The Brazilian Election: First Indigenous Woman Elected to Congress

On October 7, 2018, Joenia Wapichana became Brazil’s first indigenous woman elected to Congress.  The very polarizing election – with presidential front runner Jair Bolsonaro making many hostile comments against women, indigenous peoples, and other minority groups – makes Wapichana’s victory even more important.  Brazil’s indigenous population of 900,000 people has been very underrepresented in politics. In the nation’s history, the only other indigenous person elected to Congress was Mario Juruna over 30 years ago. Wapichana has previously broken boundaries when she became the first indigenous lawyer in Brazil.  She has since fought for the land rights of indigenous people and was the first indigenous lawyer to speak in front of the Supreme Federal Court. Wapichana is part of the Sustainability Network party and represents Roraima, which has the biggest indigenous population and biggest indigenous reserves.

A record number of 131 indigenous people ran for office in this election.  Although Wapichana was the only one to win, Valeria Paye Pereira, coordinator of the Articulation of Indigenous Peoples in Brazil said that “for us, this victory is the victory of the indigenous movement.”  After winning her election, Wapichana said that she is “very happy to be answering the call of all the indigenous people who yearn to have their rights represented in Congress,” and that “we are not giving up, we are going to resist and we will be in this together.  Although I’ll be the only voice in Congress, I won’t be alone.”

With the high level of support for presidential candidate Bolsonaro and the newly elected, more conservative Congress, Wapichana said that “it’s necessary, more than ever, to have a defense in Congress because our rights are at risk.”  One of Wapichana’s first goals in Congress will be to repeal a proposed constitutional amendment PEC 215, which transfers land demarcation powers from the executive to the legislative branch. With Congress being controlled by a Ruralista bloc (a right-wing association in Brazil) that favors agribusiness interests, there is concern that this change would lead to indigenous groups losing even more of their rights. Felipe Milanez, an environmentalist and professor has said the biggest threats to indigenous groups in Brazil are agribusiness industries and their “aggressive developments that don’t respect the rights of local populations, like the construction of power lines or dams.”

Wapichana’s win and the support of the indigenous movement behind her come at a crucial moment for indigenous land rights, with 2017 being one of the deadliest years for land conflicts.  There is also concern about what a victory for Bolsonaro would mean since he has indicated he would be willing to open indigenous land up to mining and he “won’t give an inch of land to the Indigenous reservations.” While Wapichana was elected under the positions of pushing for more protected indigenous lands and environmental protects, Bolsonaro – who is aligned with the Ruralista bloc and agribusiness – is the exact opposite, and will likely cause a number of issues for indigenous peoples in the nation.

Bolsonaro won 46% of the vote in the presidential election, but since he did not win an outright majority, Bolsonaro and Fernando Haddad, of the leftist Workers’ Party, will go head-to-head in the second round of the election.  Amid this polarizing political time in Brazil, Wapichana’s election is a step forward for the indigenous communities. However, their fight for political representation and rights continues and will only be more difficult if Bolsonaro wins the election on October 28th, so it is important for Brazilians to be educated in the issues at stake in the upcoming election.

In the election on October 7th, women achieved a lot, with 77 female candidates being elected to Congress.  The indigenous people also had a major victory with Wapichana and her desire to fight for indigenous rights.  Electing candidates willing to promote their agenda and gaining political power is a great strategy for Brazil’s indigenous rights movement to peacefully fight for their rights.  It will help them to gain more recognition and give them a platform to speak about important issues, such as Wapichana’s desire to create a school system and health services for indigenous groups.