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This article supplements the post in Jan Rocha’s blog for LAB, written just as Ladio Veron was setting out on his European tour.
“Vamos lá”, sighs Cacique Ladio Veron, [Let’s do it]. He looks weary, understandably: he has been on the road for over a month already, during which time he has visited Spain, Greece and Italy, meeting students, academics, journalists and activists. Now he is in London.
The aim is to denounce the human rights violations being inflicted on the indigenous people of Brazil by private landowners and the Brazilian state, of which there are few clearer examples than that of his own people, the Guarani-Kaiowá of Mato Grosso do Sul. What’s the situation on the ground there now, I ask. “We’re fighting for survival,” he responds, determination audible in his voice through the tiredness.
With some 51,000 people across seven states, the Guarani are Brazil’s most numerous indigenous tribe, within which the Kaiowá are the largest group. Yet even with such power in numbers, over the course of the last century they have lost almost all their land, in a remote region of southwest Brazil, close to the Paraguayan border.
Many now live on overcrowded reservations, while others live in abject poverty in makeshift camps set up by the side of motorways, with no shelter from the elements but black plastic sheeting. The European Parliament passed a resolution on the Guarani-Kaiowá in 2016, condemning the violence against them. It called on the Brazilian government to protect their rights and complete demarcation of their territory, and it noted that 42% of the people in these communities suffer from chronic malnutrition.
Law in theory – injustice in practice
In theory, the law is on their side. The Brazilian Constitution of 1988 asserts “the original rights of indigenous people” to the “lands they have traditionally occupied” and states that it is “the duty of the federal government to demarcate these lands, protect them and ensure that all their properties and assets are respected.” As Veron says, “the Constitution of Brazil makes it very clear that we have the right to land, we have the right to these areas because they’re ours, they belong to the Guarani-Kaiowá people.”
Unfortunately, things have turned out very differently in practice. Despite having their rights enshrined in the Constitution, matters have become significantly worse for the Guarani-Kaiowá since the 1980s. The global commodities boom post-2000 has fueled the expansion of Brazil’s powerful agribusiness sector further onto their traditional lands, resulting in high rates of both homicide and suicide, as well as poverty and exploitation.
Since 2003, the Guarani-Kaiowá have been waiting for 15 territories to be returned to them. These lands have been demarcated and officially approved; legally, there is nothing to stop them being handed back to their original owners. But this hasn’t happened. “It’s becoming increasingly unlikely we’ll return to these areas,” says Veron. “Agribusiness has planted soya, sugarcane, corn, there’s cattle…all of this makes it difficult for us to recover the land.” His frustration is obvious. “And the delay in returning the land leads to the precarious conditions of these indigenous communities, who today live at the side of the road, at the side of the motorways, and often the leaders of these communities are prosecuted by the highway police…they don’t want indigenous people at the side of the road.”
In 2015 the EU imported 5.8 million tons of soybeans and 8.4 million tons of soybean meal from Brazil, much of which is used in animal feed. “We don’t know at what point this is going to affect the global population,” Veron says. “These are GM products, with lots of chemicals and pesticides; they are very dangerous.”
It is this demand for Brazilian soy, on the part of major global powers like the EU and China, which has driven the expansion of Brazilian intensive farming onto lands which once belonged to Brazil’s indigenous people, with all the violence and abuse which that entails. “Every country in Europe has to become aware,” says Veron. “It’s a silent genocide being perpetuated on the Guarani-Kaiowá people by the agribusiness sector.”
Retaking the land
Frustrated by the failure of the courts to return their lands, the Guarani-Kaiowá have been increasingly taking matters into their own hands, occupying properties on lands due to be demarcated and returned to them in actions known as retomadas (literally, “retakings”). All too often, this ends in bloodshed. Around 400 indigenous Brazilians have died in Mato Grosso do Sul in territorial conflicts since 2003, and the violence has escalated significantly since 2015. Veron points to the existence of paramilitary groups in Mato Grosso do Sul formed and funded by Famasul, a federation representing farmers in the state. “They have the power today,” he says. “They can form militias, train soldiers. Today they control five groups.”
Isael Reginaldo, an indigenous man, was shot during an attack by land-owners on the tekoha Ita Poty, on the boundary between the municipalities of Dourados e Itaporã (MS), on Saturday March 12 2016. The Guarani today call the places they inhabit tekoha. Tekoha is thus the physical place – land, forest, field, waters, animals, plants, remedies, etc. – where the teko, or “way of being”, the Guarani state of life, is realized. This is the second act of violence against indigenous camps since the visit of the UN Rapporteur to Mato Grosso do Sul. On Tuesday March 10, moments after the departure of the Rapporteur, Victoria Tauli-Corpuz from Kurusu Ambá in Coronel Sapucaia, shots were fired at the village by gunmen from the farms which have taken over indigenous lands. Video:CIMI and Movimento Indígena.
In 2015, a Guarani-Kaiowá retomada in the municipality of Coronel Sapucaia was violently dispersed in an attack by a paramilitary group acting on the orders of Famasul, according to the Conselho Indigenista Missionário (CIMI), a pro-indigenous Catholic organisation linked to the National Conference of Brazilian Bishops. In most acts of violence against indigenous communities in Mato Grosso do Sul, the security forces are notable by their absence.
Few crimes are investigated by the police and a culture of impunity reigns. In the case of the Coronel Sapucaia retomada, the armed men were even accompanied by state border police. With the state willing to at least turn a blind eye, if not actively support the violence, the landowners have been becoming increasingly belligerent. They have even used chemicals in their attacks on the Guarani-Kaiowá: according to CIMI, between December 2015 and January 2016, there were at least five chemical attacks on indigenous communities using light aircraft and tractors, with toxic chemicals being sprayed on their sources of food and water and directly onto their dwellings.
Advance notice was given of some of these attacks, but despite the Guarani-Kaiowá appealing to the police for help, none was forthcoming. Without the protection of the state, the Guarani-Kaiowá communities have few means of resistance. This collusion between the landowners, their paramilitaries and the state security apparatus is something Veron recognises. “They [the landowners] say ‘we pay the police’s salaries,’” he says. “They have armed forces for any social movement, indigenous or landless group. How can we attack armed paramilitaries? We don’t have weapons. That’s why we’re here, to denounce it.”
FUNAI is finished
Veron is also pessimistic about FUNAI, Brazil’s National Foundation of the Indian, which has been hit hard recently by government cuts and restructuring. In March this year the Temer administration published a decree reducing the number of Funai employees by 87, with the most affected areas being precisely those responsible for demarcations and environmental licensing of indigenous lands. “FUNAI is finished,” says Veron, shaking his head. “FUNAI is just a name.” Veron was also scathing about Antônio Costa, a dentist, evangelical pastor and head of FUNAI at the time of our interview. In an interview with BBC Brasil, Costa had spoken of the need for Brazil’s indigenous peoples to “integrate into the productive system”. “I don’t see how the Indians of Mato Grosso do Sul, or Mato Grosso, where the land is fertile, can remain stuck in time” he said, comments which unsurprisingly did little to ingratiate him with the Guarani-Kaiowá. Veron declines to engage directly with Costa’s comments to the BBC, though he is clearly critical. “He said FUNAI had delivered six demarcated areas. They didn’t (…) He just keeps lying,” he says dismissively. “He’s just Temer’s right-hand man.”
FUNAI has since been plunged into further disarray, with Costa being dismissed from his post on May 5 after less than four months in the job. He appears to have displeased his political allies, most notably André Moura, the head of the government in Congress, and Osmar Serraglio, the minister of justice, to whom FUNAI reports. Costa attempted to block appointments Moura made to FUNAI on the grounds that they were political and accused Serraglio of bias towards the agribusiness sector; he also complained about the 44% cut to FUNAI’s budget. FUNAI now has a new caretaker president, Franklimberg Ribeiro de Freitas, an army general of indigenous heritage, but the agency continues to face an uncertain future.
They laughed at the EU
I ask about the EU resolution of 2016. Did this have any repercussion in Brazil? “The landowners laughed at the MEPs,” Veron says. “Because as they said, ‘here in Mato Grosso do Sul, we’re the ones in charge. Not any foreigner.’” Given this attitude, and the historically entrenched wealth and power of the landowners in Mato Grosso do Sul, another such tour of Europe might seem pointless. Veron’s father Marcos made a similar trip in 2000; yet he was beaten to death by gunmen hired by ranchers in January 2003, a crime for which nobody has ever been prosecuted.
Nevertheless, Veron remains hopeful. “We’re going to take those families camped at the side of the road, with only black plastic to protect them from storms, the heat of the sun, high temperatures, without any drinking water, firewood or housing, and we’re going to return them to their lands. That’s why we’re forming this network today, linked to the Guarani-Kaiowá, which can observe everything that’s happening today in Mato Grosso do Sul. That’s the reason for my trip here in Europe, and we’ll carry on fighting to the end.”