Indigenous representation is the biggest in history. 

…but the Amazon ends up without an Indigenous, progressive congress member.

Amazônia Legal (representing 9 states, in the Amazon basin) has the largest part of the Indigenous and Indigenous female candidates in Brazil, but they elected only one representative, which is a Bolsonarista (Bolsonaro supporter). Candidates point to unequal funds, the purchase of votes and violence as the reason for their loss.

By Martina Medina

This article was produced with support of the Rainforest Journalism Fund in collaboration with the  Pulitzer Center

Featured Image – Vanda Witoto, federal deputy candidate for Amazonas, in her house, at Parque das Tribos, in Manaus. To the left, Maracá, an instrument for protection and ancestral reconnection, which is brought by her to all political meetings. 

Vanda Witoto (Rede-AM) covered circa three thousand kilometers during her campaign for federal deputy. The journey (that included nine municipalities and twelve Indigenous lands (IL) in Amazonas) was made by waterway, land transport, and commercial airplane. Wanda, after losing the election, evaluated that the fund (R$1,1 million) was insufficient to announce her candidature in a state of 1,57 million km² (equivalent to 6 times the State of São Paulo) and 164 ILs.

Eight positions for the Federal Chamber in Amazonas were filled, one of the candidates had received R$1,96 million for his campaign (almost double of that received by Vanda). All the winners are men, identifying as white or brown, from conservative parties, and have already occupied a political position before. Saullo Vianna (União-AM), the third most voted for candidate, could travel five times more than Vanda. His fund was R$ 1,5 million higher than the Indigenous candidate, which allowed him to visit fifteen municipalities in the same week, close to the end of the campaign. For the final leg of the election race, Saullo rented three aero taxis per R$ 171,000, eight times the total amount spent by Vanda for transportation.

Federal deputy candidate for Amazonas, Vanda Witoto and her team walk at a fair, during the campaign, Manaus East Zone. Credits: Gabriela Portilho

Nurse and pedagogue, Vanda, was the first Amazonian to be vaccinated and became a symbol against COVID-19 during the oxygen crisis in Manaus after she built a care unit in Parque das Tribos, where more than thirty Indigenous ethnicities live. In her first election, she got 25.000 votes, the highest result of Rede-Psol (her political party) in Amazonas. In the federation elections, that Vanda took part in, her votes were six times smaller than the 200.000 votes of the electoral ratio necessary to be elected a federal deputy in Amazonas, though. 

Vanda mentions that the other difficulty in the region is the purchase of votes. Candidates with more funds take advantage of the Indigenous and riverside community’s struggle to vote (due to mobility issues), offering fuel in exchange for votes. Maial Kaiapó (Rede-PA) witnessed the same dynamic in Pará, where she covered circa 4500 km during her campaign for federal deputy.

In the state, thirty ILs have voting machines which represents less than half of the Indigenous land in Pará. The Election Regional Tribunal of Pará (TRE-PA) requires a minimum number of eligible voters to have a voting machine installed. According to the agency, the Código Eleitoral provides the voters transportation to the voting place when necessary, however this does not happen in ILs.

Besides understanding the necessities and the reality of the local community and campaigning for votes, Vanda and Maial use the trip to bring information about electoral legislation to Indigenous communities. “A lot of relatives did not know that the purchase of votes is illegal”, says Maial. She is a lawyer and worked in public organizations, such as Fundação Nacional do Índio (Funai) and has a strong heritage in the Indigenous movement.

Pará Federal deputy candidate, Maial Kaiapó stands next to her uncle and aunt, in Ourilândia do Norte, southeast region of Pará. Credits: Gabriela Portilho

She is the granddaughter of the Raoni tribal chief and her father, Paulinho Paiakan, was one of the leading figures fighting for the inclusion of Indigenous rights in the 1988 Constitution. Maial’s candidature is also one of the signs of the increasing feminine leadership in the Kaiapó community, which has chosen O-é Kaiapó, her sister, as the first female tribal chief in the subgroup Mẽbêngôkre, in the south of Pará, in 2021.

Maial has received R$ 451.000 for her campaign, four times less than the average funds of the three most voted for federal deputies in the state. The small fund, besides restricting her mobility in the territory, also stop her investing in her own security. Being against illegal mining and Amazon Forest preservation in the deforestation belt, Maial was cautioned to not have her political agenda released in advance and to not spread publicity material in the south and southeast region of the state, where president Jair Bolsonaro got 79% of the votes in the first round of elections.

Besides promising to not acknowledge IL (which would make it a legally protected area possessed exclusively by Indigenous people), Bolsonaro defends, in public, mining activities and agrobusiness in the Amazon region and his government has initiated draft laws allowing economic activities, such as mining in ILs. Under the current government, the Amazon deforestation reached 31 thousand km², an area bigger than Alagoas state, according to Instituto de Pesquisas Espaciais (Inpe) data.

View of Marabá region, where Maial Kaiapó, federal deputy candidate for Pará state, did most of her campaigning.  In the image it is possible to see huge areas of deforestation, mining, and fire outbreak in the region. Credits: Gabriela Portilho

Record of candidatures

A record for Indigenous candidatures was broken in 2022 and Maial and Vanda were part of it. According to Tribunal Superior Eleitoral (TSE), 164 people identifying as Indigenous ran for the legislative branch in the whole country. The increase in candidatures is explained by the Indigenous mobilization against the historical attacks to their rights, intensified under the current government. But there still exist some people identifying as Indigenous, that are part of conservative parties and do not have knowledge of the Articulação dos Povos Indígenas do Brasil (Apib), including the current vice-president Hamilton Mourão (Republicanos-RS), elected senator.

Among all the 164 candidates, 73 are women, 44,5% of the total – the biggest portion of female candidatures of all ethnicities. There was a 75% increase from the 2018 elections and a 189% increase compared to 2014 elections, when the Justiça Eleitoral began collecting the identification of candidates based on ethnicity and skin color. The increase of indigenous men was not that high: 89% and 33% compared to 2014 and 2018, respectively.

Federal deputy candidate in Pará state, Maial Kaiapó, talks with residents and leaders of Kaikoturé hamlet, of the Gavião Parkatêjê tribe, southwest of Pará, during her campaign. Credits: Gabriela Portilho

According to specialists, their increasing interest in political institutions is the result of improved education and the women becoming leaders of the principal entities within the Indigenous movement. Women are also responsible for activities such as food cultivation and water acquisition, which allow them to see the impacts of climate change in a more direct way in their daily routine. Therefore, they have been impelled to occupy the front line for the defense of their territory.

To the left Maial Kaiapó, federal deputy candidate in Pará state, at her uncles’ house in Ourilândia do Norte, Southwest of Pará. To the right, her aunt holds jenipapo, fruit used to produce body paint, that represents protection to kaiapós.

Nine Indigenous were elected this year, and five of them are women. Amazônia Legal contains almost half of the female Indigenous candidates. However, only one of them was elected: the bolsonarista lieutenant Silvia Waiãpi (PL-AP). She was elected with a little bit more than 5.000 votes, the smallest poll result of all the elected Indigenous. She was boosted by PL and will represent Amapá in the Federal Chamber.

Silvia’s election is questioned by the Electoral Public Ministry, which accuses her of paying for facial harmonization (a beauty procedure) with R$9.000 of her R$127.000 campaign funds. Silvia did not accept the request to participate in an interview for this article. In a video released on her social media, she said she will legally prove that the evidence against her is forged.

Lack of priority

Besides the challenges of announcing a candidature in a continental territory, the inequality of funds and the votes purchase, Vanda indicates that Amazonian Indigenous women face another problem: candidatures from Amazônia Legal states are not prioritized by the Indigenous movement like candidatures from big urban centers of Brazil are.

Apib recruited Sônia Guajajara (SP) and Célia Xakriabá (MG) to run for election, both federal deputies by Psol now. The organization released thirty candidatures to state and federal legislative in twenty states with a common agenda to defend environmental and Indigenous rights. Sixteen of them were from states of Amazônia Legal and 25 were feminine candidatures, called the “Bancada do Cocar” (Delegation of Crowns).

The elected federal deputy Sônia Guajajara in her electoral committee in Vila Madalena, in São Paulo. Credits: Gabriela Portilho  

“We were in Brasília during the creation of ‘Bancada do Cocar’, but, in reality, it did not have any real reinforcement of the candidates, especially from the North of Brazil”, said Vanda. According to her, Apib and regional organizations that compose it, such as Coordenação das Organizações Indígenas da Amazônia Brasileira (Coiab), had few announcements of Amazonian candidatures on their social media, for instance.

“Electing Sônia and Célia is a very important step but concrete actions are missing for Indigenous in the Amazon”, states the Amazonian, asking from Indigenous organizations an equal backing of Indigenous candidatures, especially since the population of Indigenous people is larger there than in the rest of the country.

Kleber Karipuna, executive coordinator of Apib, says the organization did everything that was possible in the face of strategy limitations, people and funds. The electoral process involves factors that the Indigenous movement cannot control, such as the electoral funds distribution, internal disputes regarding party priorities and the proportional voting system.

The way the system works is one of the reasons for the non-reelection of Joênia Wapichana (Rede-RR), the first indigenous federal deputy after a 36-year interval. She obtained 11.221 votes, more than 8.491 compared to the previous election, which put her in front of the three elected candidates in number of absolute votes. But the Rede-Psol federation did not reach the 36.000 electoral quota, impeding her election.

Kleber evaluates the outcome of the project “Aldear a Política” as positive, however he reinforces that Apib will take the criticism in consideration to make changes for the next elections. One of the goals to strengthen the candidatures in Amazon from 2023, according to him, is to amplify the political formation of local leaderships, increasing their knowledge about the electoral context, and the knowledge of the Indigenous voters on the importance of electing relatives that defend socio-environmental interests. Maial and Vanda also see the political formation as essential to reverting the voting result and plan to integrate projects to this end.

Urban and non-Indigenous vote

Although wished for and pursued by Maial and Vanda, the Indigenous votes would be insufficient to elect both. In Amazonas, the biggest Indigenous state of Brazil, Vanda would need all 200.000 indigenous to vote for her to come close to occupy a chair in the Federal Chamber. In Pará, 60.000 Indigenous (total Indigenous population) correspond to only 25% of the votes required to be elected as federal deputy, whereas TRE-PA only counts 10.000 eligible Indigenous voters in the state.

Federal deputy candidate for Amazonas, Vanda Witoto, attends celebrations of Amazon’s Day and Indigenous Women in Parque das Nações, a multiethnic community in Manaus. Credits: Gabriela Portilho

Maial got 6.628 votes in the state. The voting obtained by Rede-Psol in Pará was 100.000 votes less than the electoral quota of 256.000 necessary to elect one federal deputy there. Vanda made an extensive urban campaign in Manaus, focusing on non-Indigenous voters, and ended up having more votes than Maial, who concentrated her journey on the rural area of her state. Maial was also impaired by the reduced campaign time after needing a week to recover from malaria, contracted during the electoral race.

Teacher of indigenous education Jõprãme Parkatêjê attends together with other women a conversation circle with Maial Kaiapó during her visit to the Kaikoturé hamlet, of the Gavião Parkatêjê tribe. Credits: Gabriela Portilho

Sônia Guajajara has Amazonian origins, she is nationally and internationally recognized for her defense of the socio-environmental agenda. She made a strategic decision to launch her candidature in São Paulo, where she was elected with more than 156.000 votes. That is almost half of the electoral quota necessary for Federal Chamber election by the state. The federation Rede-Psol in São Paulo, headed by Guilherme Boulos, had more than two million votes, satisfying the necessary requirement to guarantee the Indigenous leaders chair.

The elected federal deputy Sônia Guajajara in her electoral committee in Vila Madalena, in São Paulo. Credits: Gabriela Portilho  

Different from states in the Amazon region, transportation in São Paulo is easier and faster. Besides that, the voters have better economic conditions, which makes it possible to attract votes without immediate compensation, such as spot in daycare. This is explained by political scientist Débora Thomé, researcher of the study +Representatividade, from Instituto Update. She confirms: “Marielle Franco was not elected by Maré, the community where she was from, in the south zone of Rio de Janeiro. People from rich regions need less from the government, so they can vote for an ideology and big causes.”

“Thus, an Indigenous Amazon woman can be elected easier in São Paulo than in the states of her own region, where most of the population is part of a client network with their deputies”, says Débora adding that the Amazon electorate, dominated by agrobusiness and by mining, ends up voting mostly for candidates that defend this type of business. Six states in the region elected bolsonarista governors in 2022.

Specialists indicate being elected by São Paulo should not impede Sônia to fight for Amazon in Congress. “The Amazon defense is a Brazilian fight and one of all the Indigenous people”, states ex-environmental minister Marina Silva, from Acre, who was also elected federal deputy by São Paulo this year. She mentions her intention to defend plans for the benefit of the Amazon biome, like a tax reform to incentivize the bioeconomy, together with “Bancada do Cocar” and progressives.

However, doing this will not be easy, since Marina, Sônia and Célia will face an even more conservative Congress in 2023. Just the Amazon group alone lost thirteen deputies considered “green”, according to the Farol Verde platform. In the Chamber, deputies in favor of the climate and socioenvironmental agenda are 43% against 48% of the bolsonarista group. The scales should balance a little bit more with Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s election, who promised to fight against illegal mining in ILs, to acknowledge and outline IL territory, reinforce Indigenous organizations, and include Indigenous ministers in his government.

Fire at PA-160, part of the road that connects Marabá to Ourilância do Norte, taken during the campaign of Maial Kaiapó. Credits: Gabriela Portilho

“Chico Mendes could not have been a deputy in Acre”, says Marina about the difficulties faced by progressive candidates in an Amazon dominated by patronage, mining, and agribusiness. “It is harder where the conflict is ongoing, especially for those who are known to be against it. The creation of strategies to overcome this unequal fight is our big challenge”, she concludes.

Hõpryre Hamlet, of indigenous tribe Gavião Parkatêjê, destroyed by fire. In the back, energy transmission from Eletronorte that cross the Indigenous territory. Credits: Gabriela Portilho

Apib intends to decrease the gap between the Indigenous candidates of the economic centers and other Brazilian regions, committing to elect more representatives in legislation assemblies, municipality chambers and executive branches. In Amazon state assemblies, for example, projects to allow mining in IL are being discussed. The organization also plans to bring to parliament the goal of a unified Indigenous vote, with Célia and Sônia in Congress. The objective is that states with big Indigenous populations have guaranteed representation. “In Roraima, we have eight federal deputies of parties that historically vote against Indigenous rights”, Apib explains. “This does not reflect us and it is one of our goals to fight against this in Congress.”

Originally published in Portuguese in Le Monde Diplomatique Brasil.

Translation by the Sinchi Foundation

Coordination: Gabriela Portilho e Martina Medina

Data journalist: Cecília do Lago e Martina Medina

Infographics: Ana Beatriz Pádua

Indigenous consultancy: Olinda Muniz

Photography: Gabriela Portilho

Text: Martina Medina

Specialists consulted: Dário Kopenawa, vice-president of Hutukara Associação Yanomami; Gersem Baniwa, anthropologist, philosopher and Educação Escolar Indígena do Ministério da Educação (MEC) general coordinator; Ingrid Farias, program +Representatividade coordinator, from Instituto Update; Márcio Santilli, fouding partner at Instituto Socioambiental (ISA); Tauá Pires, coordinator at Oxfam Brasil, in Racial and Gender Justice field; and Teresa Harari, MCs. Public and Government Administration by Fundação Getúlio Vargas (FGV)