Indigenous Peoples

Eliseu Lopes and the Guaraní keep up their struggle for nature

Eliseu Lopes has been in Italy to talk about the dangers that indigenous Guaraní people are facing in Brazil in order to survive.

The Guaraní are an indigenous tribe living in the Brazilian Amazon, in the State of Mato Grosso do Sul on the border with Paraguay. They have the misfortune of having been one of the first indigenous communities contacted by European colonisers 500 years ago. Counting around 51,000 members, they’re divided between three groups, of which the Kaiowá people are the most well-known and numerous with 30,000 members. One of their leaders is Eliseu Lopes, a teacher who has also been the spokesperson of the Aty Guasu movement since 2007, fighting for the restitution of 350,000 kilometres of forests and plains that belonged to their ancestors. Today, the Guaraní are obliged to live in small parcels of land surrounded by factories, plantations and grazing lands. Some groups have even been deprived of their homes and are now forced to live on the street.

This is what Eliseu Lopes had to tell us about their struggle and resistance.

The phenomenon of land grabbing to make space for plantations is spreading the world over. In Brazil the Guaraní are most affected by this problem. What dangers do you face?
There’s just one danger: they’re destroying nature and devastating lands. They’re draining the rivers and cutting trees. In the future all of us will be affected by this. In this way human beings are putting an end to their lives. But protecting nature and life for the Guaraní is essential. Our challenge consists of protecting watercourses and preserving plants, defending medicinal plants and their fruits. We safeguard life and for this reason we fight to protect what’s left of nature.

Can you describe how your home has changed, how your lifestyle and forests have been transformed?
Our home as well as our dignity have been destroyed. Sugar factories, eucalyptus and corn plantations have taken their place. They’ve taken the space we had available, leaving us with nothing.

Money is one of the reasons lands that have belonged to indigenous peoples for centuries are now seized without respect. Another is that those who commit these crimes don’t understand your relationship with nature. Even if it’s hard to put into words, can you help us understand?
The owners of large factories, distilleries, grazing lands are earning millions of reais (Brazil’s currency) without understanding what nature really means. The land is like a mother to us and now she’s asking for help because someone wants to destroy her. There are human beings who don’t understand that ruining the land means ruining their own lives, because the land is everything. It’s what allows humanity to develop and progress.

The suicide and homicide rates among indigenous people are rising, caused by a number of factors including depression and dispossession. What is the Brazilian government doing to protect you?
Up to now we’ve seen no results, the government hasn’t satisfied any of the requests we’ve submitted over 30 years. The people who attack us go unpunished. The problem is particularly evident in Mato Grosso do Sul, the state inhabited by the Guaraní, whose enemy number one is precisely the government, which manages certain areas. In order to help us, it should stop giving the land to new colonisers, but, in fact, it is giving them more and more. They want to see us dead. We’ve heard many governments, from Lula’s to Dilma Rousseff’s, pledging to help us, but none of them solved our problems. Nobody has ever wanted to establish the boundary of our lands. That would be the only way to start helping us.

If you were the Brazilian president, what is the first thing you would you?
If I were president I’d try to understand what problems indigenous communities are facing. The issue affecting the Guaraní community is the most urgent because land is at stake. And if there’s no land, there’s no future. The only thing a president should do, in my opinion, is respect the law and its responsibilities. Our rights are enshrined in the Brazilian Constitution as well as in International Labour Organisation Convention 169. A president should simply recognise our rights, fix the boundaries and respect our land.

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