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Brazil's Indigenous Tribes Won't Give in to Murderous Cattle Ranchers

Leaders of the Guarani tribe have been targeted in various assassination attempts, and the homicide rate among Guarani people is 210 per 100,000—20 times higher than it is in the state of Sao Paulo.
October 24, 2013, 2:35pm

Damiana standing in front of her husband's grave. Photo courtesy of Patrick Borhaug/Survival

As wife to the Chief of her Apy Ka’y community—one of the tribes of the Guarani people—Damiana’s family was a prime target for gunmen hired by ranch owners who have taken over her ancestral land in Mato Grosso do Sul, western Brazil. She recently lost her husband and her three sons to “roadside collisions” that, for a short while, left the Apy Ka’y leaderless in their fight against the ranchers.


Though the accidents seem to echo the targeted killings of other tribal chiefs who have stood up for their rights in the region, Survival International’s Brazilian expert, Sarah Shenker says, “The deaths are suspicious but there is too little evidence to prove they were murders.” Despite her family members' deaths, Damiana has taken up the mantle of chief and is leading her community in a reoccupation of their ancestral land—a desperate attempt to take back what is rightfully theirs.

Damiana points at a privately owned sugar plantation that used to be Guarani land. Photo courtesy of Paul Patrick Borhaug/Survival

The issue of tribal land rights is nothing new. Over the 1950s and 60s, cattle ranches seized tribal areas to supply international demand for beef and later, farmers went on to make fortunes out of soybean plantations. The 1988 Brazilian constitution was meant to end ranch exploitation by stipulating the exclusive rights of tribal groups to their lands. Luckily for farmers and corrupt politicians, their borders weren’t mapped out in law and over the past few decades lawyers and anthropologists have had to push relentlessly to get ancestral land recognized. Progress has been incredibly slow—last year, for example, of the 600 tribal demarcation plans pending, only seven territories were mapped.

“The delays have been caused by politicians contesting tribal claims at each of the five stages required for demarcation,” says Shenker. And no wonder—big money is at stake for ranch owners and private investors in Brazil’s agricultural economy. Demand for sugar cane has dramatically increased alongside an international thirst for the biofuel it's used to make. Heralded as a climate change-friendly alternative to other liquid fuels, the ethanol made from sugar plantations on Guarani land has driven further deforestation south of the Amazon. It's an irony that has continued to force indigenous groups into squalid roadside camps, but the situation is seen as something to boast about by local officials. Back in 2008, the state governor of Damiana’s homeland declared that, by 2015, Mato Grosso do Sul would be "the world’s biggest producer of ethanol."

Damiana standing in front of shacks that were burned down by gunmen in 2009 (Photo courtesy of CIMI/Survival)

As time drags on, nothing changes for Damiana’s people, who live in constant fear of gunmen patrolling ranch borders. In September 2009, her camp was torched and attacked by “unidentified people,” who left the modest home of the Apy Ka'y in ruin. Tribal leaders have been targeted in various assassination attempts, and the homicide rate among Guarani people is 210 per 100,000—20 times higher than it is in the state of Sao Paulo. The vast majority of indigenous people have no firearms for defense against gunmen and there have been no official reports of Guarani violence against the ranchers. “When they do have weapons, they are usually bows and arrows and wooden sticks,” says Shenker.

A nine-year-old girl sitting in front of her makeshift home at the Apy Ka'y roadside camp (Photo courtesy of Paul Patrick Borhaug/Survival)

Disease, deprivation, and suicide characterize Damiana’s tribe, who were living in a roadside slum overlooking her old ancestral home before they reoccupied small patches of that land. Research by CIMI indicates that between 2004 and 2008, 80 indigenous children died due to malnutrition in Mato Grosso do Sul and what little food and drink is available is often contaminated by industrial pesticides and fertilizers. Damiana’s aunt, for example, died this year after being poisoned by heavy chemicals used to grow crops on their ancestral land. The entrenched lack of hope and opportunity has made the Guarani famous for having a suicide rate 34 times the national average—one of the highest in the world. It seems that suicide is one of the only acts of defiance left for indigenous communities like the Apy Ka'y.


The horrific living conditions of the Guarani have not gone unnoticed. In the past, international energy companies like Shell bought up some of the biofuels grown on Guarani Indian land but in 2012, after realizing the effects of their trade, they made the historic decision to pull out of their contracts with these sugar cane plantations. "Private militia" firms have been shut down after eight brutal attacks left two Guarani community leaders dead and some tribal land has been designated for exclusive use by the indigenous communities in the past few months.

But although a few battles have been won, Shenker says that the war isn’t over: “Companies like [US food giant] Bunge are still sourcing sugarcane from Guarani land," she says, "and other international corporations may still be unknowingly sourcing the crop due to the complicated nature of supply chains." Impunity is another problem facing those Guarani Indians isolated on reservations and in roadside slums, who may never see justice done for the murders and harassment orchestrated by ranchers. Damiana continues to live in makeshift accommodation on occupied ancestral land without proper legal protection and at the mercy of hired gunmen.

A Guarani woman (Photo courtesy of Sarah Shenker/Survival)

Back in the 16th century, the Guarani were estimated to number 1.5 million people. But after being the first people to come into contact with colonial powers, today's Guarani population stands at just 43,000—they're still the largest group of indigenous people in Brazil but remain in an "extremely vulnerable position,” according to Shenker. “If the Brazilian government doesn’t start listening now, we could see an entire way of life disappear.”


Another irony is that the land taken by the ranchers is known as "Tehoka" in Damiana’s tribal language, which translates as "a place with no evil." Despite all the destruction that has gone on over the last half a century, their identity remains woven into the land where generations of families have lived and died. Damiana often revisits the graves of her husband and sons, crossing stretches of barbed wire and risking her life to pay her respects. With her husband dead, Chief Damiana is now a prime target for assassination, but she is not afraid: “I’ve been here for so many years and I’ve been shot at many times—I’m not going anywhere. I’m going to stay.”

Follow Philippa on Twitter: @PipBaines13

More about the indigenous people of Brazil having a hard time:

Brazil Wants to Tear Down an Indigenous Museum to Put up a Parking Lot

Brazilian Soldiers and Native Tribespeople are Clashing in the Amazon

Plowboys and Indians