"The Fight for Mother Earth is the Mother of all Fights."
From growing up in an Indigenous territory in the Amazon rainforest, she has fought her way to becoming Brazil's first Minister for Indigenous Peoples. But Sônia Guajajara has not lost her connection with nature.
In her 48 years, Sônia Guajajara has achieved what no other Indigenous person has done before her; From growing up in a traditional community in the Ararióia territory in the Amazon, via various political positions and leadership roles in the Indigenous movement and eventually international recognition, she was appointed to head president Lula's new Indigenous Ministry in January 2023.
"A historic moment", she said on the first day of 2023, as she accepted the role as Brazil's first Minister of Indigenous Affairs.
In the 500 years that have passed since the Portuguese first set foot in Brazil, no other Indigenous representative has come closer to state power.
“We receive all these plaudits for our role in protecting the environment during election campaigns or from governments. But it never goes beyond praise. We’ve never actually been invited to actively take part in governing. This is the first time," Sônia Guajajara said.
It has been a long battle. But neither the political loss against former president Jair Bolsonaro nor death threats from his supporters stopped Sônia. On the contrary, as head of APIB, Brazil's largest indigenous organization, she has addressed the UN in Geneva, challenged the EU's import policies and spoken to world leaders during the climate summits in Britain and Egypt. She has sharply criticized rich countries' negligence in the negotiations for a global nature agreement in Canada in December last year. In May 2022, Sônia Guajajara was on Time's list of the 100 most influential people in the world.
What is it that she wants us to understand? That there is no battle more important than taking care of the Earth. Or said with Sônia's characteristic eloquence:
“The fight for Mother Earth is the mother of all fights!”
Debating and dancing
Sônia from the Guajajara people towers only 1.5 meters above the ground, but her presence can move a sea of people in front of a stage. Like during Alicia Keys' concert in Rio, or during COP26 in Glasgow, when she asked tens of thousands of soaked and freezing climate protesters to "reforest our minds, reforest our thoughts and reforest our hearts,"
Rainforest Foundation Norway caught a glimpse of her just before she was to take part in a panel debate in Glasgow on one of the issues close to her heart: climate and feminism. She is tired. Not only because her program is as dense as an untouched rainforest, but because one must have balance in life. Sônia reveals with a broad smile that she has been up all night dancing, taking a few more dance steps in the hallway outside the conference room.
From the stage, she is razor sharp, condemning subsidies to the extractive industry and questioning the effects of "Article 6" in the Paris Agreement on emissions trading.
The fight for Mother Earth requires every tool in the toolbox; major political negotiations, but also dance, the practice of culture and rituals that create a community and a connection to nature.
“The essence of Indigenous peoples’ (culture) is community, and respect for nature and ancestors,” she told Believe Earth.
In the interview, she emphasized that, although she is wary of generalizations, she believed that modern humans have lost contact with nature, and have instead developed a close relationship with consumption. Community has been replaced by the pursuit of individual identity, and this has created an abyss in people's lives.
Part of the earth
A fundamental principle in many indigenous cultures is that there is no separation between nature and humans. The slogan of a massive indigenous women's march held in Brazil in 2019, led by Sônia, among others, echoes this view: "Territory: Our Body, Our Spirit".
“There is no way to separate the fight for Indigenous rights from the fight for environmental rights because we see ourselves as being the land itself. We are part of the earth and everything that affects the earth directly affects us. The territory is the sacred place of life, existence, culture and biodiversity. It is the place that sustains the body and anchors our spirit,” she told Vogue last year.
“We defend nature as our mother who gives us food, medicine and protects our culture.”
And when your mother speaks to you, you have to listen.
“For us, the wind speaks, the animals speak, the water speaks, the earth screams and we understand and interpret these signs,” she said.
The threats to the territories
Sônia grew up surrounded by trees and drank water straight from the river. But the rainforest area she comes from has been under constant pressure. Most recently from loggers, drug traffickers and actors trying to acquire land illegally. Between 2000 and 2018, as many as 42 people from the Guajajara people were killed. While Sônia was traveling in Europe in 2019 to talk about these threats, a young leader of the Guajajara people, Paulo Paulino, was killed. He was only 26 years old.
Sônia immediately commented:
- Everyone who defends their territory is in the line of fire.. They are targets for the greed of economic power, whose only concern is profits. We stand together. We will not allow our people to keep dying in this fight for everyone’s lives. We count on the support of all people who fight for justice so that we can put an end to this violence. Many are gone, many. And they cry for justice. We are here for those who believe that things can get better, that a better quality of life for our people is possible. If it is up to us, the future of the next generations will be secured. We will keep fighting.
The fight must be collective
And it is here, in the midst of the fight, that Sônia Guajajara is thriving. She has said she was born an activist and has spent her whole life fighting against what she calls the invisibility of Indigenous people. She believes that a lack of knowledge and understanding of indigenous peoples can lead to dangerous alienation.
When asked by Vogue what made her happy, she replied:
“For me, the fight is the lightest place. It’s where I find friendship. Everyone is fighting together, and when we are together, we encourage each other and give each other strength, passing on energy from one to another. This makes me very happy, the trust in unity and in the collective struggle.
The sense of community, with one another and with nature, runs as a common thread throughout her work, as she eloquently explains in an interview with the newspaper Brasil de Fato:
“The fight must become more collective. People must raise their political and ecological awareness and understand that it is necessary to connect, or reconnect, with Mother Earth. We must clearly understand that it is Mother Earth who guarantees sustenance and life on our planet.”
- 48 years old
- Ethnicity: The indigenous Guajajara people of the northeastern Amazon
- Born and raised in Ararióia Indigenous Land, located at the northeastern edge of the Brazilian Amazon
- First Minister of Indigenous Peoples in Brazilian history. Previously coordinator for the indigenous organization APIB, Rainforest Foundation Norway's partner organization for many years
- One of Sônia's first appearances in international media was during an RFN-organised demonstration in Oslo, in connection with former Brazilian president Michel Temer's visit in 2017
- Included in the Time100 list of the most influential people of 2022, as chosen by Time Magazine
- Political issues include indigenous rights, women's rights, social justice, biodiversity, climate, and rainforest protection