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In Brazil’s soy belt, Indigenous people face attacks over land rights

A group of Guarani-Kaiowá residents dance and chant.

A group of Guarani-Kaiowá residents dance and chant in a traditional prayer ceremony in Guapo’y Mirim Tujury, a village in the municipality of Amambai, in August 2022.They mourned the June 24 death of Vitor Fernandes, killed in a police operation to evict the community from the plot of land, which is now part of a farm. Image by Ana Ionova for Mongabay.

  • In Brazil’s Mato Grosso do Sul state, Guarani-Kaiowá Indigenous people seeking to reclaim their ancestral lands have been subjected to threats and violence by farmers and security forces, according to Indigenous residents and rights activists.
  • In June, tensions escalated in the Guapo’y Mirim Tujury community when a military police operation to evict the Guarani-Kaiowá from part of a farm they were occupying left one Indigenous resident dead and injured at least nine other residents, including children, according to advocates.
  • The incident was the latest in a decades-long struggle for land rights and demarcation, which has led to the deaths of 608 Guarani-Kaiowá people in Mato Grosso do Sul between 2003 and 2021.
  • The violence has continued since the Guapo’y Mirim Tujury operation: in July and September, two Guarani-Kaiowá leaders were killed in the region, with Indigenous residents blaming farming interests for the deaths.

AMAMBAI, Brazil — About a dozen Guarani-Kaiowá Indigenous people danced around a grave, freshly filled in, chanting a prayer as they swayed to the rhythm of a rattle. Around them, blustery winds whipped the plastic tarps covering about a dozen unfinished wooden huts. Beyond their makeshift village, corn and soy fields stretched for miles across this part of Brazil’s Mato Grosso do Sul state.

The group was mourning Vitor Fernandes, killed at the age of 42 in a dispute over land rights in their village, Guapo’y Mirim Tujury, in the municipality of Amambai, about 50 kilometers (30 miles) from Brazil’s border with Paraguay.

“He was a warrior,” said Arsenio Vasquez, the village’s Indigenous chief, or cacique. “He gave his life defending our land.”

The village of Kurusu Ambá, in the municipality of Coronel Sapucaia, is one of the oldest Guarani-Kaiowá occupations in Mato Grosso do Sul state. But 15 years since they first occupied this piece of land, the residents are still awaiting demarcation. Image by Ana Ionova for Mongabay.

Just weeks earlier, at least 65 police officers had descended on the village in a bid to expel the Guarani-Kaiowá from the land that the community says belonged to their ancestors. Fernandes was killed in the ensuing clash, while at least six other residents  were injured, including young children, the group says.

“They all came shooting at us from above, aiming at us,” said one Indigenous resident who witnessed the police operation and asked to remain anonymous due to concerns about his safety. His son was among those injured, struck in the hand by a bullet, he said. “Right up here, that’s where my kids were shot at,” he added. “They came to kill.”

The violent clash in June over land rights made headlines around Brazil and spurred demonstrations by Indigenous leaders, who traveled to the capital, Brasília, to denounce what they called a massacre against the Guarani-Kaiowá people.

But the violence against the Guarani-Kaiowá has not let up since then. In July, just weeks after the operation in Guapo’y Mirim Tujury, Márcio Moura, an Indigenous leader from the community, was killed in an alleged ambush. In mid-September, Vitorino Sanches, another Indigenous leader in Amambai, was also gunned down.

“These communities continue to suffer in this violent situation,” Flávio Vicente Machado, a coordinator with the Indigenist Missionary Council (CIMI), an advocacy group affiliated with the Catholic Church, told Mongabay. “They are living a humanitarian crisis.”

A deadly clash

The standoff in Guapo’y Mirim Tujury first began in June, when about 40 Guarani-Kaiowá occupied the slice of farmland, claiming it as their tekoha, or traditional territory.

They say the land, now part of a sprawling 269-hectare (665-acre) rural property, belonged to their ancestors, who were expelled decades ago and forced into a handful of small reserves around the region, deep in what is today Brazil’s soy belt.

“This is not a farm, this here is our land … but the white man took it away from us, little by little,” Vasquez told Mongabay in an interview near the still-unfinished prayer hut at the center of the village. “The Indigenous is not invading it, he is reclaiming it.”

On June 24, police tried to evict the Guarani-Kaiowá, despite lacking a court order, Indigenous rights defenders say. At least 65 military police officers, equipped with 16 vehicles and a helicopter, took part in the operation, according to the Mato Grosso do Sul State Secretariat of Justice and Public Security, known by the acronym SEJUSP.

Some 50,000 Guarani-Kaiowá Indigenous people live scattered across eight overcrowded reserves in Mato Grosso do Sul state, deep in Brazil’s soy belt. Ana Ionova for Mongabay.
Arsenio Vasquez, far left, the chief of the Guapo’y Mirim Tujury community, with community members in the municipality of Amambai, in Brazil’s Mato Grosso do Sul state. The Guarani-Kaiowá in this region have been fighting for land rights for decades, after being forcibly expelled from their territories at the turn of the 20th century. Image by Ana Ionova for Mongabay.

The confrontation quickly turned violent. Indigenous residents say police stormed their village and opened fire on them. Authorities deny the allegation, saying the Guarani-Kaiowá fired first, although the community maintains that none of them was armed. At least nine Indigenous residents and three police officers were injured in the clash, according to local accounts, collected by CIMI, and police reports.

Following the operation, a federal court rejected the farm owner’s urgent request to evict the Guarani-Kaiowá, ruling that, for the time being, there was no need to dismantle the movement contesting “lands traditionally occupied by Indigenous communities, in view of the complete inefficiency of the state in resolving the issue.”

In a statement, the Federal Public Ministry in Mato Grosso do Sul promised to investigate the case and any possible crimes by authorities.

The case is still being investigated.  SEJUSP did not respond to Mongabay’s requests for comment.

But the deadly clash in Guapo’y Mirim Tujury was just the latest in a decades-long struggle for land rights in this region. Between 2003 and 2021, 608  Guarani-Kaiowá land activists were killed in Mato Grosso do Sul, according to a Mongabay analysis of data collected by CIMI. This accounts for 35%% of all killings of Indigenous people during that period, making the Guarani-Kaiowá the most threatened Indigenous group in Brazil.

“Here, it was the first time. But it’s not the first time [in the country],” Vasquez said. “The Indigenous has to spill his blood, to lose his life first, before he can get what is his.”

In the Guapo’y Mirim Tujury occupation, charred remnants of the corn harvest serve as a reminder that the village is surrounded by industrial-scale farms. In June, a group of Guarani-Kaiowá occupied a piece of farmland, claiming it as ancestral territory. Image by Ana Ionova for Mongabay.

Decades of conflict

In Mato Grosso do Sul, a state tucked deep in the agricultural heartland of Brazil, farming interests have long clashed with Indigenous claims to ancestral lands.

The Guarani-Kaiowá are the second-biggest Indigenous group in Brazil, numbering at least 50,000 people, according to the Instituto Socioambiental (ISA), a nonprofit that advocates for the rights of Indigenous and traditional communities. They once occupied a vast territory stretching hundreds of kilometers across Brazil and Paraguay, relying on the Atlantic Forest for their survival, mostly fishing and hunting along the banks of the rivers snaking through the forest.

But as colonizers swept through the region, the Guarani-Kaiowá were forced off their traditional lands and placed in eight reserves created by the Brazilian state at the turn of the 20th century. Since the 1960s, large-scale agriculture has swallowed up most of the forests that the Guarani-Kaiowá once relied on.

With their population growing, life within the reserves has become difficult for the Guarani-Kaiowá. Today, the largest of these territories, the Dourados reserve, in the municipality of the same name, is home to some 20,000 people, all squeezed into an area of just 3,500 hectares (8,650 acres).

“My village, my tribe, is overcrowded,” Vasquez said. “There’s no more space. There’s nowhere to plant crops, to fish … Back in the old days, my village had 60 families. Now there are 12,000 people.”

For decades, the Guarani-Kaiowá have asked federal authorities to demarcate their ancestral territories, allowing them to safely return to their lands and their traditional way of life. But the process of officially recognizing Indigenous reserves and placing them under federal protection is long and bureaucratic, often taking years or even decades.

“Demarcating land is not an option, it’s a right of Indigenous people under the Constitution,” said Machado from CIMI. “But the state hasn’t fulfilled its obligation, it still hasn’t demarcated these lands.”

In the Guapo’y Mirim Tujury village, Indigenous residents have built wooden huts covered with plastic sheets to shield them from the elements. The occupation, located in Amambai municipality in Brazil’s Mato Grosso do Sul state, is just meters away from sprawling corn and soy fields. Image by Ana Ionova for Mongabay.

Frustrated by the wait, some Guarani-Kaiowá began reclaiming pieces of their ancestral territory in the early 2000s, occupying land now mostly planted with soy and corn. But this has sparked tensions with farm owners, who claim the land is legally theirs.

“Here, the persecution by the farmers is really intense,” said Leonel Lopes, a traditional healer and cacique in Kurusu Ambá, one of the region’s oldest occupations. “They go after us because they want to take our territories again.”

Some 15 years after first occupying the piece of land, in the nearby municipality of Coronel Sapucaia, residents of Kurusu Ambá are still awaiting recognition of their land rights. In that time, they’ve suffered numerous attacks, with their homes torched by farmers and at least four Indigenous leaders killed since 2007.

“We stay here, even though we are threatened,” said Alzira Lopes, a resident of the village. “One day, we know something will happen … We pray, pray, pray that nothing happens to us.”

Leonel Lopes, a traditional healer and leader of the Kurusu Ambá occupation, said his community has been under near-constant attack since 2007 by farmers who want to expel the Guarani-Kaiowá. The Indigenous residents see this land as sacred and refuse to cave in to the pressure. Image by Ana Ionova for Mongabay.

Political roadblocks

Indigenous land rights have come under further attack under President Jair Bolsonaro, who has slashed funding for federal agencies tasked with protecting forests and Indigenous interests. He has also advocated for the opening of Indigenous reserves to agriculture and mining, insisting that the existing protections enshrined in Brazil’s Constitution hamper economic progress. In October, the government also made sweeping changes to Funai’s statute, which activists say will hamper the agency’s functioning and threatens to end  demarcations.

This has emboldened farmers, according to Machado, leading to a surge in “illegal police actions” to expel Indigenous people from lands they’ve tried to occupy and reclaim. “This is something we have observed during Bolsonaro’s time in office,” he said. “It hadn’t happened before.”

Bolsonaro has also made good on promises not to demarcate “another centimeter” of Indigenous land, halting the process of official recognition of 223 reserves across Brazil. In Mato Grosso do Sul, 26 Indigenous territories are still awaiting demarcation by Funai, the federal agency tasked with protecting Indigenous interests, ISA figures show.

In Amambai, the government’s failure to recognize the Guarani-Kaiowá claims to ancestral lands has created a climate of insecurity, said Elizeu Pereira Lopes, an Indigenous leader and member of the Aty Guasu, the Indigenous assembly of the Guarani-Kaiowá.

“We are fighting to see our lands demarcated,” Pereira Lopes   this Mongabay reported during a visit to. “But today, this process is paralyzed. And this generates a lot of violence.”

Funai and the president’s office did not respond to Mongabay’s requests for comment.

Since the 1960s, large-scale agricultural production has swallowed up the forests that once made up the Guarani-Kaiowá territory. Image by Ana Ionova for Mongabay.

The future of Indigenous land rights also depends on a crucial ruling by the Supreme Court in the landmark “marco temporal” case. This initiative, if it passes, would limit Indigenous land claims to lands they were living on when Brazil’s Constitution was signed in 1988.

Opponents have urged the court to reject this cutoff date, arguing that it’s unconstitutional since many Indigenous peoples, like the Guarani-Kaiowá, were forced off their ancestral lands long before 1988. Last year, the court postponed the ruling and has not yet put it back on the agenda.

The Guarani-Kaiowá are also fighting to overturn a 2014 court decision to annul the demarcation of the Guyraroká territory, which could open the door to challenges to similar court decisions on other reserves in the region.

In the meantime, the Guarani-Kaiowá remain in limbo, facing the threat of expulsion from territories they have reclaimed without official recognition from the authorities, Pereira Lopes said.

“We are still waiting,” he said. “But we are the ones who suffer, who risk death. Because we’re attacked from all sides.”

A group of Guarani-Kaiowá residents dance and chant in a traditional prayer ceremony in Guapo’y Mirim Tujury, a village in the municipality of Amambai, in August 2022.They mourned the June 24 death of Vitor Fernandes, killed in a police operation to evict the community from the plot of land, which is now part of a farm. Image by Ana Ionova for Mongabay.

Banner image: A group of Guarani-Kaiowá residents dance and chant in a traditional prayer ceremony in Guapo’y Mirim Tujury, a village in the municipality of Amambai, in August 2022.They mourned the June 24 death of Vitor Fernandes, killed in a police operation to evict the community from the plot of land, which is now part of a farm. Image by Ana Ionova for Mongabay.

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