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.
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."
All hasn't been OK, however, since the Guarani occupied their ancestral lands, where they had access to forest, water, plants, and animals. "Almost no other tribe in Brazil has survived after suffering such a scale of loss of land as the Guaraní," Watson said. This dispossession has triggered not only physical problems, but mental health issues as well. More than 625 Guarani have committed suicide since 1981, the youngest being only 9 years old. In 2009, their suicide rate was 10 times the national average, according to CIMI. '"The Guarani are committing suicide because we have no land," said Rosalino Ortiz, leader of the Yvy Katu community. "In the old days, we were free. Now we are no longer. So our young people look around them and think there is nothing left. They lose themselves. Then they commit suicide."
The Guarani's health problems are not uncommon. To most of the world's 150 million tribal people, land and life are inextricably linked. "We cannot separate our place on Earth from our lives on the Earth nor from our vision nor our meaning as a people," Cherokee Jimmie Durham told Congress in 1978. George Rich, an Innu man from Canada, told me, "The land is a part of your life. Without it, you are nothing. Everything that is connected to the land are symbols of Innu identity -- of who you are as a human being."
For the Innu, the northernmost Algonquin-speaking peoples of North America, this "nothingness" that comes from being divorced from Nitassinan, the sub-arctic expanse of tundra, lakes, and forests that has been their homelands for 7,500 years, has exacerbated alcoholism, glue-sniffing, and shocking suicide rates. During the 1950s and 1960s, the Canadian government and the Catholic Church, looking for land and souls, respectively, pressured the once-nomadic Innu into settling in fixed communities. The transition for a traditionally mobile people was traumatic -- and still is. A recent report published by Michael Jong, Vice President of Medical Services at the Labrador Health Centre, shows that suicides between 2006 and 2009 were 75 per 100,00 per year,7 times the Canadian average.
"I've seen Innu people who, when in 'the country' were strong, healthy, intelligent and felt good about themselves, become drunk as soon as they return to the resettlement village," said Colin Samson, a sociologist based at the University of Essex who has worked with the Innu since 1994. Samson said it's hard to prove that Innu suicides are directly linked to their dispossession, but that the onset of such high rates coincided with the resettlement program. "It is not accidental that as the Innu people have gone from having meaning and purpose in life to having none, and as their position and authority have been taken away, so severe mental health problems have arisen," he said.
Resettlement can also cause more immediate problems. Exercise levels drop, as former hunters and gatherers transition to a sedentary existence in resettlement villages. Nutrition decreases substantially. In general, the standard of health of tribes who still live on their own lands is far better than those who have been forcibly removed. Correspondingly, rates of depression, addiction, and suicide soar.
World Health Organisation statistics report that, in some regions of Australia, Aborigines with sedentary lives have a diabetes prevalence rate as high as 26 percent, while in the Pima reservation of Arizona more than half of Indians over the age of 35 have diabetes (while those living in the mountains have none). In Botswana, since the government forced the Bushmen from the Central Kalahari Game Reserve to eviction camps outside the reserve, the Bushmen have been gripped by alcoholism, unemployment, depression and HIV/AIDS.
Among the Innu today, however, there is hope and determination. This year, a band of young Innu men will walk across their ancestral territory, as they did in 2010, to raise awareness of the chronic levels of diabetes among Innu people. "Dressed in white, like winter caribou, they walked in single file hauling their toboggans, rising early in the morning, travelling through the Innu homeland Nitassinan, until nightfall," wrote Armand Mackenzie, a lawyer for the Quebec Innu, of their journey last year. "The Young Innu Cultural Health Walkers don't walk to be popular," he wrote, "but for a simple reason: to fight against diabetes and to promote physical activity amongst our People."
For hundreds of years, the Guarani have also travelled vast
distances across their ancestral territories, but for a different
reason: in search of a fabled place where, it is said, their people can
live free from pain and suffering. This place they call yvy marane'ý,
the "land without evil." Living in roadside camps, they are still far
from this land. Neither their health is likely to improve, nor their
suffering diminish, unless they are able to recover parts of their land.
"We are like the plants," said the late Marta Guarani. "We cannot live
without our earth, without our land."
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