Brazil at a Turning Point: “Never Again Without Us!” | Amazon Watch
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Brazil at a Turning Point: “Never Again Without Us!”

Brazil's Indigenous peoples take back the right to decide over their lives and territories under the Lula government

January 5, 2023 | Ana Carolina Alfinito, Camila Rossi, and Gabriela Sarmet | Eye on the Amazon

Credit: Mídia Ninja

Hand in hand with Brazil’s new president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, the great Indigenous leader Raoni Metuktire walked up the ramp of the Palácio do Planalto, the government’s headquarters, at Lula’s swearing-in ceremony on Sunday, January 1, 2023. Witnessing this memorable day brought profound joy to many of us Brazilians. Mixed feelings of relief, hope, and a sense of reparative justice took over Brasília, the country’s capital. For the first time, a government has put Indigenous peoples at the center, recognizing their ancestral right to decide over their lives and territories. 

Through this new government, our work may be more impactful. It is going to change the possibilities and strategies available to us and this movement to avert the Amazon tipping point. We have renewed faith that over Lula’s term, we will be able to slow down the pace of Amazon destruction with so many allies in power. The work will continue to be challenging, and we will need to maintain the pressure and support Indigenous communities to hold Lula accountable for making good faith efforts on his promises. The Brazilian congress remains a difficult target for us, filled with agribusiness lobbyists and those more focused on profit from the Amazon than the value of its protection. Yet, our movement has proven powerful, and we will continue celebrating and amplifying the calls from the grassroots up. So far, we are excited about the possibilities, as Lula has taken swift action for the climate and the Amazon!

Many know the great leader Sonia Guajajara. As part of this transition, she was appointed as the first minister for the new Ministry of Indigenous Peoples. “[This is] a landmark in our history of struggle and resistance,” Minister Guajajara said to The Guardian. “The creation of the ministry for Indigenous peoples is proof of President Lula’s commitment to safeguarding our autonomy and space to make decisions about our territories, our bodies, and our ways of life.”

Joênia Wapichana, the first Indigenous congresswoman in the country, has also been appointed by Lula to be the president of the National Indigenous Peoples Foundation (FUNAI), the main government body for Indigenous affairs. Never before in Brazil’s history has an Indigenous person and woman presided over FUNAI or assumed a ministry.

Indigenous peoples take back FUNAI. Sonia Guajajara, Raoni, Joenia Wapichana, and Weibe Tapeba at the FUNAI offices in Brasília. Credit: Ascom / Joênia Wapichana

Lula also guaranteed that the Special Secretariat for Indigenous Health (SESAI) would be managed by an Indigenous person. “They are more than prepared to work on their problems and solve them,” Lula said during the announcement of the final appointments to his ministerial cabinet in Brasília last week. Weibe Tapeba was appointed Special Secretary for SESAI. He will be the first Indigenous person to take over as secretary, a role which is central to the health of Indigenous peoples and which was severely dismantled under the Bolsonaro government, especially during the COVID pandemic.

On January 3, FUNAI’s employees organized the historic action, “The Retaking of FUNAI,” together with Raoni, Joênia, Sonia, Weibe, and Celia Xakriabá – who was elected to the lower house of Congress for the state of Minas Gerais, the Brazilian state most affected by mining –  at its headquarters. With a large picture of Bruno Pereira and Dom Phillips in the background, Joênia reaffirmed her commitment to the foundation: “There will be many challenges, but together we will work and really [make] FUNAI function. A FUNAI that is ours.”

The new Indigenous People’s Ministry started with at least two progressive actions: Guajajara tweeted on Monday morning that a decree which facilitated illicit “artisanal” mining in the Legal Amazon was revoked and FUNAI, formerly the National “Indian” Foundation (a racist way of referring to Indigenous peoples in Brazil) was renamed as the National Indigenous Peoples Foundation. Such a shift in terminology carries great symbolic significance with regard to respecting their self-determination. On Wednesday, Sonia announced Indigenous lawyer Eloy Terena as the executive secretary of the Ministry of Indigenous Peoples. “I accept this mission with great honor and am aware of the challenges. We will work tirelessly to organize with our allies and promote the rights of Indigenous peoples”, said Eloy. 

If the Constitution recognized the existence of Indigenous peoples, the third term of the Lula government finally recognizes the autonomous capacity and the ultimate right of these peoples to decide and formulate their own terms in relation to the states and the federal government, their right “to say no” to destructive projects, and their right to self-determination.

“Clearly, the challenges are enormous. The first of these is to think of a structure that can accommodate the diversity of peoples living in Brazilian territory and that is also capable of acting as a space for historical reparation. It will be important to contemplate the wishes of the vast socio-cultural diversity of Brazil’s 305 Indigenous peoples and their more than 270 languages (according to the 2010 Census), ” wrote  Brazilian anthropologists Clovis Antonio Brighenti and Barbara Arisi who provided a vital perspective and analysis for a recent Amazonia Real article.  

“For many, many years we have been making this resistance, this struggle, against all this violence and violation of our rights, which even written in the Constitution has never really been respected. We now take back our place, our place to take care of our people. We know that there are many challenges, but never again without us”, said Minister Guajajara.

We’re taking direction from allies and Indigenous partners on how we can best show up at this moment to keep up the momentum of progress. We can’t wait to share our plans when we do. Today, we celebrate and invite you to join us: May there never again be a Brazilian government without Indigenous peoples!

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