- Members of São Paulo’s Jaraguá Guarani Indigenous community have founded a new village on land they claim is ancestrally theirs.
- The Guarani are seeking recognition from the Brazilian government for a total of 532 hectares (1,315 acres) of land in the São Paulo area that’s home to some 800 Indigenous people.
- But a bill working its way through Congress could nix that claim; if passed, any claims to land occupied after the cutoff date of Oct. 5, 1988, would be rejected.
- Government officials including the minister of Indigenous peoples and the head of the Indigenous affairs agency recently visited the Guarani village to offer support, but said no official demarcation will happen this year.
TEKOA PINDÓ MIRIM, Brazil — “If we hadn’t come here, someone non-Indigenous would probably already have occupied this space,” says Neusa Poty. The 35-year-old Guarani Indigenous leader speaks in a low but firm voice. In March this year, she and other members of the Jaraguá Guarani community living on the northwestern outskirts of São Paulo founded a new village, Pindó Mirim. But the battle to get the land recognized as their own has reached a crucial juncture.
Sitting on a hill in Jaraguá State Park, home to some of the largest remnants of Atlantic Forest in São Paulo, Pindó Mirim overlooks a stretch of highway that connects busy motorways named after the notorious 16th-century Bandeirantes explorers who enslaved and killed Indigenous peoples, including the Guarani. Today, according to Brazil’s 2022 Census, São Paulo, the most populous city in the Western Hemisphere, is home to nearly 20,000 Indigenous people, the 10th-largest native population in a Brazilian city.
Pindó Mirim was created through a “retake,” a practice whereby Indigenous people occupy land they claim is ancestrally theirs; the Guarani are demanding constitutional protection for it and seven other villages in the area, covering a total of 532 hectares (1,315 acres) and home to about 800 people.
“These names, Tatuapé, Anhanguera, Tietê, they’re all Guarani,” Neusa says, referring to the neighborhoods, universities, rivers and roads in and around São Paulo. Her people’s footprint on the city may be forgotten, but it persists. The red T-shirt she’s wearing displays an Indigenous archer and the words “Jaraguá is Guarani.”
The fight for demarcation
The amount of land the government currently recognizes as the community’s is just 1.7 hectares (4.2 acres), which makes it Brazil’s smallest Indigenous territory. And while the Jaraguá Guarani push to have the full extent of their ancestral land legally acknowledged and protected, they now find themselves threatened by a controversial bill that severely restricts what territories they may claim.
In May, Brazil’s lower house of Congress overwhelmingly approved Bill 490/2007, better known as the marco temporal bill, which sets a cutoff date for recognition of Indigenous people’s ancestral land claims.
Under the bill, the state would only recognize lands as official Indigenous territories if the tribe making the claim lived on the land prior to Oct. 5, 1988, the date that Brazil’s post-dictatorship Constitution took effect.
Critics say this criteria will effectively freeze any outstanding or future demarcations, the process by which Indigenous land claims gain official government recognition.
The final decision now rests with Brazil’s Supreme Court, which is expected to rule on the issue in the following weeks. According to the U.N.’s special rapporteur for Indigenous rights, José Francisco Calí Tzay, this bill could decide the outcome of more than 300 pending Indigenous land demarcations and expose communities to extractive industries, conflicts and abuse. In the case of the Jaraguá Guarani, the community is already reeling from encroaching real estate and criminal land speculation.
Mongabay reported from Pindó Mirim during a recent visit to the village by Sonia Guajajara, Brazil’s minister of Indigenous peoples, and Joenia Wapichana, the head of Funai, the federal agency for Indigenous affairs. The delegation also included Célia Xakriabá, an Indigenous congresswoman, as well as representatives from various environmental and human rights organizations, who were welcomed by the Guarani with a traditional dance.
“It’s a great joy to have them here,” Neusa says.
The Ministry of Indigenous People was established only this year, at the start of the presidency of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. Elected last year with support from Indigenous groups, Lula has said he will demarcate “as many Indigenous lands as possible,” and in April, during the “Free Land Camp,” an annual gathering of Indigenous peoples in the nation’s capital, he signed off on six, with more expected this year.
This comes after four years of paralysis under the former president, Jair Bolsonaro, who famously declared he would not demarcate “even one centimeter” of Indigenous land.
But the passage in congress of the marco temporal bill, which Bolsonaro vocally supported during his presidency, has reignited fears. Indigenous advocacy groups have denounced the cutoff criteria, pointing out that Indigenous peoples in Brazil have historically been violently run off their lands during colonialism and successive dictatorships, while the lack of land rights remains a main driver of violence even under democratic governments since the 1990s.
Farmers and ranchers, meanwhile, overwhelmingly support the measure, saying it removes legal doubts over currently disputed lands.
“We cannot be vulnerable to an anthropological report by a Funai official in order to suddenly transform a city into a new Indigenous reserve,” Fabio Garcia, a congressman with the União Brasil party, said in Brazil’s lower house in May when the measure was put to a vote. It passed, with 283 votes in favor and 155 against.
Earlier the same day, the Jaraguá community protested the measure by blocking a major São Paulo highway, named Bandeirantes, and were met with tear gas and rubber bullets by military police.
In 2015, Brazil’s justice minister, José Eduardo Cardozo, issued an order recognizing the community’s “permanent possession” of the full 532 hectares that it claims. But the declaration was revoked in 2017, following the impeachment of Dilma Rousseff.
The Jaraguá Guarani community’s officially recognized 1.7 hectares, composed of the sole village of Pyau village at the bottom of Jaraguá State Park, makes it the smallest Indigenous territory in Brazil. And if the marco temporal bill passes the Senate, the 1.7 hectares will be all the community would be left with. But even this sliver of territory isn’t considered a protected Indigenous land by Brazil’s government, according to Gabriela Pires, a lawyer with the Guarani Yvyrupa Commission, which supports Guarani land rights across Brazil.
Pires says the land was donated in 1987, giving the community property rights under civil law, not constitutional law, so the “retake” of Pindó Mirim is significant.
“It strengthens their fight, because it strengthens the occupation of boundaries that had already been recognized by the Brazilian state,” she tells Mongabay.
The Jaraguá Guarani community doesn’t just suffer from institutional threats coming from the halls of power in Brasília. In recent years, the surrounding neighborhood has become increasingly important for São Paulo’s booming real estate sector.
In 2020, the proposed construction of a public housing block by the contractor Tenda S.A., and subsequent destruction of local trees, led the Guarani community to protest until the plan was eventually suspended.
In the last few years, land grabbers have encroached upon the Jaraguá Guarani Indigenous land, illegally buying and selling plots of land and building illegal structures, according to federal prosecutors’ documents obtained by Mongabay.
Satellite photos included in the document show the expansion of the illegal occupation from 2021 and 2022, with a clearing opening up in the forest. According to the document, the “lack of demarcation of the Jaraguá Indigenous Territory” is the main driver of the damage.
The occupation follows a growing pattern in São Paulo in recent years, where criminal gangs, some linked to the powerful PCC drug cartel, have increasingly occupied environmentally sensitive areas of the city to develop illegal real estate.
Inside the traditional Guarani prayer house in Pindó Mirim, Minister Guajajara addressed the crowd. However, she made clear that the process of demarcation will not happen this year due to high demand from other Indigenous claimants and would have to wait until 2024.
“What remains here in this quick visit is our commitment,” she said.
But she congratulated the community before receiving one of the “Jaraguá is Guarani” T-shirts.
“You keep your language, culture, Guarani prayer and way of life very much alive,” she said.
Banner image: The Jaragua Guarani community 2020 protests against real estate development close to one of the villages. Image by Caio Castor.