Elections in Brazil Indigenous women with record numbers.jpgw1440

Elections in Brazil: Indigenous women with record numbers

Sept. 30, 2022 at 4:19 p.m. EDT

Sônia Guajajara takes part in a demonstration at the Law School of the University of São Paulo in August.  She is running for a seat in the Brazilian Congress.  (Rafael Vilela for the Washington Post)Sônia Guajajara takes part in a demonstration at the Law School of the University of São Paulo in August. She is running for a seat in the Brazilian Congress. (Rafael Vilela for the Washington Post)

RIO DE JANEIRO – For more than two years, Vanda Ortega Witoto watched from her village in the Amazon as Brazil’s chaotic response to the coronavirus brought disaster to her people.

“I saw my leader die without oxygen,” said the 35-year-old nurse, who belongs to the Witoto people. “I saw my relatives being buried after no ambulance took them to the hospital.”

Now Witoto, who lives in remote Aldeia Colonia, in the state of Amazonas, is running for the Brazilian Congress.

“We cannot ask the state for help if we don’t have our representatives because those who are there are not sensitive to our cause,” she said. “They are not even aware of our existence and have no reason to defend it.”

They sat on the sidelines and watched as others – mostly non-Indigenous men – made the decisions and enacted laws that threatened their lands and affected their lives. Now indigenous women are fighting back.

A record number of Indigenous women are running for office — for state legislatures, for Congress, for the vice presidency — in Sunday’s elections as part of a concerted effort to increase Indigenous representation in government.

They come from different federal states, speak different languages ​​and run with different parties. But many have a common goal: to reverse President Jair Bolsonaro’s policies, which they say have lifted safeguards, undermined their rights and encouraged record-breaking deforestation in the Amazon.

The cost of campaigning, the lack of access to information about the electoral process — sometimes even the absence of ballot boxes in their remote villages in the vast Amazon — can make political participation particularly difficult for these communities. Many of the nominations this year are long shots. But the effort is seen as a necessary step towards eventual representation.

“Under Bolsonaro, the rights of the indigenous people were completely dismantled,” said Sônia Guajajara of the Guajajara people of the indigenous country of Arariboia in the state of Maranhão.

Bolsonaro, a right-wing populist, is running for a second term as president on Sunday. The 48-year-old Guajajara, who made the list of the 100 most influential people of 2022 for her activism for indigenous people’s rights, is running for a seat in Congress with the Socialism and Liberty Party.

In 2018, Guajajara became the first Indigenous candidate to run as the vice presidential nominee for Socialism and Liberty nominee Guilherme Boulos. She said the increasing attacks on tribal leaders and territories, and accelerating environmental degradation, have led communities to understand that “the tribal movement alone is not enough to stop all backlash and put an end to this violence.”

Bolsonaro, who was running for president this year, vowed not to add “an inch” to protected indigenous lands (and has fulfilled his vow in office).

“At that moment we also understood that he called for a fight,” said Guajajara, one of the candidates considered competitive.

Witoto’s indigenous name, Derequine, means “angry ant” in the Witotoan language. When asked if the meaning of her name reflected her current feelings, she laughed. “Yeah, we’re pissed!” she said.

If she wins, she would be the first indigenous person to represent Amazonas in Congress. The state at the heart of the rainforest is home to Brazil’s largest indigenous population.

Bolsonaro vs. Lula: A referendum on Brazil’s fledgling democracy

Indigenous organizations have put forward 185 federal and state candidates in this year’s elections. they call it the “Headdress Lobby”. That’s the highest number since Brazil began reporting candidate races in 2014.

Brazil is home to more than 896,000 indigenous people from 305 different ethnic groups. But the largest country in Latin America did not elect its first indigenous person to office until 1969, when Manoel dos Santos of the Karipuna people became city councilor in Oiapoque, in northern Amapá state.

It would be another half century before the first Indigenous woman would win a seat in Congress. Joênia Wapichana was elected federal deputy in 2018.

Witoto recalls the day she visited Wapichana’s office in Congress.

“It’s a place that doesn’t seem to be our place. But it has to be our place,” she said. “It wasn’t built for us, but we have to get there.”

In April, Witoto joined thousands of tribal peoples to protest a law that would allow large-scale mining on tribal lands, warning scientists and threatening an ecological and humanitarian catastrophe.

She camped outside Congress for five days. No matter how many protesters were in attendance or how loud they sang, she said, no one seemed to be listening.

“We talked to ourselves,” she says. “There wasn’t a single representative who would let us in to listen to our demands. I said, ‘No, I can’t do this anymore.’ I was tired.”

Adriana Ramos, coordinator of policy programs at the non-governmental Institute for the Social Environment, said the number of Indigenous women running for office this year is partly due to more women rising within local and national Indigenous groups and gaining influence under their win your own people.

“It’s the result of a process of empowering women,” Ramos said. “Once they had an opportunity to lead these organizations, they demonstrated the ability to lead and manage policy, while also giving them the organizational tools to strategize to get more women candidatures on the way.”

The closer election day in Brazil approaches, the greater the fear of violence

Maial Kaiapó, 34, a candidate for Congress from Pará state — one of the most deforested Amazon regions — said the rising threat of land grabs and illegal loggers increased her sense of urgency.

“It is time for us, indigenous women, to move and enter the political field,” she added. “Because we really are in the middle of a war.”

She is the granddaughter of Raoni Metuktire, 92, chief of the Kaiapó people and one of Brazil’s most prominent indigenous leaders. He has been fighting for the preservation of the Amazon for decades.

In a video posted to Kaiapó’s Instagram account, Metuktire supported his granddaughter in her native language, Kaiapó.

“May she speak for us,” he said.

Gabriela Sá Pessoa contributed to this report from São Paulo.