Meet the woman breaking traditions, stepping into the spotlight to oppose President Jair Bolsonaro’s government
By Elisângela Mendonça
“We fight not only for our rights. We fight for our right to exist,” said the 45-year-old, five-foot-tall woman wearing earrings decorated with long, brightly-coloured feathers. Her friendly face and soft voice may at first disguise the powerhouse she is. Sônia Bone Guajajara is Brazil’s foremost indigenous leader, a tireless spokesperson for the movement at home and abroad.
She is breaking the traditions of indigenous cultures, which excluded women from leadership roles. Her position on the frontline to protect Brazil’s native homelands points to a shift taking place in the country, with more prominent women in public life.
The indigenous political struggle has gained more visibility recently. In Brazil’s last elections, Joênia Wapichana became the first indigenous woman elected to the Brazilian Congress.
A mother of three, Guajajara ran as a vice-presidential candidate – another first for an indigenous woman. Today, she is the head of the National Articulation of the Indigenous Peoples of Brazil (APIB), which represents 305 Brazilian indigenous groups.
Brazil is home to 900,000 natives, or 0.4 per cent of the country’s population. Their rights to ancestral lands were enshrined in Brazil’s 1988 constitution, including the demarcation and protection of territories.
Despite this, indigenous territories are regularly taken over by powerful agri-business and mining companies. Guajajara is steadfastly pushing back against their attacks on indigenous rights.
Raised in an indigenous village in the forests of Maranhão state in north-eastern Brazil, Guajajara’s parents were rural workers. Her childhood was connected to nature. Drinking water directly from the nearby river was part of daily life.
Things started to change when she was 15 years old. That is when she received a scholarship to study in another city. She still worked odd jobs to fund her education, including being a maid.
She managed to go to university and became a linguistics specialist. On returning to her village, she witnessed considerable violence against her people and decided to act.
She was soon seen in Brazil’s congress, advocating in favour of indigenous people and the protection of the Amazon. Her firmness and resilience attracted international attention.
Today, she is often invited to promote her cause around the world. In events such as Brazil Forum UK, a conference held at the University of Oxford in May, she emphasised the danger that mining and agri-business represent for indigenous life.
These appointments are part of her routine now. One day she is at a United Nations’ forum, warning the world about President Jair Bolsonaro’s plans to authorise mining and agricultural production in reservations, allowing even more deforestation in the Amazon rainforest. The following day, Guajajara is spotted back in the country’s capital, Brasília, holding hands with indigenous people as 4,000 attend a yearly camp-out to protest the delay in the demarcation process.
She proudly adopted the name of her people – Guajajara – as a surname. Guajajaras are known as warriors, a fitting name for someone who challenges powerful enemies.
But when asked if she is a feminist, she frowns and says she does not see herself represented by the concept of feminism we have today “because it is very white and urban”.
She explains that for indigenous women, their responsibility is towards their people, regardless of gender. “Historically, we have always been told that we didn’t belong to some places. By the time we realised this is an imposed cultural idea, we started to break limits,” Guajajara said.
Professor Lauriene Seraguza, a researcher in Gender in Indigenous Cultures at the University of São Paulo, believes the threats indigenous people have faced, especially in recent years, force women like Guajajara to react because they know the future is at stake.
“It seems to me that indigenous women have a better perception of when life is in danger. Fighting for their people does not seem to be a change in tradition but the tradition itself,” she said.
Guajajara has been an activist for two decades and sees the current moment as one of the most dangerous for indigenous rights in history. “After more than 500 years, our main agenda is still the fight for our territories. Now with Bolsonaro’s government, the land demarcation situation has been highly aggravated. We need to be stronger than ever.”
Bolsonaro, who infamously likened indigenous peoples living on protected territories to “animals in zoos”, pledged during his campaign that he would not give away a single centimetre of land to them if he were elected. He is committed to keeping his promises – he is the first president to openly and vocally attack the minority group’s land rights.
On his first day of office in January, he transferred the authority to protect indigenous lands from Brazil’s National Indian Foundation (FUNAI) to the Ministry of Agriculture, offering a victory to the agri-business sector that backed his campaign.
But the resistance of several indigenous leaders, such as Guajajara and other progressive members of Congress, reversed the decision in May. Now, the demarcation process is threatened again: Bolsonaro signed a decree on 20th of June putting the Agriculture Ministry in charge and ignoring the Congress’ decision.
The institutional attack on indigenous rights has fuelled violence in rural areas. The Indigenous Missionary Council (CIMI) reported a 150 per cent increase in land invasions from last October – when Bolsonaro won the presidential election – to March.
Lands have been historically under dispute throughout the country. The latest report on violence against indigenous people shows that 110 were killed in 2017, mostly involved in land disputes.
Bolsonaro is not the only one to bear responsibility, Guajajara says. The European Union, Brazil’s second-biggest trading partner, cannot turn a blind eye anymore. The activist believes the EU is well placed to exert pressure, such as trading sanctions that could act as a brake on Bolsonaro.
“We are urging society for responsible consumption. The EU must boycott products from conflict areas such as soya and beef,” Guajajara said, highlighting these significant drivers of deforestation in Brazil.
Her organisation, APIB, is currently mapping and listing companies that source their material from areas riven by conflict and deforestation. The document is expected to be delivered to the European Parliament in September.