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Land Is Life or Death in Brazil

S. America: Suicide rates among Indians climb as tribes lose hope of regaining ancestral property.


ANTONIO JOAO, Brazil -- The ceiling of Ramao da Silva's grass-roofed hut was so low he had to kneel to hang himself. Using a dirty shirt for a noose, the 24-year-old Kaiowa Indian strangled slowly and deliberately.

Neighbors recall how da Silva had agonized over the prospect of being forced off his tribe's traditional lands. No matter that it was 74 rocky acres unsuitable for farming, that it had no game or fresh water, that it legally belonged to a cattle rancher. He would die before he left it.

"He couldn't take it any more, the uncertainty of whether we'd be evicted or not. He didn't want to see his wife and kids beaten. That's why he killed himself," says Hamilton Lopes, a community leader.

The remaining Kaiowa also are gradually asphyxiating, as Western civilization encroaches on their ancestral lands and traditional way of life. Repulsed by ranchers and police, the Indians are turning to alcohol and suicide.

Since 1986, 348 Kaiowa and Guarani Indians have committed suicide -- 42 last year alone -- in Mato Grosso do Sul, a frontier state nearly the size of California on Brazil's western border with Paraguay and Bolivia.

"Today, there's no way out for the Kaiowa, for the Guarani, for any Indian," says Mario Turibio da Silva, Ramao's cousin. "Life has lost its meaning. Before we had total liberty. Today, we have court injunctions, beatings and tear gas."

For Ramao da Silva, the end came March 5, as federal police were preparing to evict him and 300 other Kaiowa Indians from an area they invaded three years earlier to pressure the government into declaring it an Indian reservation.

A last-minute court injunction had postponed the eviction for 90 days, long enough for the Indians to harvest their meager crops. But it was too late for da Silva, the latest victim in a clash of two cultures and conflicting laws intended to protect both.

"On the one hand, the Constitution guarantees indigenous peoples the rights to their ancestral land," explains Nereu Shneider, a lawyer working with the Kaiowa. "On the other, it protects private property."

Ranchers and Indians, caught in the middle, legitimately claim the land belongs to them. While the friction is more evident in fast-developing areas like Mato Grosso do Sul, it is quickly spreading as western civilization reaches into the vast Amazon rain forest, home to most of Brazil's 500,000 Indians.

"What is happening in Mato Grosso do Sul today is what the Amazon will become tomorrow," Shneider warns.

In March 2000, Federal Indian Bureau anthropologists identified two sacred Indian cemeteries and marked the boundaries of 24,200 acres around the invaded area as Kaiowa land, the first step in the long bureaucratic process of creating a reservation.

But meanwhile, much of the proposed Cerro Marangatu Indian reservation occupies Pio Silva's 3,344-acre Fronteira ranch. Under Brazilian law, Silva is entitled to government compensation for "improvements" to the land -- such as houses, fences and bridges -- but not for the land itself.

That didn't suit the 86-year-old rancher. So in December, he obtained a court order to evict the "trespassers."

"I paid taxes on the land all those years and now they don't even want to pay me for it. That's not right," says Silva (no relation to Ramao da Silva).

Silva claims his family had good relations with the Indians until outsiders started "manipulating" them and making trouble. He likes to show visitors a video, produced with the help of a local TV reporter, featuring scenes of Indian children lining up to get Christmas presents from his family, and his son solemnly donating a soccer ball to a group of smiling teenagers.

His 46-year-old son, Pio Queiroz Silva, who handles most of the day-to-day ranching chores, is less tolerant. "I defend Indians anywhere in the world, but I have to defend myself when they want to kidnap me, steal my cows and take over my property," he says.

He's especially bitter toward the Catholic Church and its Indigenous Missionary Council, which gets foreign funding -- largely from Germany -- and pays for lawyers to defend the Indians. For the younger Silva, it's part of an international plot to keep Brazil poor and backward.

The council's assistant director, Saulo Feitosa, says his group is merely helping the Indians assert their constitutional rights.

"We believe the Kaiowa's invasions are legitimate and legal, and that they are necessary to ensure the federal government honors its responsibility to demarcate Indian lands," Feitosa says.

Under Brazil's 1988 Constitution, all Indian lands were supposed to be demarcated within five years. But the process is so costly, controversial and time-consuming that today only about 30% has been fully delimited, Feitosa says.

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