Land Rights Crisis Deepens
Indian Land Conflict Hits Brazil
The land crisis in Brazil continues.
Here are some selected portions from a recent Associated Press report on the land clashes.
by Michael AstorSince 1986, 348 Kaiowa and Guarani Indians have committed suicide -- 42 last year alone -- in Mato Grosso do Sul, a frontier state nearly the size of California on Brazil's western border with Paraguay and Bolivia.
"Today, there's no way out for the Kaiowa, for the Guarani, for any Indian," says Mario Turibio da Silva. "Life has lost its meaning. Before we had total liberty. Today, we have court injunctions, beatings and tear gas."
For one who committed suicide, the end came on March 5, as federal police were preparing to evict him and 300 other Kaiowa Indians from an area they "invaded" three years earlier to pressure the government into declaring it an Indian reservation.
A last-minute court injunction had postponed the eviction for 90 days, long enough for the Indians to harvest their meager crops. But it was too little, too late for victims in a clash of two cultures and conflicting laws intended to protect both.
"On the one hand, the Constitution guarantees indigenous peoples the rights to their ancestral land," explains Nereu Shneider, a lawyer working with the Kaiowa. "On the other, it protects private property."
Ranchers and Indians, caught in the middle, claim the land belongs to them. While the friction is more evident in fast- developing areas like Mato Grosso do Sul, it is quickly spreading as western civilization reaches into the vast Amazon rain forest, home to most of Brazil's 500,000 Indians.
"What is happening in Mato Grosso do Sul today is what the Amazon will become tomorrow," Shneider warns.
In March 2000, Federal Indian Bureau anthropologists identified two sacred Indian cemeteries and marked the boundaries of 24,200 acres around the invaded area as Kaiowa land, the first step in the long bureaucratic process of creating a reservation.
But meanwhile, much of the proposed Cerro Marangatu Indian reservation occupies Pio Silva's 3,344-acre Fronteira ranch. Under Brazilian law, Silva is entitled to government compensation for "improvements" to the land -- such as houses, fences and bridges - - but not for the land itself.
That didn't suit the 86-year-old rancher. So last December, he obtained a court order to evict the "trespassers."
"I paid taxes on the land all those years and now they don't even want to pay me for it. That's not right," says Silva.
Silva claims his family had good relations with the Indians until outsiders started "manipulating" them and making trouble. He likes to show visitors a video, produced with the help of a local TV reporter, featuring scenes of Indian children lining up to get Christmas presents from his family, and his son solemnly donating a soccer ball to a group of smiling teen-agers.
His 46-year-old son, Pio Queiroz Silva, who handles most of the day- to-day ranching chores, is less tolerant. "I defend Indians anywhere in the world, but I have to defend myself when they want to kidnap me, steal my cows and take over my property," he says.
He's especially bitter toward the Catholic Church and its Indigenous Missionary Council, which pays for lawyers to defend the Indians. For Silva, it's part of an international plot to keep Brazil poor and backward.
The council's assistant director, Saulo Feitosa, says his group is merely helping the Indians assert their constitutional rights.
"We believe the Kaiowa's invasions are legitimate and legal, and that they are necessary to ensure the federal government honors its responsibility to demarcate Indian lands," Feitosa says.
Under Brazil's 1988 Constitution, all Indian lands were supposed to be demarcated within five years. But the process is so costly, controversial and time-consuming that today only about 30 percent has been fully delimited, Feitosa says.
To pressure the government into action, Indians have begun "retakings," as they call their invasions of traditional lands. Eleven of the 15 Kaiowa-Guarani reservations established since 1988 were the result of retakings, which in general are tolerated although they are illegal.
Until the 1940s, the Kaiowa and the related Guarani tribe roamed freely over about a quarter of Mato Grosso, which means "thick forest" in Portuguese. Today, the state has been divided in two and most of the forest cut down for pasture and grain fields. The 60,000 Indians in the two tribes are confined to small, hard-to-farm lots comprising less than 1 percent of the state's total area.
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