When an entire Guarani-Kaoiwá indigenous community asked to be collectively put to death rather than forced off what they consider ancestral lands, social network campaigns kicked into high gear and may have provided them some brief respite. But few real solutions for the tragic conditions in which many of Brazil’s native peoples find themselves are in sight.
By Claire Rigby
To paraphrase Mark Twain, reports of a threatened mass suicide by a 170-strong indigenous* community in south Brazil last week were greatly exaggerated. They had ‘merely’, in the devastating words of their letter to the Brazilian government, stated their intention to stay put in the face of eviction from the riverbank on which they were living, and asked to be collectively put to death.
‘We have evaluated our current situation and conclude that we will all die very soon. We know we have no prospect of a just, dignified life, here on the riverbank or far from here. Please, once and for all, declare our total decimation and extinction, and send tractors to dig a hole in which to throw our bodies. This is our request to the federal judges. Decree the collective death of the Guarani-Kaiowá of Pyelito Kue–Mbarakay, and bury us here with our ancestors. We have decided that we will not leave this place, dead or alive.’ (Read the letter, dated 8 October 2012, in Portuguese here; rough English translation here.)
The group had formerly been living in a squatter camp by the roadside, subject to harassment and violence by local ‘gunmen’ (pistoleiros), and to an inordinately high death rate, mainly as a result of suicide or by being hit by cars. Their roadside camp was attacked and burned down by gunmen a year ago, and on 29 November 2011, the Indians occupied the riverside land, comprising two hectares of a ranch called Cambará, on the banks of the River Hovy. They claim the land, which they call Pyelito Kue–Mbarakay, as part of their ancestral territory in the absence of a much delayed, long overdue official ‘demarcation’ process being carried out by Funai, the government agency responsible for Indian interests. Following a tense wait after an eviction order was issued against the community in September, last week a federal court suspended the order, with Judge Cecília Mello ruling that until the Funai study was complete, there was as yet no confirmation of who were the real owners of the land.
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It was an initial misreading of the Indians’ letter, confusing epidemic rates of suicide among the Guarani with the group’s stated intention to stay on the land to the death, that set the alleged threat of mass suicide rippling across the internet. A ‘Prevent the mass suicide’ petition was quickly overtaken by a ‘Save the Indians’ petition – the urge to ‘do’ something in the age of Facebook. Click here to save the Indians. The latter petition is now stamped with a banner that reads, ‘Petition Victorious’, as if the 280,000 clicks had triggered last week’s federal court decision that the group could stay in place.
But if the supposed suicide threat was overblown, reports of the conditions in which the community, and many others like it in the state of Mato Grosso do Sul, are living, were not. Pushed aside to make way for immense soya, sugarcane and cattle ranches, thousands of Indians in the state, which borders Paraguay and Bolivia, live in wretched squatter camps, often by the side of roads, or in desperately over-crowded reserves like Dourados, where rates of alcoholism, malnutrition, violence, and murder have reached epidemic proportions. Their distress has been documented by reliable sources in the Brazilian press, as well as, more recently, by two journalists who travelled to Mato Grosso do Sul last week from the online streaming TV channel PósTV (see link below). At the international level, NGOs like Survival International and Amnesty International (links below), have used the the headline-grabbing suicide confusion to reinforce their messages about the difficult conditions in which many of Brazil’s indigenous people are forced to live, and their deadly effects. If the mass suicide was a red herring, it wasn’t so far off the mark: there have been some 1500 suicides among the Guarani in the last thirty years, or around around one every six days. Many of the suicides are young people, and often even children.
For a week, images of Indians have been ubiquitous in the Brazilian media, from the red-and-black painted faces of the Guarani-Kaoiwá to the Yanomami of the Amazon, celebrating 20 years since the creation of their tribal reserve. In downtown São Paulo on Saturday, an immense artwork featuring the face of a Yanomami girl – an image by the photographer Claudia Andujar taken in the 1970s – was unveiled at the Palácio dos Correios in central Vale do Anhangabaú.
And yet for all Brazil’s famous multi-coloured ‘racial democracy’, in day-to-day life, and in society in general, Brazil’s indigenous people, who make up around 1 per cent of the population, are all but invisible – even, in some cases, when they are standing right in front of you. I’ve heard separately from two friends with Indian blood and Indian facial features here in São Paulo, how people who ask about their racial heritage always assume their heritage to be Asian, and at times don’t seem to believe it when told of Indian ancestry.
‘The idea of the Indian as barrier persists,’ wrote Eliane Brum in an Época magazine article last week. Referring to the ‘Great March West’ under President Getúlio Vargas in the 1930s and 1940s, in which Indians were confined to cramped reserves as the land around them was colonised, she writes, ‘The view of them was the same one that persists to this day: “it’s empty land”, or “there’s no one there – just Indians.”’
• Nationwide protests are being planned in support of the Guarani-Kaiowá on 9 November.
• Background information in English, from Survival International.
• Background information in English, from Amnesty International.
• See images from the PósTV reports on the area by Thiago Dezan and Rafael Vilela.
• Look out for the award-winning film ‘Birdwatchers’ (2008), which tells the story of a Guarani Kaiowá community’s struggle to take back its land (trailer below).
*Editor’s note – we prefer the term “indigenous” to the tragicomically inaccurate “Indians”. When we use the latter here we’re simply accurately reproducing the word used often in Brazil, including by support groups and the press.