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A sign by the highway that crosses the indigenous park of Dourados.
Credit: Mario Osava
Report
Guaraníes Out of Their Environment
By Mario Osava, special to Tierramérica*

With no forests or rivers, or sufficient land, the indigenous peoples of Mato Grosso do Sul try to survive on wage labor from working on sugarcane plantations and on alternative farming.

DOURADOS, Brazil, Feb 11 (Tierramérica).- Until the visitor runs across a large "house of prayer" that confirms the area's indigenous character, this place in the central-western Brazilian state of Mato Grosso do Sul looks like any rural district, with poverty evident in its precarious houses.

The temple, standing 4.5 meters high and twice as wide, has a peaked roof made of "sapé", or satintail stalks (Imperata brasiliensis), with the two sides extending to the ground, triangular walls on the other two sides, and an earthen floor.

It is some need of repair. Its bamboo structure is falling apart, but both bamboo and satintail have disappeared from Dourados and its surroundings, Jorge da Silva, who built the house of prayer seven years ago, tells Tierramérica.

Silva is one of the "rezadores", or religious leaders, who want to recover the culture and the traditions of the Guaraníes in the Dourados Indigenous Territory. The weakening of the beliefs and customs is considered one of the causes of the crisis affecting this community, with many murders, youth suicides and power conflicts, and widespread childhood malnutrition.

"With soybeans came malnutrition and the poisoning of the rivers," says Silva, who blames the expansion of soy crops through Mato Grosso do Sul in the past three decades for the greatest portion of the destruction of the environment upon which the indigenous peoples relied for their survival -- for food and satintail.

Soy and livestock are seen by many as they means for the state to achieve prosperity. They are activities that create strong pressure for deforestation, as is more than evident in the Amazon, and have also pushed the Guaraníes into a corner in Mato Gross do Sul.

The Dourados Indigenous Territory is the prime example of "confinement" noted by anthropologists. Its 1,539 hectares are insufficient to support the Guaraní community, some 12,000 people, surrounded by the city on one side and immense soybean fields on the other. There are no forests remaining in the area.

For the Guaraníes, especially for the Kaiwoá group, which is the largest in the reserve shared with the Ñandevas and Terenas, it is a prison and a big factor behind the ongoing violence. They cannot follow their tradition of moving on when conflicts with relatives or neighbors erupt.

Other indigenous reserves face similar limitations and attempts to expand them in areas that the Guaraníes consider historically theirs. This has caused clashes with landowners -- and has resulted in bloodshed and deaths. The rapid rise in the indigenous population here since the 1980s made their confinement less tenable.

Furthermore, the land is no longer collectively owned. Through internal distribution mechanisms and transfers, inequalities in the ownership of parcels have emerged. Some families have nothing, while others have many hectares, but which will be fewer and fewer per person as it is passed down to the next generations. Silva, for example, has eight children and, so far, nine grandchildren.

Scarce and degraded land has made traditional farming nonviable. Agriculture here now requires fertilizers and investment in new technologies for which the Guaraníes lack resources or technological support, says Antonio Brand, historian and expert on indigenous issues at Dom Bosco Catholic University. He has been living with and studying the native peoples of Mato Grosso do Sul for three decades.

Many Guaraní families rely on food aid distributed by the government. The only option for income, especially for young people, is to work the sugarcane harvests between May and November. With the strong expansion of that crop for the production of ethanol, this type seasonal wage labor will grow, according to Brand.

More than a thousand Indians from Dourados are estimated to work cutting sugarcane. Some are transported daily by buses from the reserve to nearby plantations, while others remain in the countryside, far from their homes, for at least 70 days at a time.

The latter are blamed for bringing negatives outside influences to the village, such as alcoholism, because they spend long periods living with strangers, away from their place of origin. But Jacir Freitas, a 30-year-old father of four, prefers to stay near the cane fields, because at the end of 70 days he makes the most of his labor rights when the contract is rescinded, accumulating a tidy sum to invest in his own crops.

"I've been cutting sugarcane since I was 11," he tells Tierramérica, noting that it is a common story for those who, like him, were not able to study beyond primary school or able to get a job in the public sector.

The Kaiwoá, a more vulnerable group, was dedicated to raising a variety of crops, but as an activity linked to religion, says Levi Pereira, an anthropologist who assisted the Indians as an agricultural technician.

Now they have also lost the "justification" for farming, as practices such as the religious festivals that marked the planting season and the legitimacy of community leaders based on their harvests have fallen by the wayside, he said.

The Guaraníes "are not propelled by consumption and the accumulation of wealth, like we are," said Pereira, but rather they need both the natural and spiritual resources for their motivation.

The "rezadores" were harshly put down in the past decade, and over the last five years many of their houses of prayer have been set on fire. The aggressive actions of Pentecostal churches in the villages further complicates the situation.

Silva is confident that now, with the renewal of prayer, of "baptisms of maize, of babies and of the earth," farming will make a recovery in the villages.

The sacred cross indicates where to plant, says his wife, Floriza Souza, pointing to the papaya growing on her patio.

Furthermore, in the village, new productive alternatives are being developed, such as fish farming. The association of 200 people that Silva coordinates is already raising fish in two pools, and is preparing to build another four, taking advantage of the marshes near the house of prayer. The first fish harvests were donated to families suffering malnutrition.

Now, in addition to providing a source of protein for its members, the project aims to become self-sustaining, with income from the sales of 20 percent of production.

The challenge, according to experts in indigenous issues, is for the Guaraníes to overcome the subsistence level of production. There are 26 fish farming pools in the Indigenous Territory, according to Anastacio Peralta, a Kaiwoá who promotes this alternative as coordinator of indigenous public policy for the village government of Dourados.

* Mario Osava is an IPS correspondent.

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