Discrimination and Neglect at Root of Suicide Epidemic Among Brazil’s Indians

Young Brazilian Indian Violence against indigenous peoples in Brazil is a frequent subject in the studies and analysis of the human rights situation in the country. Academics have also been discussing the subject from different perspectives, especially social sciences and public health.

Physical violence, psychological violence, sexual violence, destruction of natural resources, political domination and institutional violence are some of the types of violence practiced against indigenous peoples in the country.

Of all the forms and circumstances of violence endured by the Indians, the most dramatic example is certainly the plight of the Guarani Kaiowá people in the state of Mato Grosso do Sul, near the frontier between Brazil and Paraguay. There, social and cultural discrimination and the non-recognition of their territories and their unique forms of territoriality are at the root of the following problem.

The study Mapa da Violência 2011: Youth of Brazil, released in February by the Sangari Institute with the support of the Brazilian Justice Ministry, was not specifically focused on indigenous peoples, but it is an important contribution to the debate about their situation in relation to violence and its causes.

With regards to suicide, the study found unusually high rates in a group of cities that share one attribute: all or most part of the suicides occurred among indigenous populations, and most of those were native youth.

In 2008, of the 17 suicides in Amambai, 15 were indigenous and 9 were youth. In Dourados, also in Mato Grosso do Sul, 25 suicides were documented, 13 of which were indigenous and 8 of which were youth.

In the state of Amazonas, the city of São Gabriel da Cachoeira stands out. Located near the Brazilian border with Colombia and Venezuela, more than 90% of its inhabitants are of native origin. In 2008, nine suicides were reported. Seven of the victims were youth and all of them were indigenous.

The problem there seems to be something other than a land conflict, because that issue has largely been resolved there. Preliminary analysis points to a feeling of displacement as a central cause, which itself is caused by family breakdown, the lack of opportunity, poor sanitation and living conditions in the city’s periphery, difficulties entering the urban job market, lack of healthy recreation, and other factors.

Tabatinga, which is near the Brazilian border with Colombia and Peru, is another Amazonas city with high suicide rates in 2008; of 14 reported suicides, nine were indigenous and five of those were youth.

In 2009, indigenous suicides were reported in 12 of Brazil’s 27 states and four states had more than one: Mato Grosso do Sul, with 54; Amazonas, with 27; Roraima, with 9; and São Paulo, with 2.

Based on demographic data from the National Indigenous Foundation and mortality data from the Health Ministry, the suicide rate for Brazil’s indigenous people comes to 20 per 100,000 people, roughly four times the national average.

With 81 percent of indigenous suicides and suicide levels many times the national average, Mato Grosso do Sul and Amazonas have been hit hardest by this tragic phenomenon; when calculated for each state individually, Mato Grosso do Sul and Amazonas have suicide rates of 32.2 and 166 per 100,000 respectively.

With regard to indigenous youth suicide specifically, rates are extraordinarily high and without international precedent: in Amazonas, there are 101 youth suicides per 100,000 natives and 446 per 100,000 in Mato Grosso do Sul.

These numbers make clear that action and prompt, urgent revision of public policy are needed, especially in Mato Grosso do Sul, which has received a significant share of resources from the federal and state government, as well as from United Nation agencies.

It’s not enough to simply hand out basic foodstuffs and enroll indigenous families in conditional income redistribution programs (e.g. Bolsa Família). According to Gersam Luciano Baniwa, an indigenous leader of the Baniwa people of the Brazil-Colombia border region, “the cultural issues faced by indigenous youth today are the consequence of a clash of world visions that causes anguish, uncertainty, culture shock and even existential emptiness, all of which has led indigenous youth to take extreme measures, including suicide, as was the case recently in São Gabriel Cachoeira, Amazonas.”

Moreover, while the right to land is not resolved, especially in the Southern Cone of the state of Mato Grosso do Sul, home to cities with Brazil’s highest concentration of indigenous people and alarming levels of violence, the violent situation documented last year is unlikely to change under the new administration of President Dilma Rousseff.

Anthropologist Ricardo Verdum is a public affairs adviser with the Institute of Socioeconomic Studies (INESC). Translated by Lívia Cavallini Dias. This article appeared originally at the Americas Program website – http://www.cipamericas.org/

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