In August 2015, about a thousand Guarani-Kaiowá indigenous people invaded nine farms in the southern part of the state of Mato Grosso do Sul as part of a plan for the re-conquest of their ancestral lands known as Ñhanderu Marangatu — a claim officially recognized by Brazil’s government a decade earlier, but including territory that has long been occupied by the region’s European-descended large-scale farmers, who maintain that they hold legal title.
After days of mutual accusations and tension, the Federal Supreme Court (STF) sided with the farmers and suspended approval of the indigenous claim. But the indigenous groups remained. On August 29, tensions exploded as a group of 40 farmers from the municipality of Antônio João reclaimed the farms. At the end of the day, Simeon Vilhalva, a Guarani Kaiowá leader, was dead, shot in the face. The Indians claimed that the farmers committed the crime, but the farmers claimed that they were unarmed.
The death of Simeon Vilhalva is just one of 137 killings of indigenous people that took place in Brazil in 2015. Mato Grosso do Sul recorded the highest number of homicides in the country: 25 for the year. These figures were disclosed this September in the 172-page, comprehensive Report on Violence Against Indigenous Peoples in Brazil, prepared by the Indigenous Missionary Council (CIMI). The report combined data from CIMI’s offices, the Federal Police, the Geography and Statistics Brazilian Institute (IBGE), the Special Indigenous Health Secretariat (Sesai), the Federal Public Office of Prosecution (MPF) and the Special Indigenous Sanitary District (Dsei).
According to CIMI’s Roberto Liebgott, who helped compile the report, the high number of conflicts in Mato Grosso do Sul, as well as in other parts of the country, has been exacerbated by the government’s slowdown in completing the process of demarcation of indigenous areas. There are 96 indigenous lands there, but only four have been demarcated and approved so far. Another 68 are classified with the status of “no action” according to CIMI.
“There [hasn’t been] an effective and significant process in land demarcations [largely] because of the government’s political alliances, that end up favoring large farmers at the expense of environmental protection — so conflicts continued to occur in 2015”, explained Liebgott.
He added that, “the delay in settlement and demarcation has become almost intrinsic in the country. Thus the invasions, conflicts and all sorts of damage against private property and indigenous communities do not cease, deepening violent, destructive and illegal actions”.
Farmers too are criticizing the government for its delay in demarcating indigenous lands and see themselves as victims of both those delays and of the indigenous groups. Milton dos Santos, a lawyer representing Mato Grosso do Sul farmers said that indigenous people consider that “all the lands in the area belong to them and are promoting invasions. Landowners are having to flee to avoid being killed”. He accused indigenous people of promoting looting, theft and the killing of livestock on farms.
“The main responsibility for the existence of the conflict is with the state. Non-Indians [have been] in possession of these lands for 50 years, 60 years, some even 100 years, in a legal way. These [farmers] are no squatters, they are owners,” asserted dos Santos. “The grounds [for ownership] are legal, granted by the State. We ended up in a real dilemma: on one side the [farmer] owners who bought their places in good faith and now simply have to leave the land without compensation. And [on the other side] indigenous [people] who say the area is indigenous land.”
Tension, sometimes erupting into violence, has become a regular part of life in the region. The Federal Public Office of Prosecution (MPF) says that farmer militias have been established to protect ranches and soy plantations as well as other agricultural property.
The ethnic group that has suffered most from the conflicts is the Guarani Kaiowá, which according to the MPF, lost 300 members to violent conflicts in the last 15 years, a loss which was described as “a genocide” by that public body. In 2015, eight violent conflicts involved the Guarani Kaiowá.
Little has changed since then: in June of this year dozens of Guarani Kaiowá, in an attempt to assert their indigenous territorial claims, tried to take over the Yvu farm and were shortly confronted by 100 angry farmers. This land conflict in the town of Caarapó, in Moto Grosso do Sul resulted in the the death of 26-year-old Clodiodi de Souza. Six other people were injured in the shootout, including an indigenous boy of 12, and a 62-year-old man who was hit with a bullet in the chest.
“I do not know how they did not end with us. There were bullets everywhere. The [farmers] were heavily armed,” said an injured indigenous man testifying from his hospital bed. During the pitched battle, the Guarani Kaiowá kidnapped police officers and burned their cars.
The most recent CIMI report identified a range of other violent crimes committed against indigenous people including: attempted murder, bodily injury, threat, sexual assault, racism and abuse of power. There was also a disturbingly high number of indigenous people who took their own lives, with 87 registered cases of suicide in 2015 by indigenous people across Brazil. Again, Mato Grosso do Sul led the list with 45 cases, with 37 percent of those suicides committed by adolescents between 15 and 19 years of age. Over the last 15 years, there have been 752 suicides by indigenous people in Mato Grosso do Sul alone.
CIMI also documented a high incidence of infant mortality. Just in 2015, there were 599 cases of indigenous infant mortality in Brazil, of which 46 cases occurred in Mato Grosso do Sul. Most diseases victimizing these children, such as diarrhea and pneumonia, are easily treatable, but such care is often lacking for indigenous people.
Data from the Special Indigenous Sanitary District (DSEI) showed that the infant mortality rate is nearly twice as high among indigenous groups (26.35 deaths per thousand live births) as compared to the national average (13.82 per thousand live births), according to IBGE 2013 data.
The Socio-Environmental Institute (ISA) believes that the already serious situation could deteriorate, not only for the Guarani Kaiowá ethnic group, but for all indigenous groups, now that impeached President Dilma Rousseff has been replaced by President Michel Temer.
In May of this year, Temer chose Blairo Maggi as Brazil’s Minister of Agriculture. The controversial agribusiness entrepreneur and soy producer (once proclaimed Brazil’s “King of Soy”) was awarded the Golden Chainsaw Award in 2005, given by the NGO Greenpeace for his contribution to Brazil’s deforestation.
Maggi has more recently embraced the country’s forest conservation goals, though his family continues to play an outsized role in soy development in Brazil. He has also proposed, among other changes, an end to the requirement of environmental licensing for major infrastructure projects, including the construction of new dams, industrial waterways, roads, railways and ports, which could hugely benefit the soy industry while also impinging on indigenous lands. The construction of large-scale infrastructure projects often leads the way to indigenous conflicts.
When asked for comment by Mongabay, the Ministry of Justice and Citizenship (MJC) and the National Foundation for Indigenous People (FUNAI) released a joint statement, saying that both agencies: “recognize the [CIMI] report and [are] work[ing] on the analysis of the data… collected from the actions of the Federal Police Department and the Special Secretariat of Indigenous Health (SESA) to make a full statement”. The agencies agreed that the research, data and analysis featured in the CIMI report will now likely make it “possible to establish new procedures which will effectively guarantee the fundamental rights of the Indigenous peoples of Brazil.”