Brazil's Minister of Indigenous Peoples says this year’s land demarcations will still be defined

In an interview with BdF, Sônia Guajajara explained some of the government measures to zero deaths in the Yanomami land

Translated by: Ana Paula Rocha

Brasil de Fato | São Paulo |
Brazil’s Minister of Indigenous Peoples, Sônia Guajajara, at CP28 in Dubai, United Arab Emirates - Foto: Estevam Rafael/Audiovisual/PR

The Brazilian Ministry of Indigenous Peoples has not yet defined which and how many Indigenous lands will be demarcated in 2024. Minister Sônia Guajajara stated in an interview with the show Bem Viver launched this Wednesday (29): “We have not yet defined the number of lands to be demarcated this year. We had some pending issues from last year that weren’t finished, and now we are making updates”.

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Guajajara ascribed the lack of concrete decisions to the National Congress which, according to her words, “works every day to prevent new land demarcations and the disintrusion [expelling illegal miners and non-Indigenous people from Indigenous lands] we are doing”.

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The minister also commented on the situation of the Yanamomi people. She acknowledged that after an action by the federal government that expelled from the area almost all illegal miners, the invaders returned to the territory.

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She says the new government's first year focused on emergency measures. The goal now is to move on to structuring and more permanent actions.

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This Thursday (29), an entourage that included the minister attended the inauguration of the “Casa do Governo” (“Government House”, in a rough translation), in the city of Boa Vista, Roraima state. The house will be the basis for action by 13 ministries focused on "coordinating and monitoring the implementation of the plan to deal with the humanitarian crisis in the Yanomami Indigenous Land”.

:: State must present a new plan against illegal mining in the Yanomami territory under penalty of a fine of BRL 1 million :: 

According to a decree signed by President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (Worker’s Party) this week, the government structure will be in Boa Vista until December 31, 2026. 

“We believe that now, with these structuring and more permanent actions, we may advance a lot in the goal of reducing or even ending – which is our intention – Indigenous mortality within the Yanomami territory”.

Read below the full interview:

Brasil de Fato: What is your assessment of the federal government's actions in the Yanomami land?

In 2023, we had intense work. That was one of the first actions the federal government took: to declare a state of sanitary emergency in the Yanomami Land. 

Since then, many actions have been taken, both in health and security: expelling illegal miners and renovating healthcare units. We managed to get most invaders out of the land by the middle of the year.

Then, Indigenous leaders began reporting that illegal miners were returning, and there was still a significant number of them inside the territory. After that, other assessments were made.

This year, we will install Casa do Governo there. Today [Wednesday, 28], we are travelling to Boa Vista [Roraima state] with an interministerial team to install the house, as well as the bases – which we're calling interagency bases – to support surveillance and monitoring within the territory. In addition to the renovation and construction of healthcare units, there are 22 healthcare units planned for 2024.

Therefore, we're working hard with Sesai [the Indigenous Health Secretariat], the Ministry of the Environment, the Ministry of Justice, the Security Forces and also the Ministry of Defense and the Armed Forces, which play an important role in all this work.

Does the ministry make any assessment about what worked and what didn’t regarding the actions to curb invaders on the Yanomami Indigenous land?

Look, I think it is non-stop work because of the situation we found in the invaded land and all the issues regarding Indigenous health… Indeed, one cannot expect that in just one year all the [Yanomami] territory would be totally free and they would have a peaceful situation. 

We did what we had to do last year. Now, we have advanced to the next phase, which is going from emergency measures to structuring and more permanent measures.

The house will have representatives from about 10 ministries, as well as security forces inside the territory, and a hospital that will be built in Boa Vista to guarantee healthcare assistance to individuals who need to move from the Indigenous territory to the city.  

Currently, we just have a support house, which provides health recovery assistance only. By having a hospital, things will be easier and it will guarantee definitive treatment for any health problems patients present there.” 

We believe that now, with these structuring and permanent actions, it will be possible to advance further and reach the goal of reducing or even ending – which is our intention – Indigenous mortality within the Yanomami territory.

Do the government and the ministry have any forecast about when the goal will be achieved?

We plan to install the house and bases I mentioned this year. There has already been a considerable rise in the number of health teams, consequently expanding the number of regions where there is, now, health assistance. 

We will work bearing in mind the complexity of accessing all these regions due to logistics difficulties. What we want is that, by the end of the year, all the measures be aleady implemented. 

I'd like to hear a bit about your assessment and that of the Ministry regarding the work of the Armed Forces. We've talked with some Yanomami leaders who said that “there was an Army arm lacking” in the fight against illegal mining. How do you assess this statement?

The Army has played an important role in guaranteeing logistics for transportation, the delivery of food, equipment, [materials] for building the hospital and also for the emergency reference signal, which was installed in the Surucucu region. Although it is still difficult to have enough logistics to meet these demands, they are involved in interministerial actions.

We are currently assuming an extraordinary credit of a new agreement with the Ministry of Management and Innovation and the Ministry of the Indigenous Peoples to take the place of or even supplement this logistics work currently developed by the defense sector. With this, we hope to meet this need and be able to guarantee logistics in a more structured and permanent way.

The government presented a result that has been considered a “historic mark” by zeroing deforestation on the Apyretewa Indigenous land. What was the approach that generated this success? Could it be replicated in the Yanomami territory?

I think we cannot compare these two situations because the territories have very different characteristics. They are very distinct areas, with different accesses. We had to expel people who were illegally installed on the Apyterewa Indigenous land for years, but whose invaded areas could be more easily accessed.

The same work was made in the Yanomami territory, with the same intensity. However, due to the complexity of arriving there, it is a harder process and demands more time. 

Another issue I would like to bring up is the so-called “Invasão Zero” group (“Zero Invasion”, in English). We have been following what is happening in southern Bahia, particularly the violence targeting the Pataxó people, although there is no confirmation that this group is behind the attacks. The fact is that Invasão Zero is active in the National Congress. Is the government working to curb the advance of this group?

I cannot affirm they are behind it or make statements about what is being done to stop it due to security issues.

The fact is they are acting violently and brutally against any action Indigenous peoples take. Even in Bahia, according to the information I received, land owners weren’t aware of the group’s activities there, at that moment, targeting the lands of the Pataxó people. 

Thus, it’s certainly necessary to conduct an investigation. I think the measures are already being taken by the due bodies – which isn’t the Ministry of Indigenous Peoples. Indeed, the group must be stopped because it’s taking matters into its own hands. In these cases, there are legal bodies to do justice. 

So, at first, the Ministry of Indigenous Peoples won’t interfere in the issue of the Invasão Zero group, will it? 

I cannot make a statement to the press about what we will do. 

Now, I would like to approach another Indigenous people: the Guarani Kaiowá people, from Mato Grosso do Sul. This week, they were in Washington attending the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights to file a request denouncing the situation they face: food insecurity and violence. It isn’t the first time they have filed such a kind of request. I would like to know whether the government expects to address the Guarani Kaiowá people. 

We have many liabilities. There are many demands for the demarcation of Indigenous lands, protection, security and support for the management of territories whether with support for production or for people's safety. These are demands that have been pent-up for many, many years.

You know that in recent years, there has been a huge increase in invasions, violence and conflicts, and we are still doing a national mapping of the Indigenous land issue in Brazil.

We strongly oppose the National Congress, which is working every day to prevent new land demarcations and de-intrusions we are carrying out. 

We are in this dialog now, both with Indigenous leaders and with state and municipal administrations, so that we can find a way to move forward with demarcations. These are inter-federal actions. There's no way of ignoring or dismissing this dialog today.

We are doing this particularly in Mato Grosso do Sul state. Some actions are already being articulated there, such as the implementation of a territorial and environmental management plan in some areas, as well as studies to begin the demarcation process of some territories.

We have a project to re-socialize imprisoned Indigenous individuals, since Mato Grosso do Sul is the Brazilian state with the highest number of Indigenous prisoners. We want to find a way to re-socialize these Indigenous individuals and reduce their sentence, and, of course, try to find a way to prevent further episodes of incarceration.

So, we have a huge demand, which is national in all the territories, each with its own reality. We're holding these dialogues with state governments, so that we can make as much progress as possible this year.

Minister Guajajara, is the ministry working towards a target of how many Indigenous lands should be demarcated this year?

We have had a recent change in the Ministry of Justice, which is the body responsible for issuing declaratory ordinances. Last year, the Ministry of Indigenous Peoples lost this role in the establishment of government bodies. 

So we are working with the due bodies – FUNAI, the Ministry of Justice and the Chief of Staff, which is concluding the approval phase. 

We are in new negotiations and have not yet defined the number of lands that will be demarcated this year. We have not yet defined the number of lands that will be demarcated this year. We had some pending issues from last year that weren’t finished, and now we are making these updates.

Will it be more than last year?

I don’t know.  

To end our conversation, I wanted to hear a little bit about March, such an important month, the month of women's struggle. One name that we certainly look up to is you, as a leader in this ministry. We also see how, within Indigenous groups, women are very much at the forefront. Is this something that permeates different ethnic groups? Does it happen more among the Guajajara people?

We advanced a lot regarding female participation and representation in strategic positions with the government, occupying places in these organizations too.

Today, we have a strong national articulation of Indigenous women that has been working on strategies to strengthen female candidacies. 

It’s a reality that’s gaining traction among many Indigenous peoples. I’m here as a minister, and I’m a Guajajara; Joenia, FUNAI’s president, is from the Wapichana people; Celia Xakriabá, in Minas Gerais state, is an elected parliamentary; Juliana Terena, from São Paulo state, also is an elected parliamentary. Today, there are more Indigenous women as state secretaries: Puyr Tembé, in Para state; Juliana Jenipapo, in Ceará state; Patrícia Pataxó, in Bahia state. 

There is a diversity of Indigenous peoples breaking sexism and its culture in which many Indigenous peoples are still immersed, making them refuse women’s engagement as a constant practice. 

We are managing to overcome these barriers. Many women look at us and say they get inspired by us to keep going far beyond the Indigenous communities.

We believe that women are moving forward, in general, all over the world in an important leading role. We, Indigenous women, are also working together to occupy more and more spaces.

Minister, you visited a series of important figures in national politics – and they are all female. Does this leadership attitude follow them since the formation of Indigenous communities within grassroots groups? Do these women take a leadership stance, something continuous, or do they behave like this coming into politics? What are your thoughts on this?

I think it's both, right? Because our training is our foundation. It's the moment when we structure ourselves, when we gain confidence and respect to continue growing in this occupation of spaces. When you have the trust of all the others, women and men alike, then you also have that support.

So, I think the basis is training, the legitimization of keeping going and women's interest to move forward. Because we've been invisible for so long. We've remained anonymous for so long. Now, it's a strategy of Indigenous women's struggle to occupy more and more different spaces, whether in politics, universities or other professional areas. The important thing is that we want equal rights to be everywhere.

Is the government developing any program to protect female Indigenous leaders specifically?

Last year, we signed a cooperation agreement with the Ministry of Women to draft a program aimed at protecting women and curbing domestic abuse.

This year, we will launch a project called “Mulheres Guardiãs” (“Women Guardians”, in English), in which we will work with the House of Brazilian Women. In each one of these houses, we will implement nuclei that can address these women's needs. 

Today, even with the Maria da Penha Law [which protects women from abusers], Indigenous women aren’t totally supported. 

Have you been able to visit your community?

Always! After all, I’m what I'm because of them. I'm here because of the support I have and the trust they have in me. I can't lose that bond. 

I keep this relationship, the bond. Even in the midst of so many challenges and lack of time, I attend and maintain rituals. I go there to eat our food – tapiocabeiju, flour and açaí (which is called “juçara” in Maranhão state) –. People are always sending me this kind of food. 

For me, that's the principle of everything: not disconnecting, not losing those ties. After all, that's where my home is. My home is my territory. You keep it there also as a support house for everyone who needs to go to the community for a walk, to make a visit or work. I'm going there next weekend. Whenever I can, I return home, as well as go to so many other Indigenous territories to visit other peoples.

Which is better: açaí or juçara?

I like both. If I’m in Pará state, so it’s acaí. When I’m in Maranhão state, juçara

Do you eat it with sugar?

No sugar. If you add sugar, it becomes tasteless [laughs].

Edited by: Matheus Alves de Almeida