Foto_Ton Molina_Arena Estadão Conteúdo.jpeg

Joênia Wapichana: "Development can be reconciled with indigenous peoples" rights

Joênia Wapichana is the first indigenous woman to head the National Indigenous Peoples Foundation in the entity's 55-year history

O Liberal

Daleth Oliveira


Minister Wapichana is the first indigenous person to head Funai
Joênia Wapichana - Photo: Agência Brasil 

In 55 years of history, this is the first time that the National Indigenous Peoples Foundation (Funai) has a legitimate representative of the indigenous peoples as president: the indigenous lawyer from Roraima, Joênia Wapichana (49). In an exclusive interview with Grupo Liberal, she spoke about the challenges she must face as head of the entity over the next four years, promised to resume land demarcation, defended the development of the Amazon with consultation with traditional communities affected by large projects, and stated that special attention must be given to the peoples of the Amazon region even with scarce resources. Wapichana said it will be necessary to request support from other ministries of the Federal Government in order to fulfill the institutional obligations of Funai, linked to the Ministry of Indigenous Peoples.

Question: This is the first time that Funai is headed by an indigenous woman. It is also the first time that the Federal Government has a Ministry of Indigenous Peoples, also headed by an indigenous woman. With this female protagonism, what should be the direction of the indigenous agenda in Brazil in the next four years? What can indigenous women expect from the Government?

Answer: Indigenous women can expect the vision of an indigenous woman, which is one of solidarity, responsibility, the dialogue that women always have with people, but from this indigenous cosmovision that has a holistic look at the need to protect the land, the natural resources and to have a sustainable development that matches the reality of the indigenous peoples and to value the good indigenous practices. Women are responsible, many times, for the education of the indigenous leaders themselves, and they bring this as a way of working. So our agenda will have these principles.

Therefore, we can expect dialogue, respect, fulfillment of institutional obligations that brings the mission of both the Ministry of Indigenous Peoples and FUNAI, which is an agency responsible for taking care of 14% of the national territory, starting with the demarcation of indigenous lands; and also to resume the fulfillment of this regularization that was stopped for many years, such as the demarcation, inspection of indigenous lands, sustainable development, public policy aimed at indigenous citizenship and the recovery of everything that was neglected. We have a lot to recover in the fight for the rights of indigenous peoples, now with women at the head of this work.

Q: Regarding this indigenous participation in the high echelons of the Lula administration, what do you think will change in relation to the demands of Funai to other instances of the federal government with an indigenous president? 

A: Mainly the participation of indigenous peoples in their ways of organizing themselves, bringing back the right to consultation that is guaranteed by ILO Convention 169. This specific vision of the indigenous peoples related to the exercise of the main public policies, of social rights in their fullness. We will seek the constitutional guarantees that have not occurred for a long time. This is what is expected differently, the indigenous protagonism, seeking opportunities beyond what already exists. I know we will have many challenges ahead, but we are not going to stand still, we are going to look for alternatives, to make sure that this void of public resources does not limit the performance in this institutional fulfillment. 

Q: Speaking of challenges, what is the biggest challenge that you, as president of Funai, will face in these four years?

A: Give progress to the land regularization of the indigenous peoples with scarce resources, because this is the great bottleneck. To return to the role of Funai in demarcation, protection, inspection, and inclusion with resources that today are insufficient, we have to look for alternatives in other ministries. So this is the challenge: to fulfill the institutional mission of Funai with few resources.I know that Brazil is in a crisis, but the indigenous peoples are in a situation of great vulnerability, so we have to take care of this, innovate and seek alternatives.

In August of last year, the Federal Court ordered that those responsible for the proposed construction of the Ferrogrão railroad, between the towns of Sinop (MT) and Itaituba (PA), hold public consultations following protocols issued by the indigenous communities affected by the project, especially those of the Munduruku ethnic group of the upper, middle and lower Tapajós. Among the defendants in the lawsuit is Funai, which in the former management, gave its approval to the proposal. 

Q: What is your opinion about Ferrogrão? And how will Funai position itself in relation to the project?

A: I have not yet effectively assumed the position of president of Funai, I am still in the transition period, getting to know the situation of the Foundation. So, after I actually take over, I will have access to the processes that Funai responds to, as well as the licensing processes and Funai's positioning. We are in a different moment. President Lula has committed himself to respecting the rights of the indigenous peoples. So, if Funai has a contrary position, it has to be reviewed. About the specific case of Ferrogrão, I still need to study the existing process in order to have a secure position. But beforehand, I fully agree with the rights of indigenous peoples to be consulted in these projects, in all processes.

Q: Knowing that the development of the Amazon is one of the Lula Government's priorities, how do you intend to deal with development and infrastructure projects, such as railroads or energy, that need to pass through indigenous lands?

A: First we need to discuss what kind of development we are talking about. Because the terms are different for indigenous people. You can even talk about poverty index, environmental protection index, but for indigenous people development is protected water, conserved natural resources, and having the forest standing. Therefore, projects that affect the culture and life of local communities can contradict this development. Of course, infrastructure is extremely necessary to maintain social rights and citizenship. But I believe that it is reconcilable, as long as you start by respecting the rights of the traditional populations that don't want to break with their consultation rights. So let's discuss the planned projects that are going to affect indigenous lands and the environment so that they can speak out. So development is totally reconcilable with the rights of indigenous peoples, all it takes is political good will.

Q: In your evaluation, how is the situation of the Amazonian indigenous peoples today?

A: Like the peoples of the Northeast and the South of the country, their land demarcations were paralyzed. The Amazon has suffered a lot of attack both on the environmental side, with the advance of deforestation and burning, but also in terms of persecution. Illegal mining increased considerably due to the encouragement of the former government, which always favored anti-indigenous positions. But the indigenous organizations in the Amazon had a strong position, without giving in to pressure and always standing up for the fulfillment of institutional obligations. They always came to Brasília to put this agenda in evidence, pointing out which development the indigenous people required within the indigenous lands.

Today we have 98.7% of indigenous lands located in the Amazon, so it is increasingly necessary to invest in the protection of the natural resources that exist there. No matter how much pressure there has been in relation to deforestation, the indigenous peoples have stood firm to protect the standing forest, the river sources, and have done all this without incentive or any investment. Now, they want to collaborate in this rescue of the importance that the Amazon has, but they need to be treated as protagonists and holders of rights, as carriers of initiatives that are important for us to protect the natural resources and contain deforestation and fires, and stop being just an objective of images and data.

Q: A recent study by the Amazon Environmental Research Institute (IPAM) shows that isolated indigenous peoples are the ones who suffer the most pressure from illegal miners and loggers in the Amazon. Will there be a work with parts of the Federal Government for the protection of these communities? If so, how will it be?

A: There is an action plan moved by the indigenous organizations at the time that the covid-19 pandemic started, which identified the extreme vulnerability of the isolated peoples, especially with invasions that came to be more visible after the cases of violence in the Javari Valley, which resulted in the murder of Bruno Pereira and the journalist Dom Phillips, in which the whole world learned about this vulnerability. We also had the death of the indigenous man who lived in the hole.

In the last seven years, little has been invested in strengthening the programs that already exist in Funai, valuing the employees that work on these fronts and giving a budget that is compatible with the responsibility that Funai has with regard to the isolated peoples. But today, this change in government will give us the opportunity to strengthen these fronts with other ministries, because this issue is also transversal, such as the Ministry of Environment and Climate Change, the Ministry of Justice and the Ministry of Indigenous Peoples, which has a specific secretariat to work on this issue. So, we have the opportunity to strengthen and have really effective programs that bring this priority to the Lula government.