For Indigenous Peoples, Forced Resettlement Carries a Heavy Toll

Tribal groups around the world are losing their lands, and ways of life, to industries and governments

The man in the photograph stands at the side of a dusty road, his arms outstretched, a mbaraka rattle in his left hand. In front of him, a black car thunders past. There is a dignity in his gesture that is not in keeping with the black-tarpaulined shacks of his temporary community. The red earth on which the shacks are built was once covered by forest; now it is denuded and littered with trash.

The roadside camp is home to a community of Guarani-Kaiowá Indians, largest tribe in Brazil. For the Guarani, land is everything. It is not only the origin of all life, and a precious gift from Nande Ru, the great father; it is life itself. Today, however, the endless deforestation of Mato Grosso do Sul, (which, ironically, means "thick forest of the south"), in southern Brazil has turned their land into a vast, dry network of cattle ranches, soya fields, and the sugar cane plantations that supply the booming bio-fuels market.

Destroying vast swathes of forest has left many Guarani squeezed onto tiny patches of land, either in designated reserves or by the road, where they drink water from plastic tanks and polluted streams. Gone, for most, are the forest gardens where they planted manioc and corn; gone is the ability to freely hunt game. The impact of this land loss on the physical and mental health of the Guarani people has been profound.

Guarani-Kaiowá leader Amilton Lopes spoke about the impact to Fiona Watson, Field Director of Survival International, an organisation that campaigns for the rights of tribal peoples and where I have worked as an editorial consultant since 2009.

"You become spiritually empty," he said. "When you are linked with nature, surrounded by forests, you have life. You have everything."

The life expectancy of the Guarani people is low (45 years; the average in Brazil is 72 years), and their rates of malnutrition, alcoholism, violent crime, and suicide are high. Statistics released by the Brazilian organisation CIMI (Conselho Indigenista Missionario, the Indigenist Missionary Council) in 2008 report that 80 Guarani children had died as a result of malnutrition in the previous 5 years. "Almost all the Guarani's forest been taken from them in the past 100 years, so they have been left with very little land to plant on," Watson said.

After visting the Guarani people's Apyka'y community at the end of 2010, Watson said she found that they have little access to clean water and are suffering from diarrhea caused by chemicals that are used on sugarcane plantations and bleed into rivers, killing their fish and causing diarrhoea. "They are also suffering from intense headaches caused by vinhoto, a chemical that is the by-product of converting sugar cane into ethanol," Watson said.
Dilma Modesto, a Guarani health agent from the Guyraroká community said she is worried. "Since the sugarcane has been planted, children, adults and the elderly have been suffering from many diseases," she said. "We have coughs, sore throats, headaches, diarrhea, and vomiting. Many children are suffering. I want the children to be as they were before, when all was OK."

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Joanna Eede is a writer and author focusing on tribal peoples and the relationship between man and nature. She is also an editorial consultant for Survival International

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