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article imageFarmers, indigenous tribes suffer in Brazil land clashes

By Hélène Seingier (AFP)     Dec 2, 2015 in World

Brazilian farmer Rui Escobar waves a yellow piece of paper in frustration: it's his title to land that local indigenous tribes argue has belonged to them for far, far longer.

"This farm has belonged to my family for more than 100 years. But I can't farm there because the Indians have moved in. I had to go with the army just to harvest my corn," the 55-year-old farmer in Dourados, western Brazil, said.

In a land struggle fueled by massive production of soybeans, corn and livestock, Brazil's farmers are often cast as the villains, robbing indigenous people of ancestral rights -- and sometimes using lethal violence. They don't only have the finances and firepower, but also huge political muscle in Congress where the farm lobby is one of the most powerful.

Even so, the reality is more complex, with farmers like Escobar saying they're also victims.

The roots of the struggle go at least as far back as the 19th century when the state handed lands along the frontier with Paraguay to non-native settlers. Guarani tribespeople were expelled and pushed into reserves, which turned into miserable centers of ill health and alcoholism.

Brazilian farmer Rui Escobar holds his title to land that local indigenous tribes argue has belonged...
Brazilian farmer Rui Escobar holds his title to land that local indigenous tribes argue has belonged to them for far, far longer
Helene Seingier, AFP

Then from the 1970s, the government began defining ancestral Guarani lands and the native people saw their chance to move back.

For some, this was relatively simple. But often complex legal disputes started, leaving the status of valuable land -- mostly flat terrain of cleared forests taken over by cattle, corn and soybeans -- uncertain.

Many Guarani people became impatient with endless delays and moved in anyway, claiming their rights. The turbulence sent land prices falling and put a hole in the market for farm equipment.

"Who's going to buy equipment or land if they could wind up getting invaded tomorrow?" asked Escobar.

His family's farm had a turnover of about $1.9 million, but now he says he faces ruin.

- Bloodshed -

What the indigenous people call "reoccupations" often end up with blood spilled, usually native.

Guarani indigenous people stand by the grave of Simeao Vilhalva who was killed during a confrontatio...
Guarani indigenous people stand by the grave of Simeao Vilhalva who was killed during a confrontation with local farmers in Antonio Joao, Mato Grosso do Sul, Brazil
Helene Seingier, AFP

For example, in late August, Guaranis from Marangatu village, west of Dourados, settled on territory that was technically recognized as theirs, but whose final status had been up in the air since 2005.

Confronting them were dozens of farmers in support of the farmer claiming the land and during clashes, a 24-year-old Guarani, Simeao Vilhalva, was shot in the head. His body is buried there.

More than 40 indigenous tribe members were murdered in 2014, according to latest figures from Cimi, a group defending their cause.

Escobar says his "family was against the violence, although others were less scrupulous."

However the farmer was himself charged with two murders in 2011 and his trial has not yet come to a conclusion.

Some farmers have hired armed security guards, adding to the sense of menace in the disputed zones.

"If someone comes in, we are authorized to immobilize him," said one such guard, armed with a pistol, behind a gate at the Ouro Verde, or Green Gold, farm in Paranhos, southwest of Dourados.

Many farmers say they would be happy to leave the lands to the indigenous people provided they recei...
Many farmers say they would be happy to leave the lands to the indigenous people provided they received government compensation, but that, however, appears to be unrealistic
Cris Loff, AFP

Some settlers have gone further, paying for security companies to expel what they consider native squatters.

"If the police or army kills an Indian, it would create problems. They prefer leaving that to us," the director of one such group, who did not want to be identified, told AFP.

But many farmers say they would be happy to leave the lands to the indigenous people provided they received government compensation. That, however, appears to be unrealistic.

"They proposed giving me 8,000 reais per hectare, but that's what you'd get for undeveloped land," said one farmer, who did not want to be identified, in Paranhos. "There's nothing in that for the irrigation system I installed and which alone is worth 10,000 reais per hectare."

Indigenous groups are looking for their own way to apply economic pressure, by calling for boycotts of meat, sugar and soya from the disputed agricultural heartlands of Mato Grosso do Sul region, saying the goods are "stained with indigenous blood."

Yet their economic and political clout is limited. The farmers, by contrast, enjoy the status that goes with working in a sector that accounts for 20 percent of Brazilian GDP.

That agriculture lobby influence may now get yet another boost if a constitutional amendment under consideration in Congress goes their way.

Until now, the relatively neutral authorities in federal government have been in charge of delineating what is indigenous territory and what is free for farming. Under the proposed amendment, that job would be handed to Congress -- opening the door to massive lobbying.

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