In October 2009, Genivaldo and Rolindo Vera, two young Guaraní Kaiowá schoolteachers, disappeared from the São Luiz ranch in Brazil’s Mato Grosso do Sul state. The two, who were cousins, had participated along with 23 other Guaraní Kaiowá in reoccupying the ranch, part of their ancestral land. Two days later, employees of the ranch owner fired rubber bullets at them, forcing them to flee. Genivaldo’s body was found days later in a nearby stream, bruised and his head shorn. Rolindo disappeared that day, last seen running into the forest. No trace of his whereabouts have been found, though many suspect he was taken to Paraguay and killed.
These acts of violence are virtually everyday occurrences for the Guaraní, Brazil’s most populous indigenous group with a population of about 45,000. Since the 1950s, the Guaraní of Mato Grosso do Sul have been stripped of nearly all their land by both the federal government and private citizens. Their homelands now are largely unrecognizable, having been converted into cattle ranches, soybean farms, and most recently sugar cane fields for the production of ethanol. Containing Brazil’s exponentially expanding sugar cane ethanol industry as it seeks to devour more indigenous lands will not be on the to-do list of President-elect Dilma Rousseff, who takes office in January 2010. On the contrary, one of her campaign pledges was to expand the industry.
Brazil guaranteed indigenous peoples’ title to their land in its 1998 Constitution. For many peoples like the Guaraní Kaiowá of Mato Grosso do Sul, this right has yet to become a living reality. Since the incursion of big business interests into their homeland several decades ago, the Guaraní have been forced to live in either a few overcrowded reserves established in the 1920s, on the handful of territories for which title has been granted, on disputed land, or even on the side of highways.
This confinement has led to their being near completely dependent upon the federal government for food, and a life expectancy that is 27 years less than the national average. They also have one of the highest suicide rates in the world. Most Guaraní men now toil as sugar cane workers on their native land, while their leaders and countless others have been murdered for asserting their rights. These injustices led the international indigenous advocacy organization Survival International to call the group’s situation “one of the worst of all indigenous peoples in the Americas” in a March 2010 report it submitted to the United Nations Committee on Racial Segregation.
The Guaraní have continually reasserted their land rights, most recently in 2007 when 23 of their leaders signed an agreement with the Federal Public Prosecutor’s Office, the Ministry of Justice, and the Indian Affairs Agency (Fundação Nacional do Indio- FUNAI), mandating FUNAI to survey 36 Guaraní areas and demarcate seven large territories surrounding them. These lands were supposed to have been returned to the Guaraní by April 2010. To date, not a single of these areas has been assessed by FUNAI due to the physical intimidation of their agents by landowner employees and the over 80 legal appeals filed by landowners and municipalities.
Undeterred, many Guaraní Kaiowá communities began reoccupying their traditional lands in April 2010. Often, these communities have been met with violence and other human rights abuses. Since arriving on the São Luiz ranch in April — the same property from which the two young teachers were disappeared in October 2009 — all 80 Guaraní Kaiowá members have been surrounded by armed employees of the ranch owner. As such, they have been prevented from leaving or receiving any type of aid, other than occasional food packages from FUNAI employees. A further blow was struck to the Guaraní Kaiowá on October 20 when a federal judge ruled they had ten days to leave the ranch. So dire has the community’s lack of food, water, medical care, and education been that the international human rights organization Amnesty International launched a worldwide letter writing campaign on its behalf in September 2010.
The increased interest in their land for ethanol production has further hindered the Guaraní Kaiowá’s struggle for land rights. One leader in the area of Dourados told Survival International “our last land demarcation here in November/ December of last year was reversed. I think it has to do with the arrival of sugarcane in the region. The way it’s going, the conflict for land is only going to get worse.” Ambrosio Vilhalva, a lead actor in the award winning film about the Guaraní Kaiowá, Birdwatchers, extended this point, stating, “The sugar cane plantations are finishing off the Indians. Our lands are getting smaller and smaller. The plantations are killing the Indians.”
As of March 2010, there were 20 sugarcane factories in Mato Grosso do Sul, 13 of which are on land the Guaraní claim. Four more are planned to be opened on Guaraní territory by the end of 2010. From 2007 to 2008, 51,000 additional hectares of sugarcane plantations were sowed in the state, a 32% increase.
This sugarcane plantation expansion is part of Mato Grosso do Sul governor André Puccinelli’s stated goal to make his state into the world’s largest producer of ethanol. To this end, he threatened not to honor the Guaraní’s 2007 land titling agreement with the government. He has also dismissed Guaraní land claims, such as when he stated in April 2009, “They [the Guaraní] don’t want as much land as FUNAI wants to give them. The Indians want less land and more social programs.”
Multinational energy giant Royal Dutch Shell put itself in the middle of the Guaraní’s land struggles after signing a $12 billion joint venture with Brazil’s largest sugar and ethanol producer Cosan in September 2010. It was later revealed that Cosan is using officially recognized Guaraní land. Shell has since stated that it has discussed this matter with Cosan and is planning to talk with the Attorney General of Mato Grosso do Sul and FUNAI about “possible solutions.”
A champion of sugarcane ethanol, Brazilian president Lula pledged his support for the Guaraní to regain title to their land in a closed door meeting he held with 23 Guaraní leaders in late August 2010. At this meeting, Lula promised to talk with the president of FUNAI to ask that police accompany their surveying work so they can delimit Guaraní lands. He also expressed his willingness to buy land for the Guaraní living in encampments, though this option has been rejected by these communities. In a letter submitted to Lula by the leadership of two Guaraní committees present they highlighted this point stating, “Mr. President, please, don’t promise anything, just call for our lands [to be] demarcated . . . We are not making requests, we are demanding our rights . . . ”
If history is any guide, the Guaraní Kaiowá’s land struggle will continue after Brazil’s presidency is passed to Dilma Rousseff come January. As a sign of her administraton’s priorities, the resolution of indigenous land disputes was not included on Rousseff’s list of campaign pledges. Rather, it was domestic and international pressure that compelled Lula to enter the fray.
Sean Power is a NACLA Research Associate.