500 years of dispossession
Brazil's Indigenous peoples demand land rights
Five hundred years ago, the first Portuguese arrived to the shores of Brazil and started a process of genocide of the indigenous population. At the time, in 1500, the Indigenous inhabitants of Brazil numbered an estimated five million. Today, after 97% of the indigenous people in the area have been wiped out, and there are only 350,000 indigenous people left, who constitute only 0.2% of the total population, representing 215 different ethnic groups, speaking 175 different languages.
Nowadays, the question of land rights is the single biggest issue affecting indigenous peoples in the Latin American country. The distribution of the land in Brazil is one of the most unequal in the world. Approximately 1% of the population owns 49% of the land. The indigenous people at the moment have no collective land ownership rights.
A lot of tribes have been wiped out, but there are also people who survived, like us, and what we want to show is that we are firm in our resistance and that we will never stop being Indians
The 1988 Brazilian Constitution recognises the rights of Indian communities to their own social organisations, customs and beliefs and to the exclusive occupation and use of their traditional lands. All Indigenous areas were supposed to be demarcated by 1993, but FUNAI, the government organisation that deals with Indian affairs, estimates that 47% of Indian territory has still not been demarcated and that many of these territories have been invaded by land speculators, cattle ranchers, forestry companies and mineral and gold prospectors.
Marcos Vernon and Leia Aquino, two representatives from the indigenous Guarani-Kaiova groups, came to Ireland last week to meet with government officials and NGOs to explain the desperate situation they are suffering because of the lack of land. It is a major scandal that 500 years on, still not one Indian tribe is allowed recognition as the owner of its traditional and sacred land. Their lawyer, Enereu Schneider, and Fiona Watson, from Survival International, who launched the book Disinherited, Indians in Brazil, accompanied them.
The Guarani people are one of the largest indigenous groups in Brazil. They number nearly 30,000 and live in the South-West of Brazil in a savannah type area, which several hundred years ago was known as Mato Grosso do Sul, which means thick forest.
Unfortunately, the process of colonisation and destruction of their land has been incredibly intense. The policy of the government over the past 40 years has been to evict the Guarani-Kaiova Indians from their land and to dump them in a number of large reservations, rather like the US government did last century with Native Americans. This policy has been disastrous, as the reserves have been completely overcrowded.
``The biggest problem that we face in our village is the complete lack of land in the area we live in to build our houses, to cultivate our fields and our gardens; in fact, to have the full way of life that we need to survive'', explains Leia, who is a teacher in one of the Guarani-Kaiowa villages. ``We really feel this inside of us, because we are literally corralled in, as animals put into a corral by the ranchers.
``We do not have the freedom that we need to have our own education, our own schools and to have better health; everything that we need to live in a community. We do not want to be dependant. It is very hard for us now to leave the villages in search of money and health. We know that it is our right to have our land and we also know that there is absolutely necessary for all indigenous families to have their land.''
Overpopulation of the reservations is a huge problem - in the case of Leia's village, Cerro Marangutu, they still only have 15 to 20 hectares of land shared among 500 Indians. This overpopulation means that most of the men have to leave the village to look for work. ``Many of them end up in ranches that are very far away because the local ranchers do not like the Indians and do not want us to work for them'', said Leia. ``So that means that they go out, and they end up working also in the alcohol distilleries, cutting up the sugar cane and here they really suffer a lot, because this is really hard work.''
Fiona Watson, from Survival International, described how Mato Grosso is famous for cattle ranches and sugar plantations. ``The sugar cane is harvested mainly by Indian labour. So it is not uncommon to go to one of the big sugar cane plantations and to interview Guarani children that are working under the legal minimal age of 16 and I have interviewed children of 11 or 12. They can work up to a 10-hour day in a heat of about 35 degrees and then all they own at the end of the week is a couple of dollars. This is slave labour.''
For a people whose land is not only property but a way of life, the defence of their sacred land ownership rights is the most important issue.
Ava Taparandu (Marcos Vernon) warned that they are ready to fight. ``At the moment, there are 8,000 Indians in Mato Grosso do Sul state who have come together and we are really warning people, because if the cattle ranchers start treating us worse, we are going to face up to them and we will have to expel them from our land'', he said.
What Ava Taparandu, Leia and their people and other indigenous people are calling for is the demarcation, regularisation and ratification of their land. ``I want the government to send in a technical team and to literally map out our area and to make the ranchers leave, because if the rancher does not leave of his own accord, then things are going to turn out badly,'' warned Ava Taparandu.
``This land is our land; it belongs to the indigenous people. The problem is the ranchers came in and built their ranches on top of our land. When we were evicted from our village in 1953, there were 2,500 Indians in the area. They threw 2,000 Indians off the land.''
Despair has caused many Guarani to take their own lives. The Guarani-Kaiowa have one of the highest suicide rates in the world, 40 times higher than the Brazilian national suicide rate. As Fiona Watson points out, ``almost all the indigenous people that I have interviewed say that this is because of the desperation they feel that there is no future for them without land. It is mainly young people killing themselves. There have been documented cases of children as young as nine or ten killing themselves.''
Today, Indigenous groups are carrying out land occupations, driving by despair and hunger. However, the occupations are a dangerous process, because the Indigenous people are up against people who have incredible economic and political power. The process of occupation means that often the communities that take back a little bit of land are hustled by hitmen employed by the cattle ranchers.
Obviously, the Guarani-Kaiova have not many reasons to celebrate the 500th anniversary of the arrival of the Portuguese. They joined other indigenous ethnic groups on marches and demonstrations against the celebrations. ``For us, the 500 years were about resistance'', explains Leia. ``It was really to show the government and everybody in Brazil that we are alive and we still live an indigenous way of life. Unhappily for them, their desire to literally finish us off has never been realised. So the whole idea of the protest was to show our resistance to many things in the past, but also our resistance to things in the future. The fact is that a lot of tribes have been wiped out, but there are also people who survived, like us, and what we want to show is that we are firm in our resistance and that we will never stop being Indians.''
BY SOLEDAD GALIANA