The statement of collective death made by a group of Guarani Kaiowá proves the incompetence of the Brazilian State to enforce the 1988 Constitution and demonstrates that we are all accomplices of genocide – some of us by our actions and others by our neglect.
We request the Government and Federal Court, instead of issuing an order for our displacement/expulsion, rather to order our collective death and bury us all here. We ask them, once and for all, to order our total extinction/decimation and to send some tractors to dig a large hole in which to throw and bury our bodies. This is our request to the federal judges.
This is an extract from a letter written by a group of 170 indigenous people living on the bank of a river in the Iguatemi district in Mato Grosso do Sul, surrounded by gunmen. These words were dictated to the council (the Guarani Kaiowá Assembly) on 8 October, after they received the news that the Federal Court had decreed their expulsion from their land. They are 50 men, 50 women and 70 children. They decided to stay. And die as an act of resistance – to die with all that they are, on the land that belongs to them.
There are letters, such as that of Pero Vaz de Caminha, dated 1 May 1500, which document the foundation of Brazil: they founded a nation, which they had never before imagined, through the colonizers’ foreign vision of the land and people who lived there. And there are letters, such as that of the Guarani Kaiowá, written more than 500 years later, which document of its failure. Not only in the sense of the inability of the nation state constituted over the last few centuries, to obey the law established by the current Constitution, but also in the most elementary principles that forge our ideal of humanity in the creation of what is commonly known as the “Brazilian people”. Since the letter of the Guarani Kaiowá, we have become accomplices of genocide. We have always been so, but becoming it means we realise that we are.
The Guarani Kaiowá have informed us by letter that, after so many decades of fighting to live, they have discovered that all that is left for them is to die. They inform everyone that they will die as they lived: collectively, in the plural.
In the most poignant passages s of their death letter, the indigenous people affirm:
We wish to make it clear to the Government and Federal Court that finally, we have lost the hope of surviving in a dignified way and without violence in our ancient land. We no longer believe in Brazilian Justice. To whom shall we complain about the violence used against us? To what Brazilian justice if it is the Federal justice itself which is generating and feeding the violence against us. We have already evaluated our current situation and we conclude that we will all die anyway, shortly. We do not have nor will we have, a fair and dignified life here by the riverbank or far away from here. We are encamped here, 50 metres from the Hovy River where there have already been four deaths, two by suicide and two as a result of beatings and torture by the landowner’s gunmen. We have lived on the banks of the Hovy River for more than a year. We have had no help; we are isolated and fenced in by gunmen whom we have held off until now. We eat food once a day. We have lived like this every day in order to regain our former land Pyleito Kue/Mbarakay. In fact, we know that in the middle of our former land our grandmothers and grandfathers are buried, our great-grandmothers and great-grandfathers: this is the burial ground of all our ancestors. Knowing this historical fact, we want to die and be buried alongside our ancestors here, in the very place we are today. (…) We have no other option; this is our unanimous final decision in the face of the ruling of the Federal Court of Navirai-MS.
How can we reach the despair of deciding on a mass death? We cannot. We cannot know what this means. But we can know who has died, is dying and will die because of our action – or inaction. And in this way we can at least bring together our worlds that until today have had violence as their principal meeting point.
From the beginning of the 20th Century, and more persistently since the New State (1937-45) of Getúlio Vargas, white people have occupied the land of the Guarani Kaiowá. The indigenous people, who had always lived there, began to be confined by the Federal Government in reserves, to free up their land for the colonizers who arrived, in what is known as “The Great March Westward.” The view then was the same as it is now: “unoccupied land” or “there is nobody there, just Indians.”
And these were people, even if at that time the practice was to pen them like cattle, into an area of land, to small for them to live their traditional life, or in their words, Teko Porã (“the Good Life”). When the colonizers arrived, the indigenous people had three possible choices: to live in the reserves or to work on the ranches as semi-enslaved labour or go deep into the jungle. Those who rebelled were massacred. For the Guarani Kaiowás, the land that belongs to them is the land where their ancestors were buried. To them land is not a commodity, land just is.
During the military dictatorship, in the 60s and 70s, the colonization of Mato Grosso do Sul intensified. A large number of Southerners, mainly from Rio Grande do Sul, migrated to the territory to occupy indigenous lands. Others sent workers or gunmen and managed the killing at a distance, comfortable in their cities of origin, where they lived, and still live today – as “good citizens”, pretending that they don’t have blood on their hands.
Also read: An indigenous tragedy
With the redemocratization of the country, the 1988 Constitution represented a change of perspective and a hope for justice. Indigenous lands were to be demarcated by the State within a period of five years. As we know, this never happened. The process of identifying, declaring, demarcating and ratifying indigenous land has been slow, vulnerable to pressure from large landowners and the reactionary sector of agribusiness. And, even in those lands which had been ratified, in many of them the federal government did not complete the removal of those who were occupying the land, such as squatter farmers and ranchers – thereby deepening the conflicts.
During the last decades we have witnessed the genocide of the Guarani Kaiowás. On the whole, the situation of Brazilian indigenous people is shameful. The 43 thousand Guarani Kaiowás, the second largest group in the country, are considered to be in the worst situation of all. Confined to reserves such as Dourados, where around 14,000 people, divided into 43 family groups, occupy 3,500 hectares, they find themselves facing complete ruin. Without the means to live according to their culture, completely trapped, immersed in a degraded environment, corroded by alcoholism in the adults and malnutrition in the children, the homicide rates in the reserve are higher than those in war zones.
The situation in Dourados is so shocking that the deputy chief prosecutor of the Republic, Deborah Duprat, declared: “The Dourados reserve is perhaps the greatest known tragedy for indigenous people in the whole world.” According to a report by the Indigenist Missionary Council (CIMI), who analyzed the figures from 2003 to 2010, the rate of murders in the Dourados Reserve is 145 for every 100 thousand inhabitants – in Iraq, the rate of murders is 93 for every 100 thousand. Compared with the average in Brazil, the rate of homicides in Dourados Reserve is 495% higher.
Every six days, a young Guarani Kaiowá commits suicide. Since 1980, around 1,500 have taken their own lives. The majority of them hanged themselves from a tree. Among the various reasons cited by researchers is the fact that, during this period of their lives, young people must form a family and their future prospects are to either work in the cane fields or become beggars. Therefore, the future is no longer a future. It is something that maybe for many of them, would be worse than death.
A report from the Ministry of Health revealed that this year, what they called “alarming figures, exceptional both on the national as well as international scene.” Since 2000, there have been 555 suicides, 98% of these by hanging, 70% committed by men, the majority between the ages of 15 and 19. In Brazil, the suicide rate in 2007 was 4.7 per 100,000 inhabitants. Among indigenous people, in the same year, it was 65.68 per 100,000, according to official data. Researchers believe that these numbers must be even higher, given that family members, for cultural issues, hide some of the suicides.
The Guarani Kaiowá leaders did not remain passive faced with this futureless present. They started to organize to denounce the genocide of their people and to demand compliance with the Constitution. So far, more than 20 of them have been killed for harming the private interests of the region’s landowners, starting with Marçal de Souza, whose murder in 1983 gained international publicity. At this time, groups of Guarani Kaiowás abandoned the confinement of their reserves and went to search for their tekohá, ancestral lands, and took up once more the fight to regain their land and right to life. Some groups occupied farmland, others set up 30 camps on the side of the road, living without a shred of dignity. Both in the reserves, as well as out of them, infant malnutrition is overwhelming.
The journey of the Guarani Kaiowás who announced their mass death clearly shows the fate to which the Brazilian state has condemned them. Men, women and children have undertaken a journey in search of their traditional land, located on the edge of the Hovy river, in the Iguatemi district (MS). They camped on their land on 8 August 2011, on the edge of the farms. On 23 August they were attacked and surrounded by gunmen sent by the landowners. In one year, the gunmen have ten times destroyed the bridge made by the indigenous people to cross the 30 metre wide and 3 metre deep river. In one year, 12 indigenous people were tortured and murdered by the gunmen and another two committed suicide.
In previous attempts to regain the same piece of land, the Guarani Kaiowá have been beaten and threatened with firearms. Some of them were blindfolded and thrown by the roadside. On another occasion, women, old people and children had their legs and arms fractured. What did the Federal Court do? Issued an eviction order. In a statement, FUNAI, the government agency responsible for indigenous people, affirmed that it is “working to have this decision reversed.”
For a long time now the Guarani Kaiowá have been killed off, in every way physically and symbolically possible. “Impunity is the greatest act of aggression committed against them,” affirms Flávio Machado, coordinator of CIMI, the Catholic Church agency for indigenous people, in Mato Grosso do Sul. In the last few decades, there have been at least two intertwined methods of violence in the process of regaining traditional indigenous land: one private, private armies of gunmen deployed by landowners, and the other public, by the State, perpetrated by the Federal Courts, in which some judges, without any knowledge of the reality of life in the region, make decisions that not only connive in the violence, but exacerbate it.
“When the gunmen are not able to carry out the evictions and savage massacres of the indigenous people, the landowners contract lawyers to secure an eviction order from the Court,” says Egon Heck, indigenous activist and political scientist, in an article published in a CIMI report. “At the moment when an eviction order is issued, police officers act in a similar way to the gunmen: they use heavy weapons, burn the huts, threaten and scare the children, women and elderly people.”
In the back ground the big picture. Successive governments since the 1988 Constitution have been incompetent in its enforcement. After his two terms in office, Lula recognized that he left office with a debt outstanding towards the Guarani Kaiowá people. He bequeathed the task to his successor, Dilma Rousseff. The indigenous people wrote her a letter: “President Dilma, the issue of our lands should have been resolved decades ago. But all the governments wash their hands of the situation and leave it to worsen. Finally, the ex-President Lula promised, he made a commitment, but did not keep it. He recognized that he had a debt to our Guarani Kaiowá people and he left the solution in your hands. We cannot wait any longer. Do not leave us suffering and weeping for deaths that happen nearly every day. Do not let our children continue filling the prisons or committing suicide because they have no hope for the future (…) Give us back the basis of our life, our tekohá, our traditional lands. We are not asking for anything else, only for our rights under Brazilian and international law.”
The death statement of the Guarani Kaiowá echoed throughout social networks last week. It caused an uproar. It is not the first time indigenous people have announced their despair and genocide. In general almost no-one listens, apart from the usual suspects, and a death foretold becomes a death enacted. Maybe the difference in this letter is the fact that it echoes something that has been repeated in many different spheres of Brazilian society, in different environments, considered even a witty comment in certain intellectual spaces: the idea that Brazilian society would be better off without the Indians.
To dismiss the Indians, their culture and the undignified situation in which many of the peoples live, is a conventional joke in some media, so recurrent that it has almost become a cliché. To part of the educated elite, in spite of the effort undertaken by some anthropologists, among them Lévi-Strauss, indigenous cultures are still seen are “backward,” in the one-way inescapable evolutionary chain between the stone age and the Ipad, and not as a different choice and a possible path. By this attitude this sector of the elite dismisses, in the name of ignorance, the immense wealth contained in the language, the knowledge and world vision of the 230 indigenous ethnic groups, which still survive here.
The whole history of Brazil, since the “discovery” and colonization, has been marked by the perception of the Indian as a hindrance in the path of “progress” or “development.” A hindrance since the beginning, firstly because they had the discourteousy of being here before the Portuguese, and then because they rebelled upon being enslaved by the European invaders. Brazilian society was built upon this idea and, although society has changed in some ways, the perception of the Indian as a hindrance persists. And it persists formidably, not only in a significant part of the population, but also for sectors of the State, as much as in the current government as in past administrations.
“Hindrances” must be removed. And they have been, in various ways, as history, past and present shows us. Maybe this has been one of the possible explanations for the impact that the death letter has had on so many people. This time, it is the Indians who are telling us something that can be understood in the following way: “Is this what you want? Do you want to kill us all? So we have decided: we are going to die.” Transferring this wish back to those who harbour it has an enormous impact.
It is important to remember that the letter is word. A collective statement of death rises as a spoken word. For this we need to understand, at least in part, what the word means to the Guarani Kaiowá. In a beautiful text, titled Ñe’ẽ – the word soul, the anthropologist Graciela Chamorro, from the Federal University of Grande Dourados, gives us some clues:
“The word is the most dense unit that explains how life takes shape for the Guarani people and how they imagine the transcendent. Life experiences are experiences of the word. God is word. (…) Birth is the moment when the word takes its place or finds a place for itself in the child’s body. The word travels round the human skeleton. It is what above all keeps us standing, what makes us human. (…) In the naming ceremony, the shaman reveals the name of the child, marking the new word’s official reception into the community. (…) Life crises – pain, sadness, hostilities etc., are seen as a separation of the person from his or her deifying word. This is why the prayer leaders try to “bring back” or “reseat” the word in the person, giving them back their health. (…) When the word no longer has its place or seat, the person dies and becomes an ex-life, a non-being, a word-that-is-no-more. (…) Ñe’ẽ and ayvu can be translated both as “word” and “soul”, with the same meaning of “My word is me” or “My soul is me.” (…) Thus, the soul and word can mutually qualify each other, and we can speak of the soul-word or the word-soul, because the soul is not a part, but life as a whole.”
According to the anthropologist Spensy Pimentel, researcher for the Amerindian Studies Centre of São Paulo University, speech is the most sublime part of being human for the Guarani Kaiowás. “The word is the heart of resistance. It has an action in the world – it is a word that acts. It makes things happen, it makes the future. There is a fine line between speech and prophecy.”
If Pero Vaz de Caminha’s letter marks the birth of Brazil through the written word, it is interesting to think what the Guarani Kaiowá letter marks more than 500 years later. In the founding letter, it is the invader/colonizer/conquistador/foreigner who is surprised and looks at the Indians, at their culture and their land. In the Guarani Kaiowá letter, it is the Indians who look at us. What are those who see us telling us? (Or what do those who are talking to us see?)
The Guarani Kaiowá death statement is “a word that acts.” Before our shock reaction from the sofa migrates to another tragedy, perhaps it is worth asking one last question: what is a word for us?