“The last one was on 24 December. We have suffered through a week when there were six. We’ve even had a six-year-old boy. . . ,” says Avatupa Karai, and he makes the gesture of a noose.

Karai is talking about “the suicides”. His people, the Kaiowa-Guarani, squeezed on to a tiny piece of land in the south of Brazil, are killing themselves in phenomenal numbers.

One hundred and four teenagers have shot, poisoned or hanged themselves in a community of just 3600 people in the last 18 years – probably the highest ratio of any community in the world and certainly unequalled in South America.

Karai, 23, dressed in T-shirt, jeans and a straw hat sits back on an old armchair in the shade of a palm and takes another sip of the traditional herbal drink terere.

“Why is there this size of suicides? Because we don’t have enough space. We don’t have freedom like we used to have. That is why we are now struggling,” he says.

Direct action

Seeing the implosion of the younger generation, the village elders decided to organise and take back their traditional land.

On 22 December 2003, armed with bows and arrows and with their faces painted as warriors 3000 Indians “repossessed” 9000 neighbouring hectares.

Police and the army keep the
farmers and Indians apart

And this is where they remain. It has been a tense two-month standoff with the farmers who have been ejected from the land in Japora County in the west state of Mato Grosso do Sul.

“The documentation of this area as Indian land has been in the hands of the authorities for more than four years,” says Karai, who explained that they felt they could not wait any longer. “If we don’t protest, if we don’t organise, if we don’t take our land nothing will happen,” he says.

The oldest man in the community, Tupa, emerges from his hut. Blind and frail, his daughter helps him to sit. He thinks he is 95, and his memory is a living testimony to the rights to the land.

Good times

“We were 30 families in [the biggest farm] Sao Jorge, the cemetery was there. Everything was mate [a popular herb, which gives a caffeine-like high]. And the government did business with the mate and we began to go out of the area because of the revenue.

“We lived much happier then than we do now. There was fishing, swimming, hunting. We had rice, beans, corn, potatoes, bananas, pineapples. There was no contact with the brancos [whites],” he says.

Moved off: Tupa, 95, sits in front
of his family

Tupa remembers that he was moved off the land he calls Yvy Katu when he was already married and had had eight children.

There were only 600 Guarani in the area then on around 9000 hectares of land, compared to 3600 now on just 1740 hectares in the reserve of Aldea Porto Lindo by the Paraguayan border.

“I was very happy when people organised to go back on the land. During my life, I have waited for us to repossess our land. I want to be close to the river again to fish,” he says.

Land deal

After more than a month Brazil’s Indian agency, FUNAI, finally brokered a deal that would leave the Indians on the three biggest farms for a term of six months while their claims were considered, so long as they left another 11 smaller ones.

The Brazilian government inaugurated the “permanent dialogue table” for Indian issues on 12 February, and leaders called on the state to move rapidly in resolving disputed territories.

The situation in Japora is the most serious conflict but invasions are happening too in other parts of the south and in the Amazonian states to the north.

Across the bridge, guarded by federal police and the army, with sub-machine guns at the ready, the farmers are holding a demonstration. The last time one was held the two sides clashed, leaving a 14-year-old Indian, Odeir Martins, with a bullet wound to his head.

One farmer is looking through his binoculars at the Indians camped in tents on his land and exclaims that they are carrying his sofa out of his house.

Human chain

Thousands of farmers have come to attend the demonstration to demand an immediate return to the land. They make a human chain to spell paz (peace) for the local media before huddling in a tight group to decide whether they should take direct action and storm the bridge. It is decided against.

“Our land was invaded by Indians who took our house without any rights, leaving us just with the clothes on our backs,” says Moacir Marques Rosa, who has travelled to today’s demonstration from another area, Dois Irmaos do Buriti, which was taken over in February 2002.

A sign on repossessed land reads:
Entrance prohibited for Indians

“My father is ill, my mother is ill of stress, of nerves. It took us 20 years to build up that farm, 20 years, sweating, night and day, up on the tractor, all kinds of labour.

"And suddenly, we’ve lost it all. The police guard the Indians, the president of the republic doesn’t say whether it’s A or it’s B regarding the Indians. We don’t have a way out. We have lost our hope,” he says, with tears in his eyes.

Farmer’s leader Leo Brito, of Famasul, says Indians in Brazil already have enough land. “They have 102,000,000 hectares for 300,000 Indians,” he says.

Indians' rights

But the issue is not as polarised as it first seems. Many farmers refuse to blame the Indians, and agree that the land is theirs.

“The responsibility of all this is not the Indians. It’s the government, it’s not possible for us to pay for this,” says Rosa, who faces losing his farm worth $700,000.

Under the 1988 Brazilian constitution, there would be no compensation for the farmers if the land is demarcated as a reservation.

The impasse has led to escalating bloodshed.

 

Just this week, in the occupied Sao Jorge farm in Japora, Indian Dercio Lemes was hospitalised because of a shot in the chest. Meanwhile, in the southeastern state of Santa Caterina, farmers' leader Ulisses Sefanini was shot and killed in a confrontation with Indians.

“But we will not stop this struggle until the end. Nobody will leave. We will leave dead or stay on the land. That is already the decision of the community,” says Karai.