Sarah Shenker, Senior Research and Advocacy Officer at Survival International, visits a Guarani community under siege in Mato Grosso do Sul, Brazil

A version of this article appeared on the National Geographic Blog on June 28, 2018

Three gunshots. Bang, bang, bang.

The night was pitch black. It was impossible to know where the gunmen were.

“They’re sending a message,” Genito Guarani said. “They’re watching our every move.”

Genito Guarani, a leader of the Guaviry community in Mato Grosso do Sul state, in southern Brazil. The Guarani’s land has been stolen by profiteers. They are fighting bravely to get it back.Genito Guarani, a leader of the Guaviry community in Mato Grosso do Sul state, in southern Brazil. The Guarani’s land has been stolen by profiteers. They are fighting bravely to get it back.
© Survival International

Like everyone at Guaviry, Genito knows that he belongs to this land, more than it could ever belong to him. His ancestors are buried here. The people here understand the curves of these streams and the dips and peaks of their hills. They have depended on this land, shaped it, and nurtured and protected it for generations. They call it the tekohá, the “land without evil”.

Destroyed Guarani land: once this was rich forest, but the Guarani’s "land without evil" has been stolen by ranchers.Destroyed Guarani land: once this was rich forest, but the Guarani’s “land without evil” has been stolen by ranchers.
© Survival International

The gunshots began when the tekohá was stolen. In the 1950s and 60s this land was invaded and colonized by ranchers who razed the forest to the ground to make way for cattle, then soya, corn and sugarcane. Thousands of Guarani are now forced to live in overcrowded reserves and in makeshift camps on the sides of highways, where rates of malnutrition, disease, alcoholism and suicide are soaring, and where Guarani leaders are targeted and killed by the ranchers’ gunmen. It is one of the most urgent humanitarian crises of our time.

Thousands of Guarani live precariously in makeshift camps, taking back their land meter by meter.Thousands of Guarani live precariously in makeshift camps, taking back their land meter by meter.
© Survival International

Yet this land is Guarani land and they belong to each other still. The Guarani know where to collect the few remaining medicinal plants, and they know the hidden places where they might still find animals to hunt to feed their families. The inhabitants of Guaviry understand implicitly that only here, on their tekohá, can they truly be Guarani.

Papito Guarani wears a typical guarani feather headdress and necklaces made of seeds gathered from a tiny patch of forest that survives on their land. The instrument is called an mbaraka and is used for rituals, ceremonies, and dancing.Papito Guarani wears a typical guarani feather headdress and necklaces made of seeds gathered from a tiny patch of forest that survives on their land. The instrument is called an mbaraka and is used for rituals, ceremonies, and dancing.
© Survival

“We need our land for our families and our future, for our survival as a people,” Genito said. “Our land is sacred. We don’t exploit it or throw pesticides on it… For us, land is life. It’s just like a human being.”

Tiny fish: pesticides kill them off before they are big enough to eat. Guarani people from Mato Grosso do Sul in Brazil suffer alarming rates of malnutrition as ranchers are keeping them off their land, and poisoning the waters.Tiny fish: pesticides kill them off before they are big enough to eat. Guarani people from Mato Grosso do Sul in Brazil suffer alarming rates of malnutrition as ranchers are keeping them off their land, and poisoning the waters.
© Sarah Shenker

This injustice has been done to them both; to this people and to this land. According to Brazilian law, the government should have mapped out and protected the Guarani’s land decades ago. But the process has come to a stand-still and powerful politicians of the anti-indigenous agribusiness lobby in Congress are now trying to block it altogether, through a series of proposed bills and changes to the Constitution.
“Now, they’re out to kill us with the law, as well as with their guns,” Genito warned.

In April 2014, Guarani from the community of Pyelito Kuê managed to film gunmen driving past their village and firing shots at them in broad daylight, Mato Grosso do Sul, Brazil.In April 2014, Guarani from the community of Pyelito Kuê managed to film gunmen driving past their village and firing shots at them in broad daylight, Mato Grosso do Sul, Brazil.
© Aty Guasu/Survival

Genito is relieved to be alive. He has received several death threats. Many of his relatives have been assassinated by the ranchers’ gunmen. His father, Nísio Gomes, was murdered by these hired goons after leading the families of Guaviry back to a small patch of their land in 2011. Those families are now on constant alert

Guarani children, a brother and sister. Two of their family members were killed in the struggle to reoccupy the land where this photo was taken.Guarani children, a brother and sister. Two of their family members were killed in the struggle to reoccupy the land where this photo was taken.
© Survival

The children of Guaviry have seen bullets flying past their faces. Some of them have been warned to mask their identity as they, too, are targets for the gunmen. They find themselves subject to racism and bullying when they travel to the nearby school. This is a community under siege, fighting bravely for the land that is still their life.

A Guarani child’s drawing depicting a gunman killing a member of a Guarani community.A Guarani child’s drawing depicting a gunman killing a member of a Guarani community.
© Survival

Jonara, Genito’s niece, said: “We Guarani children and teenagers are fighting for our sacred land. It’s so sad that the ranchers are destroying our forest and our animals, and making us suffer. The ranchers and gunmen do whatever they want. They kill us, and then they disappear. We hug our parents every day, because we don’t know when the gunmen might kill us. Why are they doing this to us? We indigenous people were the first ones to live here in our Brazil!”

But their Brazil is slipping away. To echoes of rapturous applause, presidential candidate Jair Bolsonaro promised that, “There won’t be even one more centimeter of indigenous land” if he becomes Brazil’s next president. With the national elections due in Brazil in October 2018, tensions, already high, are becoming increasingly violent. Many of the ranchers on Guarani land are closely linked to state and federal politicians; some of the ranchers are even politicians themselves.

Much of the Guarani's land has been taken over by cattle ranchers who employ gunmen to force the Guarani out.Much of the Guarani’s land has been taken over by cattle ranchers who employ gunmen to force the Guarani out.
© Fiona Watson/Survival

“Reoccupations are the only way forward for us now.” Genito said. “So we returned here. The ranchers then sent dozens of gunmen to surround and attack us day and night for 80 days and 80 nights. Bullets were flying left, right and center. But we stood firm. We didn’t budge. We won’t budge.”

The Guarani perform rituals on their ancestral land. They are spiritually connected with it, and many members of their community are buried here.The Guarani perform rituals on their ancestral land. They are spiritually connected with it, and many members of their community are buried here.
© Fiona Watson/Survival

The Guarani know better than to wait for the government to take action. Genito’s family recently walked back to a sacred part of their land and took over part of the ranch there, including the rancher’s house and a cluster of outhouses. They feel stronger and stronger here, on their land. Their sense of self, their confidence and identity is reinforced with every extra hectare taken back under their control. They long to recover all of their tekohá, their “land without evil”.

A Guarani man at a community gathering reading a Survival leaflet. Survival have been working with Guarani communities since the 1970s.A Guarani man at a community gathering reading a Survival leaflet. Survival have been working with Guarani communities since the 1970s.
© Survival International

Survival International has been working with the Guarani for decades, leading the global fight against their persecution and supporting their struggle to return to their territory. “We need international help,” Genito said. “Survival defends our lives and we will continue to live, with Survival’s support. We pray that our supporters around the world remain strong and continue to fight with us, for as long as it takes.”
The reoccupied land at Guaviry now boasts a prayer house, a central hub for the community where they gather at night to communicate with their gods and to sing and dance to further strengthen their resistance.

Guarani children playing at sunset. This is a community with astonishing resilience in these most difficult and violent circumstances.Guarani children playing at sunset. This is a community with astonishing resilience in these most difficult and violent circumstances.
© Survival International

“We are happy that you’ve come”, the children chant, as we dance in the circular motion of the Guarani’s traditional guaxiré dance.

The children’s re-energized voices ring loud against the silent black night.

Three gunshots. Bang, bang, bang.

A few seconds of silence, and then the singing resumes.

“One day, we will live in peace on our land,” Genito told me. “It’s tough. We are being killed along the way, but if we leaders are killed, our families will carry on fighting… We won’t give up until we have our land back.”


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