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

RIGHTS-BRAZIL: Recovering Guarani Traditions

Mario Osava* - Tierramérica

DOURADOS, Brazil, Feb 15 2008 (IPS) - Until the visitor runs across a large “house of prayer” that confirms the area’s indigenous character, this place in the central-western Brazilian state of Mato Grosso do Sul looks like any other rural district, with the ramshackle housing highlighting the widespread poverty.

A sign by the highway that crosses the Dourados indigenous territory. Credit: Mario Osava

A sign by the highway that crosses the Dourados indigenous territory. Credit: Mario Osava

The temple, standing 4.5 metres high and twice as wide, has a peaked roof made of “sapé”, or satintail stalks (Imperata brasiliensis), with the two sides extending to the ground, triangular walls on the other two sides, and an earthen floor.

It is in some need of repair. Its bamboo structure is falling apart, but both bamboo and satintail have disappeared from Dourados and the surrounding area, Jorge da Silva, who built the house of prayer seven years ago, tells Tierramérica.

Silva is one of the “rezadores” or religious leaders who want to recover the Guaraní culture and traditions in the Dourados Indigenous Territory. The weakening of traditional beliefs and customs is considered one of the causes of the crisis affecting this community, which is plagued by a high number of murders, youth suicides and power conflicts, as well as widespread childhood malnutrition.

“With soybeans came malnutrition and the poisoning of the rivers,” says Silva, who blames the expansion of soy crops through Mato Grosso do Sul in the past three decades for the greatest portion of the destruction of the environment upon which the local indigenous people relied for their survival – for food and satintail.

Soybeans and livestock are seen by many as the means for the state to achieve prosperity. They are activities that create strong pressure for deforestation, as is more than evident in the Amazon, and have also pushed the Guaraní into a corner in Mato Grosso do Sul.

The Dourados Indigenous Territory is the prime example of “confinement” noted by anthropologists. Its 1,539 hectares are insufficient to support the Guaraní community of some 12,000 people, surrounded by the city on one side and immense soybean fields on the other. There are no forests remaining in the area.

For the Guaraní, and especially the Kaiwoá, the largest group in the reserve shared with the Ñandeva and Terena, it is a prison and a big factor behind the ongoing violence, as they are now unable to follow their tradition of moving on when conflicts with relatives or neighbours erupt.

Other indigenous reserves face similar limitations and attempts to expand them in areas that the Guaraní consider their ancestral land. This has caused clashes with large landowners, which have resulted in bloodshed and deaths. The rapid rise in the indigenous population here since the 1980s has made their confinement less tenable.

Furthermore, the land is no longer collectively owned. Through internal distribution mechanisms and transfers, inequality in the ownership of plots of land has emerged. Some families have nothing, while others own many hectares, which will be fewer and fewer per person, however, as the property is passed down to the next generations. Silva, for example, has eight children and, so far, nine grandchildren.

Scarce and degraded land has made traditional farming nonviable. Agriculture here now requires fertilisers and investment in new technologies for which the Guaraní lack resources or technological support, says Antonio Brand, historian and expert on indigenous issues at the Dom Bosco Catholic University. He has been living with and studying the native peoples of Mato Grosso do Sul for three decades.

Many Guaraní families rely on food aid distributed by the government. The only source of income, especially for young people, is to work the sugarcane harvests between May and November. With the heavy expansion of that crop for the production of ethanol, this type of seasonal wage labour will grow, according to Brand.

More than a thousand Indians from Dourados are estimated to work cutting sugarcane. Some are transported daily by buses from the reserve to nearby plantations, while others remain in the countryside, far from their homes, for two months at a time.

The latter are blamed for bringing negative outside influences to the village, such as alcoholism, because they spend long periods living with strangers, away from their villages and farms. But Jacir Freitas, a 30-year-old father of four, prefers to stay near the cane fields, because at the end of the 70-day period he makes the most of his labour rights when the contract is rescinded, accumulating a tidy sum to invest in his own crops.

“I’ve been cutting sugarcane since I was 11,” he tells Tierramérica, noting that it is a common story for those who, like him, were not able to study beyond primary school or to get a job in the public sector.

The Kaiwoá, a more vulnerable group, was dedicated to raising a variety of crops, but as an activity linked to religion, says Levi Pereira, an anthropologist who provided assistance to the local indigenous communities as an agricultural technician.

Now they have also lost the “justification” for farming, as practices such as the religious festivals that marked the planting season and the legitimacy of community leaders based on their harvests have fallen by the wayside, he says.

The Guaraní “are not driven by a desire for consumer goods or the accumulation of wealth, like we are,” but depend on both natural and spiritual resources to find meaning in life, says Pereira.

The traditional “rezadores” were harshly put down in the past decade, and over the last five years many of their houses of prayer were set on fire. The aggressive actions of Pentecostal churches in the villages further complicate the situation.

Silva is confident that now, with more and more people returning to their prayer traditions and to “baptisms of maize, babies and the earth,” farming will make a comeback in the villages.

The sacred cross indicates where to plant, says his wife, Floriza Souza, pointing to the papaya growing in her backyard.

Furthermore, in the village, new productive alternatives are being developed, such as fish farming. The association of 200 people that Silva coordinates is already raising fish in two pools, and is preparing to build another four, taking advantage of the marshes near the house of prayer. The first fish harvested were donated to families suffering from malnutrition.

Now, in addition to providing a source of protein for its members, the project aims to become self-sustaining, with income from the sales of 20 percent of the overall output.

The challenge, according to experts on indigenous issues, is for the Guaraní to get beyond a subsistence level of production. There are 26 fish farming pools in the Indigenous Territory, according to Anastacio Peralta, a Kaiwoá who promotes this alternative as coordinator of indigenous public policy for the Dourados village government.

(*Mario Osava is an IPS correspondent. Originally published by Latin American newspapers that are part of the Tierramérica network. Tierramérica is a specialised news service produced by IPS with the backing of the United Nations Development Programme and the United Nations Environment Programme.)

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