The activist for native peoples says she will work to overturn the ‘catastrophic legacy’ from Jair Bolsonaro’s presidency

Sônia Guajajara, Indigenous activist, has vowed to tackle the Amazon devastation and violence.
Sônia Guajajara, Indigenous activist, has vowed to tackle the Amazon devastation and violence. Photograph: Nariman El-Mofty/AP

The activist tipped to become Brazil’s first-ever minister for native peoples has vowed to make the demarcation of Indigenous lands and the battle against environmental crime top priorities in an attempt to overcome Jair Bolsonaro’s “catastrophic legacy” of Amazon devastation and violence.

Sônia Guajajara, a key member of Brazil’s burgeoning Indigenous rights movement, is widely expected to be named head of the ministry, which president-elect Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva promised to create during his campaign.

BRAZIL-POLITICS-INDIGENOUS-DEMONSTRATION-LAND-DEMARCATION<br>An indigenous woman from the Pataxo tribe is seen during a demonstration for the demarcation of indigenous land in Brasilia, on September 8, 2021. - The Supreme Federal Court of Brazil (STF) resumes this Wednesday a trial that could put in check hundreds of indigenous lands pending demarcation in the country. (Photo by CARL DE SOUZA / AFP) (Photo by CARL DE SOUZA/AFP via Getty Images)

Lula’s pledge was a response to the ferocious assault Indigenous communities have endured since president Bolsonaro took power in 2019 and began pulverizing environmental and Indigenous protections.

Speaking during a visit to the Amazon, Guajajara said Lula’s planned ministry would be part of a “historic reparation” to Brazil’s 900,000 Indigenous people, whose ancestors suffered centuries of deadly violence, discrimination and neglect after European explorers reached their shores in 1500.

“This is a historic moment,” Guajajara said, noting how Brazil had never before had a ministry dedicated to its Indigenous citizens – let alone run by them.

“We receive all these plaudits for our role in protecting the environment during election campaigns or from governments. But it never goes beyond praise. We’ve never actually been invited to actively take part in governing. This is the first time,” the 48-year-old activist said.

As head of Brazil’s largest Indigenous organisation, Apib, Guajajara has spent the last four years on the front-line of the battle against Bolsonaro, organizing protest camps in the capital, Brasília, and denouncing the right-wing populist’s policies around the world.

“Bolsonaro’s election was a complete tragedy for Brazil and for us Indigenous people,” Guajajara said while visiting Roraima state to witness the havoc wreaked on the Yanomami territory by thousands of wildcat gold-miners. “We’ve seen four years of utter insecurity and absolute turmoil.”

But Guajajara – whose struggle earned her a place on Time magazine’s 2022 list of the world’s most influential people – said Brazil’s Indigenous movement had flourished in response to Bolsonaro’s onslaught.

A woman in an elaborate feather headdress stands for a portrait.
Sônia Guajajara recently visited Yanomami territory to see the destruction from wildcat gold-miners there. Photograph: Valentina Ricardo

“From the outset Bolsonaro decided to pick a fight with Indigenous people … but we stood firm,” she said. “The more he attacked us, the more visible our struggle became. Everything he did to try to destroy us, only helped us advance.”

In October, Guajajara was one of two Indigenous women elected to Brazil’s largely white, male congress in an election that boasted a record number of Indigenous candidates. The activist hailed those successes as a major advance for the 307 different Indigenous groups the new ministry will represent.

“We’re talking about democracy – and it’s only real democracy if the diversity of all of Brazil’s peoples and culture are present. Otherwise, it’s just a replay of the chauvinist and racist colonialism of the past,” she said.

Guajajara has firsthand experience of the war on nature and Indigenous rights that has unfolded since the dictatorship began bulldozing highways through the Amazon in the 1960s.

She was born in Maranhão state’s Araribóia territory in 1974 and saw the region’s forests obliterated as she grew up in a village called Lagoa Quieta (Tranquil Lake).

“The Araribóia I once knew was a place of towering trees. But I spent my whole childhood watching logging trucks go by – sometimes 40 trucks a day, piled high with Brazilian walnut, cedar, redwood and cherrywood,” Guajajara remembered. “Today, the Araribóia has lost 60% of its native vegetation.”

After four years of devastation, Guajajara believed Brazil would enter a new era of hope after the 1 January inauguration of Lula, who was president from 2003 to 2010.

Guajajara believed the incoming administration and its security forces needed to launch a “forceful government intervention” to protect Indigenous territories such as the Javari Valley, where the British journalist Dom Phillips was murdered last June with the Indigenous expert Bruno Pereira.

The sun sets along the banks of the Amazon river.

“They were killed simply for being friends of the Indigenous … and the situation there hasn’t improved … On the contrary, the persecution and the violence continues.”

However, Guajajara said her upbringing had taught her that repression alone would not halt the destruction. The loggers who wrecked the Araribóia were “merely workers trying to support their families”. Social policies were needed to help impoverished miners and chainsaw operators destroying Indigenous territories, alongside punishment for their powerful criminal bosses, she said.

The new government also needed to restart the process of demarcating indigenous territories – something that completely halted under Bolsonaro, who fulfilled an election promise not to protect a single centimetre of Indigenous land.

Members of Lula’s transition team have identified 13 territories they want fully demarcated in his government’s first 100 days: five in the Amazon, five in the northeast and three in the south.

Guajajara accepted Lula’s government – which was elected thanks to an ideologically-diverse coalition of anti-Bolsonaro forces, not all sympathetic to Indigenous or environmental issues – faced a tough battle.

However, she said she believed Brazil and its Indigenous communities had turned a corner after staring into an authoritarian abyss under Bolsonaro.

“This is a huge challenge, but it’s also a huge opportunity for us Indigenous,” she said of the new ministry. “This is the result of many years of struggle.”