Brazil votes: Indigenous candidates target Bolsonaro stronghold

Cheers and applause greet Joenia Wapichana as she arrives at a political campaign event in the Raposa Serra do Sol Indigenous territory in northern Brazil.

In 2018, Wapichana became the country’s first Indigenous woman elected to Congress; today, she seeks a second term for the Amazonian state of Roraima, where far-right President Jair Bolsonaro has more support than in any other state, according to recent polls.

But Wapichana says Bolsonaro has been a disaster for Indigenous communities across Brazil, as his pro-mining rhetoric fuels the growth of illegal gold mining operations on Indigenous lands.

“From the moment he opens his mouth to talk about the absurd, illegal, illicit issues that he supports, he puts the lives of the Indigenous people at risk,” she told Al Jazeera in a rare interview with foreign media.

Highlighting the importance of Indigenous political representation, she added: “Thirteen percent of Brazil is Indigenous territories, yet in Congress, they make decisions without our participation.”

Indigenous advocacy groups hail Wapichana as a trailblazer, and this year, a record number of Indigenous candidates — more than 180 — have registered to run in Brazil’s October 2 elections. Yet, with campaigns on shoestring budgets, lacking traditional political party structure and wealthy donors, many face an uphill battle.

In Roraima, nearly two-thirds of people support Bolsonaro’s re-election, while just 18 percent back national frontrunner and left-wing former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, according to the latest opinion polls by Ipec.

“It’s a frontier state with a mainly conservative population that mostly shares the president’s views on family, land use and Indigenous rights,” political scientist Paulo Racoski, who teaches at the Federal Institute of Roraima, told Al Jazeera.

He highlighted several of Bolsonaro’s past claims, including that Indigenous people have too much land for their population numbers and that if he were “king” of Roraima, its economy would rival that of Japan or China on account of the state’s mineral wealth.

Searching for El Dorado

In the 16th century, Spanish conquistadors scoured Roraima for the mythical, gold-rich kingdom of El Dorado. In the late 20th century, thousands of migrants from across Brazil, and especially the poorer northeastern region, flocked here in search of opportunities. Many ended up working as gold miners on the Yanomami Indigenous territory, which, since Bolsonaro’s election, has seen a new uptick in illegal mining and related violence.

Today, while there are no legal gold mines operating in Roraima, a seven-metre-high monument to miners outside the legislative assembly in the capital Boa Vista is emblematic of the state’s relationship with mining.

“Politically, it’s tough for a candidate to confront the interests of wildcat mining in the state,” Alisson Marugal, a federal prosecutor based in Roraima, told Al Jazeera. “It plays a large part in the economy.”

Last October, Bolsonaro visited an illegal mining site in Raposa Serra do Sol and touted a proposed bill to legalise mining and other industrial-scale activities on Indigenous lands.

“If you want to plant, you will plant,” the president, wearing an Indigenous headdress, told an assembled crowd. “If you are going to mine, you are going to mine.”

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