AAs the first wave of Covid infections hit Manaus in Brazil — forcing residents to bury their loved ones in mass graves — Vanda Ortega Witoto toiled away in minimal protective gear, trying to keep the virus at bay in the long-neglected indigenous neighborhood of the Amazon city.
When the ambulance service refused to send a vehicle to the area – which had no healthcare infrastructure or running water – the nurse technician, who simply goes by Vanda, took the Covid patient to the hospital himself.
“Our people were not getting help, especially in the Amazon,” said Vanda, who tirelessly offered help, hope and reassurance to her community during a pandemic that brought the riverside city to its knees twice. “This neglect of our people does not predate the pandemic. The pandemic has only exacerbated the state’s absence and negligence,” she added.
It was the criminally negligent official response to Covid that convinced 35-year-old Vanda to run for federal deputy in this year’s congressional elections. If she succeeds, she will be the first native Brazilian to win office in a general election in Amazonas, home to the country’s largest indigenous population.
Vanda is part of a concerted effort to increase indigenous representation in politics at a time when Brazil’s indigenous people are undergoing a historic assault on their rights.
Attacks on indigenous peoples and their lands have escalated under President Jair Bolsonaro, who has dismantled indigenous protection frameworks and encouraged land grabs and other criminals. While documenting this persecution, Indigenous expert Bruno Pereira and British journalist Dom Phillips were murdered in June.
A record 181 candidates who self-identify as Indigenous have registered to run in Brazil’s October 2 general election – a 36% increase in four years. Most of them are running for state or federal delegates, and many are entering politics for the first time.
So far, Brazil has elected only two indigenous representatives to Congress: Mário Juruna, from the Xavante people, in 1982 and Joênia Wapichana, from the Amazonian state of Roraima, in 2018.
“We don’t participate in decision-making areas because this state has always said they are no place for indigenous people, no place for women. But I’ve come to understand that it’s exactly where we belong,” says Vanda. “It is our right to occupy these spaces, as our absence results in us losing access to government policy.”
Kleber Karipuna, an executive coordinator of the Articulation of Indigenous Peoples of Brazil (APIB), the country’s largest indigenous organization, says Wapichana’s work defending indigenous issues in Congress has convinced the indigenous movement of the importance of increasing of its representation in political spheres.
APIB has launched a campaign to elect a “headgear caucus” in the state and federal legislature that will fight back against a destructive agenda pushed by the powerful nationwide lobby.
“We understand today that political representation is essential to guarantee not only the rights but also the survival of the indigenous peoples,” said Samara Pataxó, a member of the Pataxó people in the state of Bahia and the first indigenous woman to works in the higher electoral court. center for diversity and inclusion.
If elected, Vanda says she will represent all native Brazilians in Congress. In addition to protecting indigenous rights, she has called for better infrastructure for education and health care; policies targeting all underrepresented groups; women’s economic empowerment; and the sustainable development of the Amazon, where deforestation has increased under Bolsonaro’s oversight.
“Who better to defend the Amazon than those who live there,” she said.
Political representation is also about reclaiming Brazil’s indigenous identity – only 0.5% of Brazilians were identified as indigenous in the 2010 census.
“There is a historic violence of erasing the identities of our peoples in this country,” said Vanda, who hopes to see this figure rise when the results of the latest census are released later this year.
She was born in a village in Alto Rio Solimões, 900 km (559 mi) west of Manaus deep in the Amazon. But her family left the community when she was a child, and it wasn’t until a young adult that she reconnected with her indigenous roots and the culture of her Witoto people, who are native to Colombia.
Today Vanda campaigns in indigenous clothing and proudly displays traditional Witoto face paint. “I have carried paint from my ancestors’ land in Colombia, which represents the tail of the scorpion. The scorpion offers protection and is a symbol of strength. I wear this paint on my political journey in light of the challenge,” she explains.
It is a challenge not to be underestimated. The state of Amazonas voted for Bolsonaro in 2018 — albeit by a wafer-thin margin — electing eight men to Congress, four of whom are members of the anti-indigenous agribusiness lobby. Amid a caustic campaign that could turn violent, APIB is concerned about the safety of Indigenous candidates.
Still, Vanda is buoyed by the support she has received and optimistic about her chances of victory, which will also require an appeal to the non-indigenous electorate. “We want the whole of society to look at these Indigenous candidates as a ray of light in these decision-making spaces,” she says.
Karipuna, the APIB leader, reiterates this. “Voting for Indigenous candidates is a vote to ensure the survival of humanity.”