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Ecumenical Caravan demonstrates its solidarity with the Guarani and Kaiowá peoples of Mato Grosso do Sul

 

Tekoha Jopara painted on the side of a hut in Coronel Sapucaia (Mato Grosso do Sul)

For the state and federal governments, and for ranchers, bandits and gunmen, the deaths, in recent months, of Alex Lopes, Vitor Fernandes and Márcio Moreira, in two indigenous communities in Mato Grosso do Sul, are not enough. In a visit to the southern region of the state, the Ecumenical Caravan in solidarity with the Guarani and Kaiowá peoples, heard countless reports from indigenous leaders, victims of the recent episodes of violence these groups have suffered. Testimonies range from torture to the denial of basic rights.

Given these killings, and the episode known as the “Massacre of the Guapo’y”, the Ecumenical Caravan, composed of religious leaders from every corner of the country, travelled to the state to demonstrate its solidarity with these original peoples. To listen to and ensure their reports resound in national and international institutions, which may take action in the face of the serious rights violations to which these communities are subject.

Tekoha is a Guarani concept, describing an ancestral territory made up of a group of extended families. The denunciations of the Kaiowá and Guarani from the Jopara tekoha (in Coronel Sapucaia), the Guapo’y tekoha (in Amambai), and the Avae’te tekoha (in Dourados) are shocking: as well as lives cut short, young people and children have been shot during attacks. Children are prevented from going to school, because they are living in the repossessed area. Teachers are threatened if they want to visit them. Health services are deliberately denied. Women, old women and children are threatened with rape.

 

Rights violations in repossessed areas

Eighteen-year-old Alex Lopes was killed in May 2022 (link in Portuguese), when he went to collect firewood near a ranch located in tradition Taquaperi territory.  According to community leaders, he was shot down and then coldly executed – all the bullet holes were in his chest.  His body was dumped across the border with Paraguay, 10 km away, and his grave remains open, awaiting his body. A series of unforeseen events meant he was buried in another city.

Alex’s open grave. Behind is the maize monoculture on the repossessed ranch, in a traditional Guarani and Kaiowá area.In protest at Alex’s killing, the Guarani and Kaiowá repossessed the ranch in the municipality of Coronel Sapucaia, where the Jopara tekoha stands now. The situation is one of the extreme denial of rights.  Leaders confirm hearing that children in the repossessed area will be failed at school. If they want to go to Jopara, indigenous teachers from other village communities are threatened at work.

According to reports, health agents explicitly say “we are not going to attend the community on the repossessed land”. There are children and sick people in the community, but medications are not made available for leaders to take them to the tekoha.

“We suffer a lot from this lack of service, of education… The Special Secretariat for Indigenous Health (Secretaria Especial de Saúde Indígena: SESAI) frequently doesn’t fulfil its professional role of attending us in our region on the border, they leave it, they don’t serve us. But SESAI is there to attend to the indigenous community. We are no different. We are Kaiowá and Guarani,” declared one of the leaders.

The Guapo’y Tujury Mirim tekoha in Amambai was the scene of the most recent and most violent cases, where Vitor Fernandes and Márcio Moreira (links in Portuguese) were murdered – the latter the victim of an ambush. The attack was led by the state of Mato Grosso do Sul, with scenes of execution and guns fired from helicopters; the scars of which remain in the community today. One 13-year-old had his belly ripped open, it is a miracle that he survived.  The injured are afraid of going to hospital, because of fear of arrest.  With those who are taken, there have been cases where police officers constantly patrol their beds.

The situation was so violent that the state secretary of security rushed to speak to the press in an attempt to create a narrative to lessen the extent of the violence. He accused Guarani and Kaiowá children, adolescents and old people of being drug traffickers and damaging ranch equipment during the repossession.  An investigation by the Federal Public Prosecutor’s Office (Ministério Público Federal: MPF) was unable to identify any such damage.

The children he accused of trafficking are the same that received the Ecumenical Caravan, singing in a circle, just as they did when they repossessed the territory that traditionally belongs to them. The young people are university students at the Indigenous Intercultural Faculty (Faculdade Intercultural Indígena: FAIND). The old people are ancestors who carry Kaiowá and Guarani knowledge and spirituality onwards and pass it down through the generations.

The situation in the Aratikuty tekoha, in Dourados is one of incessant torture and persecution. In 2019, the community appeared on the Globo Network’s national television programme Fantástico (link in Portuguese), when a tractor was turned into an armoured tank and used to attack the Kaiowá and Guarani peoples on the repossessed land, to destroy their crops and the huts they live in today.  Currently the communities are surrounded by ranches, apartment blocks, highways and bandits.

Gunmen intimidate, persecute and threaten the leaders from all points.  Water tanks have been constructed within the area; these are administered by the Mato Grosso do Sul Sanitation Company (Mato Grosso do Sul Sanitation Company: SANESUL) but patrolled by private security officers.  From on top of these water tanks, men constantly light up the huts, using high-powered headlights, reminiscent of the torture techniques used on political prisoners during the Military Dictatorship.

The report of one female leader from the tekoha is very powerful and even involves threats of rape. “When we left the community, they persecuted and threatened us, telling us not to cross the highway. We need to go there to buy food and petrol. We’ve experienced sexual harassment – when my husband isn’t here, they shout things at us.  Wherever I go, I have to take my children with me. My worry is for them” she reported.

In all the communities – and not only in those the caravan visited – the situation is one of food insecurity and extreme poverty. Families live in huts covered by canvas, leaders cannot leave the communities to seek work in the city, since they need to protect their territory the entire time. Any exit is used by the bandits, and even by the state, as an opportunity to intimidate these people.

 

The fight for access to water

The case of the Aratikuty tekoha may be the most symbolic in regard to access to water in the state’s indigenous reserves. Lack of water is a chronic problem in the Dourados reserve.  According to the indigenous who live in the area, the situation has been aggravated by the construction of two reservoirs with a capacity of 3 million litres of treated water.  They report the drying up of underground community wells, which directly impacts on life in the communities.

Despite the water tanks’ large storage capacity, not one drop is sent to the Guarani and Kaiowá people on the repossessed land. Today, all the water they access comes from three artesian wells the indigenous themselves dug on the repossessed land; the community uses this water to drink, plant, cook and bathe. One leader on the repossessed land says they have asked the state government to install at least one pipe to take water into the community, but even this was denied them.

Before they dug the wells, they needed to travel about 5 km to another village to get water from a river, fill buckets and bring them back on bicycles, cars or handcarts.  Today, the water from this same river has been contaminated by pesticides used on the ranches that surround them. “It is contaminated because they plant maize here and throw poison on it.  Somewhere down there, they throw bottles of poison”, one leader explained.

In Coronel Sapucaia, in the Jopara tekoha, the community relies on one water tank, but the leaders have indicated that this is not sufficient to supply the three regions on the Taquaperi reserve, because it is a highly elevated region. As well as three more water tanks, they say they need a motor to pump the water and take it to other areas.

Near the repossessed area, there is a stream that the Guarani and Kaiowá use for their water supply, but this has been equally contaminated by pesticides and even soap.  The leaders allege that the indigenous, particularly their children, are suffering headaches, diarrhoea and vomiting, from consuming this water.

In Guapo’y, in the Amambai reserve, the indigenous are using water capture structures that were installed at the centre of the ranch on repossessed land.  They have managed to take water from the wells and deposit it in a reservoir, to make it available to the whole community. However, during the repossession, when the group was encamped some dozens of metres from the ranch, they also needed to get water from another area in the reserve.

The leaders assert that, although they had water within the Amambai reserve area in which they were confined, it was no longer possible to live there in decent conditions, since there was no more space to plant crops or raise animals and the families were already piled on top of each other.  Because of this – and because the land traditionally belongs to them – the families decided to repossess the Guapo’y.

 

Traditional territories

Eight indigenous reserves were created by the Indian Protection Service (Serviço de Proteção ao Índio: SPI) in the southern region of Mato Grosso do Sul, at the beginning of the 20th century, in order to confine the indigenous people who occupied the entire region and free up their territories for colonisation. Although the original project created reserves of 3,600 hectares, today the Taquaperi Indigenous Land, for example, contains only 1,777 hectares, according to the National Indian Foundation (Fundação Nacional do Índio: FUNAI) cartographic database.

Some reserves were demarcated into an area even smaller area than the 3,600 hectares in the original decrees, which was already very little. Only eight reserves in Mato Grosso do Sul contain about 80% of the country’s entire Guarani and Kaiowá population.  One thing all these areas have in common is the fact that they were stolen from their original peoples. The cemeteries that contain the bodies of their ancestors, located within the reserves, are evidence of the land that belongs to them.  Elders who are still alive tell stories of the time they lived in them.

Guarani Digital Map demonstrating the presence of the Guarani people in the region on the border between Brazil and Paraguay. In the neighbouring country, the villages are more spread out. The situation was similar on the Brazilian side, but the forced displacement and confinement of the indigenous has resulted in the concentration of the Guarani and Kaiowá in the Mato Grosso do Sul reserves.

 

 

The Ecumenical Caravan

An Ecumenical Act was held on the first day of the caravan where religious leaders demonstrated their solidarity with the Guarani and Kaiowá peoples of the state.  The act took place in the Federation of Education Workers of Mato Grosso do Sul (Federação dos Trabalhadores em Educação de Mato Grosso do Sul: FETEMS) and was attended by representatives of Lutheran, Anglican, Presbyterian and Catholic Christian Churches, African-origin religions, ecumenical organizations and others.  All committed to becoming a voice that resounds, not only within their communities of faith, but also in bodies outside the country.

The Act held in Dourados, in Antônio João square, was an inter-religious moment in which Christian and indigenous leaders supported each other in moments of spirituality and denouncement.  Posters were put up containing the names of the victims of Mato Grosso do Sul state and rancher violence over the years. Young people and leaders shouted for justice for all the blood spilt of their kin.

The caravan took donations of food to the communities, demonstrated their unconditional support for the Guarani and Kaiowá, and undertook to denounce the crimes that have been committed against them to national and international bodies – such as the ACT Alliance, the World Communion of Reformed Churches (WCRC), the World Council of Churches (WCC), the Lambeth Conference, the Alliance of Presbyterian and Reformed Churches of Latin America (Aliança de Igrejas Presbiterianas e Reformadas da América Latina: AIPRAL) and the National Human Rights Council (Conselho Nacional de Direitos Humanos: CNDH).

Mônica Alkmin, member of the CNDH, noted that the visits are so important because they provide a broader view of the real situation in these and other communities, beyond that presented by the media.  “We have seen serious violations of human rights and constitutional regulations.  Brazil has legislation and policies that guarantee these rights to all. If they are being violated, we need to immediately identify who is behind this and take measures to hold these people accountable.

Sônia Mota, CESE’s Executive Director and Pastor of the United Presbyterian Church of Brazil (Igreja Presbiteriana Unida do Brasil: IPU), noted that the reason the caravan went to the state was in response to the cry of indigenous blood, spilled once again.  “We have come here to be a voice, so that this cry of pain, and for justice, can resound.  The report generated here will be translated into various languages and we will make sure it reaches the national and international bodies we have access to.”

The Ecumenical Caravan was run by the ACT (Brazil) Ecumenical Forum (Fórum Ecumênico ACT Brasil: FEACT) and supported  by HEKS-Eper, Misereor and Bread for the World (Brot für die Welt). This is the third time the forum has gone to Mato Grosso do Sul to demonstrate its solidarity with the Guarani and Kaiowá in the state.  Read the Caravan’s Letter in Defence of the Peoples.