Civil Society, Environment, Headlines, Human Rights, Indigenous Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean

BRAZIL: Land Shortage Provokes Murders of Indigenous People

Mario Osava

RIO DE JANEIRO, Jan 14 2008 (IPS) - At least 76 indigenous people were murdered in Brazil in 2007, 58 percent more than in 2006. The killings increased the most in the west-central state of Mato Grosso do Sul, where the Guaraní people are confined to territories too small for them to maintain their traditional way of life.

This number of killings – published by the Indigenist Missionary Council (CIMI) in its bulletin Thursday – is still preliminary. The definitive total will be known in April, when CIMI, an agency of the Catholic Church, publishes its annual report on violence against native peoples in Brazil. The hostilities include attacks, threats, suicides and invasions of native reserves.

"We’ve just heard of another five murders," not included in the former total, CIMI vice president Roberto Liebgott, told IPS. The information will be fully analysed in the coming months, but it is already apparent that the most serious problems are in Mato Grosso do Sul, where 48 of the 76 killings last year were perpetrated, he said.

In 2006, 20 out of a total of 48 known murders were committed in this state.

The main cause is the "confinement" in which the Kaiowá branch of the Guaraní people is forced to live, according to CIMI. At the Dourados reserve, where the violence is most visible, "12,000 indigenous people are living on little more than 3,000 hectares," Liebgott explained.

Life in the limited confines of a small reserve is particularly inappropriate for the Guaraní – traditionally a nomadic people who frequently cross borders into Paraguay and Argentina – where they are also numerous. Consequently, conflicts within the group and with society outside tend to become violent.


The National Indigenous Foundation (FUNAI), a government agency in charge of policies involving original peoples, promised to create 35 new indigenous territories in Mato Grosso do Sul, but has failed to do so. As a result, the tensions are as bad as ever, said Liebgott.

FUNAI would not comment on the figures and the complaints lodged by CIMI, despite repeated efforts to contact its offices, Liebgott said.

Over 60,000 indigenous people live in Mato Grosso do Sul, nearly half of whom belong to the Guaraní-Kaiwoá ethnic group. The group has a high suicide rate among young people, which is usually attributed to hopeless prospects in light of land shortage.

But according to CIMI, around 16,000 Terena indigenous people also live in the same state. There is no abnormal incidence of murders and suicides among them, although their land is similarly restricted.

"Our people have very little land, we have a village of 400 people on four hectares," Marcos Terena, president of the Inter-Tribal Committee and head of the Indigenous Peoples Memorial, a museum for indigenous crafts and culture in Brasilia, told IPS.

There are big differences between the Kaiwoá, who "suffer from a ‘victim complex’ and are not farmers," and the Terena, who cultivate the soil collectively and have adapted better to the life imposed on them by the white colonisers, he said.

Furthermore, the Kaiwoá were subjected to the influence of the Jesuits, Catholic priests who set out to evangelise indigenous people as soon as the Portuguese arrived in South America in the sixteenth century. The Jesuits preaching the myth of "a promised land which is reached through death," Terena said.

Egon Heck, the coordinator of CIMI in Mato Grosso do Sul, said, "the situation is terrifying because of the absurd increase in violence," which is aggravated by a combination of different factors.

In economic terms, large investments are being made to expand sugarcane cultivation amidst a surge in ethanol production as a gasoline substitute. This has resulted in a monoculture and a hike in the price of land, which is becoming the object of more intense and aggressive disputes, Heck said.

Politically, local governments are completely "aligned with the interests of agribusiness," according to Heck.

The reality of their surroundings is worsening the future prospects for indigenous people’s lives, "unleashing internal violence in the villages," he said.

Many indigenous people work away from home, in the sugarcane harvest, for example. They spend about 70 days at a time away from their communities, "and return bringing with them problems like alcoholism or dependence on other drugs, which damages social relations internally and with the surrounding neighbourhood," he said.

There are 11 sugar mills and fuel alcohol distilleries in the state, and another 30 under construction, with plans for a total of 60, according to Heck.

In November 2007, a company producing sugar and alcohol in Mato Grosso do Sul was closed by the Special Mobile Inspection Group after it was found to be exploiting over 800 indigenous workers in conditions akin to slavery.

The Special Group was set up specifically to combat the practice of slave labour, and is made up of inspectors from the Labour Ministry, the Public Prosecutor’s Office and the Federal Police.

Another source of violence is the oligarchy of local landowners, who still behave like "coroneles" (rural overlords). They react violently to the new Guaraní tactic of invading land they consider as belonging to them and setting up camps there, in the style of the Landless Workers Movement (MST), which is struggling for land reform.

Elders in the Guaraní community have been brutally stabbed and beaten to death, Terena said. With land values rising due to the expansion of soybean and sugarcane cultivation, "even 100 hectares are reason enough to fight over," Terena said.

Kaiwoá and Terena reserves were demarcated many decades ago, when the local indigenous population was small and it was thought that they would integrate into the "dominant" white culture. But their population has multiplied, and assimilation has not occurred, Terena said.

Now that there is a consensus that the land shortage is the root cause of the murders, the solution would appear to involve the state buying lands near the Guaraní territories for native use. But there are territorial difficulties – as the Kaiwoá live in densely populated areas where land values are very high.

There are also political difficulties. If the state these steps here, it would set a precedent which would trigger land claims by indigenous peoples living in similar conditions in other parts of the country, from the south to the Northeast, where land is not as abundant as in the Amazon region, Terena said. But "it is necessary," he concluded.

One example of the potential difficulties can be seen in the Terena village of Taunay, where the land recognised as indigenous territory was increased from 600 to 30,000 hectares.

Local farmers there – threatened with losing land they occupy illegally – are felling trees as fast as they can, with a view to claiming larger amounts in compensation for land "improvements", Terena said.

 
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