Joenia Wapichana: Brazil’s first native woman voted to Congress

Sao Paulo – Joenia Wapichana never thought she would get into politics.

The 43-year-old indigenous lawyer also never imagined she’d make history, not just once but on three occasions.

But when she saw an “extreme, urgent necessity” to protect the rights of her community, she knew she had to take action.

Last Sunday, Wapichana became the first Indigenous woman to be elected to Congress. Ten years ago she was the first indigenous lawyer to speak in front of the Supreme Federal Court and more than a decade before that she became the first indigenous person to graduate from law school in the country.

“I’m very happy to be answering the call of all the indigenous people who yearn to have their rights represented in Congress,” she told Al Jazeera just after just winning her seat.

“People had the hope to believe we can create positive change, that we can have a voice there to represent our rights.”

Indigenous groups in Brazil have suffered from a lack of representation in politics. The last and only other indigenous person elected to Congress was Mario Juruna more than 34 years ago. Wapichana, a child at the time, said she barely remembers him.

Chief Joao Ponce, centre, head of the Uirapuru indigenous community, walks along a cornfield near the town of Conquista do Oeste, Brazil [File: Ueslei Marcelino/Reuters]

This year a record number of 131 native candidates ran in governor, senator and congress races. It was also the first time an indigenous person, Sonia Guajajara, ran for the vice presidency. Although Wapichana was the only candidate to win, her victory is seen as a triumph for the more than 900,000 indigenous people in the country.

“For us, this victory is the victory of the indigenous movement”, said Valeria Paye Pereira, coordinator of the Articulation of Indigenous Peoples in Brazil (APIB).

She explained that Wapichana’s campaign was part of a nationwide project created by the indigenous leadership, who realised it “was necessary to encourage our people to participate”.

“Politics was not a theme we were concerned about”, Pereira said. “It was the first time the indigenous movement, as a group, positioned itself in favour of it. So, Joenia’s victory is the consecration of our effort.”

‘Red alert’

Wapichana’s victory also comes at a key moment for indigenous groups in Brazil. Last year was one of the bloodiest for land conflicts. The administration of President Michel Temer also cut more than 300 positions from the indigenous protection agency, Funai, and approved only one land demarcation.

Felipe Milanez, an environmentalist and professor at Bahia’s federal university, warned that Brazil is going through a humanitarian crisis.

“The risks of genocide, violence, torture, killings and intimidations are already on red alert,” he told Al Jazeera.

Milanez said the biggest threats to indigenous groups in Brazil are the economic interests of the agribusiness industries, who account for 23.5 percent of the country’s GDP.

“We see problems with aggressive developments that don’t respect the rights of local populations, like the construction of power lines or dams, for example,” he said.

A fake coffin representing an indigenous person killed in the conflict over the demarcation of indigenous lands stands outside the National Congress [File: Eraldo Peres/AP Photo] 

Pereira added that another great threat and one of Wapichana’s main challenges is to counter the “trend to move backwards on indigenous protection laws … driven by the rural interests in politics”.

Wapichana said one of her first goals will be to repeal a Proposed Amendment to the Constitution (PEC 2015) that transfers the final decision on land demarcation from the executive branch to the legislative one. The newly elected congresswoman fears the body will favour agribusiness because nearly half of its members are part of the rural sector. 

‘Mass extermination if Bolsonaro wins’

Many in the indigenous community also fear what the potential victory of far-right candidate Jair Bolsonaro in October 28’s runoff presidential election.

In a February interview with local media, the presidential hopeful said that “there won’t be another inch of land for the indigenous” if he’s elected.

“We are in front of an abyss,” Milanez said. “If Bolsonaro wins we might see a massive extermination of indigenous populations”.

Regardless of the next president, the challenges for native groups are set to continue during the next administration, as Brazilians elected a more conservative Congress, highly controlled by the so-called “rural bench”.

“It’s necessary, more than ever, to have a defence in Congress because our rights are at risk,” said Wapichana.

If Bolsonaro wins we might see a massive extermination of indigenous populations.

Felipe Milanez, an environmentalist

Besides fighting PEC 215, she will also focus on stopping mining projects and electric dams in indigenous lands, implementing already existing rights that are not followed, creating an indigenous school system, prioritising health services for native groups and creating a political reform to improve the representation of minority groups in Brazil.

She said it will be difficult to work in a mostly white, male, conservative environment, but fighting for indigenous rights has been her entire life. Her home state of Roraima has the biggest indigenous population. It is also home to the biggest indigenous reserves in Brazil, which was only fully recognised in 2009 after Wapichana defended it in the federal court.

“It’s like David and Goliath,” she said. “But it has always been like that for us. Everything we have we had to fight for and conquer and that’s what we’re going to do now.”

“We are not giving up, we are going to resist and we will be in this together,” she says. “Although I’ll be the only voice in Congress, I won’t be alone.”

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