Sônia Guajajara: “Agribusiness today really is a plague”


In an exclusive Earthsight interview, prominent indigenous leader Sônia Guajajara discusses the threats facing indigenous peoples and Europe’s responsibilities towards conservation in Brazil

For Sônia Guajajara, the government of Jair Bolsonaro is now a “declared enemy” of indigenous peoples in Brazil.

The far-right president’s “institutionalisation of genocide” against indigenous groups is, she warns, leaving communities like hers in the Amazon fearing for their lives and their land.

As executive coordinator of the Association of Indigenous Peoples of Brazil (APIB), Guajajara is a prominent voice for Brazil’s minority groups.

Guajajara and other Brazilian indigenous leaders recently toured 12 European countries as part of the campaign Indigenous Blood: Not a Single Drop More. The campaign, led by APIB, seeks to raise global awareness about the plight of indigenous communities and the origin of Brazilian commodities produced in conflict and deforested areas.

In an exclusive interview with Earthsight in London, Guajajara explained how the situation facing indigenous groups has deteriorated rapidly under Bolsonaro.

“Historically, all governments have adopted plans for economic growth and national development based on the denial of land rights […] The difference with the Bolsonaro government is that today we have a declared enemy. Incitement to hatred, violence, and attacks are now part of the government’s official agenda,” she says.

Protests against the treatment of indigenous groups have accelerated since Jair Bolsonaro came to power. Photo: Shutterstock

Bolsonaro’s discourse poses a major threat to indigenous peoples, Guajajara believes: “He openly says he won’t demarcate indigenous lands, which greatly supports forces contrary to indigenous rights. His rhetoric has sparked conflicts, which have increased by over 200 per cent in 2019.”

Data from the Indigenous Missionary Council, an NGO, claims there were 160 invasions of indigenous lands in Brazil between January and September 2019, compared to 109 invasions during all of 2018.

The indigenous leader is clear about the challenges facing Brazil’s indigenous communities: “Bolsonaro is a dangerous government, a threat to indigenous peoples. He needs to understand and respect our different ways of life and cultures. At this moment, all this is threatened by this government’s attempts to deny this diversity and assimilate us all into a single societal model, a single production model.”

She is equally critical of the role agribusiness plays in driving deforestation, land conflicts and violations of indigenous rights. She highlighted the damage caused by the indiscriminate use of pesticides, the climate impact of agribusiness, and the threat to communities’ food sovereignty when production is often focused on commodity exports to global markets.

“Agribusiness is the main vector of deforestation,” she says. “It also has a great impact on the culture of indigenous peoples, local communities, rubber tappers and other rural peoples, because it always ends up driving people out of their lands.”

Almost 10,000sq km of the Brazilian Amazon were deforested between August 2018 and July 2019 – a near 30 per cent increase on the previous year and the highest level recorded since 2008, according to data published by the National Institute for Space Research (INPE), a Brazilian federal agency.

INPE data also shows that deforestation within indigenous reservations increased by more than 65 per cent in 2018-2019, while forest loss in protected areas reached the highest levels in more than a decade.

When asked about Europe’s responsibility towards environmental conservation and indigenous rights as a major importer of Brazilian agricultural commodities, a stark response came.

“At this moment, any business, any trade agreement with Brazil is certain to lead to an increase in deforestation, the denial of indigenous peoples’ land rights, forest fires and the destruction of ecosystems,” Guajajara warns. “This campaign that we are now bringing to Europe is to say that we need to stop the shedding of indigenous blood to irrigate the commodities that arrive here.”

An aerial shot of devastation caused by the recent Amazon fires. Photo: Greenpeace

She is supportive of new European legislation banning commodity imports linked to deforestation, land conflicts and rights violations. “We’ve been talking to parliamentarians and ordinary people so they can pressure lawmakers to pass laws that ensure the traceability of commodities and penalties for companies that do not respect rights.”

Yet concerns remain for the lack of clauses in the Mercosur-EU trade agreement that could guarantee sanctions against firms implicated in violations.

“It is clear that we will be the most impacted because these lands are being negotiated to be exploited by companies,” she says. 

“So Europe does have a lot to do with all this destruction that is happening in Brazil and if these relationships are maintained, it is because Europe is not really concerned with human rights or preserving the environment.”

The delegation also met with businesses during their European tour. Guajajara expressed frustration at their responses. 

“It’s quite worrying because we don’t feel a commitment, an awareness on the part of these [companies] that things need to change. I think we have a long way to go to raise their awareness.”

Nevertheless, Guajajara voiced hope about the indigenous struggle in Brazil and elsewhere. She highlighted the crucial role women have played. 

“This year in Brazil we held the first indigenous women’s march. Women took to the streets to show that we do not agree, do not accept unfair laws that violate our rights, that destroy our lands, our lives.

“We are at a very special moment. While the 21st Century is a century of many things, it is also the century of women.”

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