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Civil Rights

Brazil's indigenous fight for their land

In an open letter, the indigenous Guarani-Kaiowa tribe of Brazil has asked for their collective death in order to avoid expulsion from their land. They are up against the agriculture lobby and facing an uphill battle.

Members of the Guarani-Kaiowa, Brazil's second largest indigenous group, wrote an to the government, stating they would rather be killed and buried with their ancestors than expelled from ancestral lands.

"We ask of the government and federal justice system not to make an order for our eviction, but instead we request that they decree our mass death and to bury all of us here," members wrote.

The agricultural industry has claimed right to the territory of the Guarani-Kaiowa's ancestral lands and the letter was written in response to a preliminary injunction by the courts calling for the indigenous community to leave the territory until the ownership question is settled. The injunctions calls for fines of some 500 real (200 euros, $259) per day if the Guarani-Kaiowa stay.

The National Indian Foundation (FUNAI) could cover those costs, but the Guarani-Kaiowa nonetheless decided to write the public letter, "This is our last collective decision with regards to the court's decision."

Many communities affected

Indigenous Kaiowa (picture: Egon Heck/Arquivo cimi)

The indigenous Kaiowa are often the victims of violence and murder

Other Kaiowa communities have faced similar problems of unclear land ownership. Indigenous tribes' lands were supposed to be agreed on and plotted on a map decades ago, but many communities have been waiting since the 1970s for their territories to be officially acknowledged and charted.

Violence on the rise

With every passing year, the problems grow worse. "The Guarani are fed up with having to wait for the government's decision," explained Cleber Buzatto, secretary general with the Brazilian Indigenist Missionary Council (CIMI). "That's why they occupy the land of large estates in order to force the authorities to make a decision."

Buzatto also said there was an increasing readiness to use violence among the Pistoleiros, the armed staff at the large estates, and among the indigenous communities.

The Kaiowa are particularly often victim of violence. The CIMI 2011 report on violence against indigenous people recorded some 503 murders between 2003 and 2011. In more than half of those cases the victims were Kaiowa. That's despite them making up only about 5 percent of the indigenous population of Brazil. At the highest risk are the tribes' chiefs, which is why many of them are being protected by a program of the national human rights bureau.

In recent time, the suicide rate among young people has been on the rise, explained Eduardo Backer, lawyer with the Brazilian human rights NGO Justica Global.

On Wednesday (25.10.2012) the human rights NGO Survival International, which promotes the rights of indigenous populations around the world, called for all Guarani territories be mapped and that they get the permission to stay on their land before more people die.

Historic problem

Indigenous Kaiowa (picture: Renato Santana/Cimi)

For decades, the Kaiowa have been fighting for their land to be mapped

Until 2010, the National Indian Foundation (FUNAI) registered some 43,000 Guarani-Kaiowa in Brazil. Socio-anthropologist Tonico Benites from Rio University is himself a member of the tribe and on Monday published a study on the borders of the indigenous territories. According to his findings, several Guarani tribes began reclaiming their lands since the late 1970s.

The confrontation continues until today. Human rights lawyer Eduardo Backer put the blame on the agriculture lobby. In the Mato Grosso do Sul state, the lobby is very influential - and that's where a lot of the Kaiowa tribes are living, Backer said.

"They use the argument that the state would lose a lot of its economic power and that's why the prevent the Indian territories to be mapped out," explained Backer.

Collective suicide rumors

The media is already talking about a possible collective suicide of the Pyelito Kue community, but CIMI has called in a letter for the position of the Kaiowa to be depicted properly, "The Guarani-Kaiowa are talking about a collective death, not collective suicide. What this means is should they continue to be driven from their land, they are willing to die on it."

Buzatto of the CIMI explained that "the letter of the Guarani-Kaiowa makes clear that they will never again leave the land they have fought decades for."

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