“Land Is Life”: Indians Vs. Agro-industry In Mato Grosso Do Sul

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¶1. (U) Summary: Indigenous groups and agriculturalists disagree
vigorously over land rights in Mato Grosso do Sul state, and
observers on both sides see no easy solution to a problem with
economic and cultural dimensions. On one side, the GOB, NGOs and
indigenous groups insist that state governments must return native
lands to the Indians, who then intend to return to their traditional
way of life. On the other, state and local political leaders scoff
at the legitimacy of Indian demands, saying this would break the
back of the region’s prosperity. In the background, the Indians are
grappling to define themselves. Indian participation in democratic
politics is rising, but there were also indications of possible
increased polarization at the grassroots level. End Summary.

¶2. (U) During a March 10-13 visit to Mato Grosso do Sul State,
Consul General and Poloff met with a variety of Federal and State
government, private sector, and indigenous representatives. Poloff
also visited an Indian reservation on the outskirts of the regional
city of Dourados (pop. 200,000). Among those interviewed were:
State Governor Andre Puccinelli, State Chief Justice Elpidio
Helvecio Chaves, Federal Prosecutor and indigenous rights advocate
Marco Antonio Delfino, Federal Anthropologist (Consultant to
Prosecutor) Marcos Homero Ferreiro Lima, President of the local
federation of industries (FIEMS) Sergio Marcolino Longen, Catholic
Indigenous Missionary Council (CIMI) attorney Rogerio Battaglia, and
Guarani indigenous leaders Otonicl Ricardo, Teodora de Souza, Edil
Benites, and Norvaldo Mendes.

Agriculturalists vs. Indians

¶3. (U) Mato Grosso do Sul’s thriving agriculture, powered by
sugarcane, cattle, wood, and soy production is moving the state
forward economically. The agricultural boom, however, has cost
indigenous groups, mostly Guarani and Terena Indians, their
ancestral lands. During the 1950s, Indians were pushed off their
lands in a variety of ways, ranging from purchases for artificially
low prices to outright expulsion. Consequently, only 0.5 percent of
the state’s territory remains in the hands of indigenous groups,
according to State Prosecutor Marco Antonio Delfino. This contrasts
with neighboring Mato Grosso State where 27 percent of the land
remains in indigenous hands.

Farmers Have Land, But Not Titles

¶4. (U) Mato Grosso do Sul’s agribusinesses possess the contested
lands, in many cases for decades, but relatively few have legal
title to those holdings. According to University of Sao Paulo
geographer Professor Ariovaldo Umbelino de Oliveira, 30 to 40
percent of the big agriculturalists in states like Mato Grosso do
Sul have no title to their holdings. Encouraged by the recent
Raposa/Serra do Sol decision (Refs A and B), the Indians are now
awaiting a Federal Government survey (“demarcation”) that promises
to give back their ancestral territories.

The Establishment: Just Say No!

¶5. (SBU) State and local leaders from the top down were adamant in
their rejection of Indian land demands. They also had strong
criticisms of Indian attitudes and culture. Among the views

— Governor Puccinelli scoffed at the idea that land, in an
agricultural state like Mato Grosso to Sul, could be taken away from
productive farmers who had cultivated these lands “for decades” and
returned to Indian groups.

— State Chief Justice Chaves complained that Indian advocacy
groups, including the Catholic Church NGO CIMI, regularly slander
local law enforcement representatives, charging them with torture
and racism, when local officials are simply trying to enforce the

–Chaves warned that trends toward separatism in the Indian
community – concentrating Indians on expanded reservations – would
only magnify their problems. Dourados has a neighboring
reservation, which Chaves predicted would become “Brazil’s first
indigenous favela” if tendencies to isolate and give separate
treatment to indigenous peoples continue.

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–Chaves and other local officials clearly believed the Indian land
claims and stated intentions to return to traditional life were
baseless. City and state officials asked how the local Indians
claim to be indigenous, when these same Indians “use cars, sneakers,
drugs?” They complained about state subsidies to the Indians,
stating that the latter “would have to learn to work like everyone

The Indians and Their Allies

¶6. (U) Indigenous advocates, including GOB officials, and
indigenous representatives held diametrically opposed views:

–Indigenous leaders were unrelenting in their land demands and
would accept no substitute for their ancestral territories, where
their forefathers are buried and where they can live in a more
traditional, communal fashion. “The land is life,” they said.

–GOB and CIMI representatives charged that local officials had used
scare tactics, whipping up panic-inducing public campaigns that
exaggerate how much land would be returned to the Indians. They
also stated the indigenous make up a disproportional amount of the
area’s prison population.

On the Reservation

¶7. (U) A visit to the Guarani/Terena Indian reservation just
outside Dourados with Federal Anthropologist and Indian advocate
Homero Ferreiro Lima confirmed elements from the accounts given by
those on both sides of the conflict.

The State Has Provided Help…

¶8. (U) On the one hand, Federal and State officials, as well as
Protestant missionaries, have provided the reservation with tangible
benefits, including a hospital, two schools (one functioning, one
under construction), and brick houses. Indians also receive a
monthly stipend from the GOB.

…But It Often Doesn’t Match Indians’ Needs

¶9. (U) On the other hand, much of what the government gives does
not match the Indians’ needs, according to Ferreira Lima. Brick
houses, for example, do not support the Indian’s nomadic lifestyle,
which is how they have historically avoided intra-group conflict.
Among those who do not abandon their government-constructed houses,
reservation life has escalated interpersonal tensions, often
resulting in assaults and murders.

¶10. (SBU) Lima Ferreira also noted that historically the Guarani
had practiced infanticide. One possible legacy of this is a
significant number of abandoned, undernourished children cared for
in a special division of the reservation hospital, visited by
Poloff. As Lima Ferreira acknowledged, child abandonment may still
be culturally acceptable among some of the Indians, but constitutes
a crime and a scandal in the eyes of the Brazilian State and

Indian Political Participation/Possible Polarization

¶11. (U) Indigenous groups are divided among the best course of
action to achieve their political goals. Ferreira Lima noted that,
in the face of public campaigns against Indian land claims, the
Indians were making inroads into local politics, electing
state-level congressional representatives and mayors in
predominantly indigenous areas. At the same time, teachers at the
reservation school advocated direct action. During Poloff’s visit,
faculty were showing students a film about how Yanomami Indians had
kidnapped and held hostage a bulldozer operator who threatened to
cross into their lands. They released him when local law
enforcement arrived. The local teachers asserted that this was a
good “consciousness-raising” example for students.

Comment: No End in Sight

¶12. (SBU) It was difficult to see a potential middle ground in the
Indian-agribusiness conflict over land in Dourados. Though the
local Indians seem less radical than, for example, the non-ethnic
Landless People’s Movement (MST), they appear no less dedicated to
their eventual goal of regaining ancestral lands. Landowner

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opposition is similarly entrenched. Curiously, the Indians have
never linked up with the MST, because they see their
ethnically-based cause as distinct from that of those who are simply
landless. While agribusiness often lack clear land title, they
frequently can show long-term land utilization, and their activity
is crucial to the state’s growing economic prosperity. The outcome
of ongoing legal cases is unclear, but,
in the meantime, indigenous land issues in Mato Grosso do Sul and
other areas will continue to present challenges to Brazilian
democracy. End Comment.

¶13. (U) This cable was coordinated/cleared by Embassy Brasilia.