Article published on the blog of Joseph Korbel School Latin American Center, Denver University, on 02 October 2018, at https://lacperspectivas.wordpress.com/2018/10/02/brazils-geography-of-genocide-the-fate-of-the-kaiowas
Brazil’s Geography of Genocide: The Fate of the Kaiowás
Antonio A R Ioris
What to do and say when the world is collapsing into social, cultural and ecological catastrophe? How to react to problems that seemed to belong to the history books, but that constantly re-emerge in even more threatening and devastating ways? How to prevent further grabbing and commodification of ancestral lands and shared resources? These are not rhetorical questions, but reverberations of a daily struggle.
Some readers may have heard about the Guarani first nation of South America, including, for example, narratives about the imposing architecture and a complex society managed by Jesuit priests in the centre of the continent in the 18th century. Some may also be informed about the ongoing violence against the Kaiowá, one of the Guarani peoples, in the Brazilian state of Southern Mato Grosso (considered the Gaza Strip of Brazil).
But few will be fully aware of the scale of land rights violations, systematic killing of adults and children, ferocious discrimination against people living in precarious settlements along the roads or in the periphery of the cities, widespread suicides of youngsters and teenagers, serious food insecurity, and the hideous association between large-scale landowners, politicians and law officers. If you think that you know about the Kaiowá/Guarani, you may need to think again. It is worse, much worse…
There is no other way to describe the situation of the Kaiowá under the advance of soybean and sugarcane production (among other crops) than genocide.
The application of violence and the containment in unwanted areas have only reinforced this bitter and generalised sense of genocide. It has been a regular experience of social, ecological, cultural and physical death for most members of the Kaiowá first nation. Out of the total of murders (1,004) registered by CIMI in Brazil (between 1985 and 2015), 415 happened in Southern Mato Grosso and involved the Kaiowá.
The Indians have reacted according to their means (it must be noted that they operate as a network, but with no central coordination, as in the case of the Brazilian landless movement MST) and formed some limited, but important alliances with national and international organisations, universities and churches. As argued by an elderly in our visit in August 2018, “To be a Kaiowá is our first weapon to get our lands back, but I know that it is a long and complex process. We have been living for 100 years [in the reserve], but we still have a memory of our past.”
However, progress is slow and patchy. The agencies of the national state are often driven to provide some kind of satisfaction only after a large-scale tragedy is reported by the international media. Their desperate attempt to regain control of the land of their family inevitably results in new rounds of violence, expulsion and murder.
Since 2003, 15 territories are to be returned to the Kaiowá, which have been demarcated and officially approved by government agencies, but the process is repeatedly frustrated because of endless court appeals by the farmers. One appalling consequence is that large groups of Kaiowá continue to live at the side of motorways and with no other choice than the legitimate occupation of their land, lost to the agribusiness.
Overall, the powerful trend of land privatisation and nature commodification, aggravated in recent years by global market pressures, has caused the expropriation of most of their remaining areas, ignoring not only their ancestors’ legitimate rights over the land, but the vital association between Kaiowá’s identity, culture, religion, livelihood and the land where they were born and their relatives were buried.
Agribusiness is bad enough in the rest of Brazil, but in areas of agricultural frontier, as in the case of Southern Mato Grosso, it gives rise to even higher levels of speculation, dispossession of common land and wide-ranging brutality. Frontier-making creates favourable conditions for the arrival of unscrupulous individuals in search of rapid enrichment and prepared to accept spurious economic and political practices. The recipe for serious conflict is there: on the one hand, adventurers and mercenaries reinvented as ‘agri-food producers’ (the euphemism of agribusiness farmers) and, on the other, native peoples who have been living in the region for many generations and have a different relation with land and society.
According to their religious beliefs, violent deaths without a body to bury is dangerous, because any person has two souls and the bad one (angue) will remain like a spectre, threatening those alive. They also have an elaborated apocalyptic narrative about the end of the world, what some Kaiowá now associate with the sea of sugarcane and soybean they see before them… but what will the rest of society do to avoid the end of our shared world?