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

PHOTO: Brazilian Indians of the Guarani-Kaiowa tribe invade a private ranch

Indigenous peoples in Brazil have lost their patience. Promised more land decades ago, they have recently begun forcing the issue by occupying farms and ranches. The government of President Dilma Rousseff has taken sides with the farmers' lobby.

When the helicopter appears above the tops of the mango trees, Alberto, a headman with the Terena tribe, raises his spear into the air, shouts a war cry and calls his men together. About 200 members of the tribe congregate on a meadow. Some shoot arrows at the helicopter, while others swing clubs and cock catapults. Many are wearing headdresses and war paint. "This land belongs to us!" the chief shouts. The helicopter rattles away into the distance.

The police helicopters fly across Fazenda Buriti, a large cattle range in the Brazilian state of Mato Grosso do Sul, two or three times a day. Indigenous people armed with clubs are guarding the entrance of the ranch, which they have occupied for the last three months.

Fazenda Buriti is one of 62 farms in the state that the indigenous people have overrun, part of their revolt against the government from the Amazon region to the southern Pampas area. They are fighting for their land, protecting the borders of their reservations, resisting the construction of hydroelectric power plants in their regions and protesting against the advance of the agricultural industry, which is destroying their homeland.

The occupations are a reaction to Brazil's ruthless treatment of its indigenous peoples. Thirteen years ago, the government promised to turn over the ranch's 145 square kilometers (56 square miles) to indigenous tribes. But the farmer used legal maneuvers to delay the transfer -- until the indigenous people lost patience. With the help of Facebook, they gathered together more than 1,000 members of their tribe from the surrounding region and invaded the farm in the early morning of May 15, wielding homemade explosives, swinging wooden clubs and waving spears. Private security guards fired into the air, but they were vastly outnumbered. Together with the rancher's wife, family and members of the staff, they took refuge in the house. After tough negotiations, the owners were allowed to leave. The police moved in with live ammunition 15 days later. One of the occupiers was shot to death and another one was wounded, but the indigenous people are not giving up.

Since then, the Terena have built a village on the grounds of Fazenda Buriti. They are farming the fields, planting manioc and corn; some are driving around in the farmer's tractors. At night, they sleep in huts made of wood and plastic sheeting. "Our reservations are too small," says Chief Alberto. "If we don't get more land, my people will go hungry."

Looking for a Decent Price

When the police tried to storm the farm, the occupiers burned down the farmer's house. "We have nothing against the farmers," insists the Terena chief. "We want the government to compensate them."

The farmers and the indigenous people agree on this point. "If the government pays a decent price, I'll sell right away," says owner Ricardo Bacha, a former member of the state parliament. He is now negotiating with government officials over compensation.

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