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BRAZIL: Keeping Indigenous Identity Intact in “Urban Village”

Mario Osava

CAMPO GRANDE, Brazil, Mar 3 2008 (IPS) - “I desperately want to go back. I feel like I’m living in a prison here, but I stay on because I love my children,” says Conceição Gonçalves, who misses the indigenous village of Taunay where she lived until last year, when she moved to the capital of the Brazilian state of Mato Grosso do Sul.

Conceiçao Gonçalves feels out of place in the "urban village".  Credit: Mario Osava/IPS

Conceiçao Gonçalves feels out of place in the "urban village". Credit: Mario Osava/IPS

The 58-year-old mother of nine has “more than 20 grandchildren.” “I’ve lost count,” she adds. Now she lives with her daughter Regina in Agua Bonita, one of three “urban villages” created for indigenous people in Campo Grande, a city of 725,000 people

“In Taunay I have my own land where I can grow whatever I want to eat, and raise chickens. The city is only good for people who are studying and have a job, because you can’t eat without money,” Gonçalves said, peeling potatoes outside the front door of the house.

In the front yard there are some shrubs and a passion fruit vine climbing up a trellis.

“It’s awful here in Agua Bonita when it rains; the house floods. My daughter had all her furniture stolen” – the yards are fenced in but there is a great deal of petty theft – “and people aren’t friendly.

“In the rural communities, no one touches your things even if the house is empty. But Taunay is much hotter, and there’s no doctor, and no transportation to take a sick person to hospital, and the government offices are a long way away,” she added.

Agua Bonita is a district with 60 cement block houses built by the Campo Grande municipal government in 2001 for indigenous people, mostly ethnic Terena like Gonçalves, who were living in shanty dwellings scattered around the city. The houses are 50 square metres in size, set on either side of a wide tree-lined street, and decorated with colourful murals which imitate indigenous designs.

The indigenous people themselves have built another 88 houses and cabins surrounding the municipal houses. Some of them are shacks made of timber offcuts. Over 800 people live in Agua Bonita, according to Elcio da Silva, a Terena and a member of the Campo Grande Municipal Council for the Defence of Indigenous People’s Rights, the only such institution in existence in Brazil.

About 8,000 indigenous people live in Campo Grande, said da Silva, of whom 2,000 live in the three “urban village” housing projects.

“Agua Bonita is outside the urban perimeter, it’s in a rural area,” but officially it is classified as an urban neighbourhood rather than as an indigenous village. Unfortunately it is therefore ineligible for development project funding from the national or state governments, said Nito Nelson, head of the Residents’ Association.

“We’ve already missed out on funding for three projects,” he said: a flour mill, a small indigenous school, and a community centre. The village was allocated 14 hectares, “enough land for farming,” but this has been reduced to 3.5 hectares due to lack of government support, he complained.

Many people in Agua Bonita work in a meat processing plant close to the village. Others have jobs in the services sector, and women work chiefly as domestics.

Nelson belongs to the Kaiowá ethnic group, the largest branch of the Guaraní nation in Mato Grosso do Sul, which has a total indigenous population of 65,000.

He moved to Campo Grande in 1998 to represent the Kaiowá Aty Guazú (Grand Assembly) in relations with the government and other institutions, but he “misses the forest,” and longs to go back there when his people recover their ancestral land in the southern municipality of Amambai, at present occupied by ranchers who have taken over the property.

Nelson has three children and four grandchildren, and earns his living making crafts which he sells from his home. He took over the position of head of the local residents’ association after the 2003 death of Marta Guaraní, who is regarded as a heroine among indigenous people for her leadership qualities and decisive contribution to the founding of the three “urban villages”.

The Kaiowá leader says it is difficult to lead a predominantly Terena association when one belongs to a different ethnic group, in the same way that it is difficult to be a practising Catholic when surrounded by evangelical Christians. “A leader must be neutral, without fear or favour of religions, because he or she must ensure that everybody participates equally,” he said.

Indigenous people are drawn to the capital in search of education and jobs. Da Silva came to Campo Grande when he was two years old, because his father “wanted to give his six children an education,” he said. Today the 37-year-old, himself a father of two, works as a cocktail waiter and caterer, but “one day I will go back to Cachoeirinha,” the rural village where he was born, 230 kilometres west of Campo Grande.

His concern is that the “urban village” housing projects may encourage an indigenous exodus to the city, bringing more conflicts in its wake, because people arrive from their remote home territories without any vocations, skills or means of subsistence. The solution is to demarcate indigenous reservations in the rural areas where they live, he argued.

The 1988 Brazilian constitution stipulated that the government should complete the demarcation of indigenous territories in the country within five years, in order to ensure the physical and cultural survival of native groups.

However, at present there are still hundreds of future reservations that have not yet been marked off. In the case of the Guaraní in Mato Grosso do Sul alone, anthropologists estimate that more than 30 indigenous territories have yet to be identified, and will be studied beginning this year.

The “urban villages” are a response to a new social phenomenon. No less than 52 percent of the 734,172 people who identified themselves as indigenous in the Brazilian census in 2000 were then living in towns and cities. Sao Paulo has neighbourhoods with large proportions of indigenous residents who have come from very distant locations, and who maintain their religious rites and cultural traditions in the country’s largest city.

Not all of them dream of returning to their homelands. Carmelito Canali has worked as a nurse for 17 years, and says he will not be going back to the Terena village of Cachoeirinha that he left when he was 15. “No indigenous person wants to leave the city after getting used to a good house and good schools, except perhaps after retiring,” he said.

Now living in Agua Bonita to give health instruction to residents as an employee of the National Health Foundation, a Health Ministry agency, Canali said that diabetes and hypertension are growing problems among local indigenous people. Resistance to contraceptive methods and the use of condoms are additional health-related problems in indigenous communities.

It was also educational opportunities that attracted indigenous people, a majority of whom are Terena, to Marçal de Souza, the first “urban village”, founded in 2000. About 700 people live there in 135 households, according to Silvana Dias de Souza, a 32-year-old mother of five who is deputy head of the local Residents’ Association.

Dias de Souza and her two brothers moved to Campo Grande “to study,” she said. She hopes to complete her secondary education soon, and then to study social sciences at university.

“I love Campo Grande, I like the bustle and noise,” she said. However, she does not rule out returning to Aquidauana, a municipality 130 kilometres from the state capital, when she retires, to “buy land and grow crops, although I’ve never planted a seed in my life.”

Nilvando Candelario, the 33-year-old head of the Residents’ Association, who has one daughter, left Cachoeirinha to do his military service.

He dislikes urban life, because he works at night as a private security guard and cannot sleep by day because of the noise, but he is aware that living in Campo Grande has “broadened his mind,” and he is preparing to go back one day and “help the Terena people.”

Both Dias de Souza and Candelario were elected to the leadership of the Association in 2007, after promising to improve healthcare, generate employment opportunities, and introduce an indigenous education system using the Terena language in the local primary school.

Marçal de Souza, their “urban village”, is named after an outstanding defender of indigenous people’s rights, particularly those of the Guaraní, who was murdered in 1983. The neighbourhood of brick houses is more crowded than Agua Bonita, but residents have a Memorial of Indigenous Culture with a large exhibition hall where they hold meetings and sell crafts.

The third urban village is smaller and less organised than the other two. It is called Darcy Ribeiro, after the distinguished Brazilian anthropologist and activist best known for fomenting education, founding the University of Brasilia and advocating on behalf of Brazil’s indigenous peoples and their cultures.

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