Guajajara’s Ministry May Provide Hope to the Yanomami People of Brazil

Brianna Swinford

Amidst the chaos and turmoil currently affecting Indigenous people in Brazil, a momentous stride has been made for Indigenous representation, as Sonia Guajajara was hired as the first minister of Indigenous peoples in Brazil. Guajajara stated that during her first month at work, her “plate was full”(Coletta & Diaz, 2022) already. Much of her concern is directed towards the crisis she defined as genocide facing the Yanomami people, an Indigenous group that occupies the Amazon. Bolsonaro’s government and unwavering hatred toward Indigenous people have contributed to the country’s current state. Largely prolonged and supported under Bolsonaro’s government was illegal mining in these territories, which has led to a high frequency of malnutrition and diseases such as pneumonia and malaria. The extremely toxic compounds required for gold extraction have contaminated the lands where Indigenous people cultivate food. Children are especially at risk for disease from the compounds, and in 2022, 209 lives were lost in the Yanomami territory from January through September, almost half of them being children below 5 years of age from “preventable causes”’(Coletta & Diaz, 2022). An Indigenous sociologist, Pagu Rodrigues, of the Fulni-o people, an ethnic group in northeastern Brazil, states that “The Yanomami scenario is not just one of a humanitarian crisis, it is a scenario of genocide. It was a thoughtful policy, carried out by the Bolsonaro government to ensure the extermination of a people.”(Rebello 2022)

In a NACLA article written by Daniela Rebello on February 22, 2020, titled “Brazil’s First-Ever Ministry of Indigenous Peoples Launched Amid a State of Emergency”, Rebello offers information about the new ministry following Bolsonaro’s presidency and the challenges Guajajara has to address, preeminently the genocide of the Yanomami people. The journalist describes these obstacles, explaining that “the historic ministry’s first challenges are a large-scale gold mining crackdown and an investigation of genocide against the Yanomami people.” (Rebello 2022) Rebello utilizes direct quotes from experts or people directly involved in the crisis to frame Brazil’s current circumstances. She writes that Estevão Senra, a geographer and analyst at the Instituto Socioambiental, an NGO that focuses on the protection of Indigenous rights in Brazil, believes that “The former president was avowedly anti-Indigenous. He favored illegal activities in Indigenous territories and questioned the legal framework that supports Indigenous territorial rights.”(Rebello 2022) Bolsonaro’s character is depicted articulately through Rebello’s choices to name exactly what he has done. For example, she explains that in April of 2017 during his pre-campaign for the presidency, he assured that he would not demarcate “even a centimeter of Indigenous lands in the country”(Rebello 2022), holding this claim throughout his presidency by defending gold mining in Indigenous land. However, it is emphasized that despite the challenges facing Indigenous communities perpetuated through Bolsonaro’s presidency, there is the possibility for improvement in terms of their rights, treatment, and representation now that Bolsonaro is out. The new president, Luiz Inácio Lula Da Silva, instituted the first Ministry of Indigenous Peoples in Brazil, led by Indigenous leader Sonia Guajajara. Rebello moves on to an overview of the genocide, employing many shocking statistics to amplify the degree of the issue. She writes that on January 20th, SUMAUMA stated that under Bolsonaro, the number of deaths of children in the Yanomami territory below the age of 5 years due to “unavoidable causes”(Rebello 2022) increased by 29 percent. The lives of 570 Indigenous children have been lost in the past 4 years due to hunger, malnutrition, and diseases including diarrhea and worms. Next, Rebello maintains the argument that the Indigenous Ministry is viewed as a historical reparation in response to the rocky past in Brazil and the elimination of its native population. She writes about Guajajara’s recent actions since her employment at the ministry and states that in her first week, Duajajara repealed a law that was going to allow resources for logging on Indigenous lands. Additionally, the new minister initiated the construction of the first hospital in Boa Vista caring for Indigenous communities. Guajajara’s plan to institute a liberation operation to expel over 20,000 illegal miners provides hope for these communities, although it would take time to execute. 

The second article is from the Washington Post on February 18, 2023, by journalists Amanda Coletta and Marina Dias and is titled “Brazil’s first minister of Indigenous peoples starts job amid crises”. They center the article around Guajajara and the importance of her new position as well as the heavy responsibility of the ministry to help the Yanomami people. For example, the journalists positively characterize the minister by writing that “Guajajara was born to parents who couldn’t read in Araribóia in the Amazon region of Maranhão, where she had a front-row seat to the devastation that a changing climate and an indifferent or hostile government can wreak on ecosystems, people and centuries-old traditions.” (Coletta & Diaz, 2022) Whilst providing insight into Guajajara’s demanding role and past experiences, the article also vividly describes the intense famine and neglect of the Yanomami people. The yearnings of Indigenous leaders for their crisis to be solved has continued for years, yet has been ignored or worsened by the Bolsonaro government. The Supreme Court administered investigations on the Bolsonaro government and the alleged genocide amongst corruption committed. The genocide is described as leading to a high frequency of malnutrition and disease like pneumonia and malaria, proliferating due to big pools of standing water from mining. The journalists draw attention to the harsh reality that children are most highly at risk of death through the statistic stated earlier that in 2022, 209 people died in the Yanomami territory from January to September, and that almost half of this population was children under the age of 5. (Coletta & Diaz, 2022) The article is summed up with a quote from Guajara saying, ‘“A health calamity, humanitarian crisis and nutritional crisis. The hole opening in the soil today to exploit gold is the genocide of the Yanomami people.”’(Coletta & Diaz, 2022)

The two articles differ in terms of their focus. The NACLA article is primarily concerned with explaining the perpetuation of abuse and exploitation of Indigenous people by Bolsonaro’s government, how that translates into the current genocide, and the progress made by the Ministry of Indigenous People under Guajajara. Contrastingly, the Washington Post article centers around Guajajara, her accomplishments, and the state of the Yanomami genocide with a focus on Guajajara’s perspective and role in the matter. Additionally, the Washington Post article mostly uses quotes of only one or two wording choices made by the people they refer to. For example, Coletta and Diaz write, “Bolsonaro, a far-right populist, called the size of protected Indigenous lands “abusive” and effectively stopped demarcating the, suggested that the people were less than human, and saw their Amazonian home as a resource to be pillaged, not guarded.”’(Coletta & Diaz, 2022) They only use quotes for “abusive”, whereas the NACLA article mostly quotes to convey whole thoughts or phrases from people whose words are referred to. In terms of quotes, the NACLA article has the strength of incorporating primary perspectives that are complete thoughts rather than fragmented words. The Washington Post article is filled with Coletta and Diaz’s own descriptions of people and events and only a few words from primary sources rather than whole quotations. The variation between the two ways of quoting provides a distinction between the degrees to which the articles capture primary experiences. These differences are important because they allow coverage of the genocide to be highlighted while also both providing in-depth information about contrasting aspects of the situation in Brazil. The first one contextualizes the situation with Bolsonaro’s detriments to the Indigenous community and how the situation has been worsened. The second article provides meaningful information about Guajajara and why her position as the minister is instrumental to the betterment of the lives of Indigenous people in Brazil.

In class, we have discussed the common theme of Indigenous communities facing unimaginable discrimination, exploitation, and resistance from leaders and the general public in many cases. The devastating situation of the Yanomami people encapsulates the atrocities committed against Indigenous people. Films we have analyzed and spoken about such as Ixcanúl and The Motorcycle Diaries have demonstrated the misconceptions and mistreatment towards Indigenous communities in Latin America. However, both of the articles offer something positive through their expressed importance of Guajajara and her position of power in the Ministry of Indigenous People. Her work and representation of Indigenous communities have the potential to improve the unfeasible living conditions of the Yanomami people. 


Rebello, Daniela. “Brazil’s First-Ever Ministry of Indigenous Peoples Launched Amid a State of Emergency.” NACLA, February 22, 2023., Amanda, and Marina Dias. “Brazil’s First Minister of Indigenous Peoples Starts Job amid Crises.” The Washington Post. WP Company, February 19, 2023.

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