Historic appointment: Brazil gets first indigenous minister with Sônia Guajajara


Brazil is getting a new Ministry for Indigenous Peoples, has more indigenous deputies than ever before, and is getting its first female indigenous minister with the appointment of Sônia Guajajara. Who is this woman, and what will change for the indigenous population now? 

More than 256 different indigenous peoples live in Brazil. Yet their interests and concerns have received little attention. The history of the indigenous population in Brazil is partly a history of displacement, exploitation, and exclusion. Especially under the extreme right-wing ex-president Jair Bolsonaro, illegal land and raw material theft increased again. With his disastrous environmental policy, he destroyed not only the habitat, but also the livelihood of many indigenous peoples.

With the inauguration of the new left-wing president Lula da Silva, something seems to be changing: With five deputies, more indigenous politicians are joining Brazil’s National Congress than ever before.

In addition, a newly created ministry looks after the concerns and interests of the indigenous population. The Ministry for Indigenous Peoples is headed by activist Sônja Guajajara. This is another milestone in the country’s history: For she is Brazil’s first indigenous minister.

Sônia Guajajara: Brazil’s first female indigenous minister

The U.S. magazine TIME has named Sônia Guajajara one of the 100 most influential people of 2022. The 48-year-old is one of Brazil’s best-known activists. She fights for the rights of the indigenous population, for the preservation of their cultures and against environmental destruction and the theft of land and raw materials.

She appeared with Greta Thunberg and Javier Bardem at the 2019 UN Climate Change Conference, and was asked by Alicia Keys to take the stage at Rock in Rio (2017) to reiterate her demands to protect the Amazon.

Sônia Bone de Souza Silva Santos, who bears the name of her people Guajajara, was born in 1979 in Arariboia, a reservation in the state of Maranhão. At the age of ten, she left her village to go to school. After attending secondary school, she graduated in literature and completed postgraduate studies in special education.

In March 2022, she was among 151 international feminists who signed the Feminist Resistance Against War: A Manifesto in response to Russia’s attack on Ukraine.

Demands of the indigenous peoples: An end to mining in their own territories, more participation, and easier territorial claims

Before she was sworn in as minister, she coordinated the campaigns of the Association of Brazilian Indigenous People (APIB). This association published a 10-point plan with demands to the new government when Da Silva took office.

Right at the beginning, the new Ministry of Indigenous Peoples has the chance to prove itself by responding to the demands of the Association of Indigenous Brazilians (APIB). The association is demanding the immediate repeal of seven normative legal acts of the previous government. Among them, for example, the decree that allows mining on the territories of indigenous peoples.

Sônia Guajajara campaigns for land rights and recognition for Brazil’s indigenous peoples. First as an activist, now as a minister (photo: Midia Ninja/CC by SA-2.0)

One of the most important demands is the repeal of the “Marco Temporal” decree. According to this decree, indigenous peoples may only claim an area if they can prove that they lived there before the Brazilian constitution came into force in 1988. But such proof is de facto impossible. This is because if the indigenous peoples had already been evicted, they would have to prove that they had already submitted a claim to reoccupy the land at that time.

Until 1988, however, the indigenous population was under the guardianship of FUNAI. Thus, they had no legal means of appealing to the judiciary through their own representation. FUNAI (Fundação Nacional do Índio) ensures that the rights of indigenous populations. Since 2019, it has been under the authority of the Ministry of Women, Family and Human Rights.

In the past 2022 elections, Guajajara was elected to the National Congress in the state of São Paulo. She is now one of five indigenous deputies in Congress.

In early January, President Lula da Silva made her minister for the new Ministry of Indigenous Peoples. She is one of 37 ministers in the new government—only 11 of whom are women.

Bolsonaro prevented land restitution—Lula wants turnaround

The far-right ex-president Jair Bolsonaro blocked and delayed with the Marco Temporal any attempts by the indigenous population to protect or reclaim their rightful habitat. The government of Lula da Silva declares the inhumane policies of its predecessor to be over and wants to stand up for the rights of all Brazilians again in the future. This includes the indigenous peoples.

More than 1,000 territories are currently being reclaimed by indigenous peoples. 731 applications are currently being processed.

Never before have so many indigenous deputies entered the National Congress

Mario Juruna was the first indigenous deputy at the national level in 1983. It took another 35 years for Joênia Wapichana to become the first indigenous woman elected to Congress.

With the latest election, five deputies now enter the National Congress as representatives of the indigenous peoples. Among them are Sônia Guajajara and the human rights activist Célia Xakriabá. These are only a few, and yet they are more numerous than ever before.


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