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“In 2019, almost 90 percent of the deaths of environmental advocates in Brazil occurred in the Amazon. In less than a year, my own people, the Guajajara people here in Maranhão, lost five guardians of the forests – all of them murdered.”
These are the stark words of Brazilian Indigenous leader Sônia Guajajara, spoken upon receiving the Letelier-Moffitt Human Rights Award in 2020 on behalf of the Association of Indigenous Peoples of Brazil (APIB), which she leads. The APIB, considered the largest umbrella organization representing Brazil’s Indigenous tribes and their 900,000 people, received the award for its activism against greedy corporations and the oppressive Bolsonaro government regime causing death to Brazil’s critically important ecosystems and their native custodians.
“The Indigenous territories are the most preserved territories, and they are not preserved because there is public investment,” she said at a Global Landscapes Forum event in 2019. “They are preserved because we do that with our own way of life, naturally. And we’re paying a heavy price for it. We pay with the lives of our leaders. They continue being criminalized, imprisoned and killed.”
Sônia has often been the target of such offenses herself. In late January of this year, when she was one of the first Indigenous women to receive a COVID-19 vaccination, she became the immediate target of social media falsely portraying her in agony in attempts to dissuade other Indigenous peoples from receiving the vaccine themselves. She has, in return, launched a campaign to urge every Indigenous person to receive the vaccine.
Her opposition is relentless, but so too is her determination to rise above them and bring the voice of Indigenous peoples to the top of global agendas. She regularly advocates for Indigenous rights at U.N. conventions, and in 2018, became the first Indigenous person to run for federal executive office in Brazil when she was a vice-presidential running mate alongside Partido Socialismo e Liberdade, the Socialism and Liberty Party of Brazil, candidate Guilherme Boulos.
Often appearing with her face artfully painted and in vibrant, decorative headdresses, Sônia goes beyond being a representative to an emblem, a manifestation of the many cultures, beliefs and lineages for which she advocates. Her work comes from her soul, and her soul is one of a warrior.
“People have always reinvented themselves. But with every policy adopted by the [Bolsonaro] government, we also reinvent our strategies to fight…The fight for Mother Earth is the mother of all fights.”