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Interviews - issue #7

Be the Revolution

An interview with Sônia Guajajara

Brazilian Indigenous activist, environmentalist, and politician, Sônia Guajajara was born in 1974 on Terra Indígena Araribóia (Araribóia Indigenous Land). There was no local secondary school, but she decided at a young age that she wanted an education, and her parents, who were not educated themselves, supported her ambition. When she was 10 years old she went away to school, returning during the summer and winter holidays to help her parents on their roça (smallholding), and at 15 she attended the Caio Martins Education Foundation, an agricultural college in Minas Gerais, where she was the only student from an Indigenous background. She continued her studies at the Federal University of Maranhão, going on to gain a master’s degree in culture and society from the Institute of Humanities, Arts, and Culture at the Federal University of Bahia. Following graduation, Guajajara worked in a variety of professions, including as a teacher and as a nurse.

She became involved in her community and local politics at an early age, attending village meetings and grounding her life in the rituals and culture of her people and her ancestors.

In 2000 Guajajara joined the Partido dos Trabalhadores (the Worker’s Party or PT), the leftwing political party that ran Brazil from 2003 to 2016 under Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and Dilma Rousseff, before going on to run for the position of vice president in the 2018 elections as a member of the Partido Socialismo e Liberdade (The Socialism and Liberty Party or PSOL), the first Indigenous person to run for federal office in Brazil. She also joined the executive committee of the Articulação dos Povos Indígenas do Brasil (Articulation of the Indigenous Peoples of Brazil or APIB), which campaigns for the rights of Indigenous peoples.

Her election bid was unsuccessful, but she has continued to speak out on issues affecting Indigenous people. A court ruled in May this year that a police investigation into a documentary she made, which accused the government of president Jair Bolsonaro of genocide following its handling of the Covid crisis and the devastating impact it had on Indigenous people, should be suspended, with the judge ruling that the main purpose of the investigation was to silence critics of the federal government.

About 4,000 people from various ethnic groups gathered in Brasília to participate in the Acampamento Terra Livre, to defend the rights of Indigenous peoples. Representatives from the five regions of Brazil and from other countries linked to COICA (Coordination of the Indigenous Organisations of the Amazon Basin), the AMPB (Mesoamerican Alliance of Peoples and Forests) and AMAN (The Alliance of Indigenous Peoples of the Archipelago, Indonesia), alongside other organisations.

Luciane Pisani: Do you think you have inspired more Indigenous people to run for political office? What are your hopes for the next election in 2022?

Sônia Guajajara: My running for office was a surprise to a lot of people. People didn’t understand why there was an Indigenous person there because it was something new. But for us it was about visibility and to focus the public discussion on Indigenous rights and environmental issues, which have otherwise always come second or are not considered.

My presence there forced everyone to talk about the environment, to talk about Indigenous issues. The most important thing wasn’t the election result, but the political result. It was very significant for us. It improved people’s understanding of and engaged their interest in Indigenous people and it resulted in a range of people supporting the Indigenous cause.

Lots of people wanted to know more and are supporting Indigenous participation in elections. And many others, particularly women, come and say to me: “If you’re there we can be too. We also want to run.”

In last year’s district elections there were a lot of Indigenous people applying to be candidates. And people are already preparing for the next elections. It was really good to be in national politics but my deep feeling is that I want to engage more with the Indigenous movement, to raise awareness more widely, encourage more people, get more people to support our agenda. I keep thinking that political parties don’t fit our fight much. I would still run, but within a political party you end up limiting your performance a lot.

‘The Indigenous movement’s main model of struggle is the struggle for land, but we don’t just campaign for the right to land and the ratification of reserves, we also fight for the strengthening of Indigenous women’s rights.’

The 14th Terra Livre Camp took place at Praça dos Ipês, next to the National Theater in Brasília, from 24 to 28 April, 2017. In the background the iconic towers of the Congresso Nacional, the legislative body of Brazil’s federal government, loom over the proceedings.

LP: What space is there for women in the fight for Indigenous rights?

SG: The APIB is the largest Indigenous organisation in the country and every year in Brasilia we hold the main assembly, which we call the Acampamento Terra Livre (Free Earth Camp). We talk about defending rights, but it’s more than that, it’s about defending our lives. The Indigenous movement’s main model of struggle is the struggle for land, but we don’t just campaign for the right to land and the ratification of reserves, we also fight for the strengthening of Indigenous women’s rights. We aim to bring together and mobilise people and organisations across the country against threats and attacks on all Indigenous rights.

It’s not very common for women to be the leaders, but increasingly we’ve been on the front line. Women have always been there as advisors and guides, and even if we weren’t the ones making the decisions in the meetings, a lot of the time the decisions were already taken at home. We were always there somehow.

In recent years we have taken more leadership roles. This story that Indigenous women cannot participate, that it isn’t a part of the culture, is not true. This is a colonial inheritance. We can’t just accept the machoism in our territories with the excuse that it’s a part of our culture. It’s not. So now some of the biggest Indigenous leadership roles are taken by women. We have lots of women in charge.

View of the 2019 Acampamento Terra Livre protest camp. Debates, rituals, marches and demonstrations made up the activities.

LP: Brazil has suffered, and continues to suffer, many environmental harms. One such issue that you have spoken out about is the illegal mining in Yanomami territory. What is the situation?

SG: Illegal mining has increased under Bolsonaro. The miners feel supported by the president because he tells them he will regularise mining in Indigenous territories. He defends the mining so these people feel they have the support of the president and they invade.

There are an estimated 20,000 prospectors within the Yanomami territory. And then there was an attack in Palimiu village [earlier this year, in which miners raided an Indigenous village]. So, it goes on, doesn’t it? Deforestation only increases, every day. That’s our house being deforested, isn’t it? The animals die, the water dries, we don’t have the shelter. So deforestation also kills people.

And then there is agribusiness: the government wants to approve measures to give the territories over for large scale production. They are using the economic crisis as an excuse to produce more and export more. Agribusiness takes strength from this agenda to legalise its practice of exploiting the territories. So there’s the mining, the timber, the agribusiness, and the cattle - these are the main factors in the exploitation of the environment. When the multinationals come in with their machines, it’s over.

In May this year, Bolsonaro visited São Gabriel da Cachoeira in the state of Amazonas. It was Bolsonaro’s first visit to Indigenous territory. What was the significance of that visit for you?

This visit from Bolsonaro was so tragic. Firstly because he goes there in the middle of a pandemic. And Bolsonaro does not walk alone, he goes with a group of men. There’s a lot of people. So first there is the risk to the Yanomami who are there still looking for ways to protect themselves from the pandemic. Then he was trying to get us to use Chloroquine, [an anti-malarial medication that has been proven to have no benefit for hospitalised patients with severe Covid], saying that it was scientifically proven and that it’s better than the “jungle medicine” we use - disrespecting and twisting traditional Indigenous knowledge. Bolsonaro is a declared enemy [of Indigenous people] and is a dangerous person, not only for Brazil, but for the world. He wants to authorise all kinds of exploitation of the environment while removing any protection of human rights.

With the pandemic, we say it’s a war scenario where you try to seek refuge but you can’t, because the most protected place for us would be our territory. But we’re seeing with the pandemic the invasions and exploitations of the territories have only increased, and then the virus arrives. We feel so unprotected. We don’t have any place where we feel safe.

‘So there’s the mining, the timber, the agribusiness, and the cattle - these are the main factors in the exploitation of the environment.’

There were representatives from approximately 200 different Indigenous groups from all regions of Brazil at the 2017 Acampamento Terra Livre.

In response to an invitation made by the Lula Institute, indigenous leaders from different regions of the country met with former president Lula da Silva to discuss the main points of discussion coming from the Acampamento Terra Livre 2017.

During the 2019 Terra Livre camp Sônia Guajajara is greeted by Congresswoman Joênia Wapixana, the first Indigenous attorney and female deputy elected to the Brazilian National Congress.

LP: You were the subject of a police investigation after you criticised Bolsonaro’s handling of the pandemic. Do you agree with the judge that this was an attempt to silence dissent?

SG: Yes, the silencing practices here are getting more intense. They want to intimidate us, they want to make us afraid to talk, which is what is happening. [Indigenous environmentalist and political activist] Almir Surui and I were both under investigation. They also sent court summons to Indigenous leaders from the Atroari people. This government is working on a way to systematically criminalise Indigenous people.

FUNAI (Fundação Nacional do Índio - National Indian Foundation, a government agency) is an organisation that was there to protect Indigenous people, to defend and promote our rights, but now it is prosecuting those who oppose the government. All the leaders who don’t agree with the government’s policies are persecuted. And everyone who allies themselves with Indigenous people are considered enemies.

A demonstrator faces off in front of the police at the 2017 Acampamento Terra Livre.

Guilherme Boulos and Sônia Guajajara during their 2018 presidential campaign.

Sônia Guajajara among other Indigenous leaders at the camp.

LP: You have spoken about how the constitutional rights of Indigenous peoples are not just about demarcated lands, or the right to health and education, but that digital inclusion also plays an important part. Would you explain what you mean by that?

SG: Even today a lot of people question the way we deal with and communicate on social networks. The former environment minister shared one of my posts accompanied by a critical comment about the fact I was using an iPhone. And soon after that a congressman shared a post I’d made while criticising me for being live on a MacBook. His repost said: “Look at the apparatus of the coordinator of APIB. Where is this money to buy all this? How do you defend the environment and use these technologies?” So they want to provoke us all the time and paint us as wild Indigenous people, as though you’re only Indigenous if you’re primitive. They don’t want us to update ourselves. So we find ourselves having to defend our use of technology.

Last year, at the start of the pandemic, when everything stopped and no one knew what to do, we cancelled our annual Acampamento Terra Livre and we went on to create Terra Livre Online - the first social movement in Brazil, maybe in the world, to organise a meet online.

During our three-day conference we had over three million visits to our pages and there was a lot of public participation. We had our women’s assemblies and Indigenous resistance assembly. Through these we built a plan to confront the pandemic, which we called Maracá – Indigenous Emergency.

It got a lot of attention from the media, national and international artists got involved. The government attempted to criminalise the event, but didn’t succeed. We managed to make great connections and gatherings through social networks. Where before we talked about the demarcation of the lands, now we talk about demarcation of the screens - to occupy the networks. We have to be very careful with the internet in our villages so that we do not miss our connection with nature. But it’s essential to have access to be aware of what is happening, to communicate, to denounce and, in the time of the pandemic, to ask for help. You have to filter what you need to use, and what you have to exclude.

Caetano Veloso and Sônia Guajajara during the 2018 presidential campaign.

Sônia Guajajara is executive director of APIB which launched the campaign Indigenous Blood: Not a Single Drop More in 2019. Indigenous leaders travelled through 12 European countries denouncing the violations against indigenous peoples and the environment in Brazil.

LP: In the west we’ve been thinking so individualistically for so long, how can we begin to think more collectively? What do you think needs to change?

SG: We’re seeing this acceleration today - an acceleration of natural destruction and in the speed that people are able to buy products through the internet. This form of consumption needs to be rethought. Where do leather shoes come from? A lot of people don’t understand that it comes from a cow or from a place in the environment that was destroyed. Those luxury items like suitcases, shoes, and so on, come from a place that is violating human rights and destroying the environment. We need to break with the capitalist system urgently. It has already been demonstrated that it does not work. With capitalism our future is under threat.

The crisis that we are experiencing will only end when people start to have a more collective view of the world. Take our territory as an example. What is the difference between Indigenous territory and private land? It’s that the private land has one owner and our territory belongs to the people. What we have is for collective use, and when you use collectively you also use less and spend less.

It also has an effect on our diet. The land is increasingly under the control of big agribusiness, which promotes monocultures, and with that we’re losing a lot of the diversity of grains and of the foods that we eat. If you have nowhere to plant you end up having to buy at the supermarket. So, for me, healthy eating depends a lot on land reform to value family farming, agroecology, and for us Indigenous it is about creating roças.

The First March of Indigenous Women held at the 2019 Acampamento Terra Livre.

‘My presence there [in the 2018 elections] forced everyone to talk about the environment, to talk about Indigenous issues.’

LP: How do we begin that revolution?

SG: There’s a lot of people feeling powerless, not knowing what to do. A lot of people dying from Covid. And a lot of people dying not from Covid, but from a lack of resources and equipment, because of the lack of support structures and care. So remember those who died of the consequences of Covid, those people who are in depression and sadness. There are a lot of people dying of hopelessness.

We are living in a transition. It’s urgent for us to look at what’s going on and learn lessons - to think ahead. What do we do after this pandemic? People at this time have to have a lot of strength, have a lot of courage, a lot of creativity, and their minds are occupied by thinking about other people, worrying about other people. And if you think of other people you will see that there are a lot more people in need of help than you think. And sometimes you can help. Everyone has the ability to help others, regardless of what they have, but they have to have the thought. You have to look at each other to find the strength within you. I think if you think of the other it helps you too, doesn’t it?

So the answer is to acquire a new consciousness. We have spoken about the vaccine to cure the pandemic, but we also need to find a medicine to cure humanity – or the lack of humanity. If we cure the lack of humanity, we can heal the Earth. I’m starting a new initiative that I’m calling reflorestamente (reforesting the mind). To save the world you need to reforest your mind with love, affection, dreams, solidarity, and nature. You need to reforest your ideas and thoughts and review your own concepts about the world - this transformation of the world has to come from you. It’s important to put pressure on governments, we must keep pushing, but we can also help this situation as individuals.

https://apiboficial.org

https://emergenciaindigena.apiboficial.org

Nighttime at the 2019 Acampamento Terra Livre. The message reads: Justica – Chega de Genocídio (Justice – stop the genocide).

‘If we cure the lack of humanity, we can heal the Earth.’

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