Worsening violence and state negligence disrupt the lives of the Guarani and Kaiowá people of Mato Grosso do Sul

Communities suffer impacts of the pandemic, territorial conflicts, chemical attacks using pesticides and religious intolerance


Photo: Ecumenical Mission II/ Guarani Kaiowá living next to the highway after being evicted from their lands in Dourados

For years, the daily lives of the Guarani and Kaiowá people in Mato Grosso do Sul have been marked by conflicts and different kinds of violence.  However, since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, the situation has worsened, due to the damage caused by the spread of and infection from the new coronavirus in indigenous villages and communities. This has had a direct impact on their health, their ability to maintain their ways of life and their right to food and nutritional sovereignty.

Another important factor, and one which demands accountability, is the presence and unbridled advance of the economic forces of agribusiness in the region, relying on consent from the state to continue their criminal and destructive operations against original peoples’ ways of life and the remaining socio-biodiversity in traditional Guarani and Kaiowá territories.

The life of any Guarani and Kaiowá family is affected by worsening disputes over territories, illegal evictions, threats to indigenous leaders and communities, chemical attacks using pesticides, and criminal fires, caused by religious intolerance and a territorial war that has been waged for decades in the traditional territories in which they live.

“We are talking about people living under the threat of genocide and ethnocide, taking place as a result of paramilitary attacks by ranchers and gunmen, including attacks that utilize state security forces to protect agribusiness and large estates,” explained Matias Rempel, missionary from the Indigenous Missionary Council (Conselho Indigenista Missionário: CIMI), (in Portuguese) during the Thematic Hearing of the Permanent People’s Tribune in Defence of Cerrado Territories (in Portuguese) held on 15 March 2022, which threw light on the severity of the current political situation, not only for the Guarani and Kaiowá people, “but for all indigenous peoples in Mato Grosso do Sul,” as he noted.


Impact of the Pandemic

According to data from the “Violence Against the Indigenous Peoples of Brazil” report (in Portuguese), that CIMI produced and published in 2021, there were 94 indigenous deaths in the state of Mato Grosso do Sul in 2020, as evidenced by information collected and monitored by the Association of Indigenous Peoples of Brazil (Articulação dos Povos Indígenas do Brasil: APIB).

Data from the Special Secretariat for Indigenous Health (Secretaria Especial de Saúde Indígena: SESAI) differ from that from the APIB and reveal another, more acute, aggravating factor arising from the pandemic, which is inexistent or insufficient data about vaccine coverage and the underreporting of cases.  According to SESAI monitoring, in 2020, 72 indigenous deaths were recorded in the state of Mata Grosso do Sul.  Further, throughout 2020, a total of 3453 cases of COVID-19 were recorded among indigenous people in the state.

Credit: Laranjeira Nhanderu Community – Guarani and Kaiowá people

Territorial conflicts

The CIMI report indicates that, in 2020, the state of Mato Grosso do Sul accounted for 16 cases of illegal land occupation, the illegal exploitation of natural resources and damage to indigenous heritage. Twelve of these 16 cases directly involved the Guarani and Kaiowá people, with a particular emphasis on criminal fires, trespass and threats.

One symbolic case of violence caused by territorial disputes aimed at the Guarani and Kaiowá people may be found in the Guyraroka Community, located in the municipality of Caarapó (Mato Grosso do Sul), which, although its territorial rights have been legally declared, is “widely occupied, something that remains unresolved by the authorities.  Of the territory’s 11,440 hectares, the Guarani-Kaiowá indigenous community effectively occupies approximately 50 hectares, in other words, only 0.44% of the total”, as the CIMI document points out.

Furthermore, the report notes that “families continue to survive in precarious conditions, under constant threats and suffering countless rights violations.” In 2020, 4 territorial conflicts on indigenous lands were recorded in the state of Mato Grosso do Sul and, according to the CIMI report, all these took place on Guarani and Kaiowá territories and involved attacks on repossessed indigenous land and criminal fires.


Religious intolerance and racism

Over the last two years, Prayer Houses have been attacked and set on fire, demonstrating that acts of violence have not ceased during the pandemic, no matter what kind of circulation restrictions or social distancing were in force under state public health directives.

Over the last two years, Prayer Houses have been attacked and set on fire, demonstrating that acts of violence have not ceased during the pandemic, no matter what kind of circulation restrictions or social distancing were in force under state public health directives.

According to CIMI and the Aty Guasu, the Guarani and Kaiowá people’s Great Assembly, over the last two years, almost a dozen Prayer Houses have been attacked and set on fire, demonstrating that acts of violence have not ceased during the pandemic, no matter what kind of circulation restrictions or social distancing were in force under state public health directives.


Prayer House Reconstruction. Credit: Bruno Santiago/ CESE Archive

For Lídia Farias, a CIMI missionary in Mato Grosso do Sul, it is impossible to measure the extent of the violence of an attack of this sort.  “For indigenous peoples, burning down a prayer house is like burning down a religious temple.  We cannot measure the damage done to a religious temple when it’s burnt down. To burn the Xiru, which is a kind of altar, this involves a level a complexity we will never be able to understand,” she declared.

She also said that attacks on sacred spaces are related to land disputes and state negligence of the rights of original peoples in the region, creating a “package of violence” that the indigenous suffer. “Today the reserves are islands of confinement in city peripheries, overcrowded, without adequate infrastructure, surrounded by export monoculture, which is bathed in pesticides and destroys local biodiversity,” she noted.

For CIMI in Mato Grosso do Sul, indigenous reserves suffer from state negligence and omission – without receiving the basic care and rights that are guaranteed by the constitution – where the peoples’ physical and socio-cultural needs are not met.  “Without doubt the attacks on the Prayer Houses are part of the segregation and marginalization of the Guarani and Kaiowá in the state, principally because of the symbolic and spiritual weight an act of this nature has on indigenous lives,” she explained.

According to Professor Edina Souza, from the Guarani and Kaiowá people, a Prayer House can be understood as an “extension of the people’s mystical body”.  “It’s as if they’d set fire to the Vatican. Can you imagine that?” she exclaimed, in an attempt to explain the magnitude of the violence.

For Teodora Souza, Coordinator of the Dourados Indigenous Education Centre (Mato Grosso do Sul), who is also from the Guarani and Kaiowá, this kind of violence is motivated by the religious intolerance and prejudice that have been disseminated within and outside indigenous territories in recent years.  “These fires represent various forms of intolerance: religious, linguistic, ethnic, cultural and symbolic,” she said.

There is nothing new about indigenous people living alongside other cultures and religions, however, for Teodora, violence is advancing because of the way the indigenous are portrayed in schools and the mass media.  “We know that the standard of beauty and the hegemonic socio-cultural view is different.  From this Eurocentric view, everything that comes from Europe is placed on a level above us.  Violence begins by devaluing anything that comes from our people,” she asserted.


Chemical warfare

The Guarani and Kaiowá people’s situation is also alarming when we consider the consequences of the excessive use of pesticides on the fields of monoculture that surround their traditional territories.  The Guyraroka territory in Caarapó is surrounded by soybean fields, where pesticides are applied excessively, using tractors or aerial spraying.

Pesticide aerial spraying in the Guyraroka community (Credit: Guyraroka Community Guarani and Kaiowá people)


Native and agro-ecological seeds delivered to the Guarani and Kaiowá’s Rancho do Jacaré Indigenous Land in Mato Grosso do Sul. Photo: Mateus Quevedo

In 2021, as a result of an act of solidarity by the  Small-scale Farmers’ Movement (Movimento dos Pequenos Agricultores: MPA) (in Portuguese) in response to the impact the coronavirus pandemic has had on the lives of indigenous people and peasants, the Guarani and Kaiowá people received a donation of four tonnes of native seeds – essential to maintain their food and nutritional sovereignty and their ways of life, particularly given the hunger and poverty caused by the pandemic.

However, in the Guyraroka territory these seeds didn’t take root and they believe that this is directly related to the use of pesticides in the region. “We tried to plant the seeds in the Guyraroka, to start agro-ecological cultivation, but none of the plants took root.  We believe this problem with the land is directly related to the use of pesticides in the fields around ours and to the presence of termites and other insects fleeing monoculture contaminated by poison, seeking refuge in the indigenous community, migrating to the Guarani and Kaiowá plantations”, Matias explained.

According to Guarani and Kaiowá leaders, the spread of pesticides has forced some of the families living in the Guyraroka territory to move away. “In some cases, poison was sprayed only metres away from indigenous houses, close to the fence that divides the traditional territory from the agribusiness ranches.  This is how the pesticide has also spread to Guyraroka residents, brought in on the wind,” he added.

The families that live on this indigenous land have also reported that schools and health centres in the area have been affected by the application of pesticides, with reports of impacts on children in the classroom.  In September 2019, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) issued a precautionary measure to the Brazilian state in order to protect Guarani and Kaiowá indigenous people in the Guyraroká community, and “guarantee the right to life and to personal integrity” of these indigenous people, stating that the families who live in the territory “find themselves in a grave and urgent situation”.

Guarani and Kaiowá people demonstrate during a visit to the Guyraroka Indigenous Land.

Credit: IACHR/publication

CIMI and local leaders have also denounced the contamination of the territory’s waters, due to the dumping of drums containing chemical compounds into a river close to the territory – a source of drinking water for the families on the indigenous land.  Tito Guarani Kaiowá describes how, he thought it was raining one night, but when he looked up “there was a plane dropping pesticide on us, with the wind spreading poison through the air.”

Mr Tito, as he is known in the region, says that he has noticed a lack of birdsong on the land.  According to this indigenous leader, there has been a drastic reduction in the number of animals in the territory, something that may be related to deforestation associated with agribusiness monoculture, as well as to the abusive use of pesticides.

According to CIMI, using pesticides as chemical weapons is a key element of the systematic violence that the Guarani and Kaiowá have suffered for decades.  “Attacks, burning down Prayer Houses and threats to their physical integrity are a frequent part of the indigenous daily routine.  The excessive use of pesticides in the region is, without doubt, a part of this package of rights violations,” Rempel declared.

At the moment, according to information from CIMI and families in the territory, the indigenous do not benefit from health services, since there are currently no doctors in the region providing care. “The service is very precarious, while there are recurring health problems caused by this poison.  The most common symptoms include prickly heat, rashes and inflammation, as well as headaches reported by the residents of Guyraroka,” he concluded