Brazil's first indigenous woman lawyer beats prejudice to battle for land rights

by Thin Lei Win | @thinink | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Thursday, 21 August 2014 14:15 GMT

As an indigenous person and a woman, Carvalho has faced multiple layers of discrimination

BALI, Indonesia (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Raised in isolated villages in the Brazilian Amazon, Joenia Batista de Carvalho grew up loving nature and taking pride in her tribe’s customs, way of life and Indian identity. 

Carvalho is a Wapixana Indian, one of five tribes totalling around 20,000 people who have lived for generations in the Raposa-Serra do Sol - meaning “Land of the Fox and Mountain of the Sun” - in Brazil’s northernmost Roraima state. 

When Carvalho was seven, the family moved to town while her father stayed behind. That was when she became keenly aware of the prejudice Indians face in Brazil. 

“People don’t want to stand close to you. They are suspicious - they think you are a disgusting person and you will steal their things,” she recalled. There were sniggers about her looks and ambition. 

The family’s move was for the sake of the children’s education, but only Carvalho, the youngest of six, managed to shake off the persistent discrimination and stay in school. The experience strengthened her resolve to help her people. 

“That is the reason I studied law: to become someone who can support indigenous communities,” she told Thomson Reuters Foundation at the first “Summit on Women and Climate” in Bali, Indonesia, earlier this month. 

“For me it’s about being able to do something for ourselves - not waiting for orders from the state or people who want to take away our land,” she added.  


True to her words, Carvalho became Brazil’s first female indigenous lawyer, despite scepticism from classmates and even her own community.

“When I started, the first challenge was with my own people. Women studying was not a common practice, and the indigenous leaders asked me whether I could do a man’s job,” she said. “I needed to work harder than others and prove I was capable.” 

Since then, Carvalho has dedicated herself to fighting for indigenous land rights and against deforestation.

Her battle could receive a boost if Marina Silva, a popular anti-establishment icon and former environment minister just selected by the Brazilian Socialist Party as its presidential candidate, wins October’s elections.


A decade ago, Carvalho took on powerful interests encroaching on her ancestral land. According to Survival International, over 20 Indians were killed and hundreds injured in some three decades of struggle pitting the tribes against ranchers, miners, loggers and farmers backed by local and national politicians. 

In early 2004, Carvalho submitted a complaint to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, urging the Brazilian government to complete demarcation of the Raposa-Serra do Sol reserve so that the area would be protected. She also brought the case to the Brazilian Supreme Court. 

In April 2005, the area was officially recognised by the government of Luis Inácio Lula da Silva. 

But indigenous jubilation was short-lived. 

The Roraima state government soon lodged a petition with the Supreme Court contesting the recognition and demanding the reserve be reduced in size. The military also wanted it broken up, arguing that Indian reservations along national borders represented a security threat, according to Survival International.

Carvalho once again represented the Indians, using the law, often regarded as a white man’s weapon, to ensure that indigenous communities would have rights to the land they have been living on as long as they can remember. 

In a landmark ruling in March 2009, the majority of Supreme Court judges upheld the Indians’ rights to their land. 

Carvalho became synonymous with the case. For her, it was a conscious decision to take on a high-profile role. 

“Before, indigenous people were totally invisible. So I used my image,” she said matter-of-factly. 

“I talk to journalists about my life so they know the reality of the indigenous people - that they are human, they have feelings, and they need access to their land.” 

Such exposure comes with a price, however. 

“When you publish your life story, you become a public person,” she said. “I get a lot of threats. Everybody in my organisation does. There are always people looking for me in front of my office or following me when I take my children to school.”

“This is my job and my mission, so I’m not scared. But I do worry for my children,” she added.  


Now 40, Carvalho coordinates the legal department of the Indigenous Council of Roraima and juggles her indigenous home life there with trips to the capital Brasília, where she continues the fight against land grabs by business, farming and hunting interests.

She is also working to reduce the impacts of climate change in Brazil. 

Authorities in the Amazon, home to the world’s largest rainforest, have been struggling to curb the loss of trees. Deforestation increased by nearly a third in the 12 months through the end of July 2013, compared with the previous year, Brazilian government figures show.  

Carvalho said climate change and deforestation - for timber or to plant soy and other crops for biofuel - are affecting the whole environment.

“A few years ago, parts of the river were dry. One summer in Roraima, there was flooding. Sometimes the sun is too strong and you cannot grow crops,” she said. “We don’t know when the seasons start anymore.” 

Carvalho also trains indigenous women so that more can take up leadership positions, especially at international climate negotiations.

“A lot of women want to participate but they don’t get support,” she said. “If there is a meeting at international level, men say, ‘We go. The women have children so they cannot leave the house. They need to take care of the children’.” 

“I know lots of strong women with strong voices. You just need to push them to be part of the process,” she said.

(Editing by Megan Rowling:

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