right on the front line can be supported. The villages can be supported and this is seemingly like a small amount of support, but that can make a real direct difference.

What is the new ministry doing to raise awareness and address the human cost of the climate crisis?

We’re really promoting a core amongst Indigenous women, and getting Indigenous women to organize and mobilize to really provide elements to the fight against climate change. We’re seeing a lot of sort of protagonism in this regard, but also amongst the youth. And we’re carrying on with this debate, as well, within the context of Congress, and really clarifying and informing society about the cost of the climate crisis to all of us. 

Can you tell me about the public health emergency affecting the Yanomami peoples?

The Yanomami were in a various serious state in terms of their health crisis, not just because of the lack of support, but also because of the invasion by illegal miners, the gold prospectors. This has resulted in grave damage to the waters in the territory because now they’re contaminated with mercury.

We had a public health system specifically geared towards Indigenous peoples, but there wasn’t enough of a budget in order to ensure healthcare for them. So what happened a lot of the time was that Indigenous peoples were going into the cities to seek health care, and then not being able to come back. So we’re working in order to improve the budget and make sure that it’s sufficient for this to actually work. 

We are constantly carrying out actions to promote health and assist them in any way we can. We have laws that forbid the entry of other people to Indigenous lands. There is no [legal] permission for mining and no permission for gold prospecting [but] it’s being done. 

From the use of radioisotopes to monitoring drones, what role is technology playing in the protection of the Amazon?

There’s a lot of roles that technology plays, and we are actually working in tandem with the Ministry of Communications to ensure Internet access in all the different villages. This helps with monitoring the territories, denouncing invasions, and it helps with distributing information. So information technology is very important for monitoring and protecting the territory in general. 

What is the legacy of the Bolsonaro administration, particularly as it pertains to the treatment of Indigenous peoples, and what has changed since Lula’s appointment?

The legacy of Bolsonaro was tragic. Tragic, not just for us, but for the environment and human rights. It was an administration that incited hatred, violence, attacks, and invasions in Indigenous territories. And what we’re seeing now is a change in monitoring and inspection of territories. There has been a 46% reduction in deforestation until the end of the month of July, in the Amazon in particular. So this is just during this administration, and demarcations of Indigenous lands have already moved forward in the Lula government. So in eight months, we’ve achieved the equivalent of what we could achieve perhaps in eight years. So it’s, it’s really moving forward. We’ve been trying to work out a better budget for health care and a couple of different initiatives have been restarted. We now have a national policy for territorial environmental management. And we also have a national Indigenous Council and these are spaces in which we can move forward within an Indigenous policy.

How has the threat of violence and other barriers prevented effective reporting on the human and environmental issues facing the Brazilian Amazon and its communities?

Obviously the threat of violence caused a lot of fear. So people were making less complaints and manifesting themselves a lot less. People sometimes complain but they didn’t have the courage to take it forward because of reprisals and the repression that was taking place. So the number of complaints massively dropped and now it’s really shot up but it’s not because there’s been more violence or more illegal activity—it’s been because there’s an environment now where this can be made.

[Murdered journalist] Dom Phillips and [Indigenous expert] Bruno Pereira, they had suffered threats already. But they are only a couple amongst a number of people who were forbidden from speaking out, and now people feel more at liberty to speak because that’s what democracy is. There’s a bigger environment for opposition and for other points of view, so it may seem that things have got worse because, in terms of complaints, the number has gone up but it’s really a result of just having more freedom because we have just gone through a very dangerous period.

Looking forward then what are your hopes and aims for COP this year?

We’re working on a process with COP30 [which will be hosted by Belem, Brazil in 2025] in mind, and we want to really increase Indigenous participation in decision making spaces. But we particularly want to increase the participation of women thinking specifically of the COP 28 [this year] in Dubai. Next year, we would also like to hold a women’s meeting—including women from several different parts of the world—and to hold a pre-COP debate on Sept. 5, 2024. This would be for women, by women, and in preparation of a greater call by Indigenous women to have to have a debate with women from all over the world for COP30. 

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