Brazil poll: Indigenous neglect, hunger and police violence to determine if hated Bolsonaro retains power

Brazil poll: Indigenous neglect, hunger and police violence to determine if hated Bolsonaro retains power


As she waited her turn to vote earlier this month, Gleyniane Trajano couldn’t help but smile. Aged 17, it was the first time she had ever voted in a national election, where citizens are eligible to cast ballots as young as 16 and obligated to do so from 18.

Trajano is one of 403 registered voters in her Indigenous community who’ll return to the polls on Sunday October 30 to vote in a pivotal run-off pitting far-right incumbent Jair Bolsonaro against leftist challenger Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva – a two-time former president.

Many here in Trajano’s Indigenous territory of Tabalascada are hoping it might finally usher in a sea-change in government policies towards their neglected communities after years of what they regard as institutionalised violence and marginalisation.

“It is important that we, Indigenous people, vote conscientiously,” Trajano says. “We need to choose politicians who will represent and defend us. Some of our relatives still don’t understand that.”

Roraima, the state where Trajano’s community is located, has the highest percentage of Indigenous people in Brazil and is home to the largest Indigenous territory in the country.

As in other parts of the Amazon region, the pandemic both exposed and widened the inequalities communities here face. But there’s a long list of urgent problems the new Brazilian government will have to tackle, from police violence and rising poverty to rampant deforestation.

Covid-19 overwhelmed hospitals in the Amazon, and it took a landmark Supreme Court ruling to force Bolsonaro’s government to protect Indigenous people, including getting SESAI, the Special Secretariat for Indigenous Health, to recognise urban Indigenous populations for extra assistance.

Since the start of the pandemic, Bolsonaro belittled the gravity of the deadly virus, cast doubt on vaccines, joined anti-lockdown protests, and even threatened state governors who issued sanitary decrees to try to limit its spread.

Over 687,000 deaths in Brazil have been attributed to Covid-19, the highest national tally globally apart from the United States. A parliamentary commission reported over 400,000 deaths could have been avoided, and Indigenous people blame the fact that their communities suffered the highest mortality rates on government mismanagement.

Raquel Wapichana, state coordinator in Roraima for Indigenous youth, was quick to stress that the pandemic was far from over: People are still suffering from the virus, while health centres lack medication and transport for the sick.

“It has been very painful, as we have lost leaders who were a part of our history of struggles for education, health and territory,” she said. “Our ancestors had never seen anything like this, so it was particularly hard on them.”

Indigenous communities in Brazil face numerous other challenges: For instance, the annual number of invasions of Indigenous lands by ranchers and miners in 2021 was triple the number from 2018, before Bolsonaro took office.

Sonia Guajajara, a leading Indigenous leader elected to Congress during the general elections on 2 October, called Bolsonaro’s presidency” institutional genocide” towards Indigenous populations.

“We need strong protection policies that will ensure the safety of people in the territories,” she said. “We particularly need public policies for Indigenous peoples in urban contexts, as they are completely side-lined as if they didn’t exist.”

Guajajara, like many other Indigenous leaders, is supporting Lula’s candidacy. Polls have consistently put him ahead of Bolsonaro, but the fuelling of false fears over voter fraud by the incumbent, amid concerns he might not accept defeat, has his critics worried.

“It is impossible to conceive the size of the damage to be caused by another four years under Bolsonaro, “Guajajara said.

A combination of factors – ranging from rising poverty and hunger to racism and police violence – stirred a record number of candidates representing marginalised communities to run for office during the general elections.

While those candidates won several seats in Congress, community organisations say extraordinary efforts will be needed to reverse the trend of growing humanitarian needs.

Even if Bolsonaro doesn’t win the run-off, a majority of the lower house and much of the Senate will be run by members of his party and its allies, making it harder to pass measures to help Indigenous and other vulnerable communities.

“We have experienced gross setbacks during the current government,” Wapichana said. “So we hope the next one will provide more visibility to Indigenous peoples, both inside our territories and for those who live in the city.”

Covid-19’s long-lasting effects can also still be felt acutely in Brazil’s sprawling favelas, the poor urban communities where more than 17 million people – around 8per cent of the overall population of 213 million – live.

During the first months of the pandemic, the number of unemployed reached a record 14.8 million. To help offset the dire economic conditions, Bolsonaro’s government began providing pandemic support in the form of cash assistance, beginning in April 2020. The final payment was made in October 2021.

“This relief was already overdue. At that point, NGOs had already been supporting people for months,” said Francis Santos, president of the Minas Gerais chapter of the Unified Center of Favelas or CUFA, an NGO that aims to empower favela residents. “It did play a very important role in mitigating the situation,” said Santos. “But there were also many other actions taking place.”  

With hunger and unemployment on the rise, CUFA has been providing food assistance to roughly 4.5 million families in 5,000 favelas across the country since 2020.

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