An Ominous Sign in Brazil's Simmering Land Battles: Dom Phillips

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The Brazilian state of Mato Grosso do Sul, near the Paraguay border, is one of Brazil’s biggest agricultural producers. It's also home to one of the largest populations of indigenous Brazilians, many of whom live in settlements on farms where they claim land rights. Last week, these two facts collided violently.

A British NGO called Survival had the story:

Gunmen surrounded Nisio Gomes, ordering members of his community to lie on the ground. Witnesses say he was shot in the head, chest, arms and legs. The 59-year-old’s body was then driven away.

Gomes was a Guarani Indian chief who was leading his tribe’s reoccupation of ancestral land in Mato Grosso do Sul. Survival, which has documented a number of attacks on Guarani over the years, added that there were reports of other murders and kidnappings as part of the same incident.

The same day, the news site Uol reported that six farmers had been arraigned for the murders of two Guarani teachers and land-rights activists in 2009. "The NGO Amnesty International had used the crime against the teachers as an example of the impunity of violence against the Guaranis," the site said.

Gomes's brutal murder shocked the Brazilian media, and brought some much-needed attention to the battle over land rights raging in many rural communities here.

As the news site G1 said:

Fights for land between indigenous people and rural producers are increasingly common in Mato Grosso do Sul ... Historian Antonio Brand explains that the Indians were expelled from their lands as the colonizers arrived. According to him, little by little, the farms were built, green areas deforested and the natives moved to other locations. Today, the majority live in camps and are trying to take back the space that belongs to them.

Farmers contend otherwise. G1 quoted Josiel dos Santos, an indigenous affairs aide at the Agriculture and Livestock Federation of Mato Grosso do Sul:

The large majority of our farms were built under a completely legal structure, acquired in good faith. There was no expulsion or murder of Indians.

He argued that the conflicts resulted from an incorrect interpretation of the law.

The populist station TV Record aired a detailed 16-minute report on the violence during its morning magazine program, "Hoje Em Dia." “What we saw was worrying,” said the reporter, Luiz Fernandes.

The distribution of Indians in Mato Grosso do Sul follows "an inhuman logic," Fernandes said, with 45,000 of the 75,000 Indians living on less than 2 percent of state territory. Marco Delfino, a prosecutor, told the program that this process of “confinement” was “a situation much like a concentration camp. A policy carried out by the federal government.”

Legally, it's unclear who the rightful owners of the land are in this dispute. Government anthropologists are visiting many of the properties that the Indians claim and assessing who has rights to them. But Delfino explained that farmers often had titles given to them by the federal government in the 1950s, when it wanted to encourage agricultural development. One solution the state is considering is to offer compensation to farmers whose land would be given back to Indians.

Meanwhile Indians like Gomes -- squatting on land both they and farmers claim -- are in a dangerous state of legal limbo.

TV Record’s report interviewed landowner Raul das Neves, who has Indians living on his farm. “We had to put security here because I was scared that my family would suffer some aggression,” he said. He showed the camera an ownership document for his farm dated 1842. “If we lose this land, we’re going to have to deliver it, for free, with a kiss on the hand. We’re going to swap with the Indians, and we’re going to the side of the road.”

The report left viewers with a clear sense that more violence was inevitable.

The Amambai News site reported Nov. 21 that the Indians in Gomes’s community had decided to stay put as the government attempts to sort out the land's ownership. The site noted that legal wrangling over the land where Gomes was killed had been unfolding since 2008.

It quoted a widely published and deeply pessimistic note from the Indigenous Missionary Council, a Brazilian Catholic NGO working in the area, which placed the blame with higher authorities, such as the state and federal governments. It said the "public power" had been "silent, negligent and subservient." And the legal process, the council argued, "has been moving slowly -- while death arrives increasingly rapidly in Indian encampments.”

It’s this delay in resolving the legal tangle that raises the tragic possibility of yet more murders.

(Dom Phillips is the Sao Paulo correspondent for World View. The opinions expressed are his own.)


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