Brazil: “Hunger kills Indian childrenâ€

Brazil is known as one of the countries with the greatest inequality in ownership of wealth on the face of the earth. It is one thing to read or hear this statistic. It is however quite a shocking experience to be confronted with the reality of what this means.

The following is an account by Joe Higgins of a week long visit to the indigenous Indian community in the State of Mato Grosso do Sul, Brazil. Joe Higgins is a Member of the Dáil (Parliament of the Republic of Ireland) for the Socialist Party and also a member of the Committee for a Workers’ International (cwi).

“Hunger kills Indian children”

Mato Grosso do Sul is one of Brazil’s 26 states, situated in the southwest of the country. It is four times the size of the island of Ireland but has a population of only two million. It has millions of hectares of very fertile land, home at the moment to 24 million of the fattest cattle you will find. It has some of the richest ranchers on earth, some owning farms of up to 40,000 acres. Yet a report published in January 2005 by a state health organisation, FUNASA, found that children in some indigenous Indian villages were dying of malnutrition and related diseases.

Before going on to the World Social Forum in Porto Allegre this January 2005, I spent six days visiting remote Indian villages discussing with the inhabitants and seeing at first hand their conditions of life. My guides and interpreters were members of a small but very dedicated Indian support group, The Technical/ Juridical Educational Institute (ITJE). They work to assist the Indians reclaim their fundamental rights, including advising the Indians on their land rights and assisting them in the process of trying to reclaim lands from which they or their ancestors were expelled.

The well-known film The Mission, portrayed how the Spanish and Portuguese conquistadors annihilated the Indian Guaraní and Kaiowa communities in an area that is now shared between Brazil, Paraguay and Argentina. In one form or another, this process continued through the centuries. In the 1940s, the Brazilian government pushed a programme of extensive colonisation of Matto Grosso do Sul by people from other areas of Brazil and, in the process, the lands and rights of the Indians were simply walked over.

Apart from the human cost to the lives and culture of the Indians, the result is huge environmental degradation. The forests and natural vegetation and wildlife have been destroyed and replaced in much of Matto Grosso do Sul by millions of hectares of cash crops in the form of soya and sugar cane and huge numbers of cattle and sheep for export outside the State.

The result of hundreds of years of land theft and oppression means that many of the 60,000 Indians in the state of Matto Grosso do Sul are penned into small reservations, totally inadequate to their needs. For example, near the city of Dourados, the population of 10,000 Indians is living on a reservation of 3,500 hectares (1 hectare = 2.74 acres). This crowding in of people in such a way that they cannot grow crops to sustain their families, has led to extreme misery, malnutrition, sickness, a high degree of internal violence on the reservations, and to young people being forced to take badly paid work in alcohol distilleries and ranches in the region. An appalling trauma for the Indian communities has been the very high rate of suicide, mainly by young people, over the last 15 years.

Shacks without water or electricity

It was during the week of my visit that a shocking banner headline appeared in the biggest circulation State newspaper, O Progreso: “Fome Mata Criancas em Aldeias” – (‘Hunger Kills Children in the [Indian] Villages’). This was based on the FUNASA report and caused shock waves among people in Brazil. I visited a reservation in another town, Amambai, and saw first hand the squalid conditions in which the Indians are forced to live. They live in shacks, with the roof sometimes made of black polythene where they did not have enough of the native reeds to have the traditional thatch-like roof, which, at least, has a cooling effect in the burning temperatures of summer. There is no electricity and no sanitation. A cold water tap shared between families is the washing point both for people and clothes. Food is cooked over stone fireplaces, although finding firewood is an increasingly difficult problem.

However, Indian communities in Matto Grosso do Sul are now fighting back with great courage and determination to reclaim traditional lands and to try and secure a better future for their children. I visited a number of villages where the Indians staked their claim to the surrounding land by occupation. In these areas you can see plantations of manioc, beans, potatoes, rice and bananas to sustain the families.

One such area is Tacquara. This occupation was initially led by Marcos Verrão, who once worked for the ranchers but then went on to play an enormous role in the Indian struggle for land. On a tour organised by Cafod and Survival International, and assisted in Ireland by the Latin American Solidarity Centre, Marcos Verrão visited Ireland in 2000 to seek international support for their occupation at Tacquara. Tragically, in 2003, he was murdered by the ranchers’ henchmen. He was dragged from his home, together with members of his family, in the early hours, thrown into a truck, was badly beaten and then dumped on the roadway many kilometres away. Marcos died from his injuries. His son, Ladio, who was also beaten, survived, as did Marcos’ wife, Julia, and some other children.

Ladio and Julia, with other members of the community, warmly welcomed us to Tacquara and as part of our dialogue with the community there, we paid our respects at the grave of Marcos Verrão.

The Indians’ claim to the land at Tacquara is still not finalised and the community suffers routine harassment by the henchmen of local ranchers.

Like many of the Indian villages we visited, Tacquara is in a very isolated location, 15 miles (24 kilometres) from the nearest town, Caarapó. The road surface is for most of the distance red dirt that turns to a sea of mud in the rainy season, which was the case when we visited. There is, of course, no public transport, and the Indians are not able to afford cars or jeeps. This means that getting supplies is sometimes a 24- kilometre trek on foot. On our way into the village we met a nine-year-old boy, Walter, who had walked about 12 kilometres from Tacquara and had another 12 before him to Caarapó.

While on our visits to the Indian villages, we got an urgent report that one particular community of Kaiowa were under threat of immediate eviction from lands they had occupied. This was in Cero Marangatu, on the border between Brazil and Paraguay, but still in the state of Matto Grosso do Sul.

In this area, in 1988, ninety families, comprising about 400 people from the Kaiowa Indians, occupied a 26-hectare area of their traditional land. In 1999, the Federal Government of Brazil sent a research group led by an anthropologist to carry out a survey. This group declared the lands in question as belonging to the Kaiowa. In 2004, the Minister for Justice ordered the demarcation of the Kaiowa lands and demarcation posts were placed. However, according to Brazilian law, the President of Brazil must sign a crucial Land Transfer Document (Decreto de Homologação). This has not been done, so far.

Because the original plot of 26 hectares was completely insufficient for the 90 Indian families, they were forced to move into part of their designated lands to sow crops for food. The Indians have sown manioc, beans, potatoes, rice and bananas, managing with great sacrifice to get resources to buy the seeds. These crops are now growing. However, a federal judge in São Paulo has issued an order to the families to leave their lands and Federal Police could be used to evict them. This would mean the destruction of their crops. The Kaiowa are desperate. They have waited too long while their lands were colonised. They have nowhere to go. The families at Cerro Marangatu decided to resist the eviction. They will stay on their land to defend their crops, their livelihoods and the lives of their children.

Political pressure

We resolved immediately to visit this community, but first I wanted to see what political pressure I might be able to bring to bear on the Brazilian government by virtue of being a member of the Dáil (Irish Parliament). I asked the Irish Minister for Foreign Affairs to make representations to the Brazilian authorities that this eviction would not be carried out and contacted the Brazilian Ambassador in Dublin to make a protest with the same demand. I also sent a protest letter to the President of Brazil, Luis Inácio da Silva, better known as Lula, who was elected as a representative of the PT – Workers’ Party (unfortunately, since his election, rather than implementing a socialist alternative, Lula has implemented neo-liberal policies). I also asked other members of the Dáil to protest, which they did.

Survival International, a London-based group that supports indigenous communities, also got involved in attempting to exercise pressure. As a result of this, the various ministries in Brazil were alerted to the protests, and information and explanations were sought from local authorities in Matto Grosso do Sul.

When we visited the community threatened with eviction, there was a village gathering of men, women and children of over 100 people. I spoke to the meeting and promised that I would attempt to raise solidarity internationally with the struggle of the community and this was greatly appreciated. The next day I met with the Deputy Governor of the State of Matto Grosso do Sul, Senhor Egon Krakheche, and put the Indian demand to him. He insisted that he was not in favour of the eviction and would work to prevent it. But the eviction threat still hangs over the community of Cerro Marangatu.

During the World Social Forum in Porto Allegre, there was a major conference of the new left party, PSoL, the Party of Socialism and Liberty. André Ferrari, a member of Socialismo Revolucionario, the Brazilian section of the Committee for a Workers’ International, moved a motion at that conference of opposition to the threatened eviction and to demand that the President of Brazil would sign the necessary forms to give the ownership of the land back to the Indians. This was passed with acclaim.

While in Matto Grosso do Sul, I also paid a visit to a camp of the landless, the Sem Terra. This was composed of 200 families, with about 1,000 people on the side of a busy roadway, 100 kilometres south of Campo Grande, the state capital. The shacks in which the people lived were almost exactly like those of the Indians, except the roofs and walls in all cases were of black polythene or scraps of wood. In the stifling heat, it was impossible to be in these houses during the day. Facilities consisted of one or two points where piped water could be accessed and nothing more. In a dialogue with some of this community, I found a deep sense of disappointment with the government of Lula. The landless had hoped that the coming to power of the PT would very quickly result in the distribution of land to the landless, but the pace, in reality, has been torturous. Meanwhile, the landless, whether Indian or otherwise, continue to live in the most abject poverty.

The poverty in the countryside is mirrored, of course, in the lives of tens of millions of Brazilians in the working class favelas and shantytowns in the main cities. The Brazilian working class holds the key to a resolution of the poverty and homelessness. With their labour fuelling one of the ten biggest economies in the world, Brazilian workers have enormous potential power. Harnessed to a political programme for the socialist transformation of Brazilian society, and in solidarity with the rural poor, the landless and the Indians, they would be able to deliver comprehensive land reform, providing land, decent living standards, and security to those who are currently among the most marginalized people on earth.

Protests urgently needed!

Postscript, March 2005

The Indians of Cerro Marangatu have been given an extension by a judge, until 31 March 2005, to leave their lands. Please send protest messages to the President of the Federal Republic of Brazil (President Luiz Ignacio da Silva, Gabinete do Presidente, Palacio do Palanalto, Prac a dos Tres Poderes, Brasília PF, 70150900; Fax: 00 55 61 411 2222) and make direct representation to the Brazilian Ambassador in your country that the threat of eviction be completely lifted.


If you would like more information on the work of ITJE or to assist them, you can contact: Michael Feeney, < > or telephone Michael at 00 – 55 – 673858996.

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March 2005