[Marxism] Violence Hits Brazil Tribes in Scramble for Lan
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Sun Jun 10 08:21:26 MDT 2012
NY Times June 9, 2012
Violence Hits Brazil Tribes in Scramble for Land
By SIMON ROMERO
ARAL MOREIRA, Brazil — 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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
“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.”
Lis Horta Moriconi contributed reporting from Rio de Janeiro.
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