Teresa Murilha, a young Guarani Kaiowá mother of four children, killed herself on October 11. Her oldest son found her body hanging from the rafters of their shack in the community of Paso Piraju.
Teresa had left the community for the day, to seek legal advice on how to obtain benefits for families whose fathers are in jail.
While she was away, the monthly food rations given to poor communities were delivered. As she was absent and could not sign for the rations her family received nothing. In despair at not having food to feed her young children, she took her life.
Teresa’s husband was arbitrarily arrested along with eight other Guarani in April. They accused of killing two policemen who entered the community.
The Guarani community of Paso Piraju is battling for land rights. Dozens of families are living in squalid, cramped conditions on just 60 hectares of land, surrounded by cattle ranches on what was once their hunting and fishing grounds. Gunmen patrol the area, terrorizing and intimidating the Indians.
Suicide and malnutrition are common amongst many Guarani communities, where hundreds of people are squeezed on to tiny plots of land and are no longer able to feed themselves by hunting, fishing and growing crops.
In the last two decades over 300 Guarani Indians, approximately 1% of the Guarani population in Brazil, have killed themselves. In 2005 dozens of Guarani children died of starvation.
Several Guarani-Kaiowá communities met last year to discuss the alarming number of deaths from starvation among their children. At that time they issued a statement appealing for some of their land to be returned to them:
The death of our children: starvation and our land
We, leaders of the Guarani-Kaiowá Indigenous Rights Commission who live in Mato Grosso do Sul, met and talked about this issue which is being discussed throughout Brazil – the death of indigenous children from starvation.
We are very sad about the deaths of dozens of our children during the last few months. Whilst we are grateful for all the support and help which people are giving us, we feel angry that we are not being heard or respected in many aspects to do with our way of life and our rights.
At the root of the situation is lack of land, which is the consequence of the history of theft and destruction of our traditional territories, of the policy to confine us in reserves, of the loss our liberty and even the loss of will to live.
Here in Mato Grosso do Sul we indigenous peoples were evicted from our lands, and killed so that first cattle could take our place, and then huge monoculture plantations of soya. It was a violent process against our people and our ways of life.
The forests where we used to hunt were destroyed by loggers and the cattle ranchers’ tractors. It was there in the forests that we used to collect foods like fruits and honey and raw materials to make our houses and utensils.
Death and starvation are due to many factors, among which is the loss of land, which leads to the break up of our economy, of our way of producing food and feeding ourselves, and of our families.
This matter cannot be discussed as if it were simply a question of ‘giving food to the Indians’. Nor can it be said that our culture is responsible for the deaths. The solutions go far further than the distribution of foods from the government’s food rations.
We were a free people who lived surrounded by abundance. Today we live dependent on the government’s aid. We feel that this policy is paternalistic and does not enable us to go back and produce our own food. It is like having a gun cocked against our heads.
We need to have the right conditions to grow food in our own gardens once more, to cultivate manioc, potato, sugar cane, banana, sweet potato, corn, beans, rice… We need help to resuscitate our land. Our lands must be legally ratified and recognized by the government and cleared of invaders.
Without respecting the federal constitution and ILO Convention 169, still today, public policies on indigenous peoples do not take into account our way of being, of living, of thinking and of organizing ourselves. Government food aid is handed out to homes without considering whether the food is suitable for our customs.
More than anything we must have our lands ratified and protected and all invaders removed. These lands include Nhande Ru Marangatu (municipality of Antônio João), Lima Campo (in Ponta Porã), Taquara (Juti), Ivycatu (Japorã), Guyraroka (Caarapó) Kokueí (Ponta Porã), Sucuriy (Maracajú), as well the revision of the boundaries of the small areas demarcated by the SPI (government Indian Protection Service) at the beginning of last century.
Moreover we must be able go home to cultivate our fields, produce our own food and recuperate the lands of our old communities which have been impoverished. These lands have been used without being rotated because there is no other land to cultivate. We must have clean, drinkable water in the communities, and sanitation and medical care which respects our cultures.
But above all, we demand respect and justice. We don’t want to be just another object of charity or of paternalistic projects. We have the right to be different and to be free, to exercise our autonomy and to be heard during the formulation of the policies for our peoples.
Although we are wounded, we are not a defeated people and we have every faith in our wisdom, and we believe that one day we shall rebuild the Land without Evil.
Caarapó Indigenous Territory, March 5, 2005
Silvio Paulo, Anastácio Peralto, Nito Nelson, José Bino Martins, Ladio Veron, Rosalino Ortiz
Guarani Kaiowá Indigenous Rights Commission