A protest last week in Brazil’s capital and recent acts of violence against indigenous leaders serve as grim reminders of the deprivation and danger that many Native Brazilians face.
Last Wednesday, December 4, an estimated 1,700 representatives of dozens of tribes marched on Brazil’s Presidential Palace and the Ministry of Justice to protest a proposed judicial decree that would change the rules for creating indigenous territories in a way that protesters said would make it nearly impossible for Indians to gain title to ancestral lands. It was the latest of various indigenous protests this year to bring attention to moves by branches of the Brazilian government that threatened Native land rights, and the increase in violence against their leaders.
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Marcos Xukuru, one of the protest’s organizers, said the proposed decree was just the latest attack on indigenous rights in Brazil. He cited various laws and constitutional amendments under consideration by the country’s congress. “We, the indigenous people of this country, are responding to attacks on our rights, and it is important to stress that, together with these attacks, there has been an increase in violence against us, against the lives of our leaders and our communities” he said.
The protest took place four days after the murder of Guarani-Kaiowa leader Ambrosio Vilhalva in the community of Guyra Roka, in Brazil’s Mato Grosso do Sul state. Vilhalva had been involved in a long struggle to regain control of ancestral land that was stolen by non-Native ranchers and farmers decades ago, and had reportedly received various death threats. He was the protagonist of a 2008 Italian-Brazilian film called “Birdwatchers,” which depicted the Guarani-Kaiowa struggle to regain control of their ancestral lands.
“Chief Ambrosio was a great leader. He was one of the warriors who we always admired, but unfortunately, the moment came when he fell into a trap set by the landowners,” said Oriel, a member of the Guarani-Kaiowa organization Aty Guasu. “The situation of the Guarani-Kaiowa people is very difficult; it is very tense. A lot of communities are occupying their ancestral land and a lot of our leaders have been threatened by ranchers and farmers.”
Cleber Buzatto, executive secretary of the Indigenous Missionary Council (CIMI) explained that the protest and the murder both reflect the growing pressure on Native lands in Brazil, and the government’s tendency to side with farmers, ranchers and large corporations in land conflicts. He explained that Vilhalva’s community of Guyra Roka has occupied a small portion of their ancestral land, but most of it remains in the hands of non-Native farmers. The government approved the creation of an indigenous territory for the community a decade ago, but has yet to indemnify the landowners.
Buzatto explained that while some indigenous territories were created for the Guarani-Kaiowa in the early 20th century, they cover a total of about 30,000 hectares (approx. 74,000 acres), which is too little land to support the tribe’s 45,000 people. He noted that Guarani-Kaiowa territory covered 20 million hectares (approx. 50 million acres) before the Europeans arrived.
Thousands of Guarani-Kaiowa live in makeshift camps along highways, whereas others have occupied farmland to pressure the government to give them title for it, which exposes them to violence from landowners and their hired guns. According to CIMI, 319 Guarani-Kaiowa were murdered between 2003 and 2012, most of them as a result of land conflicts.
“Another statistic that is very worrying, and that is related to this situation, is the suicide rate for Guarani-Kaiowa,” Buzatto said. “More than 500 Guarani-Kaiowa have committed suicide in last 10 years, and many of them were young people who ended up killing themselves because they don’t see a future. They don’t see a possibility for raising a family because there is no land for them.”
Buzatto explained that while the Guarani-Kaiowa’s case is the most critical, other Brazilian tribes suffer comparable situations. Several days after Vilhalva’s murder, four masked men threw a firebomb into the car of Paulino Terena, a leader of a group of Terena Indians that has occupied ancestral land in Miranda, Mato Grosso do Sul. He escaped with minor burns and left the region under protection of a government program, but assailants subsequently burned his house down.
Buzatto explained that the government is processing 330 requests for demarcation of native lands, most of which are for relatively small areas, whereas the state has yet to do anything about another 350 requests.
“The current administration (of President Dilma Rousseff) has created fewer indigenous territories than any administration since the military dictatorship ended. The President has signed an average of three decrees per year establishing indigenous territories,” he said.