By Amanda Perobelli and Pilar Olivares
SAO PAULO (Reuters) – A record number of indigenous leaders, most of them women, are running for federal office in next month’s elections in Brazil, in response to President Jair Bolsonaro’s policies.
As the destruction of the Amazon rainforest, invasions of indigenous lands and violence against their peoples have increased under Bolsonaro, several of these candidates say they are joining the political struggle with a sense of urgency.
“This election is crucial,” said Sonia Guajajara, head of Brazil’s main indigenous umbrella organization, the Articulation of Indigenous Peoples of Brazil (APIB), which is running for Congress. “Today, it is the women who are fighting and leading the struggle of the indigenous people of Brazil.”
Brazil’s electoral authorities have registered 60 indigenous candidates for the two houses of Congress this year, including 31 women – the most registered.
Many say their main aim is to end Bolsonaro’s policies, which have stopped demarcating indigenous territory and pushed for mining and industrial farming on existing reserves, encouraging violent land grabs and illegal miners.
Bolsonaro says indigenous people should adopt the customs and economic activities of their fellow Brazilians and has labeled the protection of indigenous reserves as a barrier to progress.
His office and the federal indigenous agency FUNAI did not respond to requests for comment.
By contrast, Bolsonaro’s left-wing rival, former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, has pledged new funding to curb deforestation and protect indigenous rights.
“We want a ministry with an indigenous minister to be part of a possible Lula government,” Guajajara told Reuters.
Indigenous leaders are also pushing to block legislation backed by Bolsonaro and the powerful ranch caucus to exclude new reserves on land not occupied by indigenous people in 1988, when Brazil’s constitution was ratified. Indigenous people say policies are illegal because their land rights are guaranteed by the constitution, even if they were evicted.
“This ‘TUSEN policy’ is how the government will hand over our land to be destroyed by illegal mining, logging, land grabs and agribusiness,” said Tereza Arapium, who is running for a seat in Rio de Janeiro’s legislature.
Deforestation of the Brazilian Amazon has reached a 15-year peak under Bolsonaro, threatening the habitat of many of Brazil’s 300 or so tribes, considered essential by environmentalists to protect the rainforest.
“Environmental activism is what we already do, it is our way of life. We are the environment,” said Celia Xakriaba, who is running for Congress from Minas Gerais state.
Another priority cited by indigenous candidates is to reform institutions intended to protect their peoples and territories, along with rainforest biodiversity.
They say FUNAI should be reinstated after Bolsonaro gutted the agency by cutting staff and replacing anthropologists with police and former military officers.
Brazil’s first indigenous congressman, Mario Juruna, a member of the Xavante tribe, was elected in 1982. He had a tape recorder with him because he said he didn’t trust the word of non-native Brazilians. Four decades passed before the election of another indigenous representative to Congress – a woman, Yunia Wapichana, from Roraima State.
In recent years, women have become increasingly common in tribal leadership roles, with more female leaders fighting to defend their rights.
“I strongly believe in the power of women to be elected and to raise our voices in Congress,” said Vanda Witoto, who ran for Congress from Manaus, the largest city in the Amazon.
They face a major challenge in a lower house where agricultural interests and a large evangelical caucus hold sway, often attacking indigenous rights, she said.
“If elected, we will have a mammoth task of trying to stop bills that would open up our territories to mining and agribusiness. We intend to face them,” Witoto said.
(Reporting by Amanda Perobelli and Leonardo Benassatto in Sao Paulo, Pilar Olivares in Rio de Janeiro and Bruno Kelly in Manaus; Written by Anthony Boadle; Editing by Daniel Wallis)