During 2012, violent disputes continued on ancestral lands claimed by indigenous peoples in the state of Mato Grosso do Sul in south-west Brazil. It is home to some 44,000 Guaraní-Kaiowá, the second largest indigenous group in Brazil.

According to local media, having grown weary of being encamped along the roadsides waiting for the Brazilian government to demarcate their ancestral territory, the indigenous Guaraní-Kaiowá community of Pyelito Kue/Mbarakay occupied a small part of their lands, which had been taken over by large-scale farmers and ranchers. When ordered by the court to leave in October, the Guaraní publicly threatened to engage in mass suicide to protest their continuing dispossession.

The threat attracted global attention and highlighted the worsening conflicts over the ongoing invasion and occupation of indigenous territories in Brazil. For over a decade expanding cattle ranches and the agro-industrial cultivation of Brazil's two major biofuel-related export crops have pitted indigenous groups against landholders in the Matto Grosso region on the Brazil-Paraguay border.

Indigenous efforts to regain their dispossessed territories include occupations and there have been armed confrontations with landholders. The continuing armed attacks by local landowners, coupled with the October 2012 court ordered eviction, prompted 30 Pyelito Kue Kaiowá community families to announce their 'collective death' if they were driven off the land.

For over a week between late October and early November 2012, activists in Brazil mobilized protests in support of Guaraní-Kaiowá resistance in several of the main cities. Street demonstrations were also mobilized internationally, including protests in Germany, Portugal and the United States.

Faced with the growing and very public local and international clamour, the Brazilian government ordered the court ruling revoked. This allowed the Pyelito Kue Kaiowá families to stay where they were until the demarcation process is completed.

The Brazilian government has recognized indigenous rights to 9,317 hectares of Guaraní-Kaiowá community territory since 2005, however actual possession has been delayed by litigation and negotiations on landholder compensation. Since 1991, only eight reserves have been formally approved.

The ongoing delay has left the way open for takeovers by those seeking to enlarge their landed estates. Moreover, the state government has strongly supported agribusiness. This has only served to sharpen the conflict.

According to a study by the Brazilian NGO Repórter Brasil, the expansion is partly fuelled by rising international commodity prices for crops such as soy beans or sugarcane. This is prompting an increase in demand for arable land, which then leads to more communities being forced off their territories.

Land and health

Given the importance of land to indigenous cultural survival and mental health, the ongoing dispossession is taking a heavy toll. According to the Catholic Indigenous Missionary Council (CIMI), the rates of malnutrition, suicide and violence in Guaraní-Kaiowá communities are extremely high.

The Kaiowá are a nomadic people who have traditionally migrated in search of 'the land without evil' and there is a significant history of suicide, particularly among young people, in Kaiowá and other Guaraní groups. A total of 555 suicides between 2003 and 2010 in Mato Grosso indicates a suicide rate of nearly 80 a year (out of a population of 44,000 Guaraní-Kaiowá in the region).

Additional health concerns are directly connected to the large-scale agro-industry, including the intensive use of pesticides in the Guaraní-Kaiowá areas. This aggravates the destruction of rivers and forests that have traditionally represented indigenous hunting and fishing food survival sources.

Although the working conditions on large estates or in sugarcane ethanol biofuel plants are less than ideal, the increasing move towards agricultural mechanization in Brazil and the use of toxic chemicals is reducing even these employment opportunities for indigenous peoples. For many, dependence on government assistance is the only other available income option.


In an effort to stop transnational corporations from purchasing commodities from estates illegally located on disputed indigenous lands, the Brazilian NGO Repórter Brasil launched an international boycott campaign. However, evidence suggests that companies will continue buying these products as long as they think estate holders are not legally compelled to relinquish the occupied lands.

During 2012, the federal government promised to speed up the demarcation process; however farmers and ranchers continue to demand economic compensation for having to vacate indigenous territory.

Belo Monte

During 2012, protests continued in efforts to halt construction of the controversial Belo Monte dam, which is the largest in a number of contested energy expansion projects on indigenous territory in Brazil. Actions included a 21-day occupation of the site in late June and in July. Indigenous activists detained and later released three of the building engineers.

Of enormous significance to Belo Monte protesters and critics was the unanimous legal decision to cease all project construction issued by Brazil's federal regional tribunal of the first region (TRF-1) on 14 August 2012. Judges cited the lack of prior consultation with indigenous peoples affected by the massive hydroelectric project. The August ruling upheld an earlier 2005 court decision.

Nevertheless in late August 2012, in response to a complaint filed by the government, the Chief Justice of the Brazilian Supreme Court overturned the suspension, arguing that stopping construction of the dam would cause social and economic chaos, including the dismissal of some 14,000 workers. Construction resumed almost immediately. The Federal Public Prosecutor's Office appealed the decision and demanded a review by the Supreme Court. A further large-scale occupation took place in October, temporarily halting construction. In November, the Brazilian National Development Bank (BNDES) announced a loan of approximately US$11 billion towards the construction project; a first disbursement was made in January 2013, despite the ongoing legal process.

Indigenous groups have protested the giant Belo Monte dam project on the Xingu River, claiming that it would pose a great risk to their health and well-being. In addition to being a source of their livelihood and sustenance they regard the Xingu River as a living entity.

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