Protecting The Environment Means Protecting Indigenous Peoples, Says Sonia Guajajara

Guajajara promises to keep fighting against the marco temporal' thesis at the Brazils Supreme Court, and to take the indigenous lands rights agenda to COP26

Cristiane Fontes Marcelo Leite
São Paulo y Oxford

Sonia Guajajara, 47, leader from the Arariboia Indigenous Land, in Maranhão, has a degree both in Languages and in Nursing, with specialisation in special-needs education. She was one of the leaders involved in the People's Summit at the Rio+20 Conference, as well as the first indigenous person to run for vice-president of Brazil, in 2018. Sonia sits in the Executive Coordination of both APIB (Articulation of Indigenous Peoples of Brazil) and ANMIGA (National Articulation of Ancestral Warriors Women).

In this interview with Folha, Sonia Guajajara says that the indigenous people are not going to give up their lands and that they will return to Brasília to pressure Brazil ‘s Supreme Court (STF) on indigenous lands ruling. Apib will also take the issue of demarcation of indigenous territories to COP-26, in Glasgow, in order to gain more support for their cause.

The marco temporal (time framework) thesis to be ruled by the Supreme Court goes beyond the constitutional text and posits that indigenous peoples are only entitled to the lands they physically occupied at the time of the 1988 Federal Constitution— which would ignore the history of expulsions and violence against different peoples. Ruralistas (big landowners, farmers and cattle ranchers) claim that the rule would bring legal uncertainty.

Sonia Guajajara also talks about the possibility of running for elections in 2022, the proximity of the indigenous movement to left-wing parties and about domestic violence. “It is a reality among various peoples, in many territories, and t is growing among the Guarani Kaiowá."

Folha — The Struggle for Life was the largest indigenous mobilisation since the 1988 Constitutional Assembly. It drew the attention of a part of Brazilian population not only due to the struggle for indigenous land rights, but also to the fight against Bolsonarism and to the protection of life and human diversity. How do you assess the evolution of the indigenous movement since Rio+20?

Sonia Guajajara — At Rio+20, we managed to approve the PNGATI [National Policy for Territorial and Environmental Management of Indigenous Lands], still during President Dilma Rousseff’s administration. For us, it was a very important step. We managed to gather around 1,100 indigenous leaders for the occasion, transferring the Free Land Camp (ATL — Acampamento Terra Livre) to Rio de Janeiro. Since then, we have seen more and more people taking part in our indigenous camps in Brasília, and this year we achieved our biggest mobilisation ever since the redemocratisation process.

Now we were holding a camp to put pressure on the Supreme Court as they are discussing the time framework thesis (marco temporal). We gained more visibility, so that the national and international communities may understand what is happening. We will continue to challenge Bolsonaro on everything he has been doing against the rights of indigenous peoples, the social rights of the Brazilian population, and environmental rights. We understand that it is a collective struggle, not only for us, but for everyone who cares about our future generations. We are also fighting to ensure that we can live in the present, and not just survive.

Folha — Now that the Supreme Court has deferred its ruling on marco temporal, what are the indigenous movement’s priorities and strategy to sustain this mobilisation?

Sonia — In addition to marco temporal, we are also challenging other bills of law, such as PL 490, which has been approved by the Constitution and Justice Committee at the Chamber of Deputies, and could be submitted to the plenary at any moment, before going to the Senate; PL 191, which aims to allow mining activities on indigenous land; and PL 2633, also known as the Land-Grabbing Act, which has been green-lighted at the Chamber, and has now been submitted to the Senate.

We will be back in Brasília in October, the anniversary of our 1988 Constitution. On the occasion, we will be joining indigenous and quilombola [people living in settlements established by fugitive enslaved blacks] students to fight for their rights to higher education and following up on the bills under discussion at the Congress. For November, we are planning another major action, and preparing our delegation for COP26 in Glasgow.

FOLHA — Agribusiness representatives claim that some lands that were placed on the real estate market by the State, and were acquired in good faith by their current owners. They argue that any decision contrary to marco temporal would generate a lot of legal uncertainty among farmers. How do you respond to this?

Sonia Ruralistas have always tried to challenge indigenous land rights. Their claim that rejecting marco temporal would lead to legal uncertainty is a fallacy. Legal uncertainty is what we are experiencing now, with more than 400 indigenous lands without any action from the State, and another 400 already with surveys required for the demarcation process, but which the State took the political decision not to conclude. This legal uncertainty has been the cause of many conflicts.

If the proposed time framework is approved, these conflicts will increase even more, because indigenous peoples will not give up their land. These lands that they talk so much about were formally handed over by the State during the military dictatorship. The Brazilian State did that, with all its supporters, including agribusiness, real estate developers, and farmers.

FOLHA — According to the 1988 Constitution, all indigenous lands should have been demarcated by 1993, five years after its enactment, but that never happened. If the Supreme Court rules against marco temporal, what would be the most urgent measures for the Brazil to finally fulfil its constitutional obligation?

Sonia — The State insists that almost 14 per cent of the whole Brazilian territory is already indigenous land, and the ruralista caucus keeps stressing this point — as if it were a very high percentage. It is important to make it clear that most of this area (97 per cent of those 13 per cent) are in the Amazon; and even those 97 per cent are under constant threat of illegal exploitation, invasion, conflicts. In other words, these areas also need an effective protection policy.

The other regions in the country have a huge backlog of lands to be demarcated — only 3 per cent whose demarcation processes have been completed. This does not mean that after demarcating all these lands in demand this number will double to 26%, as they insist. These pending areas in other regions are much smaller.

FOLHA — What do you mean when you say that “Brazil is indigenous land”?

Sonia — Brazil is indigenous land because we are native peoples: we have been looking after this country, we have fought for it, and for the maintenance of our six biomes. There is a lot of talk about protecting the Amazon, which is, of course, the largest tropical forest in the world — but we also need to consider the Cerrado and the Atlantic Forest, which are equally threatened. Caatinga, Pantanal, Pampas: they all need protection.

Currently, all areas that are not indigenous lands are under threat in Brazil. All you have to do is compare indigenous lands that have been demarcated, or that are inhabited by indigenous peoples, with other public lands. And actually, when you compare our lands with private land, the difference is even greater.

We are experiencing a climate emergency, and we have to understand how urgent it is to protect the environment. Here in Brazil, protecting the environment means protecting the livelihoods of indigenous peoples.

FOLHA — How do you explain the fact that a large number of urban Brazilians, including many people who live in very precarious conditions, see the struggle for indigenous land rights as a privilege that is not guaranteed to those that are not Native Brazilians?

Sonia— There is lot of ignorance and misinformation among the population. Many people don't even know that there are indigenous groups all over Brazil, or they think all indigenous Brazilians live in the Amazon. Schools are not prepared to talk about native peoples, or about quilombolas.

We need to invest in our educational system to show our history from the perspective of our indigenous peoples. We already have many Native Brazilian writers who are spreading the true story beyond what has been reported by colonisers.

FOLHA — What is in APIB’s agenda for COP26 in Glasgow?

Sonia — We will continue to focus on the urgency of demarcating indigenous territories. Another important topic is the need for Brazil to develop an effective environmental protection policy. Because [emissions reduction] national targets were presented, but what is going on here goes against what we need to reduce the climate change impacts.

It is necessary to enforce the laws that we already have. Environmental legislation in Brazil is under threat— there are currently over 200 bills in the National Congress that aim at introducing more flexible provisions. It is necessary to ensure that we have in place an environmental legislation that may reduce, and eventually end deforestation in Brazil.

FOLHA — Some people make a negative association between the indigenous peoples agenda and the left, including the PT [Lula’s Workers Party], or other left-wing, or progressive parties. How can you expand support for the indigenous cause in the face of current political polarisation in Brazil?

Sonia — It is absurd to try to reduce and label indigenous peoples and their rights simply as left-wing, and link us to PT or leftist leaders. Nevertheless, the indigenous movement is closer to left-wing parties because they are closer to our struggles. They support our agenda. There is no way for us to side up with right-wing parties, which are fighting against our interests, and always side with our enemies.

FOLHA — Is it true that you might leave PSOL to join the PT?

Sonia— We have talked about it, but no decision has been taken yet. I haven't even decided if I'm going to run in 2022.

FOLHA — Have you had an opportunity to talk with PSOL or PT leaders about the so-called neo-developmentalism in the Amazon, which led, for example, during the Dilma Rousseff’s administration, to the construction of the Belo Monte hydroelectric powerplant in the Amazon, and all its impacts?

Sonia — This is exactly where many sensitivities lie when we consider joining the PT, or indeed any other political party that shares this developmental vision. We experienced many contradictory situations during the PT administrations. Belo Monte is a clear example of this. The hydroelectric powerplants on the Tapajós, the Madeira, and the Xingu are examples of our differences of opinion with Dilma’s government.

Still, we cannot forget how much the PT did in terms of affirmative actions and policies, including student racial quotas and housing policies. We benefitted from many of these programs and policies. But this neo-developmentalism approach to the Amazon makes us wonder: what would be different in a new PT administration? Lula has already made it clear that, if he were to be elected again, he would never take a decision without consulting indigenous peoples. We want to believe that this is true.

FOLHA — And on the carbon market, where does APIB stand? Could it be another source of income?

Sonia — The carbon market is yet to be regulated in Brazil. Firstly, I think there needs to be more information, much more information about what it means, what it represents, and what it's worth. We need some sort of assurance that it is not just another way to take control of indigenous territories. The carbon market may be an alternative, but only if it is properly discussed and regulated, and only if it is ruled by well-designed agreements establishing what is allowed and what risks it may entail.

FOLHA — You stood together with the Guarani-Kaiowá women during the Struggle for Life event. What are their main demands now?

Sonia — Land, food sovereignty, and fighting domestic violence. This issue of domestic violence is a reality among many people and territories, and it keeps growing among the Guarani-Kaiowá.