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Indigenous Peoples in Brazil: The Guarani; a case for the UN

There are about 250,000 Indians in Brazil. This number is less than 0.2 percent of the national population (140 million people). It is fundamental to consider the low demographic proportion of Indians when discussing the situation of indigenous peoples in Brazil. There are two other factors which influence this situation: the extreme poverty of most of the country's population and economic instability, both of which are the major priorities of the Brazilian government today.

To overcome what has become Brazil's most serious crisis, the government has chosen an economic strategy of promoting development projects which many times denies the rights of Indian peoples. For example, Indian lands are usually seen as reservations of natural resources which makes them a target of economic interests all over the country.

The Indian population is divided into some 200 different peoples, most of which are very small and spread throughout the country. They traditionally occupy around 520 areas (about 10 percent of the Brazilian territory) and are largely concentrated in the Amazon region.


The process of colonization in Brazil has historically pushed Indians from the east coast to the west, towards the isolated regions closer to the Brazilian borders. Those peoples who remained in the most populated areas of the country have lost large portions of their original territory and Indian peoples still face several problems to guarantee their land rights.

Since the beginning of Brazil's colonization process, the government, civilian or military, always undertook the role of setting the terms and establishing the rules for interaction with Native peoples. For almost 470 years, the only other major actor in this scenario was the Catholic Church, which played an "assistance role", providing missionaries and educational and health care services to some of the Indian communities.

It was during the 1970's that the Indian issue emerged as a concern for Brazilian society. In 1970, an assembly of Indian peoples took place in Brazil. As the first Indian initiative over which the State did not have control, it had major repercussions. After that, other Indian-initiated assemblies followed, starting a process that helped Indians learn about their rights and organize themselves towards political struggle. A pro-Indian movement comprised of non-governmental organizations and supportive individuals arose from that as well.

In 1979, the Union of Indigenous Nations (UNI) was established. UNI was the first national organization directed exclusively by Indians, having no links with the government or the Catholic Church. It was conceived as a national Indian organization, a symbolic point of reference for all Indian peoples in Brazil.

Yet, until 1988, the official indigenist policy was guided by the axiom that Indians were fated to lose their own identities, becoming ordinary members of the larger Brazilian society. Governmental policies were all aimed at the integration of Indians into the national economy and at their assimilation by the non-Indian world.

After the promulgation of the 1988 Constitution, the rights of Indians to maintain their social organization, customs, languages, beliefs and traditions were recognized. This was a result of a coalition of Indians. NGOs, lawyers, anthropologists and other supporters, who got together to fight for the inclusion of Indian rights into the text of the new Constitution. UNI and other Indian organizations played a very important role in that process.

The "Indian Chapter" of the new Constitution clearly eliminated the policy distinguishing Indians according to the degree of their cultural adaptation and disavowed the idea of forcible integration. A new concept of indigenous lands, based upon Indian usage, customs and traditions was defined, and Indians' originary rights to those lands were affirmed.

Since the 1988 Constitution, the number of indigenous organizations has increased a great amount. Today there may be as many as 100 indigenous organizations in the country. A new national organization, CAPOIB (Conselho de Articulacao dos Povos e Organizacoes Indígenas do Brasil), has been established and the Indian issue has definitely become important in the non-Indian arena.

As Indian peoples are organizing in Brazil to confront the gross violations which they have always faced, it is also true that reactions against the recognition of their rights have increased enormously. The 1988 Constitution did not resolve all the problems facing Brazil's Indians, who now must fight to have their constitutional rights enforced. Disputes between Indian peoples and certain sectors of the national society seem to multiply. The case of the Guarani of Mato Grosso do Sul illustrates Indians' daily struggle to guarantee those rights.


Considered the largest Indian society in Brazil, the Guarani are sub-divided into three groups: the Kaiowá, the Nandeva and the M'bya. They live in small areas in the southern region of Brazil, which are all that remains from the huge territory they had in the past: they once occupied the lands from the state of Espirito Santo to Rio Grande do Sul.

The Guarani people has close relatives throughout the southern cone of South America, mainly in Paraguay and Argentina. Each one of the three sub-groups has its own characteristics and their fundamental bond is their religious system. Over the years, religion has been Guarani's shield of resistance against the surrounding society.

The Guarani have their own land occupation concepts. They believe their lands are a gift from God to a particular community. This is why they are deeply tied to a specific land. Building a network of relationships based on their points of exclusive occupation, the Guarani Indians have been able to foster communication among their villages until this day.

The entire extreme southern region of the state of Mato Grosso do Sul (Brazil's southwest) was traditionally occupied by the Guarani/Kaiowá and Nandeva. These groups began to be contacted in the two last decades of the nineteenth century, when large extractivist projects for the exploitation of Paraguay tea were implemented in their lands.

For many years the Brazilian government did not protect the lands of these Indians, contributing to the occupation of the region by non-Indian squatters. This fact led to an accumulation of problems and land conflicts that have not been solved yet.

As their territory was occupied by non-Indians, the Guarani/Kaiowá and the Nandeva were gradually prevented from occupying it according to their traditional customs. Their land was an intense target of the settlement policy of the old Indian Protection Service (the governmental agency for Indian affairs that preceded the current National Indian Foundation, FUNAI). The settlement policy consisted of concentrating all the Guarani communities which lived in neighboring areas into a single reservation, so that non-Indians could use the remaining lands for agriculture and livestock.

It was only in the 1980s that FUNAI initiated the process of identifying and delimiting the traditional lands of the Guarani/Kaiowá and Nandeva in the state of Mato Grosso do Sul. However, by then, those lands were already totally divided by squatters, who did not hesitate to invade them, even after they were formally recognized by the government. Invaders also began to file lawsuits before local courts, whose rulings were invariably against the Indians.

FUNAI's land identification process did not produce any practical results for a long time. It was only during the administration of former President Collor (after 1990) that administrative measures were effectively implemented.

The Guarani/Kaiowá and Nandeva in the state of Mato Grosso do Sul are spread throughout several tiny areas, most likely the smallest Indian areas in the country. Their permanent possession and traditional occupation over these areas are duly demonstrated by anthropological studies carried out by FUNAI.

Despite the considerable advances in the official recognition process, the actual situation of these Indians is alarming. They are facing difficulties of all kinds to recover lands completely invaded and often devastated by ranchers. The invaders deny the Indians' own existence and rely on powerful local interests to prevent the Guarani from occupying their territory and enjoying their recognized rights.

Recently, the situation is even worse, because the lands that the Guarani were able to keep are now in the area affected by the waterway Parana-Paraguay project (Hidrovia). The project, which involves Brazil, Bolivia, Paraguay, Uruguay and Argentina, has fueled real estate speculation process in the region. Of course, that only aggravates the disputes over the Indians' lands.

The invasion of their lands and the action of missionaries have caused the high numbers of suicides among the Guarani people, denounced by the national and international press during the past few years. In 1993 alone, 34 cases of suicides, mainly by hanging and poisoning means, were reported among the Guarani.

The Indians are confined in small areas where they cannot live according to their usage, customs and traditions. In addition, they have long been under the influence of certain missionaries who question their mythical and cultural universe, leading them to believe that they are inferior human beings.

These facts have brought young Indians and elders, who feel humiliated and discouraged, to commit extreme acts such as suicide. This situation discloses the absurd tragedy which continues to affect the largest Indian people in Brazil.

There are at least three Guarani areas yet to be demarcated in the state of Mato Grosso do Sul. The communities who traditionally occupied those lands are camped in other Guarani areas, which are already demarcated in the region. As a result, they are in no condition to promote the activities that guarantee their livelihood. The communities must rely on the governmental agency while waiting to return to their own traditional territory after the formal recognition of their rights.

The other existing 22 Guarani areas in the state of Mato Grosso do Sul are already recognized by the serious problems. Those that are not invaded by non-Indians face problems of overpopulation (they have become the refuge of the displaced communities). These areas also register a high level of alcoholism.

However, the worst problem certainly occurs in 10 areas, which are completely or partially invaded by ranchers. In these cases, almost all the Indians have been forced out of their territories. There is one case where the community is divided in two: one part is occupying a small portion of the land while the others are camped at another community's territory, prohibited to return to their own.

In these cases, the Indians have invariably been expelled from their lands and are being prevented from reentering them either by the ranchers themselves or by arbitrary judicial orders. The situation of the Jaguapiré Community is a tragic example of the Guarani's suffering.


The Indian Area of Jaguapiré has 2,089 hectares and is located at the municipality of Tacuru, in the surroundings of the Mato Grosso wetlands (Pantanal), on the border of Brazil and Paraguay. This area was declared a permanent possession of the Guarani-Kaiowá Indians by an act of the Minister of Justice in 1992. It was demarcated and ratified by Presidential Decree afterwards.

In spite of that, the Indian Community of Jaguapiré, some 250 Guarani-Kaiowá Indians, occupies only a very small portion of this areas, near its northeast limit. The rest of the land has been invaded by two ranchers, who, over the years, have deforested the region, changing it into pasture suitable for cattle raising activities.

The ranchers have intimidated and used violent means to remove the Indians from their lands more than once. They have managed to obtain favorable rulings by local judicial order prohibiting the Jaguapiré Indian Community from occupying the portion of the recognized Indian area which they claims as private property. This case is now pending in the Court of Appeals.

For the Indians, the only alternative was to stay in a small part of what would be the second property, claimed by rancher José Fuentes Romero. In 1990, however, he had obtained a judicial order in favor of his remaining in the area, from the Federal Justice in the regional capital. The Indian community, FUNAI and the Federal Prosecutors Office appealed the decision, and the appeal is pending in Sao Paulo since March of 1991.

In 1992, when the Jaguapiré Indian Area was recognized by the administrative act of the Minister of Justice, the same rancher filed a new lawsuit before the Federal Court in Campo Grande, aiming at expelling the Indian community from the small piece of land where they lived. The judge in charge of the case accepted the rancher's request last November, determining that FUNAI was to immediately remove the Indians from that place.

Having learned of this situation, the Guarani Indians of Jaguapiré sent a letter to FUNAI's regional administrator, affirming that this time they would not leave the land this time. In that document, the Indians explained that they were tired of forced removals, threats and continuous suffering, and that the community would rather die than give up on their land rights.

Fortunately, an injunction, granted by the Federal Court of Appeals in Sao Paulo, temporarily suspended the eviction order. However, there is no positive sign that the Court will confirm the injunction when deciding on the appeals. The Jaguapiré Indians continue to fear for their destiny.


The situation of the Guarani is only one example. Many Indians still wait for a governmental recognition of their lands. The 1988 Constitution had established a time limit for the demarcation of every Indian land in Brazil, which expired last October. In spite of that, the so-called process off indigenous land demarcation has not advanced much.

There are more or less 100 areas to be identified in the country. Another 160 identified areas are in the process of being identified. Such a process is long and follows different steps, including political recognition by the Minister of Justice and the expensive task of physical demarcation of the lands.

In addition, the recognition process is always subject to all sorts of pressure. The truth is that even the Indians whose territories are already recognized face serious problems in having their rights respected. There are some 250 areas ratified by the President and registered as indigenous lands. Unfortunately, most of them are invaded by ranchers, miners or loggers. The government does not seem to have the means to control their illegal activities.

Brazil is currently going through a process of revising its constitution. Of the more than 17,000 amendment proposals presented to Congress, about 300 refer to Indian rights - and almost all are against these rights.

The amendment proposals regarding Indians mainly intend to: 1) prevent indigenous land demarcation on international borders; 2) review every indigenous land demarcation implemented up to this day; 3) transfer the responsibility over the procedures for indigenous lands recognition to the National Congress; 4) transfer from the federal government to the government of the states the authority and responsibilities regarding indigenous lands and other Indian rights; and 5) remove from the constitutional text the request that the exploitation of mineral resources on Indian territories follow the conditions established by a specific law.

The amendment proposals are a major threat. For example, approximately 40% of the Indian population in the country is entirely, or at least partially, located in Brazil's border strip (150 kilometers wide, according to legal definition). Prohibiting land demarcation in this region means that some 100,000 Indians would lose the right to occupy their traditional territories.

In this case time has become a strong ally to the Indians. The Constitution revision has barely begun. In spite of that, the process is to end on May 31st. There is a significant chance that many amendment proposals will not be even considered.

Hopefully the Indian Chapter of the Constitution will rest untouched and the law of Brazil will uphold Indian rights and provide effective remedies to its violations. Through strong legal control, it should be possible to guarantee the survival of Indian peoples in the country. It is true, however, that until more reasonable patterns of development are broadly supported and adopted by our government, the threat to those rights will continue to exist.

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