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COP28: Sônia Guajajara, Brazil’s First Indigenous Peoples Minister, on Climate & a Just Transition

Web ExclusiveDecember 18, 2023
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Image Credit: UNFCCC/Flickr

When Democracy Now! was covering the COP28 U.N. climate summit in Dubai, we spoke to Sônia Guajajara, the head of the largest Indigenous delegation in the history of the climate talks. Guajajara is Brazil’s first Indigenous cabinet minister and the country’s first-ever minister of Indigenous peoples. In our full interview, she discussed her goals for the summit and in Brazil, and said the world is in “a state of emergency” and that Indigenous peoples are on the frontlines of the climate crisis. “Investment is needed, financing is needed, and protection, so that we can all protect the planet.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman.

When we were in Dubai at the U.N. climate summit, I spoke to the head of the largest Indigenous delegation in the history of the COP, Sônia Guajajara, Brazil’s first Indigenous cabinet minister. She’s the minister of Indigenous peoples. I began by asking her to talk about the significance of this moment.

AMY GOODMAN: This is your first U.N. climate summit as the minister of Indigenous peoples of Brazil. Can you talk about the significance of this moment, and also what it means to be the first minister of Indigenous peoples in Brazil?

SÔNIA GUAJAJARA: [translated] Yes. It’s the first time there’s an Indigenous minister participating in the COP. I’m very proud of this big step that we Indigenous peoples of Brazil are taking. As minister of the Ministry of Indigenous Peoples, it’s the first time we’re here participating on behalf of the federal government. For us, it’s very important, very significant, because it’s the result of a big struggle, a long struggle of the Indigenous peoples to occupy spaces, to become more visible, and to bring Indigenous peoples into playing a role as a protagonist in confronting the climate crisis.

AMY GOODMAN: What needs to happen in Brazil right now? And talk about what you have inherited, what Indigenous people of Brazil have dealt with before, during the presidency of Bolsonaro.

SÔNIA GUAJAJARA: [translated] We’re in a moment of transition, going back to democracy in Brazil, rebuilding the rights that were taken away from us in these past few years, and strengthening actions and spaces for the participation of civil society in the federal government. And so, now we need to rebuild and strengthen public policies in health, education, fighting racism and environmental racism, and being able to have more specific measures to reduce the emissions that are causing these changes.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about what President Lula is doing right now when it comes to Indigenous peoples’ rights, when it comes to extractive industries, restoring the Amazon rainforest, ending deforestation in the Amazon by 2030?

SÔNIA GUAJAJARA: [translated] President Lula created the Ministry of Indigenous Peoples. For the first time in 55 years, our National Foundation of Indigenous Peoples has an Indigenous president. We’re also running the Indigenous peoples’ health services. This year’s concrete actions were the removal of the invaders from the Yanomami territories, which significantly reduced deforestation in that territory. We also managed to get the illegal cattle ranchers out of the Apyterewa territory, and of the Parakanã people in the state of Pará. With only 11 Indigenous people demarcated in 10 years, and now eight Indigenous lands have been recognized. So we’re in the process of advancing with protection of Indigenous peoples’ rights and protecting these territories, which is important for reducing deforestation and achieving zero deforestation in the Amazon by 2030.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about the significance of the United States as historically the largest emitter of greenhouse gases? What difference it makes, U.S. policy, to the people of Brazil, to the Indigenous people of Brazil? What would you like to most see the United States do or change?

SÔNIA GUAJAJARA: [translated] The United States needs to have more ambitious goals here in the climate discussions and also support those countries that need financial support to protect their forests, to protect their Indigenous peoples and their traditional communities. It is necessary that the wealthiest countries, which emit the most, should help those countries that don’t have sufficient resources to pay the bill in order to adopt specific concrete measures.

AMY GOODMAN: Minister Guajajara, how does it change things in Brazil to have your voice, the voice of Indigenous people, for the first time ever included, represented in the Brazilian government?

SÔNIA GUAJAJARA: [translated] Here at the climate conference, it’s the first time that there is an Indigenous minister. It is unprecedented. It is also the first time that an Indigenous person headed up the Brazilian delegation. So I feel very honored to represent Minister Marina Silva here for these five days as head of the Brazilian delegation, speaking directly with the negotiators and participating directly in high-level discussions, playing a proactive role and bringing the voice, which is not only the voice of the Indigenous peoples of Brazil, but the voice of the Indigenous peoples worldwide. There are many Indigenous peoples here. And it’s been recognized that it’s very important to have a ministry, to have a woman minister, participating in this forum, making decisions. For us, this is historic.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about where you were born, where you grew up?

SÔNIA GUAJAJARA: [translated] I was born in Araribóia, an Indigenous territory in the state of Maranhão in the Brazilian Amazon. It has several different Amazonian biomes, including the Cerrado. The Amazon is also coastal. When I was born, there were still many forests. And today one can notice the drastic change. We’ve lost more than 60% of our native plants in the forest. So climate change is not just a problem of the future. We’re experiencing the consequences right now. And that is why we must proceed down this road by occupying these spaces, such as the ministry, and also stepping up commitments and accomplishment of goals.

AMY GOODMAN: And can you also talk about what you’re wearing? Now, normally I don’t ask a woman that question, but your headdress is so magnificent. Talk about the feathers, both on your head and also that are draped over your shoulders, and your earrings.

SÔNIA GUAJAJARA: [translated] We continue to use our traditional clothing and other items. But we are at risk of not being able to use the accessories that mark our identities, because of the climate crisis. We bring along our symbols of the people we bond to. And this also reflects how we live harmoniously with nature and how we use what is available to us. So, we live with the forest, the animals and the water, and we get from that everything we need, whether it’s protected water to drink, food to eat, or the clothing we wear.

AMY GOODMAN: Minister Guajajara, the Brazilian Supreme Court in September blocked efforts, led by the agribusiness-led lawmakers, to enforce a time limit for making claims to ancestral territory. The case argued Indigenous groups were only entitled to land they physically occupied when the 1988 Brazilian Constitution was signed. Many Indigenous communities were expelled from their ancestral territory over the course of decades, including during the military dictatorship. What’s the significance of this decision?

SÔNIA GUAJAJARA: [translated] The Supreme Court of Brazil made a very important decision, which was to declare unconstitutional the thesis of a time limit. However, the Brazilian Congress continues to insist on this thesis establishing 1988 as the baseline year for recognizing and irregularizing Indigenous territories. And we continue to struggle against the adoption of that thesis at the National Congress. President Lula vetoed this thesis on time limits, and other points that are in that bill that violate rights, as well. And now we’re waging a battle for the National Congress to not override the vetoes by President Lula. That time limit is not going to resolve the legal insecurity we have in Brazil with respect to possession of land. We need to go forward with the demarcation of Indigenous lands. Indeed, it’s one of the most important measures for halting climate change.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about violence against Indigenous environmental defenders? It’s not only an issue in Brazil, but all over the world, the number of environmentalists — like in Honduras, Berta Cáceres — who are being murdered. How is President Lula dealing with this? How does this need to be dealt with?

SÔNIA GUAJAJARA: [translated] We have just emerged from four years in which there was a major incentive for attacking Indigenous peoples, invading their territories. There was an increase in violence that was quite considerable in these past few years. But now we’re working with President Lula to fight that violence, together with the Ministry of Human Rights, together with the Ministry for Racial Equality and the Ministry of the Environment, because those attacks stemmed from land conflicts, invasion of territories, illegal logging, illegal prospecting. These are actions that we’re now carrying out in a coordinated fashion with other ministries, the Ministry of Justice, with the Federal Police, with the Environmental Institute, Indigenous Affairs Institute, all working together to end violence in the territories and in the frontier areas.

AMY GOODMAN: What is your message to Indigenous peoples around the world? And what do you want to see come out of this U.N. climate summit?

SÔNIA GUAJAJARA: [translated] For the Indigenous peoples, we need to prepare for the road that we need to head down in order to reach COP30, which is going to be held in Belém in the Brazilian Amazon. We also need to prepare so that we can have a direct impact on the debates that unfold here at the COP. And oftentimes we are not even close to it. It’s very important that we Indigenous peoples participate in these forums and there’s a group that is directly on top of this. So we are here so that Indigenous peoples can have more space in decision-making. And the general message is that we have little time left. The big leaders, government leaders, need not only to take on commitments here, but also to understand that we are in a state of emergency. In order to emerge from that state of emergency, investment is needed, financing is needed, and protection, so that we can all protect the planet.

AMY GOODMAN: President Lula still has plans to do massive offshore oil drilling. As the first Indigenous peoples minister, do you condemn this move? Are you weighing in on this? Do you support this?

SÔNIA GUAJAJARA: [translated] Look, in Brazil, we’re at a moment of transition to clean energies, as well. We’re building that together. President Lula is committed to making that transition. And now we’re using what is available to us, such as the wind and the water, so that we can emerge from the energy we’re using today, based on destruction, and so that we can have renewable energy that protects the peoples and that does not destroy the environment.

AMY GOODMAN: Last question: Earlier this year, Ecuador voted to ban oil drilling and protected Amazon lands. Will you be pushing for Brazil to take similar steps?

SÔNIA GUAJAJARA: [translated] We’re involved in that right now. President Lula is aware that we need to go forward with this transition. And together with the Ministry of Environment, we’re working to act together and more quickly so that the transition can take place. We urgently need renewable energy. Only with such a change will it be possible for us to overcome the emergency situation we find ourselves in today.

AMY GOODMAN: Sônia Guajajara is Brazil’s first Indigenous cabinet minister. She’s the minister of Indigenous peoples. We were speaking at the U.N. climate summit in Dubai. I’m Amy Goodman. Thanks so much for joining us.

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