When Brazil was discovered by Europeans in 1500, there were an estimated one
million Guarani Indians living on millions of square kilometers in what is
now southern Brazil, parts of Argentina and Bolivia, and most of Paraguay.
In modern Paraguay, Guarani
remains an official language, and is spoken by more people, especially in
rural areas, than Spanish.
Along with the Guarani,
another large Indian group lived in Brazil. They were the Tupi, who formed
what we would call a nation-state, inhabiting an area that ran from modern
São Paulo north to Maranhão.
Although the Guarani Indians
shared a common cultural heritage, they never formed a single socio-political
unit like the Tupi. Rather they lived in different areas sharing only their
language, a lingua franca which permitted easy communication throughout their
Presently in Brazil, there
are three Guarani groups: the Guarani Mbya, mainly in the southeastern coastal
region; the Guarani Nhyandeva, who call themselves simply "Guarani,"
who live further inland in Paraná and São Paulo, and in the
state of Mato Grosso do Sul; and the Guarani Kaiowá, who live only
in the southern part of Mato Grosso do Sul, but are found in Paraguay, as
The Guarani Indian groups
took different routes to their fate under white civilization. The Guarani
Mbya were herded into Jesuit missionary settlements in the 17th century in
an effort to civilize them European-style.
Meanwhile, the Kaiowá
drifted deeper into the forests in the area now along the border of Brazil
and Paraguay, between the Apa and Miranda rivers. As it is an isolated, remote
region they remained practically untouched by white civilization until the
middle of the 19th century.
But when it came, white
civilization came with a vengeance in the form of the Paraguay War (1864-70).
Much of the bloody fighting took place exactly where the Kaiowá were
living so it was inevitable that they would have ever more contact with whites.
And then, in 1880, the
Brazilian government gave Thomas Larangeiras, an entrepreneur from Rio Grande
do Sul, a permit to exploit an enormous tract of land (over 5 million hectares)
for tea (maté tea, also known as Paraguay tea).
The tea plantation effort
swept up the Kaiowá and many stray Nhandeva, as well, and lasted for
some 60 years until around 1940. During that time the Indians bartered their
labor for jerked beef and salt, among other things.
In 1943, the Getulio Vargas
government established an experimental farm (Colônia Agrícola
Nacional) in Dourados (Mato Grosso do Sul). It attracted white farmers who
employed the Indians as farm workers and handymen (doing "clean up"
- "limpeza") for another 30 years, until the early 1970s.
Things changed in the
1970s in the vast interior of Brazil, especially in Mato Grosso do Sul where
most of the Guarani were living. The region got integrated with international
markets and there was an economic boom based on soybeans and beef.
That forced the farmers
to become agribusinesses. But, agribusiness does not have any place for Indians
doing limpeza. The Indians had become expendable and downright undesirable.
That would have profound consequences for Guarani society.
The foundation of Guarani
society is the extended family. There are cases of one hundred relatives living
in one house; happily, if the house is near a river for fishing and some land
for crops and hunting.
The family is led by an
older couple who have shaman-type (xamanísticas) abilities that
are important for the group for three closely interconnected reasons: the
group's health and wealth (good hunting, fishing and harvests), and its relationship
with the gods.
If the group is healthy
and has good hunting, fishing and harvests, that is considered a sign that
the gods are pleased with the group.
Three or four of these
extended Guarani families would live around a kilometer or so from each other,
forming a kind of community. The families were connected through marriage
and would come together regularly for parties which included the exchange
of gifts and a community meal.
For almost one hundred
years they lived alongside the white man in Mato Grosso do Sul, precariously
preserving their way of life.
That came to an end in
the 1970s, when the Guaranis were displaced by modern agriculture. Unwanted,
they were moved in random fashion to one of eight Indian reservations that
had been set up at the beginning of the century by what was then called the
Indian Protection Service.
The reservations were
located near cities, in keeping with the conventional wisdom of the time that
what the Indians needed was to be "civilized." They were seen as
"less advanced," and it was believed that through contact they would
eventually become just like whites.
The random aspect of the
relocation put serious strains on the Guarani families. They were separated
and tossed together with other families. There was overpopulation.
For example, the reservation
near Dourados, Mato Grosso do Sul, had a population of one thousand in 1950;
today there are almost 10,000 Indians there.
Other problems haunted
the Indians in their new homes. On one hand, the younger Indians demanded
more contact with, and goods from, white society.
On the other, the older
Indians had less room for their own traditional hunting and planting. To make
matters worse, the only work available was as a sort of sharecropper on white
farms and in sugar cane fields.
Social deterioration set
in. There was a rash of suicides and violence as the Guarani family collapsed.
Today there are some 30,000
Guaranis (Kaiowá and Guarani Nhyandeva) in Mato Grosso do Sul, living
on 40,000 hectares. That works out to little more than a hectare per person,
or five hectares per core family. Specialists say a Guarani family needs at
least 40 hectares if they are to live in their traditional way.
Spensy Pimentel works for Agência Brasil (AB), the official press
agency of the Brazilian government. Comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org.
from the Portuguese by Allen Bennett.