Losing the land war
Mato Grosso do Sul, Brazil
By Lunae Parracho
Three-year-old Sandriely has a look of suffering. She was born in the roadside camp along the same highway where her brother was run over by a truck. Her grandmother Damiana Cavanha, one of the few women chiefs among the Guarani Indians, has lost, beside her grandson, five other family members: one aunt died of poisoning from pesticides used on the neighboring sugar cane plantation, and her husband and three of their children were hit and killed by passing vehicles.
Damiana, Sandriely, and 23 other Guarani Kaiowa Indians are living in a makeshift camp along the shoulder of highway BR-463 in Mato Grosso do Sul since 2009. They settled here after their last failed attempt to take back their ancestral land, called Tekohá Apika’y. (Tekohá is loosely translated as ancestral land, and Apika’y, the name of that specific plot, means “those who wait.”) That was four years ago when they were expelled from their land by gunmen who shot one of them.
A federal prosecutor visited the camp back then, and wrote in a report, “Children, youths, adults and the elderly are subjected to degrading conditions against human dignity. The situation experienced by them is analogous to a refugee camp. They are like foreigners in their own country.”
Four years later, nothing has changed in Tekohá Apika’y. The Indians continue living squeezed between the road and a sugar cane field which is part of the land they claim. Divided into eight huts, they do not have access to drinking water and depend on meager donations of food.
Their children show obvious signs of malnutrition. They live with the constant danger of trucks rumbling closely by them loaded with Brazil’s rich agricultural commodities, some of which were harvested from plantations on the very land they are claiming as ancestral.
I made two trips here, one in early August when Amnesty International’s Secretary General Salil Shetty visited. While I was photographing I heard him say, “I feel like I’m in a place where human rights don’t exist. This is really shameful for Brazil.”
Two weeks after that visit, a fire ravaged the camp, and I quickly returned. Three of the eight shacks were destroyed, and the Indians escaped just on time while their few belongings and food reserves burned. When I arrived I found the community desolate.
“The fire came to kill us, but we survived. Gunmen want to kill us, but we’re not leaving ,” sighed Chief Damiana as soon as she recognized me. Her strength is amazing. Even after so many personal losses, she remains decided.
“The seed of my ancestors is in this earth and I will not give it back,” she said.
The cause of the fire remains unknown but Damiana told me how, the night after, gunmen invaded the shacks and threatened to kill the Indians if they didn’t abandon the site. The federal prosecutor opened an investigation into the threats and the possible connection with a major security company already accused of working as a private army for large landholders against other Indian communities.
I went in search of Sandriely, the girl born on the roadside, and found her crying, still frightened, amid the ashes. Her eyes, glistening with tears, contrasted with the gray destruction all around, and I couldn’t avoid thinking of my own daughter Ana, about the same age. Sandriely stuck two sooty fingers inside her mouth while crying. “She’s hungry,” her grandmother said.
BLOOD FOR LAND
“We’re taking back our land with our own blood,” said Getulio Potyvera, a Guarani Kaiowa chief who has received death threats. I met Getulio in his home in the nearby city of Dourados at the beginning of August, as part of my first trip. He invited me to into his ogapeysu’y, a thatch roofed house of prayer. As he told it, there is a price on his head. His relatives denounced to the public prosecutor’s office that they were confronted several times by men who were looking for Getulio, offering money for information on his whereabouts.
On the same trip I toured other Tekohás, including one near Caarapo where Indians are fighting to regain Tekohá Pindo Roky. Native women pay a daily tribute at the grave of Denilson Barbosa, shot dead at the young age of 15 by rancher Orlandino Carneiro, last February. Carneiro confessed to the shooting and was arrested, but is now free on a plea of self-defense, while Barbosa’s family is being kept under a government program to protect witnesses and victims of crimes.
The main victims in the land war are the Guarani, with a population of more than 50,000 divided among the Kaiowa, Ñandeva, and Ava sub-groups. Confined to small areas of land or camped on roadsides, these Indians suffer a long, bitter struggle to return to their traditional territories.
At another plot called Tekohá Ita’y I watched Guarani Kaiowa children making and using a toy gun out of scrap metal. Last April, farmer Arnaldo Alves Ferreira, who was a former policeman, invaded the camp. Armed with a revolver and machete, Alves Ferreira shot at a group of Indians, grazing one in the head. After running out of ammunition, he started wrestling with them and died in the fight. Six Indians were arrested for murder. Out on bail with a self-defense plea, they report suffering other shooting attacks and threats from the farmer’s family, which continues to live on the land legally designated as Indian land.
“Most of the time we don’t have enough to eat, said Amarilda Carvalinda, a Guarani woman who lives near where the attack occurred. She lives in an improvised home with cloth walls, while waiting for the day the land is returned to them. Her daughter, Marilei Mboypotyrendyi, 9, had a sad face as she sat in an old armchair outside the shack.
Everything in recent Guarani history seems to have conspired to make them an extinct tribe in Brazil today, but they persist. United around their struggle, they preserve their native language and their religion, which they practice daily in rituals and collective prayers.
One night I witnessed and became an unexpected participant in a healing ritual called Jerokyete. A group of Ava Guarani Indians tried to heal 30-year-old Rosalino Kunumi of her ills. Suddenly the chanters had me sit in a chair next to chief Kunumi. One of them asked me my name, put his hands over my eyes and blew smoke on my face while muttering in Guarani. An elderly woman put her hand on my head and chest, and blew smoke on me and my camera. It’s hard to explain the feeling of being part of that moment with them.
I was also invited to attend an Aty Guasu, or Grand Assembly of the Guarani people, on a night of baptism called Mita Kara’í. Through prayers, children are protected from evil and disease. Discussions unfold in the Guarani language, and visitors like myself understand little of what is being said. But among what I did understand were the repeated words, “nhande kuera, nhande luta”, or “our people, our struggle.”
During these collective prayers, apart from asking for protection for Ke’grusuguasu, their Great God, they also said that many of their elders are aging and dying, and they want to return to their land while still alive to take back their Tehohás occupied by farmers.
“We can no longer wait,” was the final word of the Aty Guasu assembly.
In the past year, Brazil has witnessed a more than twofold increase in violence against native peoples, according to a report by CIMI (Missionary Council for Indigenous Peoples), linked to the Catholic Church. Just in Mato Grosso do Sul, 317 Indians were murdered in the past 10 years. The report also reveals that there were more than 200 attempted murders against Indians in the state during the same period, and, according to the Health Ministry, 470 Indians committed suicide.
Survival International calls the Guarani suicide rate “epidemic”, quoting Guarani tribe members as blaming it on the loss of land and freedom, and nostalgia for their lost way of life.
Last October a group of 170 Guarani Kaiowas wrote an open letter that was interpreted by the media as a threat of collective suicide. In the letter they said they would die together before being evicted from the Tekohá that they were fighting to keep.