Originally published at Common Dreams
Indigenous activists on Tuesday welcomed a promise from leftist Brazilian presidential candidate Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva to immediately revoke far-right President Jair Bolsonaro’s policies, including laws that opponents say facilitate the destruction and exploitation of native lands.
“Nobody is going to tamper with Indigenous land without your agreement,” da Silva—a member of the leftist Workers’ Party (PT) who previously served two terms as Brazil’s president—told thousands of people gathered at the site of a 10-day protest by over 170 ethnic groups, the Free Land Camp, in the capital Brasília. “Everything this government has decreed against Indigenous peoples must be repealed immediately.”
Da Silva drew loud applause when he pledged to create a Ministry of Indigenous Peoples, telling protesters that “someone will have to take over the ministry and it won’t be a white man like me, it will have to be an Indian.”
A series of Bolsonaro-backed bills that critics have dubbed the “package of destruction” are currently advancing in the National Congress. If passed and signed into law by the president—a climate skeptic who has called himself “Captain Chainsaw”—they would allow mining on Indigenous lands, relax restrictions on the use of pesticides, and, according to opponents, greenlight illegal logging and land seizures.
More than 8,000 square miles of Amazon rainforest were destroyed between August 2020 and July 2021, a 15-year high. According to Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research, Amazon deforestation in February 2022 increased 62% from the previous year.
Native leaders announced at the camp that they would form an Indigenous Bench in the federal and state legislatures. To date, only two Indigenous people have ever been elected to the Chamber of Deputies, the lower house of the National Congress, and none have served in the Senate.
“The idea is not just to launch candidacies to gain visibility, it is to launch candidacies to win,” Sônia Guajajara, a member of the Guajajara people and leftist Socialism and Liberty Party (PSOL) who recently announced her pre-candidacy for the Chamber of Deputies, told Agência Pública.
Aruã Pataxó, president of the Indigenous Federation of Pataxó and Tupinambá Nations and a Communist Party of Brazil pre-candidate for state deputy in Bahia, told the outlet that “only we, as Indigenous people, can defend our rights.”
Addressing the camp on Tuesday, Guajajara said that “we want to participate in the construction of the project for a new Brazil.”
“That’s why we decided to launch an Indigenous group that will remove the ruralist group once and for all,” she said, referring to the large landowners and their elected representatives.
Referencing a highly controversial dam and a Canadian mining operation, Guajajara said the Indigenous Bench seeks to ensure “that there is no more Belo Monte in your government, so that there is no Belo Sun, no hydroelectric plants. They are our territories. We can no longer remain on the sidelines of building and running this country.”
The most repeated demand by Indigenous activists to da Silva is the resumption of land demarcations. Representatives of Articulação dos Povos Indígenas do Brasil Apoie (APIB), a national Indigenous advocacy coalition, on Tuesday read an open letter to the former president. It read, in part:
Our villages are constantly invaded, our lands… are destroyed by the illegal advance of mining, mining, land grabbing, the timber industry, agribusiness, and other enterprises such as hydroelectric plants, ports, roads, transmission lines, and even drug trafficking. And this process invariably results in death and violence against Indigenous people from all regions of Brazil. Our houses of prayer are burned, our children and women are raped, our youth and defenders are persecuted and murdered.
We need to stop these processes of destruction. Our fight is for our peoples, yes, but also for the future of each and every Brazilian woman and for all of humanity! It is time to build a civilizing project for the country and the world. Our project is based on the principles of respect for democracy, human rights, justice, care for the environment; we defend plurality, without racism and discrimination of any kind.
Da Silva replied by condemning violations of native rights by Bolsonaro, who in 2018 vowed that “not a centimeter will be demarcated either as an Indigenous reserve or as a quilombola,” a reference to territories for descendants of self-emancipated African slave communities.
“The PT governments didn’t do everything, but certainly no one did more than us,” da Silva said. “And the most serious thing is that practically everything we did was dismantled” by “a government that has no scruples, that offends Indigenous peoples.”
Bolsonaro has infamously said that “the Indians are evolving, more and more they are human beings like us,” and “it’s a shame that the Brazilian cavalry hasn’t been as efficient as the Americans, who exterminated the Indians.”
Da Silva rejected this racist mentality, noting that “the Indigenous people are not the invaders, they were already here when the Portuguese arrived in 1500.”
“No farmer has the right to invade Indigenous space in this country, to plant soy illegally, to set fires to plant cattle. And much less to mine,” he said. “The denunciations that we hear every day, that Yanomami men, women, and children are being raped, cannot continue.”
The former president’s remarks came a day after at least two Yanomami men opposing mining were shot dead and numerous others were injured by members of a pro-mining group of Tirei people, who were reportedly given 80 guns by illegal miners.
Brazil’s presidential election will take place on October 22. According to the most recent survey by the Brazilian public polling institute Datafolha, 43% of respondents said they would vote for da Silva “if the election for president was today,” while 26% said they would choose Bolsonaro.