Monthly Archives: September 2011

Brazil’s Anglican Church works with indigenous people in their fight for land, existence

Reposted from Episcopal News Service

By Lynette Wilson, September 16, 2011

[Episcopal News Service] Guarani Chief Pedro Alves lives with his people in Tekoa Vy’a Renda Poty, a tiny village owned by the city of Santa Helena in the southern Brazil state of Paraná, where the city provides for their basic needs.

During the last 35 years or so, the Guarani, once a self-sustaining nomadic people in what was then their sub-tropical, deeply forested, biodiverse aboriginal lands, have been driven into dependency with the rise of industrial agriculture in Brazil and the accompanying construction of Itaipu, the world’s largest hydroelectric dam.

“At the time when the dam was built, our forests, our natural land, everything was destroyed, so we had nothing at all,” said Alves, in Portuguese, through an interpreter.

Before construction of the dam, the Guarani lived in an area of protection near what is now the lake, or reservoir.

“Itaipu took us away from there and gave us an area of 231 hectare [570 acres], and at that time there were only 19 families. And then more families joined, and there wasn’t enough room to grow crops.”

From occupying more than 500 acres, the tribe today – 25 families numbering 85 people – lives on less than 10 acres in the village, 75 miles from Itaipu. They live in houses made of large sticks, the roofs reinforced with discarded plastic materials. Water drips from a communal spout.

Beginning in the 1970s, the Guarani living near the planned hydroelectric plant were forced to relocate to reservations, sparking problems since studied and documented by academics: a rise in population, conflict over the reservation boundaries, religious conflicts and rejection by other indigenous people who in prior years had settled on reservations.

The Rev. Luiz Carlos Gabas, an Anglican priest in the Diocese of Curitiba, visited Alves’ village three years ago. After that, with the assistance of diocesan Bishop Naudal Gomes, Pastoral Anglicana da Terra, or Earthly Anglican Care, emerged as a way for individuals, parishes and the diocese to work on issues of climate justice and the rights of indigenous people, peasants and the landless.

Earthly Anglican Care also is supported by a companion relationship between the Diocese of Curitiba and theEpiscopal Diocese of California and facilitated by Michael Tedrick, an Episcopal Church-appointed missionary from the California diocese.

“We see the relationship between their struggle and the struggle of the indigenous in North America, the struggle of the small farmers and their families and that of documented and undocumented immigrants in the United States,” Tedrick said. “It is in our struggles that we gain a deeper understanding of our likeness.”

Earthly Anglican Care’s purpose is not to evangelize, said Gabas in Portuguese through an interpreter, but to understand indigenous peoples’ problems and advocate for their rights. Indigenous peoples, specifically the Guarani, have rich spiritual lives and beliefs that have inspired others, including leaders in the liberation theology movement.

“The Guarani people have a utopian dream, and that is to walk eastward in search of the ‘promised land,'” said Gomes. “The Indians themselves call it the ‘harmless land.'”

Gabas explained further: “When the Portuguese and Spanish arrived, the Indians started to lose their territories. Before the foreign occupation and the violence, they visualized a harmless land where no harm could exist.”

In fact, this vision of a utopian “promised land” inspired liberation theology, and liberation theologian Pedro Casaldaliga, who worked with indigenous people, created the Missa da Terra sem Males, or Mass of the Land Without Evil, based on this dream, Gabas added.

Largely seen as a construct of the Roman Catholic Church in Latin America, liberation theology has been used widely as a foundation for social change by religious groups worldwide. With the rise of conservative leadership in the Roman Catholic Church, the church has moved away from liberation theology.

“What I have learned from secular people working with both the landless and the Guarani is that while there is great gratitude for the solidarity the [Roman] Catholic Church has shown to both those groups and the poor in the past, the new advocates standing courageously with the landless and the Guarani are the Episcopal Church and other partners,” said Diocese of California Bishop Marc Andrus, who visited the Guarani in April 2011.

“I saw it very, very concretely in Cascavel, where the local parish led by Gabas is working in a parallel way with both groups and very powerfully bringing the two disempowered groups together, the Guarani and the landless, to begin to make common cause together … That is a new thing that really is being mediated by the local parish in Cascavel so that’s fantastic.”

Spiritual life

In Alves’ village, as in most Guarani villages, the prayer house is at the center of life.

“They are a very spiritual people,” said Paulo Humberto Porto Borges, a professor at the Universidade Estadual do Oeste do Paraná, speaking in Portuguese through a translator. “They are understood as some of the most spiritual people of the Americas. And the Guarani’s cultural resistance is also due to their spirituality.”

Porto Borges, who introduced Gabas to the Guarani, began working with indigenous people in 1990 alongside Jesuit missionaries. For many years, he worked on land-division issues with Indians in the Amazon, and for the last 11 he has worked with the Guarani.

With a population of more than 200 million people, Brazil is the 10th largest economy in the world, yet more than 26 percent of the population lives in poverty – many in extreme poverty. A wealthy few and multinational corporations own most of the land, which has led to ownership conflicts, violence and death.

Both Brazil’s landless and indigenous people fight for territory and are concerned with the country’s industrial agriculture practices, with the landless training leaders for political life. Gabas also works with the Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra, the Landless Workers Movement, a large social movement organized by rural workers that fights for land and agrarian reform in Brazil.

“The Guarani want to recover the traditional territories of their ancestors, and their main focus is to keep their culture, their language, their religion,” said Gabas. “They are also worried about agricultural chemicals and pesticides. And they want to be able to provide enough food for their people without any help from the government. The landless, on the other hand, get involved in politics and government.

“Indigenous people never had title to the land because they were indigenous.”

The land where Tekoa Vy’a Renda Poty sits today once belonged to his ancestors, the chief, Alves, said.

The dam

When Itaipu was built, it flooded 800,000 hectares of indigenous land, and Itaipu only compensated them for that loss after lots of pressure. Ultimately, they were given 6,000 hectares spread over three areas, for what they had lost, said Porto Borges.

“Itaipu could only be built during a dictatorship,” he said.

Driven mostly by high demand for electricity in Brazil, the governments of Brazil and neighboring Paraguay began negotiating the hydroelectric dam’s construction in the 1960s, signing the Itaipu Treaty, an agreement necessary to harness the Parana River’s power, in April 1973. In May 1974, Itaipu Binacional was created to build and later manage the power plant, the world’s largest hydroelectric dam in terms of power generation, supplying 20 percent of Brazil’s and 90 percent of Paraguay’s electrical demand.

Phase 1 of the dam’s construction began in 1975 with the Paraná River channel excavation, eventually diverting the river from its natural bed, under the government of Ernesto Beckmann Geisel, a military-elected president.

The hydroelectric dam at Itaipu, with a height of 196 meters, was modeled after the 80-meter-high Iguaçu Falls, a world heritage site; one a natural wonder, the other an engineering marvel.

In 2003, Itaipu Binacional changed its institutional mission to incorporate environmental responsibility and sustainable development into its strategic corporate goals, as noted in its booklet “Cultivating Good Water.” The change has required Itaipu Binacional to open a dialogue and form partnerships with the “numerous players,” including the Guarani, in the 29 cities included in the Parana basin, or set of waterways connected to the dam’s 109-mile watershed.

“The Triple Frontier, the location of the Itaipu Dam, has a history that is inseparable from the indigenous presence, especially the Guarani people, which exerted great cultural influence in the region,” the booklet says. “Today, these communities are populations at social risks, and therefore Itaipu [Binacional] is trying to develop actions that will enable them to have better living conditions, with new opportunities for income generation, technical assistance and food production for their own consumption, rescuing their culture and self-esteem, and the encouragement of crafts, among others.”

Itaipu Binacional acknowledges that historically unequal relationships subordinated the Indians to the whites, a relationship driven by barter for small requests in the short-term. A new approach requires “establishing a decision-making process with the participation of indigenous people, where they are, in practice the main players,” which will require patience, the booklet says.

Indigenous people

Brazil’s indigenous population numbers half a million people, divided into 400 tribes, speaking 170 different languages, said Porto Borges.

“They are all very distinct,” he said, adding that three individual tribes live in Paraná.

The Guarani were hunters and farmers, but very little land remains for them in Paraná after the building of the dam and the rise of agribusiness, which has increased the demand and competition for land.

“In old times, they used to have wide, wide extensions of land, and now they are supposed to adapt to small land,” Porto Borges said. “Their holy men say the world is out of balance and that the white man commits a huge sin when the white man states that the lands have an owner. Because the only owner of the lands is God; God is called ‘nhanderu,’ ‘father of all.’  And Jesus Christ ‘nandejara,’ that means ‘our owner.’ There is a big difference between God and Jesus Christ.”

One of the great challenges for the indigenous people is self-sustainability; they are aware that their dependency on government to supply their basic needs harms their political struggle.

“There are some indigenous communities – like in Amazon – where you can find reserved areas that are very extensive, large tracts of land where they can still be autonomous,” Porto Borges said. “But for the rest of Brazil, south and southwest, and northeast, these areas are too small for the needs of the Guarani or other indigenous [people]. Only in the Amazon do some of them have enough land to exist.”

“In our region, for example, the indigenous people are supposed to adapt themselves to another logic of living [involving economics and different ways of organizing], and that is their great challenge,” Porto Borges said.

Without sufficient land, indigenous people become dependent on help from others. Moreover, the indigenous leadership is beginning to understand their continued native existence depends on the political projects of the state.

“A Brazilian project that praises and gives advantages to agribusiness will always be harmful to native people,” Porto Borges said. “A Brazilian project that gives advantage to Brazilian families and small farmers is likely to be more favorable to indigenous people, and that is why nowadays the indigenous people in Paraná are now joining the landless movement and La Via Campesina.”

Still, he said, cooperative indigenous involvement in national politics is greater in other South American countries, such as Peru and in Bolivia, where people elected an indigenous president, Evo Morales.

“In Brazil, there are conflicts among the Indians: Some are for joining the movement, and some are not,” Porto Borges said.

“There are some Indians in Brazil who have no contact with civilization as we know it, and there are others who are in full contact with civilization. Some of them have lots of land, some have no land at all, or a small or little bit of land. Because of this, conflicts of interest have arisen.”

The government doesn’t have written policies favoring one tribe over another, but there are cases in which it has gone further to address the needs of some over others. In Paraná, for instance, the Kaingang have received the most attention, Porto Borges explained.

“There are fewer policies for the Guaraní, and the Kaingang people are strung together with FUNAI, but the Guaraní are not and have less strength,” he said. “So, depending on the fight strategy, the results are different.”

The National Indian Foundation, FUNAI, is the government agency that establishes and carries out policies related to indigenous peoples.

A great national debate exists concerning indigenous matters, and Brazil’s modern-day progressive constitution defends the rights of indigenous people, Porto Borges said. For instance, mining is prohibited on land belonging to indigenous people, he said, adding that business interests also exert great pressure to modify the laws.

“Eleven percent of the national territory belongs to the indigenous [tribes], but in the constitution the ‘union’ can only explore them if the Indians permit it,” he said. “In government, laws are now being made so that the indigenous, mining and farming monoculture interests can all exist, with the Indians favored.”

In early September, the Guarani Indians demanded that Shell, a global oil company, stop using their ancestral lands for ethanol production.

Indians’ understanding that they have interests in common and their increased connectedness through knowing each other’s demands are recent phenomena, he noted.

Throughout history and up to 100 years ago, Porto Borges said, some or all of the indigenous people were enemies. The Kaingang came into contact with modern people in the 1930s, but the Guarani have been in contact with modern people for 500 years. (According to FUNAI, some 67 tribes in Brazil don’t have sustained contact with people outside their tribes. In January 2011, FUNAI released photos of an “un-contacted” tribe along the border with Peru.)

Despite language, cultural and religious differences, Porto Borges said, most indigenous tribes share or have lived a form of “primitive communism,” sharing housing, food and work.

“For example, the Guarani have a word to describe their economy: ‘Jopoi.’ It means ‘open hand,'” Porto Borges said. “That describes their economy. They are generous … Because they are not people who accumulate, they don’t close their hands.”

The Guarani people see the people of European descent, in both North and South America, as closed handed, said Andrus, explaining his encounter with the Guarani’s “open hand,” society.

“When they receive something they are already asking themselves how do I pass it on, so not to necessarily pass it on unchanged, but how can the pass it on enhanced to the right person who is right to receive it,” he said. “It’s a dynamic that is open so that if they receive money, or wisdom, or emotional understanding, or possessions of any kind, they are asking themselves how can that pass from the one hand that receives it and the other that gives it away.”

Applying an “open hand” to an economy – looking at how to enhance and pass on what is received – could be transformative in an economy, he added.

“For me there are other ways of life and organization than capitalism,” said Porto Borges. “There are other ways of culture than the white, Western Christian culture. And there are cultures that have rich responses to reality… and these cultures compound humanity … they are part of it.”

In September 2007, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People, which contains 46 Articles aimed at protecting their rights, and thereby their existence.

“When any given human culture disappears, humanity becomes more fragile and poorer,” Porto Borges said. “They teach us that it is possible to resist and to maintain their integrity and culture even though they are fighting a globalized culture like ours.

“And besides all that, we owe a historical debt to these people. What we call the discovery of America was actually a true holocaust for these people.”

For more information on Pastoral Anglicana da Terra, or Earthly Anglican Care, contact Diocese of California missionary Michael Tedrick at

 — Lynette Wilson is an editor/reporter for Episcopal News Service. In May, she traveled to Brazil to report on issues indigenous peoples face.  Reposted from Episcopal News Service

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