Sônia Guajajara: Indigenous women in Brazil leading in the fight for justice (part 2)

As of June 18, Brazil is reporting 955,377 confirmed coronavirus infections and 45,510 Covid-19 deaths, second only to the United States and assumed to significantly undercount the real totals. Far-right President Jair Bolsonaro has stoked the pandemic by ridiculing social distancing, insisting on keeping Brazilian business open, and calling his supporters to take to the streets without masks. Bolsonaro regularly spouts racist, sexist, homophobic, and misogynist rhetoric. And he has taken special aim at indigenous peoples by opening up millions of acres of the Amazon rain forrest to private logging and ranching, leading to a string of murders of indigenous leaders. Meanwhile, the pandemic itself is killing indigenous people at alarmingly high rates, threatening geographically isolated indigenous tribes with genocide.

This interview with Sônia Guajajara, one of Brazil’s leading indigenous voices, was conducted by Fabiana Reinholz and Katia Marko of the Rio Grande do Sul branch of Brasil de Fato, one of Brazil’s leading independent media outlets launched in conjunction with the World Social Forum in Porto Alegre in 2003.

Translated by No Borders NewsPart 1 reviewed Guajajara’s activist history, Brazil’s failure to teach indigenous history in public schools, and her experience running for vice president in 2018. Part 2 takes up the movement against Bolsonaro.


Brasil de Fato: The extreme right is imposing its fascist, conservative agenda. How is this reflected in indigenous communities?

Sônia Guajajara: It is a very big concern. This conservatism is growing and growing everywhere. And we are not exempt from this whole process. Today, there are a very large number of indigenous people who come to the cities, who travels to the cities, who have access to communication, and who have more access to the internet. Of course, all of this ends up influencing a lot of people’s opinions where ever they may be.

We have two extreme situations at the moment, but I think they are on a parallel, because at the same time that conservatism is growing (even reaching the villages), we, indigenous women, are breaking many barriers and leaving these village spaces, and even occupying many external spaces. A great example of this was last year when we held the first March of Indigenous Women, which took place in the capital city, Brasilia. It was the first march of indigenous women in the world and its serving as an example to inspire other women from other continents, who also want to organize their own marches.

We marched to show that we are united, that we want to fight together, and that we refuse to endure Bolsonaro’s genocidal policies in silence. The march was a reaction to all these attacks and this creeping fascism.

The march was only possible because many other women have already overcome these barriers and are taking over positions of leadership. We have, in the Brazilian Amazon, Nara Baré, who was the first woman to assume the general coordination of the Coalition of Indigenous Organizations of the Brazilian Amazon (Coiab). That was a long struggle, 10 years. Coiab is 31 years old and it was only in 2017 that we managed to get a woman onto the general executive committee.

Here in Maranhão, in the last elections for the indigenous organization of our state, the Coalition of Organizations and Confederations of Indigenous Peoples of Maranhão (Coapimba), we elected three women and one man to the four-person coordinating committee. And that man was the secretary, precisely the role usually reserved for women if assumed any post in the leadership.

And in the last election held in February, we chose two men and two women, including a women as general coordinator and vice-coordinator the Confederation of Indigenous Peoples of Brazil (Apib).

The fact that these women are taking on various leadership roles (in conjunction with other women who play important roles in education, health, culture, and in the community itself) made it possible for us to carry out the march. And this motivated many women to come closer together, to strengthen our unity. All four or five thousand women who participated in the march all came back with this feeling that they would no longer be the same, and that we need to take no leadership.

So, on the one hand, conservatism is growing, but for us indigenous women, our time has come, and we are on the front lines.

BdF: We are also experiencing a setback with respect to rights won by indigenous people alongside major advances in mining in indigenous territories. How does Apib see this whole situation?

SG: It is really a very traumatic moment that we are living in, perhaps one of the worst moments in our entire history. Because in the middle of this health crisis, the pandemic that is frightening everyone so much, many people have shied away from the struggle, the fight to stop these unprecedented invasions into indigenous territories. And we have had to pause for a while because of the pandemic, because we must understand how to fight and control this new coronavirus.

But we are beginning to realize that we cannot stop all the other things we have been fighting for, because the invaders are not stopping, the rural parliamentary bloc that supports mining and ranching is not stopping. In fact, they want to take advantage of this moment to strengthen their alliances with all these sectors, including the timber industry, agribusiness, mining, etc. in order to pass laws beneficial to their allies.

At the same time, we must seek out means, measures, and strategies to avoid greater contamination of indigenous peoples by the coronavirus. We must remain constantly vigilant because all these attacks are underway, we must stop them from adding up to the extermination of indigenous peoples. While we are quarantining and following social distancing in the villages, in the territories, the invaders are working twenty-four hours a day.

We are seeing a huge increase in deforestation. The National Institute for Space Research (Inpe) demonstrated that from mid-March to mid-April there was a 29.9 percent increase in general deforestation (using satellite imaging). Worse, when you analyze the clearing of forests in indigenous lands, you see an increase of a little over 50 percent in deforestation compared to the same period last year. Today, there are 20,000 gold miners in the Yanomami indigenous land, in Roraima.

How do we remove these invaders? Because, of course, there is lot of concern about the destruction these invaders cause, as well as the risk of contamination, all of which are real vectors of contamination risk for indigenous peoples. We are facing a very serious moment in our history, it requires us to redouble our efforts to prevent a new genocide against our indigenous peoples.

BdF: What is the state of the pandemic in indigenous villages, how are they dealing with it?

SG: Everyone is feeling its presence; a lot of people are already suffering and many lives have been lost. We indigenous people are very distressed about how much it is spreading amongst our people.

I want to give you some updated figures now from a national committee for indigenous life and memory that we created recently. This committee is composed of indigenous leaders from the five regions of the country and volunteer employees who are helping to collect and systematize the data. It is absurd that the Special Secretariat for Indigenous Health (SESAI) is not accounting for all indigenous deaths, and even refuses to do so when presented with the information.

I want to highlight two things, one is the comparison of our data with that of SESAI. We insist that the Brazilian state officially recognize the data presented by the indigenous movement, it is impossible to ignore the situation as if everything were fine, as if so many haven’t died among the indigenous.

Here are the figures recorded by our committee. On June 6, we counted 236 deceased indigenous people, 2,390 infected, and 93 people whose health was affected. The SESAI is reporting just 79 deaths and 1,965 infected. The biggest danger and the most serious situation is in the Amazon region, and especially in the state of Amazonas, where the state is in collapse under the impact of the highest number of indigenous people’s deaths.

The SESAI initially refused to register indigenous people living in urban areas, those who do not currently live in the villages, but now we see that they are not registering anything, anywhere, because even when the Special Indigenous Sanitary District ( DISEI) reports a death, the case is not being reported in the SESAI bulletin. And what we know is that the SESAI secretary is advising DISEIS not to disclose this data, to declare publicly, until it is approved by the SESAI legal officer in Brasília.

It’s impossible to overstate how ridiculous this is. The SESAI is also advising DISEIS not to accept any kind of help from non-governmental organizations or the indigenous movement. Coiab organized an initiative here in the Amazon to help the Indigenous Health Assistance Houses (CASAIS), sending each of them a small amount for the purchase of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) for health professionals. However, some of these houses were saying that they could not accept the aid because of DISEI guidance. Now you can imagine what this represents, for us it means only one thing, the institutionalization of indigenous genocide. At this moment, it is totally unacceptable for them to refuse these partnerships.

The Kokama people in Amazonas are crying out for help. The first case of an infected indigenous person in Amazonas was that of a 20-year-old girl from the Kokama people, on March 25, who was infected by a doctor. The contagion then spread throughout the state.

If the Brazilian state or SESAI, had wanted, they could have set up sanitary barriers there from the beginning and prevented the pandemic’s proliferation. Yet, they did not do it then, they are not doing it today, and they do not want to do it in the future.

BdF: How do you see things changing after the pandemic? There are several debates about global developmental models. After all, this pandemic does not come out of nowhere, it is the result of a particular system, the way life is organized, a way of caring for, or neglecting, the planet. The indigenous leader Ailton Krenak says that we need less development and more involvement with human beings, with Mother Earth…

SG: Certainly, we have been saying for a long time. The world did not stop to listen to the warnings that the Earth had been giving for some time, so the Earth brought the world to a halt to make itself heard. So, this is exactly the time to discuss the lessons we can learn from this pandemic. A peoples’ solidarity network is growing. Many people who imagined that they were self-sufficient, that they can live in the city and depend only on what they buy at the supermarket, are beginning to understand that there comes a time when, even if you have money, you will not be able to buy what you need. This moment can be an opportunity for many people to understand why it is necessary to change their forms of consumption, that the more wildly you consume, the more you contribute to the degradation of the planet, towards the end of the planet.

People have to rethink their forms of consumption, they have to understand that individualism must come to an end, that we have to adopt collective ways of doing things, of strengthening our mutual networks. Principally, we must take on our responsibilities in the fight to the change the model of economic development. It is urgent to break with this economic model, and we indigenous people and environmentalists will not be able to create the pressure for this change to happen on our own. It will take much more involvement, much more engagement. We must communicate more openly to make this more possible. It is necessary for other social movements to take this up as their own cause, so that people really can conceive of a new society, more just, based on sisterhood and brotherhood, based on solidarity. For that, struggles must be more collective, they must raise their political and ecological consciousness, understanding that it is necessary to connect, or reconnect, to Mother Earth. We must understand clearly that Mother Earth guarantees sustenance and life on our planet.

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