Just days after losing their chief and spiritual leader in a deadly attack, members of the Kaiowa Guaraní tribe entrenched themselves in a makeshift camp on their ancestral territory now used for cattle ranching, vowing to uphold the last words of their lost leader.
“Take care of this land,” the 59-year-old chief Nísio Gomes reportedly said, before being shot multiple times by hooded gunmen and dragged away to a truck.
The Kaiowa, from the Mato Grosso do Sul state in south-eastern Brazil, is just one Latin American tribe that has had its land stripped away on the agricultural frontier. The challenge of protecting native groups is growing as food production escalates across the region.
In Argentina last month, security guards allegedly killed Cristian Ferreyra, 23, a leader in the Lule Vilela indigenous community in the province of Santiago del Estero. The tribe is fighting to keep ancestral land under threat from deforestation for soya farming.
Though not all murders are linked to land disputes, tension arises as farmers and ranchers seek to extend holdings for agricultural production, often contracting private security companies to intimidate indigenous communities that are defending their constitutional right to ancestral land, experts say.
Pushed off their land and frustrated with government inaction, tribes return to occupy what was once exclusively theirs, creating strife within the community and with encroaching businesses.
Scenes of Conflict
The Kaiowa had been living in spare roadside homes as they waited for Brazil’s Indigenous Affairs Agency, FUNAI, to complete a survey demarcating the land to be returned to the Guaraní by April, 2010, according to Sarah Shenker, a campaigner at Survival International, an NGO dedicated to worldwide tribal rights.
After FUNAI failed to finish the survey, several Kaiowa returned to their land in early November, where they were met with threats from ranchers now on the territory.
According to eyewitnesses, on 18th November, some 40 armed men burst into the Kaiowa camp, surrounded Gomez, and shot him in front of his community. Two adolescents and a boy were also reported missing after the raid. FUNAI and federal police are investigating the incident.
The Guaraní, with a population of roughly 46,000 in Brazil, are under constant threat in the Mato Grosso do Sul state. A traditionally nomadic tribe, they are forced to live in relative confinement, experience a high suicide rate, and are malnourished, according to Schenker.
Brazil’s minister of human rights, Maria do Rosário, called Mato Grosso do Sul “one of the worst scenes of conflict between indigenous people and ranchers in the country”, and pledged material support for the communities.
Meanwhile, provincial authorities in Argentina have taken five men into custody, including the soya businessman José Ciccioli, in connection with the death of Cristian Ferreyra. Ciccioli allegedly hired three other men to carry out the crime.
The territory in Santiago del Estero is being deforested as soya farming balloons across the province: In 1995, soya cultivation in the province was a mere 94,000 hectares. Today the number is over 1.1m, according to statistics from the Ministry of Agriculture.
“Indigenous land is rich in natural resources, for agriculture but also for mining,” says Mariela Flores, a consultant with Argentina’s Secretariat for Human Rights and a representative of the Diaguita community in Tucumán.
Just as some communities are beginning to gain political recognition and reclaim territory, new agricultural production and land prices are soaring, making conflicts more intense, she says.
But the recent attacks are not new or isolated incidents. Hundreds of ongoing clashes and the prospect of ramped up agricultural production to meet booming global food demand likely means continued pressure on indigenous groups in Latin America.
Worldwide cultivable land is expected to expand by 5% – or 70m hectares – by 2050. Production will decline in developed countries and expand greatly in developing countries, especially sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America, according to the Food and Agricultural Organization.
In addition, new technology has had an undeniable effect on the outward expansion of farmland. The conversion of Brazil’s Cerrado region – a once unproductive savannah slightly bigger than Mexico – and the use of transgenic crops and precision agronomy have allowed planting in areas not previously thought possible.
And while the new contours of the global economy put pressures on land, political powers often do little to relieve them.
The recognition of indigenous territory requires an agreement between the communal, provincial, and national authorities, says Flores, “which is complicated, because provincial governments tend to be feudal, favouring business interests and providing little representation for native communities.”
The constitutions of both Brazil and Argentina, as well as international statutes from the United Nations and the International Labour Organization, affirm the right of indigenous tribes to their native soil.
However, many tribes, such as the Qom de La Primavera, from the northern Argentine province of Formosa, continue to wait for action from the federal government. Last year, the Qom drew attention by camping at 9 de Julio and Avenida de Mayo – one of the busiest intersections in Buenos Aires – in protest at land usurpations and police repression in their province.
They eventually reached an agreement for access to health care and potable water. But threats against the tribe continue. The son and grandson of Felix Díaz, the Qom’s leader, were shot at last month while walking through their territory. No one was injured.
In Mato Grosso do Sul, sugarcane plantations are spreading to meet demand for ethanol-based fuels. The state’s governor, André Puccinelli, claimed in 2008 that “Mato Grosso do Sul will be the biggest producer of ethanol in seven years’ time”.
In 2008, there were 50 new ethanol projects seeking funding in the state, which would occupy roughly 800,000 hectares in coming years, according a report by Survival International.
Many Guaraní end up doing the gruelling work of sugarcane cutters, with a work-life expectancy of just 15 years, according to the report.
“The completion of the survey and land recognition is paramount,” says Egon Heck in a telephone interview from Mato Grosso do Sul. Heck is a coordinator for the Indigenous Pastoral Council (CIMI) in Brazil, a group tied to the Catholic Church in defence of indigenous rights.
The government has been postponing the survey “for decades”, and has received strong opposition from agribusiness groups, he claims, leading to the desperate situation that tribes like the Kaiowa find themselves in.
Similarly, Argentina’s land survey, signed into law in 2006 and to be completed by 2010, was postponed until 2013.
“The killing of Nisio Gomes had surprising repercussions,” says Heck, noting that international media is starting to pay attention. “So hopefully we can raise awareness of the circumstances facing indigenous tribes, and those responsible for violence won’t be met with impunity.”