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Suicides and 'Shorter, Bleaker' Lives Plague Indigenous Groups Around the World

The Guaraní-Kaiowa indigenous people of southern Brazil report a suicide rate 34 times higher than the national average.
Photo by Antonio Lacerda/EPA

A chronic failure to secure the land rights of global indigenous populations has led to systematic loss of land and displacement that has exposed tribes to new diseases, generated malnutrition, and driven indigenous suicide rates well beyond national averages.

In a report released by Survival International, researchers outline how promises of development and progress have failed to materialize for indigenous groups around the world. In a variety of cases — from Canada and Australia to the Congo and Brazil— attempts to "civilize" indigenous populations have, instead, threatened their very survival.


"Forcing development on tribal peoples never brings a longer, happier life," the report states, "but a shorter, bleaker existence only escaped in death."

A particularly striking case is that of the Guaraní-Kaiowa indigenous people of southern Brazil, who report a suicide rate 34 times higher than the national average. The Brazilian Guaraní community, estimated at 40,000, forms the majority of the 70,000 Guaraní that live between Brazil, Paraguay, Argentina, and Bolivia.

'It is an ongoing nightmare.'

Beginning in the 1940s, when then president Getúlio Vargas incentivized agricultural development in his famed "March to the West," the Guaraní have been fighting with farmers and developers over ancestral land they assert is guaranteed to them by the Brazilian Constitution. But absent viable legal remedies and neglected by local authorities for the past 30 years, the Guaraní have responded in extreme form: by taking their own lives.

Brazilian anthropologist Spensy Kmitta Pimentel has described the events as "protest suicides" that come as "a result of an experience of helplessness" that has become common to the Guaraní. In 2013 alone, there were 73 reported suicides, most of which were at the hands of indigenous adolescents. Agribusiness has destroyed much of the forest that once provided the Guaraní with their food, and between 2005 and 2015, at least 86 Guaraní children died as a result of malnutrition.


"It is an ongoing nightmare," said Barbara Arisi, an anthropologist at the Federal University of Latin-American Integration in Brazil. She explained that the suicide numbers are, unfortunately, "not news anymore" in a country where indigenous groups have been systematically stripped of their land and their rights. "The land for the Guaraní is a must have," she said. "It's not something the government should delay — the violence there will only increase."

Last August, 24-year-old Semiao Vilhalva was killed by a gunshot to the face when the Guaraní collectively occupied three farms in Matto Grosso do Sul, which they claimed had been established on their land. Recently, a farmer shot at another member of the Guaraní tribe 18 times ­— only two of the bullets struck him, narrowly missing vital organs. While Brazil's constitution guarantees indigenous rights to ancestral land, Arisi said, this is a right that has been increasingly ignored or denied by authorities.

But the plight of the Guaraní speaks to a larger concern: the loss of land and land rights remains the greatest single predictor of suicide among indigenous tribes. In Canada, some indigenous groups that have been removed from their land have suicide rates 11 times the national average, compared to no suicides among those that remained on their land. A similar pattern can be seen in Alaska.

"It's a sign of how desperate and dispossessed tribal people feel when they are pushed off their land and forced into the mainstream," said Sophie Grig, senior campaigner with Survival International. "It is a crumbling of self-esteem that you see when people are taken away from the land that means so much to them – it's not just land, it's the land of their ancestors."


The loss of land also stresses a once reliable food supply, with many relocated tribes replacing a more diverse diet with cheap, highly processed foods linked to diabetes. Displaced people are also subject to racist discrimination by their new neighbors, the report points out, as their children may be taken to boarding schools that separate them from their communities and may forcibly oppress their language and traditions.

While the myriad effects of land loss are complicated, Grig believes the solution to the problem, in many cases, could be surprisingly simple: guarantee indigenous rights to the land, and let them decide what kind of development they want.

Related: Peru's Indigenous Communities Are Fighting Back Against Environmental Contamination by Seizing Oil Wells

In Australia, where aboriginals have a life expectancy 10 to 15 years below the average non-aboriginal citizen and a suicide rate nearly six times the national average, they are two times more likely to die as a child, three times more likely to die of avoidable causes, seven times more likely to die of diabetes, and 19 times more likely to die from rheumatic fever and rheumatic heart disease.

But when aboriginals lived on their own land, researchers found, they lived on average of 10 years longer than those in resettled communities.

These are numbers that, according to Grig, need to be incorporated into national policies and international development goals, such as the recently released United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. The goals, she says, "miss a trick in that they totally fail to recognize that for tribal and indigenous people, terms like poverty — living off of so many dollars per day — are meaningless," and that most tribes are healthier on their native land, regardless of income.


In Brazil, the Guaraní are calling on the government to take immediate action as their situation grows more dire. Tribal elders have painted the ongoing conflict a deliberate attempt at genocide, intended to slowly kill off the remaining members of the group. And in an uncharacteristic attempt to gain national traction, they are taking to the streets.

"For many years, they had a strategy of becoming invisible for the outsiders, but now they came into despair, and they are trying to make their case more visible," said Arisi, who believes the government needs to step in and demarcate the indigenous land. "They now realize that if they don't, they will lose everything."

Follow Eva Hershaw on Twitter: @beets4eva

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