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Brazil's Indians Reclaim Land, Citing Promises, Using Force

Indigenous leaders from Brazil's Terena tribe attend a meeting with government officials in the capital, Brasilia, on June 6. Brazil's Indians have been demanding greater land rights and are increasingly coming into conflict with large ranchers and farmers.
Eraldo Peres
Indigenous leaders from Brazil's Terena tribe attend a meeting with government officials in the capital, Brasilia, on June 6. Brazil's Indians have been demanding greater land rights and are increasingly coming into conflict with large ranchers and farmers.

It was once the cattle farm of a former congressman, but now his stately house in the western Brazilian state of Mato Grosso do Sul is a burned-out shell. Thatch huts are being built in the shade of flowering palm trees. Once the purview of one farmer's family, it now is occupied by dozens of indigenous ones.

Indian activists say this is just the beginning.

This bucolic spot — called the Buriti farm — is now the unlikely epicenter of tensions erupting the length and breadth of rural Brazil. The indigenous tribes of this vast country are seeking the land rights they say they've historically been denied.

Alberto, a 46-year-old teacher, is a member of the Terena Indian tribe, which lays claim to around 17,000 hectares here. The tribe's reservation now is only 2,000 hectares, too small, Alberto says, for the community.

It's a fight that in this farm alone has already cost one tribesman his life this month — shot by police who were trying to evict them. Other indigenous groups have moved to block large infrastructure projects like the Belo Monte Dam.

Alberto says there's more coordination and unity among the many disparate tribes over securing access to and protecting infringement on their historic lands.

"I'm in favor of progress, but not at the cost of our cultural history, our survival as a people," he says. "The name of our tribe is the Terena because the Earth is our mother."

Whose Land?

Since the Portuguese conquest centuries ago, Brazil's indigenous population has been subjected to slavery, genocide, murder, land theft and discrimination.

Brazil's most recent Constitution, written in 1988, was meant to redress some of those ills, returning historic lands to the tribes. It gave a deadline: Within five years, all Indian lands should be demarcated and registered. It's now 20 years past that deadline, and the process is still incomplete.

While the government has dithered, many native Brazilians have taken matters into their own hands, taking over land that is owned by large-scale farmers.

It's a warm afternoon and a group of men in cowboy hats and pressed jeans is handing out fliers by the roadside in the rural town of Sidrolandia, just near the former congressman's occupied farm.

They are part of the local farmers association, and they are all white, the descendants of Europeans from Italy and Germany who were encouraged to come and settle here, in some cases generations ago.

Ozorio Luiz Straliotto, the head of the ranchers union, says they have the titles to these lands.

They are legally ours, given to us by the government, he says.

But the Indians say this is their ancestral land.

Well, Straliotto says, all the land of Brazil is theirs actually; should we give them Sao Paulo and Copacabana, too?

He tells us that much of Brazil's wealth comes from the soybeans, beef and sugar cane that the farmers produce here.

"Brazil is an important global power because of us farmers," he says. "We are one of the breadbaskets of the world."

The farmers also point out that indigenous peoples are less than 1 percent of the population of Brazil but already have 12 percent of the land designated as theirs.

Yet almost all those areas are in the uninhabited Amazon. Half of Brazil's Indians live in this breadbasket region, but they have been granted only 2 percent of the territory here.

'Only Two Choices'

We go to meet the former congressman who had his farm recently taken over. Ricardo Bacho greets us in the main cattle ranchers headquarters in the state.

He says the farm has been in his family since it was founded in 1928. He tells us how the Terena Indians burned his house to the ground after taking over his farm. He says he's under a death threat.

"There is a big misconception," he says. The Indians here are supposed to be given the land so they can go back to being subsistence farmers, hunting and fishing, like they did historically.

But our Indians, he says, no longer walk around in a thong; they have telephones, Internet, cellphones. The cultures have mixed, he says.

"There are only two choices," he says. "Either you throw out the farmers or you throw out the Indians. The Indians can do something else. Tourists could come and pay to see them dance and exhibit their culture. Unlike us, the Indians don't have a tradition of accumulation of wealth."

Back in the countryside, we go to another farm that has been taken over. The tribal head, or cacique, agrees to talk to us only after we explain who we are to the whole group.

Wearing a headdress of blue-and-red macaw feathers, 63-year-old Basilio Jorge explains tearfully that for him the equation is very simple: "We Indians were always treated with discrimination," he says. "We are treated like animals. We had no space to live."

Where will we put our children, our grandchildren? We don't want them living on the streets, he says. This is our land.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Lulu Garcia-Navarro is the host of Weekend Edition Sunday and one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. She is infamous in the IT department of NPR for losing laptops to bullets, hurricanes, and bomb blasts.
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