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Brazil votes: Indigenous candidates target Bolsonaro stronghold | Elections News

This is the first in a three-part series on Roraima in the context of Brazil’s general elections. The project was supported by the Pulitzer Center’s Rainforest Journalism Fund.

Normandia, Brazil – 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.

Cattle graze on the Raposa Serra do Sol Indigenous land [Avener Prado/Al Jazeera]

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.

“Despite being mostly untrue, these are messages that resonate,” Racoski said.

Joenia Wapichana addresses a crowd at a political campaign event.
Joenia Wapichana addresses a crowd at a political campaign event [Avener Prado/Al Jazeera]

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.”

Drone shot of the Serra do Atola mountain with an illegal mining camp
Drone shot of the Serra do Atola mountain with an illegal mining camp [Avener Prado/Al Jazeera]

According to Roraima’s Indigenous Council, the state’s largest Indigenous rights group, more than 4,000 illegal miners have operated on the Raposa Serra do Sol reserve since Bolsonaro took office in 2019. The council has presented federal prosecutors with a report listing alleged human rights violations linked to these operations.

“The invasion of illegal miners causes environmental degradation, deforestation, pollution of rivers, streams and lakes, an increase in cattle and vehicle thefts, high rates of malaria, STDs and COVID-19 in communities,” notes the report, a copy of which was seen by Al Jazeera.

It further highlights “drug trafficking, presence of criminal gangs and firearms … increased violence in communities, death threats and persecution of leaders”.

In April, three people were shot to death in the territory, in a killing authorities alleged might have been tied to illegal mining debts.

While federal agencies run frequent enforcement operations to combat illegal mining, there has not been one in Raposa Serra do Sol for more than a year, authorities confirmed. Federal police told Al Jazeera that the last operation to combat illegal mining on the reserve took place last year, but offered no further comment.

This has led some locals to take matters into their own hands. In one recent example, a surveillance group organised by Indigenous guardians in Raposa Serra do Sol in June burned a raft used by illegal miners to extract gold on the Ireng River, near the border with Guyana.

A rock painted with 'Get out Bolsonaro' on Raposa Serra do Sol Indigenous land.
A rock painted with ‘Get out Bolsonaro’ on Raposa Serra do Sol Indigenous land [Avener Prado/Al Jazeera]

Destroyed landscape

During Roraima’s recent rainy season, Al Jazeera joined three Indigenous guides on an expedition through flooded plains to one of several illegal mining sites at the base of a sacred local mountain known as Serra do Atola, and surveyed the area with a drone. The destruction was striking: the mining encampment opened up like a brown scar across the otherwise green landscape, with dozens of mining pits, some covered by blue tarpaulin to protect miners from the elements.

“Lots of strange people pass through here,” said one of the Indigenous guides, who asked to remain anonymous for security reasons. The guides said that because of the recent heavy rains, the number of miners was temporarily reduced, but they would flow back in again for the dry season.

Last year, the Amazon military command, federal police and environmental agencies raided the site and found 400 people, precision scales, excavation pits, gold and toxic mercury for gold processing. Months later, an Associated Press news agency investigation found the mining camp up and running again, with workers using portable generators to power jackhammers to break the rocks.

Roraima’s Indigenous Council says that businesspeople and politicians from outside the reserve have financed the mining, taking a percentage of the gold extracted, while Indigenous people have often been exploited as cheap labour.

“There is no Indigenous person here that has gotten rich from illegal mining,” Bartolomeu da Silva Tomaz, running for Roraima as Brazil’s only Indigenous Senate candidate, told Al Jazeera.

Overhead drone shot of an illegal mining camp at the base of the Serra do Atola mountain
Overhead drone shot of an illegal mining camp at the base of the Serra do Atola mountain [Avener Prado/Al Jazeera]

“The people who get rich from illegal mining are the businessmen … companies that sell machines, motors and equipment, the companies that sell fuel … these guys get rich,” he said.

If elected, he says he would make the removal of illegal miners from Indigenous lands a top priority — a bold position in a state whose economy is sustained in part by illegal mining, according to federal prosecutors.

Lacking a voice

Today, more than 26,000 Indigenous people from five ethnic groups live on the 17,470sq-km (6,745sq-mile) Raposa Serra do Sol territory, which borders Venezuela and Guyana. Unlike many Amazonian Indigenous lands covered in lush rainforest, Raposa Serra do Sol is mostly tropical savannah. Cattle ranching, often associated with deforestation, is also permitted in the area.

In all of Brazil, which is home to some 900,000 Indigenous people from more than 300 ethnic groups, Roraima has the largest Indigenous population, at more than 55,000. Nearly half of its territory comprises Indigenous lands, and yet, there is no Indigenous representative on its 24-seat state assembly.

“Today we have a voice in Brasilia, which is our lawmaker Joenia Wapichana,” Aldenir Wapichana, an Indigenous leader who is running to be a state legislator, told Al Jazeera. “But on a state level, we still don’t have dignified representation … It’s important to defend our rights, in health, in education.”

He praised the work of Lula da Silva, who is running again to unseat Bolsonaro and leads polls by a double-digit margin, in ensuring that Raposa Serra do Sol gained full protected status in 2005. Bolsonaro has previously said he would “undo” this demarcation, even though he does not have the power to make that change, and arm local farmers “with rifles”.

Aldenir Wapichana
‘It’s important to defend our rights, in health, in education,’ says Aldenir Wapichana [Avener Prado/Al Jazeera]

In Brazil’s 2018 elections, Normandia, Uiramuta and Pacaraima, located within the limits of Raposa Serra do Sol, voted against Bolsonaro — the only three municipalities in Roraima to do so. A rock painted with the words “Get Out Bolsonaro” sits near an entrance to Normandia.

Still, public opinion on Bolsonaro remains divided in this region.

Last year, the Society for the Defence of the United Indians of Roraima, which opposes the Indigenous Council’s leadership and advocates for mining and other activities, invited Bolsonaro to an illegal mining site in the Flexal community, where he touted the bill to legalise mining. The group’s leader, Irisnaide Silva, is also running for Congress against Joenia Wapichana.

In March, the Brazilian government awarded Silva, Bolsonaro and a group of ministers “Indigenous merit” medals, drawing scorn from Indigenous advocacy groups.

While Silva did not respond to Al Jazeera’s request for comment, she has publicly described herself as “the Indigenous woman who defends development”.

‘Environmental crisis’

In Brazil, political parties are allocated public funding based on how many seats they have in Congress. Joenia Wapichana’s Sustainability Network has only two seats in the lower house, compared with 77 for Bolsonaro’s Liberal Party.

Candidates may also receive private donations from individuals, a system that tends to favour those who represent mining or agricultural interests. In addition, candidates can use their own money to help fund their campaigns.

Joenia Wapichana, who declared 20,000 Brazilian reals ($3,900) in assets this year, is competing against Rodrigo Cataratas, a pro-mining businessperson and Liberal Party supporter of Bolsonaro who declared 33 million Brazilian reals ($6.45m) in assets, for one of eight congressional seats for Roraima. The fight promises to be a tough one, and it will not end on election day.

Joenia Wapichana arrives at a political campaign event surrounded by supporters on Raposa Serra do Sol Indigenous land.
Joenia Wapichana, in white, arrives at a political campaign event on Raposa Serra do Sol Indigenous land [Avener Prado/Al Jazeera]

If re-elected with enough support in Congress, Bolsonaro could try to push through his long-planned bill to allow mining and other industrial activities on Indigenous lands. As is the case with many Indigenous territories, official requests from companies to mine in Raposa Serra do Sol, including proposals for both gold and diamond mines, have increased since Bolsonaro took office, according to data compiled by the monitoring group Amazonia Minada and seen by Al Jazeera.

Some fear that a long-planned hydroelectric dam on the Cotingo River, a project considered strategic by mining interests, could also be resurrected in the event of Bolsonaro’s victory, posing a flood risk to many communities in Raposa Serra do Sol.

“If Bolsonaro is re-elected, we will see a continuation of anti-Indigenous policies,” Antenor Vaz, a former coordinator with Brazil’s Indigenous agency Funai who now works as an independent consultant, told Al Jazeera. “Raposa Serra do Sol would face even more pressure from illegal gold miners, as well as large landowners from outside the reserve.”

Back at her campaign event, Joenia Wapichana maintains that Indigenous representation in Congress is vitally important, both for Brazil and for the planet as a whole.

“Many non-Indigenous people have the same interests as Indigenous people, such as the preservation of the environment,” she said. “The planet is going through an environmental crisis, and we know that a lot depends on the protection of Indigenous territories.”

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‘Dilemma for the Russians’ after surrendering key Ukraine city | Russia-Ukraine war News

The recapture of Lyman city in the east – in territory recently annexed by Moscow – raises questions about how Russia can hold surrounding areas with supply routes severed.

Questions about Russia’s faltering military operation in Ukraine continue to be raised as Kyiv announced it was in full control of the key eastern city of Lyman after Moscow’s troops pulled back.

It is Kyiv’s most significant battlefield gain in weeks, providing a potential staging post for increased attacks to the east while heaping further pressure on the Kremlin.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy announced on Sunday that his forces had taken over Lyman after encircling it the day before.

“As of 12:30pm (09:30 GMT) Lyman is cleared fully. Thank you to our militaries, our warriors,” he said in a video address.

Russia’s military did not comment on Lyman on Sunday after announcing the previous day it was withdrawing its forces there to move to “more favourable positions”.

‘Sort of a dilemma’

The loss of Lyman is a significant blow to Russian forces, who have used the city for months as a crucial logistics and rail hub in the Donetsk region to move military equipment, troops, and other necessary supplies.

“Without those routes, it will be more difficult so it presents a sort of a dilemma for the Russians going forward,” US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said.

Lyman, which Ukraine recaptured by encircling Russian troops, is in the Donetsk region near the border with the Luhansk region. These are two of the four regions or oblasts that Russia annexed on Friday after people there voted in referendums, which Ukraine and the West called illegitimate.

The Institute for the Study of War, a United States-based think-tank, said the fall of Lyman suggested Russia was “deprioritizing defending Luhansk” to hold occupied territory in southern Ukraine. 

“Ukrainian and Russian sources consistently indicate that Russian forces continued to reinforce Russian positions in Kherson and Zaporizhia oblasts, despite the recent collapse of the Kharkiv-Izyum front and even as the Russian positions around Lyman collapsed,” it said

‘Courage, bravery, skills’

In a daily intelligence briefing on Sunday, the United Kingdom’s military described the recapture of Lyman as a “significant political setback” for Moscow. Taking the city paves the way for Ukrainian troops to potentially push farther into Russian-occupied territory.

Ukraine’s capture of a city within territory of President Vladimir Putin’s declared annexation demonstrates that Ukrainians are able to push back Russian forces, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said on Sunday.

“We have seen that they have been able to take a new town, Lyman, and that demonstrates that the Ukrainians are making progress, are able to push back the Russian forces because of the courage, because of their bravery, their skills, but of course also because of the advanced weapons that the United States and other allies are providing,” Stoltenberg said in an interview with American broadcaster NBC.

Ukrainian forces have retaken swaths of territory, notably in the northeast around Kharkiv, in a counteroffensive in recent weeks that has embarrassed the Kremlin and prompted rare domestic criticism of Putin’s war.

A pomp-filled Kremlin annexation ceremony on Friday has failed to stem a wave of criticism within Russia of how its “special military operation” is being handled.

Putin ally Ramzan Kadyrov, the leader of Russia’s southern Chechnya region, on Saturday called for a change of strategy “right up to the declaration of martial law in the border areas and the use of low-yield nuclear weapons”.

Other hawkish Russian figures criticised Russian generals and Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu on social media for overseeing the setbacks, but stopped short of attacking Putin.

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Voting ends in Bosnia election set to bring little change

SARAJEVO, Bosnia-Herzegovina — Polls have closed Sunday in Bosnia’s general election in which voters chose their new leaders from among the long-established cast of sectarian candidates and their challengers who pledged to eradicate, if elected, corruption and clientelism in government.

Moments after vote count begun, Bosnia’s international overseer, Christian Schmidt, announced in a YouTube video that he was amending the country’s electoral law “to ensure functionality and timely implementation of election results.” Schmid assured citizens in the video that the changes “will in no way affect” the votes cast on Sunday for different levels of government that are part of one of the world’s most complicated institutional set-ups.

Bosnia’s power-sharing system was agreed upon in a U.S.-sponsored peace deal that ended the brutal 1992-95 war between its three main ethnic groups – Muslim Bosniaks, Orthodox Serbs and Catholic Croats – by dividing the country into two highly independent entities. The entities — one run by Serbs and the other shared by Bosniaks and Croats – have broad autonomy but are linked by shared national institutions. All countrywide actions require consensus from all three ethnic groups.

The agreement also gave broad powers to the international high representative, the post currently held by Schmidt, including the ability to impose laws and to dismiss officials and civil servants who undermine the country’s fragile post-war ethnic balance.

The Sunday election included races for the three members of the shared Bosnian presidency; parliament deputies at the state, entity and regional levels; and the president of the country’s Serb-run part.

The traditional ruling class was challenged in the election by parties which, despite ideological differences and sometimes clashing agendas, shared the campaign promise to eradicate patronage networks and sanction acts of corruption in government.

Analysts predicted the long-entrenched nationalists who have enriched cronies and ignored the needs of the people were likely to remain dominant after the election despite deeply disappointing their constituents, largely because the sectarian post-war system of governance leaves pragmatic, reform-minded Bosnians with little incentive to vote.

However, contenders vying to replace the nationalists on the country’s tripartite presidency and in the post of the president of its Serb-run part insisted the preliminary results indicated they were wining the vote.

Election turnout on Sunday was 50% or over 2 percentage points down from the 2018 general election.

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Burkina Faso coup: Ousted military leader Damiba ‘resigns’ | Military News

Burkina Faso’s overthrown military chief agreed to step down two days after army officers announced his deposition in the country’s second coup in a year.

Paul-Henri Sandaogo Damiba “offered his resignation in order to avoid confrontations with serious human and material consequences”, according to a statement on Sunday by mediators.

Influential religious and community leaders held mediation talks between Damiba and the new self-proclaimed leader, Captain Ibrahim Traore, to resolve the crisis.

“President Paul-Henri Sandaogo Damiba proposed his own resignation in order to avoid clashes,” said Hamidou Yameogo, a spokesman for the mediation efforts.

Damiba set “seven conditions” for stepping down. They included a guarantee of security for his allies in the military, “a guarantee of his security and rights”, and assurance that those taking power will respect the pledge he gave to West Africa’s regional bloc for a return to civilian rule within two years.

Traore officially was named head of state after he accepted the conditions given by Damiba, calling on “the population to exercise calm, restraint and prayer”.

A statement issued on Sunday by the pro-Traore military said he would remain in charge “until the swearing-in of the president of Burkina Faso designated by the nation’s active forces” at an unspecified date.

The second change of leadership in a year started on Friday when military officers announced the deposition of Damiba, the dissolution of the transitional government and the suspension of the constitution.

Waving Russian flags

Damiba, who led a coup in January, said on Saturday that he had no intention of giving up power and urged the officers to “come to their senses”.

Tensions have been high in the country since Friday, with clashes occurring between protesters and security forces.

Late Saturday, angry protesters attacked the French embassy in Ouagadougou as they believed Damiba was planning a counteroffensive from a “French base” – allegations he and France denied. Burkina Faso is a former colony of France.

The French foreign ministry condemned “the violence against our embassy in the strongest terms” by “hostile demonstrators manipulated by a disinformation campaign against us”.

In a statement broadcast on state television, new military spokesman Captain Kiswendsida Farouk Azaria Sorgho called on people to “desist from any act of violence and vandalism” especially those against the French embassy or the French military base.

To some in Burkina Faso’s military, Damiba also was seen as too cozy with former colonizer France, which maintains a military presence in Africa’s Sahel region to help countries fight various armed groups.

Some who support the new coup leader Traore have called on Burkina Faso’s government to seek Russian support instead. Outside the state broadcaster on Sunday, supporters of Traore were seen cheering and waving Russian flags.

‘Deeply rooted crisis’

Traore promised to overhaul the military so it is better prepared to fight “extremists”. He accused Damiba of following the same failed strategies as former President Roch Marc Christian Kabore, whom Damiba overthrew in a January coup.

“Far from liberating the occupied territories, the once-peaceful areas have come under terrorist control,” the new military leadership said, adding Damiba failed as more than 40 percent of the country remained outside government control.

The landlocked state of Burkina Faso has been struggling to contain rebel groups, including some associated with al-Qaeda and ISIL (ISIS).

Since 2015, the country has become the epicentre of the violence across the Sahel region, where thousands of people have been killed and about two million displaced.

With much of the Sahel battling growing unrest, the violence has prompted a series of coups in Mali, Guinea and Chad since 2020.

Conflict analysts say Damiba was probably too optimistic about what he could achieve in the short term, but a change at the top did not mean the country’s security situation would improve.

“The problems are too profound and the crisis is deeply rooted,” said Heni Nsaibia, a senior researcher at the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project.

Armed groups “will most likely continue to exploit” the country’s political disarray, he said.

 

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