Brazil: How Many Lives Does the Guarani-Kaiowá's Land Cost?

This post is part of our special coverage Indigenous Rights.

Over the last few decades, Brazil has consolidated its position as one of the leading exporters of agricultural goods and biofuels in the world. Mato Grosso do Sul, one of its largest states, is the national leader in soybean and sugar cane production.

Not coincidentally, Mato Grosso do Sul is also the very same area where the indigenous Guaraní Kaiowá people are increasingly disappearing — and not through natural causes. About 250 Guaraní Kaiowá have been killed in Mato Grosso do Sul in the past eight years, as conflicts with the rapidly growing agri-business interests make the state bordering Paraguay the most dangerous for indigenous peoples to live in.

Last November, 42 gunmen [pt] attacked the indigenous reserve in Amambaí, Mato Grosso do Sul, executing Nísio Gomes, 59, chief of the Guaraní Kaiowá and several other villagers. The gunmen then took away the body of the chief, so as to conceal evidence.

Screenshot of The Dark Side of Green documentary

Screenshot of The Dark Side of Green documentary

In response to the massacre, Guaraní Kaiowá students from Federal University of Mato Grosso do Sul (UFMS) wrote a public letter of protest [pt] in which they described the current situation:

Parece que o nazismo está presente aqui. Parece que o Mato Grosso do Sul se tornou um campo de fuzilamento dos povos indígenas. (…) Nós podemos dizer que o estado, os políticos e a sociedade são cúmplices dessa violência quando eles não falam nada, quando não fazem nada para isso mudar. Os índios se tornaram os novos judeus.

It seems that Nazism is present here. It seems that Mato Grosso do Sul has become a firing squad for indigenous peoples. (…) We can say that the state, politicians and society are accomplices in this violence when they say nothing, when they do nothing to change it. The indigenous people have become the new Jews.

Just as it happened in many concentration camps during the Holocaust, so now do Indians in Brazil end up working — often in situations similar to slavery — for those who robbed them of their land and killed their relatives. Their ancestral lands have been stolen and they are now forced to work for the sugar mills, cutting sugar cane from sunrise to sunset, to earn “pitiful wages” and being “exposed to inhumane working conditions”, as Survival International reports [pdf].

Screenshot of The Dark Side of Green documentary

Screenshot of The Dark Side of Green documentary

Geraldine Kutis, Advisor for International Affairs of the Union of Sugar Cane Industry sugar cane (UNICA), an organization that promotes ethanol as a global commodity was interviewed for À Sombra de um Delírio Verde (The Dark Side of Green) [pt], a documentary about the link between the genocide of the Guaraní Kaiowá and the breakneck growth in the production of sugar cane. In it, Kutis says:

em termos de crescimento, costumamos dizer que o céu é o limite.

in terms of growth, we usually say that the sky is the limit.

The Dark Side of Green documentary from Mídia Livre on Vimeo.

Blogger Leonardo Sakamoto reports [pt] that while the profits from the production and agricultural industries have reached exorbitant levels:

o guarani continua sendo persona non grata em sua própria terra. Do total de 74 Terras Indígenas homologadas pelo governo federal do início de 2003 até outubro de 2009, apenas três contemplaram o povo guarani, uma das maiores populações indígenas do país.

The Guaraní remain persona non grata in their own land. Of the total of 74 indigenous territories approved by the Federal Government from early 2003 until October 2009, only three considered the interests of the Guaraní people, one of the largest indigenous populations in the country.

According to a study done for The Dark Side of Green, more than 90 percent of Guaraní Kaiowá families depend on food rations from the Government to survive, and that is not enough to cover the daily needs of the people.

Martyrs for their ancestral lands

Screenshot of The Dark Side of Green documentary

Screenshot of The Dark Side of Green documentary

The chief Nísio Gomes [pt] has become one more martyr of the genocide that the Guaraní Kaiowá of Brazil [pt] face, and he has become one more symbol of the struggle for indigenous ancestral lands.

In November 2010, Global Voices reported on the trial of the killers of Marcos Veron, another indigenous chief murdered in 2003. The accused men were released in 2007. The trial was scheduled to begin in May 2010 but was canceled and postponed again to February 2011.

Only now the First Federal Criminal Court of São Paulo finally reached a verdict [pt] in 2011: the accused — Carlos Roberto dos Santos, Jorge Cristaldo Insabralde and Stephen Romero — were acquitted for the death of Veron, but convicted for kidnap, torture, injury and training a gang. The men were sentenced to 12 years and three months in prison, but as they have served more than four years in prison, they have the right to go free pending an appeal, as Survival International reported.

In early December, Ladio Veron, the son of the late chief, in an interview recorded on video, reinforced the need for reporting on the situation [pt] of the Guaraní Kaiowá:

O que se vê hoje nas nossas terras, ali em Mato Grosso do Sul, é uma devastação total, onde o pé de cana vale mais que o índio, vale mais que uma criança indígena. Onde o boi vale mais do que uma comunidade indígena. Onde o pé de soja tem mais valor, e as nossas terras hoje são cobertas de vários outros empreendimentos, por enquanto construíram 18 usinas em cima das terras indígenas (…) mas no total são 40 usinas para ser construídas. Não se vê mais mato além de cana, soja e boi.

What you see today in our land, there in Mato Grosso do Sul, is a total devastation, where the cane stalk is worth more than the Indian; worth more than an indigenous child. Where a cow is worth more than an indigenous community. Where a sprout of soybeans has more value, and our lands are now covered with several other ventures. So far they built 18 power plants over indigenous lands (…) but in total there are 40 power plants to be built. One can not see the savannah anymore, only sugar cane, soybean [plantations] and cows [cattle ranches].

This post is part of our special coverage Indigenous Rights.


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