By Instituto Escolhas

05 February 2021

23 minute read

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INTERVIEW OF THE MONTH – SÔNIA GUAJAJARA: Disrespect for indigenous rights threatens investments in Brazil

Disrespect for indigenous rights threatens investments in Brazil

How attacks on indigenous rights are impacting international investments in Brazil and a new look at the concept of development are just some of the themes addressed in our interview with Sônia Guajajara, Executive Coordinator of APIB

The land dispute in the Amazon, the threats posed by large-scale construction projects, and the growing presence of indigenous leaders – in particular, indigenous women – in the country’s political landscape were some of the themes addressed in Instituto Escolhas’ February conversation. For this month’s interview, our guest was the Executive Coordinator of the Articulation of Indigenous Peoples of Brazil (APIB), Sônia Guajajara.

With degrees in Humanities and Nursing and a graduate diploma in Special Education from Maranhão State University, Sônia Guajajara was a 2018 candidate for the Vice-Presidency of Brazil on Guilherme Boulos’ ticket, becoming the first indigenous pre-candidate for the presidency of the Republic of Brazil. Guajajara has participated in several United Nations Climate Change Conferences (COPs) and other international events, always representing indigenous causes, especially the demarcation of lands and the defense of human rights. In 2020, the Latinos por la Tierra group elected her one of the 100 most influential personalities in Latin America. 

In her conversation with Escolhas, Guajajara used a play on words in Portuguese to argue for working within a “society of envolvimento [involvement]” – as opposed to des-envolvimento [development] –, stressing the need for the indigenous movement to engage in further dialogue with different sectors of Brazilian society (especially movements working for environmental, human rights, and artists’ causes). Hopeful, Guajajara believes that a different future is possible and sees a rise in the number of people interested in the indigenous cause. According to Guajajara, the current pandemic will leave a legacy: “no matter how much better off some people have been than others, the virus has reached everyone. So, everyone has felt the same pain. Despite all the damage, all the loss, people have been able to rethink their way of life and, mainly, their solidarity.

Read the full interview below.

ESCOLHAS – The development of Brazil is one of the arguments used to justify large-scale construction projects, such as hydroelectric power plants or mining activities, in spite of the threats these pose to the environment and to people’s lives. The concept of development is broad and is often confused with economic growth, especially in a highly unequal country like Brazil. So, what do you think fair development could look like for Brazil?

GUAJAJARA – I think the first thing here is to evaluate the concept of desenvolvimento [development]. When it stems from economic and political interests, development is totally aligned with the intention of not getting envolvido [involved]. When we do a conceptual analysis of the words themselves, desequilíbrio [imbalance] is the opposite of equilíbrio [balance]; descuidar [to neglect] is the opposite of cuidar [to care for]; desproteger [to fail to protect] is the opposite of proteger [to protect]; and, when you get to desenvolver [to develop]… that’s somehow a good concept? I don’t think so. Desenvolver [to develop] follows the same concept as the other words, of becoming something negative when you add the “des” prefix, but somehow, we’ve ended up conceiving of it as a good thing. 

For us, it is totally contradictory to talk about des-envolvimento [development], as we don’t want to stop being envolvido [involved]. In fact, we want a world that is more and more involved, involved with environmental protection and social inclusion. We want economic growth that reaches everyone. Our approach is precisely an “involvement” approach, but the way things are done today treats destruction as the starting point for development. After all, it is the whole concept of the word, isn’t it? 

I believe the word “development” itself needs to be changed. We need to conceive of an alternative “involvement” project that guarantees environmental protection and social justice. Here we are talking about “bem-viver” or “good living” [TN – a concept rooted in the Quechuan sumak kawsay cosmovision of doing things in a community-centric, ecologically-balanced and culturally-sensitive way], which is not necessarily the opposite of economic development. I am talking here about a way of life that contemplates various elements, such as people, economic balance, participation and access, obtained by public policies and/or social policies. This is what “good living” involves: thinking about equality, fraternity, solidarity, and empathy. What we would idealize for the development scenario is nothing like how it is today: it is a new project for another possible world, as the World Social Forum has already put forward.


ESCOLHAS – Do you believe that this other world is really possible to achieve? If yes, how?

GUAJAJARA – I think that this pandemic will leave a legacy, you know? Although it is not necessarily true for everyone, I strongly believe one of the lessons learned from this pandemic is that people stop now and take their time: time to look at themselves, at what they are doing, and have also started looking at other people’s pain. The thing is that everybody felt the same. No matter how much better off some people have been than others, the virus has reached everyone. So, everybody has felt this same pain. I think this has made people look a little bit more to their neighbors. Also… it is not possible for a pandemic like this to arrive, as devastating as it is, and not leave anything good behind, right? So, I think that, despite all the damage, all the loss, people have been able to rethink their way of life and, mainly, their solidarity. 

But all this transformation will only happen if people’s behavior changes. The world won’t change itself and neither will the government. It is a behavioral issue; a behavior change for humanity that is urgently needed. Just like the vaccine has an active ingredient to prevent the virus from thriving, the world is in need of a vaccine with collectivity as the active ingredient. And we need it urgently so we can treat humanity and heal Mother Earth. People need to have a new consciousness that is political, ecological and founded on principles of solidarity. It is difficult, but I think we are currently living a moment of transition, which can help people to look more carefully at their future.


ESCOLHAS – Thinking more specifically about the economy of the Amazon, several specialists defend strengthening local initiatives, whether it be family farming or agro-extractivism, as a way to develop and encourage the region’s economy and generate income, protecting livelihoods and the forest. Is this really a way forward? If yes, what can we do to promote this approach?

GUAJAJARA – I believe in the importance of making a regional investment. The way it happens today, the government’s investment policies – the subsidies – only benefit the big players, the big companies. Such investments should instead first recognize and promote local initiatives, even those involving sustainable harvesting or extraction. These are mostly seen as little because they don’t generate profit, meaning governments disregard these traditional knowledge practices. 

What matters to governments is that a given company arrives, razes everything to the ground, brings in the machine of progress and destroys, because development has this synonym of deforestation and destruction. They are incapable of taking advantage of what living nature provides when forests are kept standing. They can’t see this as development because the practices are so different: one only aims for profit and the other aims for socio-environmental balance. 

There needs to be an investment in regional researchers in order to value traditional knowledge, as well as in adopting family farming practices, which privilege agroecology and the solidarity economy. So, change is needed, led by someone who has this other vision. There has to be people who have this political role, who can make these other investments.


ESCOLHAS – As long as this change doesn’t occur, how can we deal with the illegal activities taking place today in the Amazon, including inside Indigenous Lands, such as land grabbing, deforestation and the removal of minerals and wood? What actions are necessary to curb these types of activity?

GUAJAJARA – Look, at the moment we are experiencing one of the most crucial moments in our history, in terms of democratization and the new constitution, where the government is openly declaring itself the enemy of indigenous peoples and denying the demarcation of indigenous territories, which is in itself a constitutional right. Indigenous Territory is an inalienable right, and the constitution stipulates and recognizes this. With this denial of demarcations, the number of invasions, the number of attacks and the dispossession of the territories has increased significantly, with people feeling empowered to invade as they see fit, empowered by the very discourse of the federal government. 

In 2019, there was an attempt to approve Provisional Measure 970, which authorized land grabbing. In other words, it legalized the invasions. The indigenous movement took a different stance there, with a lot of negotations, social mobilization and support for other entities, such as the environmental movement. We managed to veto the vote in Congress, but before we could even take a breath, they presented a new proposal, already structured as a bill (PL 2633¹) with the same content, which is to “regulate public lands”, as they say. What they were doing there – what they are doing, since the bill still exists, it is just temporarily off the agenda – was trying to reward the invaders and even stimulate invasions. For example, the guy who is on the outside – he hears about this and realizes that by proving he is on the land and has added value to it, then he is eligible to get a title deed. So, everybody races there, occupies a lot, puts a tractor there, builds a corral, and that’s it: they have done a job. They will be rewarded and get a title deed. This is really serious. 

On this public land, which is mainly in the Amazon, and which stretches for more or less 70 million hectares, there are indigenous lands, conservation units, protected areas, quilombola regions and a good part that has not been zoned for any particular occupation whatsoever. Even the indigenous lands are areas that have not been officially regulated and that now run the risk of being regulated in reverse, benefitting those who invade and not those who are asking for recognition of traditional territories. So, what we have to do is challenge these measures in the National Congress. In the end, this is not only an environmental problem, it is a humanitarian problem. People, including the press, must understand what their share of responsibility is in this fight, which is a fight for life in the truest sense of the word. 


ESCOLHAS – Recently, there has been a lot of discussion about the issue of allowing mining practices, especially in the Amazon. How has the indigenous movement positioned itself in relation to mineral exploration – legal or illegal – within the territories? 

GUAJAJARA – The indigenous movement has a clear position: we are totally opposed to mineral exploration of any kind, to mining in general and to wildcat gold mining more specifically. History has already shown that there are no benefits for anyone, nor for the environment. We have strongly positioned ourselves against it all. Indigenous peoples’ ongoing struggle has been blocking bills in Congress for over 20 years now. We are always following, monitoring, articulating with parliamentarians. Our conscience won’t allow the legalization of an activity that will be harmful to the whole world. 

Who benefits from this ore? Only the big mining companies. With wildcat mining, all prospectors gain is illness and absence from their families. Any who do become rich don’t manage to keep their wealth for long and most of them wither it away over the years. What has mining left in the territories? Traces of destruction and a big hole in the earth. And the alcoholism, prostitution, drug trafficking and corruption that comes along with it. These consequences have been proven again and again. Not to mention the change, the huge impact on the way of life. All this arrival of people and resources changes the way of life. And when you think about mining companies, it triples all this damage, like the damage left by Vale [Brazilian multinational mining corporation] and Vale’s allies. 

The companies arrive with a desire to conduct research and to exploit. They don’t come with an interest in sharing profits, as they talk about in the bill [PL 191/20, which deals with the authorization of mining on indigenous lands]. What remains for indigenous peoples in this case is manual labor, slave labor, cheap labor; and nothing remains in the region. The Escolhas study² itself showed that the [socioeconomic] impact of mining is temporary. The only persistent impact is employment and income, but it is all illusory. It arrives as a fallacy, promising lots, but it is all temporary, fleeting. The companies leave and the people remain in misery, if not worse off than before. This issue of trying to legalize the exploitation of minerals, which is currently before the National Congress, promotes the idea that “you can exploit now because it has become legal”, but it is an immoral legalization, because it will continue to bring only damage, harm to the people and to the environment.


ESCOLHAS – The construction of hydroelectric dams in the Amazon is another controversial issue and you were one of the main voices speaking out against the Belo Monte dam complex. What lessons did this process teach you? 

GUAJAJARA – Belo Monte was an important struggle and a struggle conducted under a different government. We were able to veto the construction of the Belo Monte hydroelectric dam under a right-wing government, while under a left-wing government we were not. The construction project was completed as if it were a great phenomenon of the PT [Workers’ Party] government. This saddens us very much. The consequences of Belo Monte are very clear. This struggle took on international proportions. We managed to cross borders and oceans with our defense against building the Belo Monte dam because we knew that the damage would be immeasurable and that the benefit for energy production would not be what was being announced. 

Belo Monte was one of the indigenous movement’s great struggles, along with other movements that were also involved. Unfortunately, we were defeated in the end because they ended up building it, but it served as a great impulse for us to continue the fight, which we know is not easy. We know we always need to articulate more and mobilize more, engage with more people. We have a lot of strength; the people have a lot of strength. It’s hard for us to gauge the true magnitude of our strength in the face of governments, but we have learnt from this experience how necessary it is to build awareness around the truth of these enterprises – they are considered as progress, but they actually leave nothing for the people. Belo Monte was one of my first important battles, but it didn’t weaken me, it didn’t make me lose heart, because it showed that there would be a lot of struggle ahead and facing the Bolsonaro government is one of those big challenges.


ESCOLHAS – How have Belo Monte and other projects helped you learn what should be considered during the approval process for large construction projects? 

GUAJAJARA – The first step is to try to stop these projects from actually eventuating. We have to fight, challenge legislative measures, block them in Congress, prevent their approval, confront the government, denounce them in international fora, as we are doing now in the Hague Tribunal and as we have already done in the OAS [Organization of American States]. We have to continue denouncing this process of dismantling and all these attacks – because they are attacks – on the environment and on people’s livelihoods. Talking about adaptation or damage reduction is very complicated for us. The compensation programs may even set aside some money for people in an attempt to offer reparation, but how are you going to buy a hyacinth macaw if it is extinct? What about a tree if it is cut down? Thousand-year-old trees, animals, water, none of this can be bought. Many people have this idea that by buying mineral water at the supermarket, it is somehow OK, but this water has to come from somewhere. It comes from the springs, it comes from the water sources, and many of these are inside the territories we are fighting politically to keep safe. 

Another great risk at the moment is agriculture. The government intends to implant agribusiness inside indigenous territories, and it is co-opting indigenous leaders to approve this political agenda. This is another great challenge for us: to make leaders aware that the government’s promises are transient and that their intention is to destroy, to end the demarcation of indigenous lands and use them for production in order to resolve the country’s economic problems. For this, they say that the Constitution stipulates that Congress has the right to authorize [the use of these lands] when it is proven to be relevant for the Union. As it happens, they consider only their own interest as relevant. They consider what they can get out of it through agreements with their business allies. So, we need to do a lot of this grassroots work of talking, of raising awareness, of showing our relatives that the government never brings us anything for free, that everything comes at a cost. 

ESCOLHAS – International pressure – either from the media or from other nations – has been very present in the indigenous cause, and especially now with the increase in deforestation, fires and attacks. You have been participating in the COPs and other international climate change events for several years now. Do you believe that this external pressure has been important in mitigating internal problems – even with a government that is so combative against external criticism?

GUAJAJARA – Look, no matter how much the government pretends that it doesn’t get rattled by this, it does. A lot. And so, one of our objectives is being achieved, which is to disturb and disrupt – we have to shake the structure of the State, show what is really wrong, what is bad and what has harmed life on the planet. This is because Bolsonaro is no longer only a problem for Brazil, he is no longer only a problem for indigenous peoples. Bolsonaro has become a problem for the entire world. So, there is a responsibility for other countries to speak out against him and put pressure on the current administration. 

Here we have the Brazilian Amazon, which is the biggest tropical forest in the world. It is the place where we have one of the largest freshwater reservoirs. We can’t let an alienated, disturbed president do whatever he wants. Society must act, and we must ask for support, nationally and internationally, for other people to react as well. In recent years, there have been several examples of our negotiations and dialogue, whether within formal structures, such as the OAS, or with other sectors, with private sector companies and the like. 

In 2019, we hosted the “Indigenous Blood, Not A Single Drop More” day in Europe. The theme was exactly that: to denounce the violation of human rights and the negative impact on the environment. With so many indigenous deaths, it was time to put a stop to all the violence. That is why we held conversations in Europe with representatives from companies that buy products in Brazil, that finance local entrepreneurs or that produce locallu, and these conversations generated several real results.


ESCOLHAS – And how was the response to this? 

GUAJAJARA – During this initiative, we were in contact with different companies working with a range of products: supermarkets, meat packing, gold, cellphones. We always asked them if they knew about the impact their companies were causing here for indigenous peoples and for the environment. They would answer that their products were certified and that everything was legalized. And we asked “by whom? Who is legalizing this product and what are the criteria adopted to have this seal, this certificate?”. I would also say that the fact that something is legalized does not mean its negative impact is necessarily being reduced. “You must know the path of your product, from the point of production all the way to its destination”. We also talked to parliamentarians from the European Union, discussing the importance of countries legislating to track their companies, requiring compliance with environmental principles and human and indigenous peoples’ rights. 

One of the results was that two months after we came back to Brazil, we managed to paralyze a real estate company attempting to build a resort in Bahia, on Tupinambá Land. It was a Portuguese company. At the time of “Indigenous Blood, Not A Single Drop More”, we went to Portugal and delivered a complaint we’d filed with the Federal Prosecutor’s Office and the Attorney General’s Office here in Brazil. It took a lot of effort. The Tupinambá went to Brasilia, there was a lot of negotiating that had to be done, but around two months later, the real estate company gave up on the construction project. 

Another result from this trip was voting on the PL 2633 provisional measure and bill, which is the one about land grabbing. We did a lot of mobilizing, a lot of pressure with artists, but what really stopped it was a letter addressed to Rodrigo Maia that came from a network of businessmen from the European Union, saying that if Brazil continued to insist on laws that promoted environmental destruction, they would no longer do business with Brazil. It went straight to the president of the Chamber of Representatives. Our dialogue with the companies caused the bill to be removed from the agenda and put back on hold, to return at some point.


ESCOLHAS – The demarcation and defense of indigenous lands is a long-standing fight, but now it seems to be even more challenging, with an increase in attacks on leaders, the weakening of FUNAI [the Brazilian National Indian Foundation] and other such protection agencies. How do you see the fight for indigenous causes and for the environmental cause today? What has changed over the past few years and what are the main challenges today? 

GUAJAJARA – The fight only gets more intense every day, because no government has ever made the indigenous cause or the environmental cause a priority. In electoral disputes, I have seen that the environmental issue is always secondary, it’s never a priority agenda. In 2018, when I was candidate for Vice-President of the Republic, we managed to bring the environmental and indigenous issues to the center of political debate. Our PSOL [Socialism and Liberty Party] slate positioned the environmental issue as a priority and so others had the obligation to address it. There was the issue of development and of not wanting to upset the businessmen. Some stayed on the fence, others took a more radical position, that “what matters is capital, production and the economic issue”.

Today, the indigenous movement prioritizes defending this political standpoint: strengthening indigenous candidacies and indigenous women’s candidacies at the municipal, state and federal levels. My candidacy was already a result of all these negotiations. In the 2018 election, we managed to organize 130 indigenous candidacies all over the country. As a result, we achieved Joênia Wapichana’s victory as a federal deputy in National Congress, and of Chirley Pankará as a state deputy in São Paulo, heading up the activist contingent. Here are two women who have been elected and, for the first time in history, we had an indigenous person – an indigenous woman – on a presidential ticket, which was very significant. For us, the electoral result itself didn’t matter so much. We were able to bring the indigenous issue to a larger number of people. Many people suddenly wanted to know more about it, to better understand the issue, and we were able to put various things in motion. We are still reaping the positive results of this campaign today.

Last year, in 2020, in the middle of the pandemic, we managed to present more than 2,000 indigenous candidates all across Brazil, with over 200 indigenous people successfully elected. These include ten mayors, 11 deputy mayors, and 44 women councilors. We are here to make a difference and show the Earth as Mother Earth, this sacred being that needs to be cared for, that gives sustenance and guarantees life. Since the arrival of the European invaders, any plan for national development, for economic growth, has always been based on the extermination and expulsion of the indigenous peoples, because they were seen as obstacles. This has not changed much. The challenge only grows and now it is as if we were going back to the beginning again, to resume the fight for the demarcation of the territories, which is for us the biggest and most important struggle for the indigenous peoples.


ESCOLHAS – Your candidacy for the vice-presidency of the Republic, the election of deputies Joenia Wapichana and Chirley Pankará (which you just mentioned) and the First Indigenous Women’s March, in 2019, amongst other accomplishments, show a path of greater indigenous representation within Brazilian politics and what appears to be a greater presence of women within the indigenous cause. Are these proper goals within the indigenous movement?

GUAJAJARA – The indigenous woman has always had an important role in indigenous society. Whether she is in the fields, in the school as an educator, in health care, or at home as a mother, the indigenous woman is always the one who guides the decision-making. Although she hasn’t always had the right to speak out in meetings, the indigenous woman has always guided the decision-making processes of any people. In recent times, we have started to gain more visibility because many women have started to occupy functions or roles that reach beyond our villages. In the last five years, we have been able to make a leap in indigenous women’s participation in different spaces, such as indigenous organizations, spaces of social control, within universities and public entities. 

This is the first time an indigenous woman is in charge of COIAB, which is the Coordination of the Indigenous Organizations of the Brazilian Amazon: it is Nara Baré, who we say is the first woman to head up the Brazilian Indigenous Amazon. This is the fruit of a lot of effort, of ten years of dialogue. I was the vice-coordinator of COIAB and I worked hard to mobilize the women, to be able to put one in charge of this position. In the state of Pará, we have a woman at the head of the state’s indigenous organization: Puyr Tembé, who has just been elected. There was already a woman in this role, and now we have managed to put another one there. Out of a coordination team of eight people, six are women. Here in the state of Maranhão, out of four people, two are women and two are men. In the previous administration, there were three women and one man, and the man was the secretary, a function that for a long time was given to women. I took over the executive coordination of APIB; Joênia is a federal deputy; Chirley Pankará, a state deputy for São Paulo, and we have so many other women who are assuming leadership roles. 

In 2019, we held the First Indigenous Women’s March. It was a call out for women to participate in a direct way, to be in contact with other women, and there they began to see new possibilities. Each woman who came to the march returned home saying she would never be the same again. This was the first indigenous women’s march in Brazil and the first indigenous women’s march in the world, and it is setting an example for many indigenous women globally. Little by little, we have been deconstructing the idea that women should just stand by, waiting in the wings or guiding from afar. We went out through the window, through the front door, and now we are out there on the stage. And we have to do this: to play a leading role more and more.


ESCOLHAS – Currently we are seeing the indigenous movement gaining visibility and receiving support from more and more people, including many famous celebrities. Do you feel that this change is really happening, that people are connecting more with this cause that, as you say, is not only an indigenous fight, but a fight for the planet? 

GUAJAJARA – I think that there is a real change underway, with more people joining the struggle and dedicating themselves to the indigenous cause. Over these past few years, this has become very evident. One example is this relationship that exists with artists. For a long time, artists seemed unreachable, existing only on television, we couldn’t ever get close to them, but we have managed to strengthen these relationships a lot, because their speech carries significant weight and has important reach. 

The live-streamed online event “Maracá – indigenous emergency”, which we held last year to raise funds for APIB’s emergency action, involved more than 230 artists who came to speak and many even helped put the event together. There were also health specialists, non-indigenous people, renowned doctors, anthropologists and environmentalists. In fact, for a long time even the environmentalists were fighting a separate fight to us. Before, the environmental struggle was out there on its own, entirely separate from indigenous peoples, so this was also a victory. I always said: “you have to stop thinking only about animals and trees and think about people”. Today, with the majority of the environmental entities, many of which were radical and stayed focused solely on the environment, we have a very good relationship.

So, I ask “how long until all this violence, this destruction, affects you?” People have to understand, they have to grasp the cause and the actual role of the Indigenous Territories. When you take other public land areas and compare them with indigenous lands, it is proven that indigenous lands are the best preserved – and not only because they are demarcated. They are preserved because the indigenous presence and way of life preserves them. It is a relationship of care and respect, not destruction. We, the indigenous peoples, are 5% of the world’s population today. And together this 5% manages to preserve 82% of the biodiversity. If we, the indigenous people, are destroyed, this way of life, this culture and biodiversity will also be threatened. And if biodiversity is also at risk, the whole world is at risk, the whole global population is at risk, the planet is at risk. If one is able to connect these dots, one can understand one’s place in the struggle.


ESCOLHAS – What can we expect from the indigenous movement this year?

GUAJAJARA – To further strengthen the role of indigenous women, to increase indigenous representation in Brazilian politics, to continue international pressure and to work with artists. All of these are plans for this year, but the main thing is to contain this pandemic and to encourage our relatives to take the vaccine, to be able to reduce the number of deaths and hospitalizations. Today there is a very big campaign for indigenous people not to take the vaccine, with many lies, a lot of fake news of a religious or political nature. These are messages that are being disseminated in the territories which are causing fear, panic, doubt and that is why they are rejecting the vaccine. 

It is also necessary to continue pressuring the government to vaccinate everyone, since the government only wants to vaccinate the indigenous people who are in the villages, in the territories. The government itself, which denies demarcation, now wants to vaccinate only those who are inside the villages. This restricts the indigenous population by half. We need to continue this pressure against the government, both to guarantee vaccination for everyone, and to stop denying indigenous identities by preaching cultural assimilation. 

So, the priority now is to contain the pandemic. Apart from this, we will continue this fight for our lives. Today it is much more than a fight for rights, it is a fight for life, for our life, and that is why we are calling on people: to understand the indigenous fight as their own fight, because, after all, the fight for Mother Earth is still the mother of all fights.


¹ The Project Law 2633/20, on land regularization, and PL 191/20, on the liberation of mining in indigenous territories, entered the brazilian Government’s list of priorities for voting in the Chamber of Deputies in 2021: https://www.camara.leg.br/noticias/725714-confira-a-lista-de-prioridades-do-governo-na-camara-e-no-senado/

² Study “What is the real socioeconomic impact of gold and diamond exploration in the Amazon?”, available at http://bit.ly/ExecutiveSummary-Mining

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