Indians, or farmers-to-be?

April 15, 2013

Maraiwatsede, Mato Grosso, Brazil

By Paulo Whitaker

Sixty years ago Brazil’s Indians had their territory demarcated, when they lived in a rich forest from which they extracted their food. Their rivers were teeming with fish, and their jungles with wild animals.

Today, in the 21st Century, many Brazilian Indians live a completely different situation, trapped in corners of their land by settlers who are large and powerful farmers that invade native territory to plant soybeans, sugar cane, and pasture to raise cattle.

We recently visited the Indian village of Maraiwatsede in the central western state of Mato Grosso, a region dominated by cattle ranches and soy farms. Little remains of the native forest that belonged to the Xavante tribe. Much of this land is not officially registered so it was invaded by ranchers trying to expand their holdings. There is even a clandestine city with nearly 1,000 inhabitants built on Indian land.

Because it is a remote location, without much policing and almost no control over borders, power and law in this region is established by those who have more money and more land. The existing law is one of the wild, with force, violence and corruption prevailing.

In the 1960’s, when the the virgin forest was still vast, the Xavante Marwaiatsede tribe lived within their territory of 165,000 hectares but were later expelled by the military dictatorship which argued that it wanted to build a highway through it. The truth was that they wanted to hand the land over for farmers to exploit it.

At the beginning of 2013, after several clashes and deaths between farmers and Indians, Brazil’s Supreme Court determined that the territory belonged to the indigenous people, and that the Xavantes Maraiwatsede could return to occupy their native lands. The government sent National Guard troops to protect the Indians from any angry farmers.

It took two days of driving over a potholed road through dangerous rainstorms to reach the village with a reporter. Before arriving we stopped in a small city that was the operating base for the government’s Indian affairs department, Funai. Funai had to authorize our contact with the Xavantes, and after a delay we finally got the permission and continued on to Maraiwatsede.

We reached the village at the end of the day, and although we were immediately introduced to the Xavante chief Damiao, who received us with interest, we all decided to wait until the next morning for the first interview. I had visited Indian villages before, and knew how important that first contact is. It’s important not just for us but also for them.

A photographer arriving at a village like that is usually dazzled by the Indian dynamic. Their gestures, shapes and colors of clothing and objects, all are very beautiful and inspiring. On the other hand, for the Indians, any contact with a journalist provokes a mixture of suspicion, distrust and curiosity.


Indian villages have a natural unity and peculiar dynamic, characterized by ritual obligations, matrimonial exchange, and norms of reciprocity, all very different from our customs. I perceived this clearly one day as we interviewed Damiao. He and other leaders rarely would look at Caroline, the journalist I was traveling with. They would look only at me while answering her questions, which ruined my chances of photographing them naturally. I was sure it was because Caroline is a woman, and the relationship between men and women in their culture is different from ours. It seemed to me that this type of conversation rarely happens with female participation, shown by the fact that the 20 Xavante natives at the interview were all men.

I photographed the tribe over four days, in which time I felt a mixture of joy and pain at the same time. Before contact with white men, the Indians lived from hunting and fishing. Today the forest is almost gone and the rivers are being polluted. Food as they know it is scarce. Funai periodically sends them basic foodstuffs.

The invading farmers didn’t believe until the last moment that they would have to leave the occupied land, so when the order came they left behind crops, cattle and even their belongings. When the Xavante Indians visited the abandoned farms they found animals, small plantations, clothing and furniture. We went with them to one where there were five cows, which made them think of food.

The Indians began to fire their shotguns at the cows from the window of the pickup truck, one, two, three times, with no effect. It was kind of funny to see that, considering that if the cows were wild animals the Indians would have adopted a strategy to hunt them down. But hunting a cow with buckshot doesn’t work, and they had terrible aim as well.

In one place the Indians became furious when they spotted motorcycle tire marks. They were sure that it was from a farmer who had returned to invade their land again, and we followed the trail for hours without finding anyone. It was probably better that way, because who knows what they would have done with the invader had they found him.

Back at the village I met an elderly woman carrying a large tortoise. I followed her as she quickly built a fire and laid the animal on its back in the flames. I have to admit that the sight of it impressed me, a white man from a different culture who thought it ridiculous to burn a poor tortoise alive. But for the Indians it was simply one of their sources of food.

I approached the fire slowly, looked and slowly started shooting without saying anything. Of course it wouldn’t help for me to say anything because we didn’t speak the same language. After photographing a while and with the tortoise fully cooked and ready to eat, one of the woman’s children asked me to stop because they were ready to eat. One of them told me that only the elderly should eat tortoise because it’s an animal slow to move like they are.

The Xavante Indians from Maraiwatsede were expelled from their land and managed to recover it 40 years later. They were very happy to have won this fight, but are still unsure about the future. They found their lands transformed from great forests into pastures and plantations, and survive on food from the government.

The new generations of Indians increasingly want to assimilate the new culture, while the older ones struggle to preserve their traditions. I think the big challenge will be for these Indians to adapt to these new times, especially with so much deforested land in a country that each year breaks new records of agricultural production. Will they become the next big farmers?

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