Numbering some 30,000 people, speaking a range of distinct languages including Mbyá, Nandeva and Kaiowá, Brazil’s Guarani Kaiowá are one of the largest indigenous communities in the country, with a long history of forced evictions dating back to the early twentieth century. Most live on the frontier of Mato Grosso do Sul, bordering neighbouring Paraguay, an isolated region far from the nearest towns and with little in the way of public security. Here, in their traditional homeland, they face almost daily persecution at the hands of armed farmers or hired militias, including sexual assault, abductions and killings, enabled in large part by the widespread impunity enjoyed by the perpetrators themselves.
Crucial to understanding the Guarani Kaiowá way of life is the integral role of their ancestral lands in all aspects of their society, culture and religious beliefs. The land is much more than a material asset, as it also serves as the foundation in the construction of their unique identity, lifestyle and belief system. Since their forced displacement into overcrowded reserves – created, without any cultural considerations, by the government’s controversial Indian Protection Service – more than a century ago, these have been under threat.
This resettlement also had a profound impact on the social and familial fabric of the communities. Removing Guarani Kaiowá from the land on which their subsistence as hunter gatherers depended meant that they instead had to look for other means of survival for their communities, particularly as malnutrition became more widespread. As a result, many were forced to seek work in the sugar cane plantations, away from the reserves, under precarious conditions. The prolonged absences of parents were an important factor in the disintegration of families, the foundation of the tribe’s cultural model.
Their current predicament is a reflection of the deep-seated discrimination experienced by Brazil’s indigenous populations. While communities in the reservations were pressured to assimilate, their ancestral territories were sold to private individuals on the open market. Today very little of the communal land remains – a testament to the government’s failure to implement the terms of the 1988 Constitution, which demanded the restitution of native lands to indigenous peoples by 1993. While after extensive lobbying their land was finally recognized in 2005, the community’s return was short-lived: shortly afterwards, following pressure from local ranchers, the official demarcation of their territory was blocked by a federal judge and the community found themselves again expelled from their land.
Mato Grosso do Sul has been centre stage for conflict between farmers and the Guarani Kaiowá, in the process costing many indigenous lives. Government economic development policies, often involving large-scale deforestation, have been heavily influenced by powerful agribusiness interests in the National Congress. The creation of vast sugar plantations in the region has been a significant driver of indigenous displacement, encouraged in part by the global market for Brazil’s sugar, with international companies such as Coca- Cola having been accused of sourcing products from agribusinesses directly implicated in the destruction of indigenous territories in the region. In response, the community has recently begun to peacefully reoccupy their land, though this has often provoked a violent backlash.
This included, in 2015, the killing of a young community activist by a gunman, alleged by the community to have been hired by a local farmer.
This protracted displacement, in some cases over multiple generations, has had a profound impact on indigenous communities. In the Dourados reserve, for example, there are 12,000 Guarani Kaiowá living in not much more than 3,000 hectares as a result of unscrupulous land-grabbing in the area. Inside the reserve, suicide and homicide levels remain extraordinarily high. Indeed, a recent study by the Conselho Indigenista Missionário found that suicide rates in the community had almost tripled in the last three decades, raising them to arguably the highest in the world.
Central to their despair is their loss of land and the limbo the community now finds themselves in. In Mato Grosso do Sul more than 40 indigenous settlements are situated by roads, on the edge of farms or in town peripheries, typically without access to clean water, basic sanitation or safe housing. The roadside settlements are especially dangerous for children, who are often run over by trucks, adding to the already high indigenous child mortality rate in the area.
Nevertheless, though Guarani Kaiowá in Mato Grosso do Sul continue to face deadly attacks, destitution and demoralization, Guarani indigenous communities based in the state of São Paulo recently celebrated an important victory with the official identification in January 2017 of the territory of Pindoty/Araçá-mirim, amounting to more than a thousand hectares, by the Brazilian government. While only a first step in the land demarcation process, which has been stalled for more than a decade, it represents a successful milestone in the Guarani struggle for recognition of their land – though whether this success will be replicated in Mato Grosso do Sul remains to be seen.
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