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Guarani Indigenous men brutalized in Brazilian ‘expansion of violence’

  • In the 1960s and 70s, the Guarani Kaiowá Indigenous group was expelled from its ancestral lands in Mato Grosso do Sul state by the Brazilian military dictatorship to expand the country’s agricultural frontier. Today, their traditional Indigenous homeland is occupied by large farms, whose owners refuse to return the property.
  • A federal Supreme Court decision resulted in an order to allow the return of the Guarani Kaiowá to their former homeland where they now await the official demarcation of their territory to be approved by the federal government — an approval that still hasn’t come after the passage of ten years.
  • The land dispute and standoff between the ranchers and the Guarani Kaiowá has repeatedly flared into violence over the years. In 2011, Indigenous leader Nízio Gomes was murdered in the Guaiviry community area by armed thugs.
  • Violence flared yet again in Guaiviry last week when three Guarani Kaiowá men were assaulted, they say, by gunmen from the large Querência Farm. The Guarani Kaiowá say that intimidation of their community members has seriously escalated under the Jair Bolsonaro administration, which has shown hostility toward Indigenous rights.

On Tuesday, March 16, three Guarani Kaiowá indigenous men — Vander Martins, Vitorino Gomes and Ouilson Mendes — who live in the Guaiviry community in the Aral Moreira municipality, in Mato Grosso do Sul state, left their homes in the afternoon to hunt.

Finding no game, they returned to their village beside the Yryepyresekã River, in a small forested area surrounded by soy plantations. In the early evening, the three walked 2 kilometers to buy some groceries. Halfway home, in front of the Querência Farm, they say they sighted a pickup truck inside the property which turned its headlights on and drove toward them.

Three men got out of the vehicle, one armed with a 12-gauge shotgun. He allegedly hit 37-year-old Gomes in the face with his weapon; Gomes dropped unconscious to the ground. Mendes, 17-years old, ran and hid, but Martins, 29, was brutally attacked. The perpetrators kicked him in the head and body, twisted one of his arms, jumped on his stomach, and in the end, fired several shots near his ears. Martins also passed out.

A perpetrator allegedly shouted while beating Martins and Gomes: “You Indians are tramps, invaders! If you are the chief’s brother, I will kill you!” Mendes’ companions, whom he believed to be dead, were put by the gunmen in the back of the truck, which sped away.

Mendes was so terrified, he didn’t speak to anyone in the community until the next day about the attack. Martins and Gomes say they were dumped in a ditch by the side of the road where they regained consciousness in the early morning hours and walked home.

“Both are very hurt, with the head sick. They walk and speak slowly, and Gomes is deaf,” one of the leaders of the Guaiviry community told Mongabay. That leader chose not to identify himself because “we have all been threatened.”

Vander Martins was beaten on the face, about the head and body, allegedly by Querência Farm gunmen. Image courtesy of the Guaiviry community.

Ongoing land dispute

This atmosphere of violence and intimidation has been an everyday reality for ten years in the Guaiviry community, say residents, ever since the Guarani Kaiowá returned to live in the area following a federal Supreme Court decision. While that ruling was in their favor, the Indigenous villagers have been waiting ever since for the official demarcation of Guarani lands by the federal government.

“The entire area of the Guarani Kaiowá in Mato Grosso do Sul state was identified by FUNAI [the federal government’s Indigenous policy agency] several years ago, but the process is stuck at the Ministry of Justice [which declares the limits of Indigenous Lands],” a coordinator of the Aty Guasu Association of the Guarani, told Mongabay. “That is why we live in an area of permanent conflict.”

Contacted by Mongabay, the Brazilian Ministry of Justice did not respond. Neither did the Federal Police when asked if they would investigate the attack.

Nísio Gomes, shaman and Guarani Kaiowá leader of the Guaiviry community, was murdered in 2011 by gunmen after the Guarani reoccupied their ancestral lands in Mato Grosso do Sul state. Image © Survival International.

A history of aggressions

In the 1960s and 70s, the Guarani Kaiowá were expelled from their ancestral lands by the Brazilian military dictatorship in order to expand the country’s agricultural frontier. Today, their traditional Indigenous homeland is occupied by large farms, whose owners refuse to return the property. The government’s failure to follow through on the court ordered demarcation has resulted in legal ambiguity and stalemate, with thugs randomly trying to rid the area of the Indigenous group by intimidating, attacking or even killing its members.

In 2011, Indigenous leader Nízio Gomes was murdered in the Guaiviry area which is located beside the MS-386 highway. According to the Federal Public Ministry (MPF) — independent government litigators — a group of men entered the village at dawn and confronted Gomes, who resisted and was shot. His body was never found. Nineteen people, including farmers, lawyers and a municipal secretary, were denounced by the MPF for alleged involvement in the homicide.

“Farmers and their gunmen see us as enemies,” said one of the members of the Aty Guasu Association.

“They shoot into the air around our Tecoha [Guarani village],” added a leader of the Guaiviry community. “And now that Bolsonaro has issued decrees [last month] that allow anyone to buy up to six firearms, farmers feel free to walk around armed.”

Sarah Shenker, a campaigner at Survival International, an NGO that defends the rights of Indigenous and tribal peoples around the world, told Mongabay that under the current government the Indigenous plight has gone from bad to worse across Brazil.

“The demarcation of their lands was already paralyzed and has continued to be so throughout the presidency of Jair Bolsonaro. The violence, the attacks and racism have skyrocketed, and threats and proposals are making the Guaranis campaign even tougher. They include the ‘Marco Temporal‘ time-limit trick, which, if approved by the Supreme Court, whenever it will vote on it, will make it even harder for the Guaranis to [truly] return to their ancestral land,” said Shenker. In 2017, the Michel Temer government okayed new Marco Temporal criteria that helped delegitimize Indigenous land boundary claims.

Vitorino Gomes, a Guarani Kaiowá from the Guaiviry community, was beaten allegedly by gunmen from the Querência Farm, a property that overlaps the Guarani Indigenous lands. These photos show Gomes’ swollen face, after being beaten with a gun. Image courtesy of the Guaiviry community.

Threats to Indigenous people

Mongabay asked the Presidency of the Republic, through its communication secretariat, whether the Bolsonaro government will review its longstanding position against the demarcation of Indigenous lands in the face of increased violence against Indigenous communities. The Presidency’s representative replied: “Please forward your demand to FUNAI,” then offered no further communication.

In Brazil, there were 1,083 occurrences of violence involving land occupation and possession last year, including 18 murders, of which ten were Indigenous, according to partial data (up to last November) revealed in the Conflicts in the Field 2020 report by the Pastoral Land Commission (CPT). Over the 2020 period, the CPT registered 178 cases of invasion of Indigenous territories. In 2019, there were nine invasions and 32 murders, of which nine were Indigenous.

When asked about the demarcation of Guarani Kaiowá lands, FUNAI replied: “It should be clarified that FUNAI’s current management is not against demarcations, but against irregularities in those processes carried out by previous administrations.”

Asked what kind of irregularities those would be, the FUNAI press department said: “We have not yet received a response from the technical area. As soon as we get feedback, we will contact you.” Up to the time of this story’s publication, FUNAI has not commented further.

The current FUNAI president, Marcelo Xavier, chosen by President Bolsonaro, has been accused by the Federal Public Ministry of collaborating with Marãiwatsédé Indigenous Reserve invaders in Mato Grosso state in 2014, when he was a sheriff with the Federal Police.

“The violence against the Guarani Kaiowá of the Guaiviry community is nothing new, but extremely worrying. The ranchers of the Querência Farm will do whatever it takes to intimidate the Indigenous people, to make them move away. All the ranchers want is to get rid of the Guaranis so they can carry on and use the land and expand even further,” said Shenker of Survival International.

Currently, according to villagers, a drone appears every night at different hours over the Guaiviry settlement, striking fear into its inhabitants. “The farmers watch our community [with that device] and we reported them last week to the Federal Public Ministry and the Federal Police,” said one of the leaders. The flights “started when Bolsonaro became president. We only filed a complaint now because of the [COVID-19] pandemic.”

Antônio Eduardo de Oliveira, executive secretary of the Indigenous Missionary Council (CIMI), told Mongabay: “We have the President of the Republic, some of his ministers and the president of FUNAI against the Indigenous people, against the [1988] Constitution. This did not happen in previous governments, with [presidents] Sarney, Fernando Henrique Cardoso, Itamar Franco, Collor de Mello, Lula, Temer, and Dilma. There was always some [level of] respect, dialogue and initiatives to put into effect Indigenous rights, both in the demarcation of their territories and in the implementation of public policies. This difference brought about the incitement of society and an increase in violence against traditional peoples, which we see in the invasion of their territories by loggers and miners. In this sense, the Bolsonaro government acts directly in the expansion of violence and in the restriction of the rights of Indigenous peoples of Brazil.”

Banner image: The Guarani were one of the first Indigenous peoples contacted by European colonists after their arrival in South America, more than 500 years ago. Here they protest in Brasília, the nation’s capital, in the name of their constitutional rights. Image © Sarah Shenker/Survival International.

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