Land disputes are taking a violent toll on Latin countries. Still mourning the deaths of Berta Caceres and Lesbia Yaneth Urquia, Honduras claims it has lost two of its most prominent activists, and is demanding justice for what is now considered common throughout Central America.
In Brazil, a centuries-old fight between indigenous land owners and farmers is growing deadlier by the minute. Last May saw the final hours of Dilma Rousseff’s presidency, which vowed to expand territory for the Guarani-Kaiowa people. Living in relative squalor since 2009, the tribe has lost nearly 95 percent of its land due to increased farming efforts on ancestral acreage. Crop-growers have vowed to fight the ruling, and violence has regularly ensued.
“A slow genocide is taking place,” says anthropologist and community leader Tonico Benites. “There is a war being waged against us. We are scared. They kill our leaders, hide their bodies, intimidate and threaten us. Me too, many times.”
According to Tonico, several tribal members are taking their own lives, despairing and hopeless that things will change. He estimates approximately 1,000 suicides have occurred over the last ten years as lands are lost to biofuels, soy and sugar cane plantations.
“So many young Guarani people commit suicide,” he explains. “It’s around one a week. The time comes when you have had enough… Your family suffers with hunger and malnutrition, the despair increases, there is no security, no hope, you are not sure of life improving. It is very sad… How can you plan your life? How can you be free? The loss of land makes us vulnerable. We become beggars.”
Tonico blames the government, which he says has failed to aid in his people’s survival. Following a right to employment order in 1999, several indigenous groups were forced to work on the very plantations that had assumed dominance, performing back-breaking labor due to lagging mechanization. Despite a 1988 decision to set aside further grounds for indigenous tribes, the state has been slow to take action.
And yet regardless of the death and violence, many say that indigenous groups have no claim to the rights they’re asserting. Congresswoman Tereza Cristina, for example, criticizes the ‘88 decision, saying it gives the Guarani people a sense of entitlement, an alleged right to invade “legally held private property” when government officials fail to produce acceptable results.
“There are some big producers in the region,” she says. “But many are small and medium-sized landowners who have had the title to their land for 60, 70, sometimes 100 years.”
She also mentions that indigenous tribes in Brazil have received support along the way, such as in April, when the National Foundation for the Indian enforced full demarcation of the Tapajos River in the Amazon. Once under threat from hydroelectric damming, the 700-square-mile region was deemed worthy of protection, and subsequently taken out of harm’s way.
Attorney Mauricio Rasslan also says that while indigenous people have earned sympathy from outside parties, their violence is equal to that of the farmers they oppose.
“There’s this view abroad of the poor Indians as unarmed, alienated people who don’t know what they are doing,” he says. “That’s not true.
Rasslan tells the story of 32-year-old Rene Escobar, who arrived home under police escort after learning his farm had been occupied. Escobar found his house destroyed, his furniture stolen, and his animals killed, and Rasslan says that if indigenous people want more land, they should legally purchase it.
“Anywhere in the world where the land does not rule, [it] becomes a mess,” he states.
But several say the tribes are desperate, their behavior likely stemming from decades of unfair treatment. Despite the ongoing struggle, indigenous groups say they will continue to fight, regardless of the consequences they face.
“We don’t want anything from this land other than to live on it and take care of it,” claims 74-year-old tribal chief Ari Karai. “There is no joy for us in any of this, but we’re going to resist, whatever happens. What choice do we have? We have to guarantee the future survival of our people and our culture.”