“Indigenous issues are often put on the (political) agenda without our representation.”
By Karla Mendes
RIO DE JANEIRO – (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – A record number of indigenous candidates are running for federal and state offices in Brazil’s elections on Sunday, a trend campaigners hope will shine a spotlight on the lack of land rights for the country’s indigenous population.
The number of candidates who self-declared as indigenous rose almost 50 percent to 131 this year from 89 in the 2014 race, according to data compiled from the top electoral court by Instituto Socioambiental (ISA), a Brazilian advocacy group.
“There are real threats against our land rights,” said Valeria Paye Pereira, executive coordinator of APIB, an umbrella group of indigenous rights advocacy groups.
“Indigenous issues are often put on the (political) agenda without our representation. So we decided to enter the debate in the National Congress with our people.”
Brazil, South America’s largest country, is grappling with scores of deadly land conflicts, illustrating the tensions between preserving indigenous culture and economic development.
Indigenous chief Mario Juruna was the first indigenous politician to reach the National Congress, elected as a federal deputy in 1982.
One of the most prominent candidates in Sunday’s vote is Joenia Wapichana, a lawyer based in the northern state of Roraima. She has advocated for indigenous rights for over two decades and is running for office as a federal deputy.
“I had never had political aspirations. But our rights are being threatened,” said Wapichana, the first indigenous lawyer in Brazil.
“If we do not do it ourselves, no one will defend us. As much as we have allies, it is not the same thing,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone.
Francisco Pianco – who worked for the indigenous rights in the northern state of Acre and for Brazil’s indigenous affairs agency, Funai – is also in the running as a federal deputy.
“I became a candidate because I felt I was called to make a confrontation, to defend our rights. We need to conclude the demarcation of indigenous lands and maintain existing territories… Land is a sacred right,” he said.
If he wins “the mandate will not be mine. It will be a mandate of the forest,” he said.
(Reporting by Karla Mendes; Editing by Ros Russell; Credit Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters)