Bow, Arrow, Facebook: Brazilian Tribes Fight for Their Land

Rancher Bacha is sitting in the office of the powerful farmers' association in the state capital Campo Grande, an imposing glass-and-steel structure, surrounded by organization officials. He is wearing a plaid shirt and jeans, and his face is tanned. He inherited the farm from his grandfather, who was given the land by the government in 1927.

The land used to belong to Paraguay, until Brazil annexed it in 1870, after a war. At the time, the government drew the new border straight through ethnic communities, and it had the indigenous people rounded up like cattle and locked away on reservations. Then it divided up the land among white settlers.

Once the military dictatorship ended in the mid-1980s, Brazil received a new, democratic constitution. It awarded the indigenous peoples the rights to the regions from which they had been expelled decades earlier. But the land, once covered by jungles, now consists of soybean and sugarcane plantations as well as grazing land for cattle.

The factory farms have expanded their cropland in Mato Grosso do Sul by more than 30 percent in the last four years; the state has some of the most fertile soil in the country. "We won't give up the estates voluntarily," says Bacha who, like most of the farmers, carries a weapon. "I'm not going to face off against 300 wild Indians without a gun." He has also hired a private security service notorious for its brutality.

Capitulating to the Farm Lobby

That some farmers will stop at nothing is well known. Some 564 members of indigenous tribes were murdered in Brazil in the last decade, including 319 in Mato Grosso do Sul alone. In February, three farm guards shot and killed a 15-year-old boy, merely because he wanted to fish on the estate.

The government, meanwhile, has capitulated to the farm lobby. When President Dilma Rousseff visited Mato Grosso do Sul in April, the farmers booed her. Soon afterwards, she completed a radical shift on indigenous policy by freezing the planned reservation expansions. She also plans to amend the approval process.

The National Indian Foundation, FUNAI -- a group run by anthropologists -- is currently in charge of drawing the new borders. But Rousseff now wants to consult with other organizations, including EMBRAPA, an agricultural research institute affiliated with white farmers.

"Rousseff has deprived FUNAI of its power," says former priest Egon Heck, a Brazilian of German descent, of the church aid organization CIMI. The products produced by large landowners contribute substantially to Brazil's export revenues, and ranchers can always find a sympathetic ear with the president. In contrast, she has never met with lawmakers who represent the indigenous peoples. "They have no lobby," says Heck.

There are 305 tribes in Brazil, and they speak 274 different languages. But not all tribes are as combative as the Terena. The Guaraní, for example, the largest indigenous population group in Mato Grosso do Sul, tend to direct their despair against themselves with their headmen reporting a dramatic rise in suicides recently. Some 56 Guaraní committed suicide last year alone. Most were youths.

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