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Romero reports: "The gunmen emerged from pickup trucks at dawn, their faces hidden in balaclavas, and stormed into an encampment surrounded by a field of soybean plants near this town on Brazil's porous frontier with Paraguay."

Guarani men guard the entrance of their encampment, next to a private cornfield. (photo: Mauricio Lima/NYT)
Guarani men guard the entrance of their encampment, next to a private cornfield. (photo: Mauricio Lima/NYT)

Violence Hits Brazil Tribes in Scramble for Land

By Simon Romero, The New York Times

10 June 12


he gunmen emerged from pickup trucks at dawn, their faces hidden in balaclavas, and stormed into an encampment surrounded by a field of soybean plants near this town on Brazil's porous frontier with Paraguay.

Witnesses said the men then shot Nísio Gomes, 59, a leader of the indigenous Guarani people; loaded his corpse onto a truck; and drove away.

"We want the bones of my father," said Valmir Gomes, 33, one of Nísio's sons, who witnessed the November attack. "He's not an animal to drag away like that."

Whether the bodies are hauled away or left as testaments to battles for ancestral land, killings and disappearances of indigenous leaders continue to climb, leaving a stain on Brazil's rise as an economic powerhouse.

The expansion of huge cattle ranches and industrial-scale farms in remote regions has produced a land scramble that is leaving the ancestors of Brazil's original inhabitants desperate to recover tribal terrains, in some cases squatting on contested properties. Nonindigenous landowners, meanwhile, many of whom live on land settled decades ago by their own ancestors under the government's so-called colonization programs, are just as attached to their claims.

The conflicts often result in violent clashes, which sometimes end tragically for the squatters, armed here only with bows and arrows.

Fifty-one Indians were killed in Brazil in 2011; as many as 24 of the killings are suspected of being related to land battles, according to the Indigenous Missionary Council, an arm of the Roman Catholic Church.

The killings have focused attention on a problem that still plagues Brazil ahead of the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, a gathering of thousands scheduled to be held in Rio de Janeiro this month. Twenty years ago, ahead of the original Earth Summit in Rio, officials responded to international criticism over killings of Yanomami people by gold miners, creating a 37,000-square-mile reserve in the Amazon.

In a less striking gesture, President Dilma Rousseff moved ahead this month with the demarcation of seven much smaller indigenous areas. But Cleber César Buzatto, the executive secretary of the Indigenous Missionary Council, said the move was disappointing since the areas were generally not the focus of land battles or big state-financed infrastructure projects.

Meanwhile, land clashes in various parts of Brazil are still taking place. In some cases, courts have opened the way for some indigenous people, who account for less than 1 percent of Brazil's population of 191 million, to recuperate lands.

In the northern state of Roraima in 2009, Brazil's high court expelled nonindigenous rice farmers from the lands of 20,000 Indians, mainly the Macuxi people. In a case this year, the Supreme Federal Tribunal annulled the private titles of almost 200 properties in the northeastern Bahia State, ruling that the land belonged to the Pataxó Hã-Hã-Hãe people. The decision followed clashes that left at least two dead.

But the courts can accomplish only so much. Tension is also increasing over proposed legislation aimed at opening indigenous areas to mining, pointing to how demand for Brazil's natural resources may exacerbate land disputes.

Attacks against indigenous peoples persist here in Mato Grosso do Sul, a sprawling state in southwest Brazil where multinationals like Louis Dreyfus, the French commodities giant, have put down stakes.

A surge in wealth contrasts with the sense of hopelessness among Mato Grosso do Sul's indigenous peoples, who account for about 75,000 of the state's population of 2.4 million. Their marginalization has roots in policies put in place in the 1930s, when Brazil's rulers corralled the Guarani into small reserves with the intent of opening vast areas to settlers.

The results for indigenous people were disastrous. In the shadow of Mato Grosso do Sul's prosperity, indigenous leaders have called attention over the past decade to the deaths of dozens of Guarani children from malnutrition and an epidemic of suicides, notably in Dourados, an urban area where thousands of Guarani live cheek by jowl on small plots of land.

"Dourados is perhaps the largest known indigenous tragedy in the world," said Deborah Duprat, Brazil's deputy attorney general.

Beyond the malnutrition and suicide, there have also been attacks on the Guarani. More than half of Brazil's killings of indigenous people in 2011 took place in Mato Grosso do Sul. The violence is far from hidden.

The November attack on Mr. Gomes, days after he led a group of 200 Guarani who squatted on a soybean farm, was especially brutal. A gang of gun-wielding men, "pistoleiros" as they are called here, was said by witnesses to have carried out the attack, which also involved beatings of others adults and children in the encampment.

Brazil's Federal Police found evidence that four landowners in the area had hired a private security firm to remove the Guarani, according to Agência Brasil, the government's news agency. Ten people were identified in December as suspects in the attack, said Jorge Figueiredo, the official investigating the case. More than six months after the attack, the suspects remain free, despite witness accounts of the attack. Mr. Figueiredo said their identities could not be disclosed, as the authorities try to build a stronger case. Moreover, without Mr. Gomes's body, investigators do not even have material proof that he was killed, even though his son Valmir said he saw his father shot dead that day.

As the investigation drags on, the Guarani live in fear. Families sleep under tarpaulins in the encampment, which they call a "tekohá," or "sacred land." Teenagers patrol with bows and arrows. When visitors are allowed in, children hold signs saying, "We want the bones of Nísio Gomes, our leader."

The sense of impunity over the attack follows a pattern, Guarani leaders said, in which they face landowners who mount powerful legal efforts to oust squatters from their properties. Some landowners contend that Brazil's labyrinthine legal system makes the resolution of disputes difficult.

"The rights of all have to be guaranteed," said Roseli Maria Ruiz, whose family owns a ranch that has been partly occupied for more than a decade by Guarani squatters. Clashes on her property have emerged. "We cannot, as nonnative, be treated as second-class citizens," she said. "Instead, we, too, should have the right to defend ourselves."

Guarani leaders say they are also stymied in their claims by the legal process, involving anthropological studies and rulings by bureaucrats in Brasília for determining land ownership.

Meanwhile, tensions smolder across Mato Grosso do Sul, and threats persist against the Guarani. A Guarani leader, Tonico Benites, 39, described one harrowing encounter in April. He said a gunman on a motorcycle stopped him and his wife on a deserted road and threatened to kill him because of his efforts to recover lands. A thunderstorm ended that encounter, said Mr. Benites, who still shakes when recounting it. "I told myself, ‘I'll scream until I'm killed; my wife will hear me, maybe someone else,' " he said. "They can eliminate me, but I won't go without a scream." your social media marketing partner


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+6 # jwb110 2012-06-10 10:55
Maybe the Roman Catholic Indigenous Missionary Council could urge the Pope to send in his Swiss Guards to lend a hand or threaten the entire country of Brazil with excommunication . Or maybe this is an example of more Papacy bulls#*t. Rather than go after the religious sister in the US and the Girl Scouts of America they could actually be saving lives. Hmmm,,,
+6 # The Saint 2012-06-10 11:52
And so it goes, and goes, and goes. Try the Plains in the 19th century or the Southeast earlier, or the Northeast. Genocide both physical and cultural accompanies a voracious desire to grab land, wipe out native species (including humans) and transform it into woodpiles, ranches, farms, mines. Brazil welcomes you to Rio + 20 and Amazons minus ecosystems and indigenous peoples. Look carefully at the economic and political forces at play here--including the desire for global power for Brazil through devouring and/or selling its natural "resources." The few remaining examples of peoples living in some balance with and acceptance of the bio-diversity around them are being wiped out while an "Earth" Summit takes place in Rio
+13 # Adoregon 2012-06-10 12:20
As was done to the Native American nations by our European forebears, so it is being done to the indigenous peoples of South America by the descendants of European colonists.

The "termite people" (see "The Emerald Forest" by John Boorman) of the so-called developed cultures are unable to leave the earth or its indigenous peoples in peace. The so-called developed cultures appear to be compelled by desire to exploit the earth, all its resources and any peoples who choose to live in harmony with nature.

To mess with indigenous peoples anywhere on this planet who have managed to cling to their traditional cultures in the face of so-called "progress" is a sin that transcends presumptuous human law. It is a profound transgression of conscience against our tenuous claim to any shred of humanity.

Shame on our cultures for thinking we are "civilized."
+2 # The Saint 2012-06-10 18:16
Thank you.
+1 # Valleyboy 2012-06-11 02:58
It's funny, I've just finished The Grapes of Wrath and it's the same story - people getting pushed off the land to make way for mechanised farming.
In TGoW it's the banks driving the whole process and it's the same here.

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