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Indigenous Xavantes of Marãiwatsédé Fight for the Right to Their Land

[This article was originally published in Portuguese on December 12, 2012.]

Having inhabited the Marãiwatsédé territory in the north of the state of Mato Grosso for centuries, natives of the Xavante ethnic group face occupation and threats from farmers who are trying to evict them from their homeland. The land, which was returned to them 14 years ago, has been invaded almost entirely by settlers and landowners. On December 6, 2012, following a Supreme Court decision made on October 17, the justice department in Mato Grosso ordered the delivery of subpoenas for the removal of illegal occupants of ancestral lands. One and a half month after the beginning of the removal, the process is now almost finalized [pt].

Journalist Felipe Milanez, specializing in indigenous matters, wrote [pt]:

O território xavante, chamado Marãiwatséde, está no centro de um eixo de escoamento de soja e gado, onde o governo federal quer asfalta a BR-158. O traçado ficaria fora da reserva, e da Ferrovia Centro-Oeste, que liga as cidades de Campinorte (GO) e Lucas do Rio Verde (MT).

A disputa por este território expõe a dificuldade do governo em controlar os conflitos fundiários na Amazônia. Os pequenos posseiros, tradicionais inimigos dos índios na região, deram lugares aos grandes ruralistas – que se negam a deixar o território. A pressão externa tem provocado divisões internas dos Xavantes, que colocam em risco a vida das principais lideranças.

The Xavante territory, called Marãiwatséde, is in the middle of a trade route for soy and cattle, where the federal government wants to pave the BR-158. The route would be outside the reservation and the Mid-East Pipeline that links the cities of Campinorte (GO) and Lucas do Rio Verde (MT).

The dispute over this territory exposes the difficulty the government has in controlling fundamental conflicts in the Amazon. Small landowners, traditional enemies of the indigenous people of the region, gave places to grand ruralists – who refuse to leave the territory. The external pressure has provoked internal divisions within the Xavantes that endangers the lives of their top leaders.

Aldeia Xavante. Foto de Felipe Milanez, usada com permissão.

Xavante Village. Photo by Adriano Gambarini/OPAN, used with permission.

Also, according to Milanez, the problems started in 1966, with the expulsion of the indigenous population of the region, who were transported in FAB (Brazilian Air Force) planes to another Xavante territory 400km away. They became victims of a measles epidemic that killed at least 150 indigenous people which forced the community to spread out into other indigenous territories in a sort of “internal exile in the country”. With the arrival of Ariosto da Riva, an entrepreneur from Sao Paulo who bought the Marãiwatsédé territory, the region has become known as Suiá-Missu, an estate with 1.8 million hectares. The land then passed through the hands of various businesses until the Earth Summit, in Rio de Janeiro, when the Italian company who at the time possessed the land – Agip Petrolli – decided to return the land to the indigenous people.

As it turns out, the land was returned only to be invaded by farmers and settlers that have now been expelled by the judicial decision [pt] in favor of the indigenous people. About this process, initiated December 10, Greenpeace reported [pt]:

Este é um momento crucial para a desintrusão da terra dos Xavante, processo liderado pela Funai (Fundação Nacional do Índio) e que conta com respaldo de forças policiais.

This is a crucial moment for the removal of invaders from the Xavante land, a process led by Funai (National Indian Foundation) that depends on support from police forces.

Indígenas Xavantes. Foto de Felipe Milanez, usada com.

Indigenous Xavantes. Photo by Felipe Milanez, printed with permission.

The trespassing of invading settlers does not come, however, in peaceful form [pt]. Road blocks were constructed by squatters and include threats of violence, as Journalist Andreia Fanzeres (@Andreiafanzeres) tweeted on September 2012:

Jornais de MT noticiam hj que invasores de #maraiwatsede bloquearam BR 158 e só vão sair “qdo a justiça suspender a decisão de retirá-los”

Newspapers in Mato Grosso reported today that tresspassers #maraiwatsede have blocked BR 158 and will only leave “when the judge suspends the decision to remove them”

The NGO Repórter Brasil wrote a long report [pt] which summarizes the situation until mid-December, indicating that “some groups have decided not to comply with the judicial decision and have sought to destabilize the process forcing conflict with troops.”  They also take stock of what happened during the first days of occupation, when “national forces retreated shooting rubber bullets and gas bombs:

Os manifestantes apareceram na Fazenda Jordão, onde a operação teve início, no momento em que as forças de segurança realizavam as primeiras abordagens. Segundo a listagem de propriedades do governo, a propriedade onde a confusão aconteceu pertence a Antonio Mamed Jordão, ex-vice-prefeito de Alto Boa Vista, que detém uma das maiores áreas invadidas dentro da Terra Indígena, um latifúndio com mais de 6 mil hectares. Em 2008, Jordão declarou patrimônio de R$ 4,5 milhões. Além dele, outros políticos donos de extensas porções da terra indígena são, ainda de acordo com as listas oficiais do governo, Mohmad Khalil Zaher, vereador em Rondonópolis (MT), Sebastião Ferreira Prado, Sebastião Ferreira Mendes, entre outros. Os latifundiários, representados pela Confederação Nacional da Agricultura e Pecuária (CNA), reclamam da desintrusão e chegam a questionar se as terras são mesmo indígenas (leia nota divulgada nesta terça-feira, 11).

Protestors appeared on the Jordão farm, where the operation began, at the moment when security forces made their first approach. According to the government listing of properties, the property where the turmoil happened, belongs to Antonio Mamed Jordão, ex-vice-mayor of Alto Boa Vista, who owns one of the largest invaded areas within indigenous land, an estate with more than 6,000 hectares. In 2008, Jordão declared assets of 4.5 million Reais [pt]. In addition to him, other politicians who own extensive portions of indigenous land are, according to official government records, Mohmad Khalil Zaher, city councilman in Rondonópolis (MT), Sebastião Ferreira Prado, and Sebastião Ferreira Mendes, among others. The landowners, represented by the National Confederation of Agriculture and Livestock (CNA), complain of the removal and have begun to question if the land is indeed indigenous (read a statement released Thursday, December 11) [pt].

Already during the first attempt at eviction on December 10, National Forces clashed with farmers, leaving many injured.

The former bishop of São Félix do Araguaia, Catalan Dom Pere Casaldàliga (known as Pedro Casaldáliga), who is 84 years-old and suffering from Parkinson's, received death threats for the support he gave to the indigenous people and was forced to be evacuated from his home by federal police in order to guarantee his safety. News regarding threats to the bishop were largely reported by the Spanish [es] and Catalan [ca] media, encountering, in general, silence from the Brazilian media.

Journalist Altamiro Borges explained [pt]:

Segundo o Conselho Indigenista Missionário (Cimi), um grupo de jagunços anunciou abertamente que Dom Casaldáliga “era o problema” da tensa região e que “faria uma visita para ele”. A própria Polícia Federal recomendou a imediata retirada do religioso da cidade devido à vulnerabilidade da humilde residência em que ele vivia há muitos anos. A PF alegou temer por sua segurança, já que a casa nem sequer possui muros e o bispo emérito com a sua saúde debilitada, em decorrência de sofrer do “mal de Parkinson”.

According to the Indigenous Missionary Council (Cimi), a group of gang members announced openly that “they would pay him a visit.” The Federal Police has recommended the immediate removal of the religious man from the city due to the vulnerability of the humble home in which he has lived for many years. The Federal Police claimed to fear for his safety, as the house did not have walls coupled with the former bishop's weakened health as a result of suffering from “Parkinson's Disease”.

The journalist continued explaining that Casaldàliga has a long history of resistance against the Brazilian dictatorship (1964-1985) and support of threatened indigenous groups and the homeless, and is faced once again disdain from those in power for his bravery and courage:

Ele sempre esteve ligado às lutas das camadas mais carentes da sociedade. Com a guinada conservadora no Vaticano a partir dos anos 1990, o bispo emérito sofreu forte pressão da cúpula da Igreja Católica. Em 2005, ele se aposentou, mas continuou residindo em São Félix do Araguaia e participando dos bons combates na região. Dedicava-se, especialmente, à defesa das comunidades indígenas, perseguidas pelos latifundiários.

He has always been linked to the struggles of the poorer classes of society. With the conservative shift in the vatican beginning in the 1990s, the former bishop suffered strong pressure from the top tier of the Catholic church. In 2005, he announced his retirement but continued to live in São Félix do Araguaia participating in the good fight in the region. He dedicated himself, in particular, to the defense of indigenous communities, persecuted by landowners.

Various organizations released a letter [pt] in solidarity with Casaldàliga.

The indigenous land of Marãiwatsédé was sanctioned in 1998 by presidential decree. Since then, various instances of jusice have been won for the indigenous cause that, however are not respected [pt]. About 800 Xavantes occupy 10% of the territory. The remaining 90% is occupied by landowners and squatters.

Cacique Xavante Damião Paridzane. Foto de Felipe Milanez, usada com permissão.

Cacique Xavante Damião Paridzane. Photo by Felipe Milanez, published with permission.

In a rebellious tone, Journalist Felipe Milanez (@Felipedjeguaka) [pt] tweeted:

Invadem terra indigena, desmatam a Amazonia, ameaçam de morte um Bispo de 84 anos, fazendas com milhares de ha, descumprem ordem judicial!

[They] invade indigneous land, cause deforestation of the Amazon, threaten to kill a 84 years old bishop, farms with thousands of hectares, [they] violate court order!

The Xavante people of Marãiwatsédé published an open letter [pt], signed by chief Damião Paridzane, which explains the situation and asks for respect (excerpts published below):

Nesse território, os ancestrais, nossos bisavós viviam em cima da terra. Esse território é origem do povo de Marãiwatsédé. Nessa terra amada foi criado o povo de Marãiwatsédé.

Agora a desintrusão já começou. Os anciões esperaram muito tempo para tirar os não-índios da terra. Sofreram muito. A vida inteira sofrendo, esperando tirar os fazendeiros grandes.

Quem ocupava a terra eram nossos pais, nossos avós, nossos bisavós, que nasceram aqui, cresceram aqui, fizeram festa para adolescente. Lutaram muito, faziam ritual dentro do território de Marãiwatsédé. Nem fazendeiro e nem posseiro viviam aqui antes de 1960.Quem destruiu, foi o índio ou foi o branco? A gente sabe mesmo, foi o branco que destruiu a floresta, essa não é a nossa vida. Nossa vida é preservar a terra, a natureza, os rios, os lagos. É assim que a gente vive, nosso povo respeita nossa mãe e nossa mãe é a natureza. Esperamos tranqüilos a nossa vitória. Dormimos tranqüilos, sonhamos bonito com a vitória da nossa terra.

Antes da retirada de nossa terra, mataram muitos xavantes. Os fazendeiros daquele tempo é muito bandido. Mataram com tiro. Morreu Tseretemé, Tserenhitomo, Tsitomowê, Pa’rada, Tseredzaró, tudo morto com tiro. Não vamos trair o espírito deles.

Essa terra é nossa origem. Os Xingus também protegiam nossa terra, os antepassados dos Kalapapos eram amigos dos antepassados dos xavantes de Marãiwatsédé.Os animais não podem sofrer mais com tanta destruição da natureza. Quando a terra for devolvida para o nosso povo, a floresta vai viver novamente, vão voltar os animais e plantas. Nossa mãe vai ficar muito forte e muito bonita, como sempre foi. É assim que tem que ser.

In this territory, the ancestors, our great grandfathers lived on the land. This territory is the homeland of the Marãiwatsédé people. On this beloved land the Marãiwatsédé people were born.

Now the invasion has begun. The elders have waited a long time to remove the non-indians from the land. They have suffered a lot. Their whole lives suffering, waiting to remove the Ranchers.

Those who occupied the land were our fathers, our grandfathers, our great grandfathers, that were born here, grew up here, came of age here. They fought a lot, did rituals within the Marãiwatsédé territory. No farmer or settler lived here before 1960. Who destroyed, the indian or the white man. We all know it was the white man that destroyed the forest, this is not our way of life. Our way of life is to preserve the earth, the environment, the rivers, and the lakes. This is the way we live, our people respect our mother and our mother is nature. We wait patiently for our victory.  We sleep peacefully, and have beautiful dreams of the victory of our land.

Before the withdrawal from our land, many Xavantes were killed. The farmers of that time were very villainous. They killed with gunfire. Tseretemé, Tserenhitomo, Tsitomowê, Pa’rada, and Tseredzaró died, all dead from gunfire. We will not betray their spirit.

This land is our origin. The Xingu people also protected our land, the ancestors of the Kalapapos were friends of the ancestors of the Xavantes de Marãiwatsédé. The animals could not suffer more from such destruction of nature. When the land is returned to our people, the forest will live again, the plants and animals will return. Our mother will become very stront and very beautiful, as it always was. This is the way it must be.

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