Brazil property rights: Tribes and farmers battle to the death


SIDROLANDIA, Brazil — Early one morning in May, gunfire rang out in a rural encampment of the indigenous Terena tribe in southwestern Brazil, killing Oziel Gabriel, who had been carrying a bow and arrow.

Though violent disputes over land between farm owners and tribesmen aren’t uncommon in Brazil, this case has drawn attention because witnesses say Gabriel, a school janitor in his mid-30s, wasn’t shot by pistoleiros — hired gunmen sent by farm owners to clear native Brazilians off the land — but by uniformed police officers.

“They wouldn’t stop shooting. They kept shooting, shooting, shooting at us,” said Laucir Marques. “I ran into a patch of forest, and Oziel Gabriel entered with us too, with his son.”


Gabriel never fired his bow and arrow, Marques says, and was shot in the chest as he crouched to avoid the bullets.

Brazil’s federal and military police forces have not commented on the incident, which witnesses say began with the firing of tear gas but quickly escalated into gunfire. An investigation by the federal prosecutor’s office is underway, but could take years to be completed.

Meanwhile, the often-deadly property rights battles between farm owners and tribes such as the Terena are likely to continue.

After Gabriel was killed, his cousin was shot in the back by unknown assailants, and a chief of the Guarani-Kaiowa, elsewhere in Mato Grosso do Sul state, was killed by pistoleiros while walking to work, according to the Indigenous Missionary Council, or CIMI.

Life hasn’t been easy for Brazil’s indigenous peoples since the Portuguese arrived more than 500 years ago. But the problems have worsened of late, the groups say, as an agricultural boom, led by exports to China, has increased the congressional lobbying power of the ruralista, which represents landowners whose interests often clash with those of the tribes.

Neither demonstrations by sympathetic Brazilians nor denunciations by nongovernmental organizations have done much to defuse the conflict.

When Brazil’s military dictatorship left power in the 1980s, tainted by accusations of genocide targeting indigenous peoples, the new government began demarcating land for the roughly 800,000 tribal members. But the ruralista lobby has often succeeded in blocking property claims and is now challenging the entire system of land distribution to indigenous groups.

President Dilma Rousseff’s political alliance with the ruralistas was among the grievances listed by some of the protesters in the massive demonstrations that recently rocked Brazil. Afterward, in July, she met with indigenous leaders for the first time since taking office in 2011, but said in the meeting that she wouldn’t halt the changes to the process for demarcating land reserves that ruralistas have been pushing for.

“Dilma needed the agricultural industry for her election,” said Tonico Benites, a professor of anthropology and a specialist in indigenous issues at the Federal University of Greater Dourados. “And she needs them now in Congress too.”

The center of Brazil’s farming boom is also the center of violence here in Mato Grosso do Sul, a state that’s home to the country’s largest number of indigenous peoples and whose government is run by ruralistas.

More than 560 indigenous Brazilians have been killed in the last decade, according to CIMI, most of them in Mato Grosso do Sul.

Tribes on legal reserves say farmers don’t respect the boundaries, coming in to deforest and steal resources. Other tribes that have been waiting, in some cases for more than a decade, for lands they believe they were promised by the government have decided to occupy them, resulting in a violent pushback by farmers.

The Terena people on the Buriti farm where Oziel Gabriel was killed say they were told in 2010 that their village would receive an additional 42,000 acres they could farm. When the legal process stalled, they occupied land they considered their ancestral home. In May, the owner of the farm, a well-connected former politician, won a court order to have the residents expelled by force.

The treatment the Terena received isn’t surprising, said Marcelo Christovao, an investigator for the Federal Public Ministry, because the agricultural sector, state government and local media are united against the indigenous peoples.

“Except for CIMI, a part of the Catholic Church, no one around here defends them,” he said.

Christovao, who has been collecting testimony from dozens injured in the Buriti incident, said he had no reason to doubt Marques’ account.

“The authorities and the police completely ignored the protocols for reasserting possession of land,” he said. “They didn’t give warning to either the people or FUNAI [the National Indian Foundation]. They got their orders late one night and showed up here at 6 a.m. the next morning.”


In Mato Grosso do Sul, many tribes lived with relatively little interference until the mid-1800s, when Brazil gained disputed territory in a war with Paraguay. Afterward, some land was sold off to white Brazilians.

“The idea was to ‘populate’ the region after the war,” said Benites, the professor. “They’d sell the land and say, ‘There’s nobody there. Just some Indians.’ ”

A rediscovered government report from the era of military dictatorship said life for those who came under government control was marked by enslavement or killing. “Children [were] bought and sold to serve the instincts of inhuman individuals,” the document said. “Torturing children and adults in slow and monstrous sessions was the official administration of justice.”

Indigenous leaders say that after centuries of exploitation, they are pushing back. Ruralistas counter that the government shouldn’t have sold them title to land if they couldn’t really have it.

“The farmers just want the government to tell them if the land is theirs or not,” said Osorio Luiz Straliotto, president of the Sidrolandia Agricultural Union.

“The occupations started in 2000 and haven’t stopped since,” he said.

Sen. Katia Abreu, head of the ruralista group in Brazil’s Congress, says agriculture is vital to the nation’s economy and blames “ideological militants that have taken hold of FUNAI, encourag[ing] the Indians to invade productive lands.”

Many in Sidrolandia question why indigenous reserves should be expanded.

“Those Indians don’t live like they did before, hunting and gathering,” said Straliotto. “They’re integrated, and they like technology, they like cellphones, they like cars.”

Tribal leaders say that argument doesn’t hold water.

“We’re here, and we’re intelligent, and of course we’re going to adapt to new technologies like everyone else,” said Jerilson Samuel, a chief living on the occupied farm. “We don’t stop being Indians just because we don’t live in the jungle and act like it’s still 1500.”


Getulio Juca Ava Potyvra, 60, sits with his wife, Alda Silva Kunha Tupa Rendyi, in their traditional Guarani-Kaiowa hut four hours from the Terena settlement, using a laptop to watch old TV news reports on the wave of expulsions that cleared out fellow tribe members. They point out friends and relatives who they say were later killed by pistoleiros or police.

“We have fought for so, so long, and what have we gotten?” said Silva. “They killed my great-grandfather. My father fought for a decade before they killed him. They killed my uncle. But what can we do? We know what they come here for. To kill us.”

The Guarani-Kaiowa is perhaps the only tribe that’s a household name in Brazil. Last year, news spread like wildfire on the Internet when an entire settlement was reported to prefer collective death over being expelled from its land. Though initial reports that the residents were announcing mass suicide were inaccurate, more than 1,000 of 30,000 tribal members have killed themselves in the last three decades, more than 60 times the national suicide rate. Others have died in violent conflicts or been killed by cars along the road near their homes.

Amnesty International said in a report this year that the Kaiowa (a subset of the larger Guarani linguistic group, present in many countries in South America) have suffered from “intimidation, violence and the threat of forced eviction.”

“They’ve burned down my house, we drink dirty water, and the cars keep taking more of my family away from me,” said Damiana Cavanha, 74, who has lived alongside a highway for 14 years, as close as legally possibly to what she claims is her land. “I’ve always been here, and I’m never leaving.”

Bevins is a special correspondent.