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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

The Suicide of the Guarani Indians of Brazil

Air Date: Week of

The Guarani Indians of southwestern Brazil are killing themselves in staggering numbers. Reporter Bob Carty recently spent time with the tribe to discover the causes for their lethal anguish. It turns out that environmental degradation is a major factor in their demise.


NUNLEY: It's Living on Earth. I'm Jan Nunley. It's being called a silent revolution, but it's a protest of despair rather than hope. In Brazil, members of a native group are committing suicide in record numbers. The Guarani Indians live in the southwest part of Brazil near the border with Paraguay. In the last 5 years more than 150 of them have taken their own lives, and each year the numbers seem to be rising and the age of the victims falling. The suicides are the result of a complex mix of historical, social, and political factors. But as Bob Carty reports, to a great extent the cause and the solution to the suicides lies in the Guarani's environment.

(Children playing and shouting, laughing)

CARTY: It looks like cricket, except the playing field is a rutted strip of red earth in front of a thatched roof hut, and the bats are tree branches swatting at an old tennis ball, and the wickets are a couple of tin cans. But it looks like cricket.

(Children shout and laugh more)

CARTY: The cricket players are Guarani children, not much older than 6 or 7. Not quite as old as the last casualty, an 8-year-old boy who took his life a few days ago by swallowing poison. Before him, a teenage suicide. Valmira Guarani watches her children play and talks about her neighbor.

GUARANI: [Speaks in native language]
TRANSLATOR: Roberto should be 17 years old. Twenty days ago at night, he took some rope and hanged himself on one of those trees. He left a baby and a pregnant wife. We Guarani are destroyed by this. People are ending their lives.

CARTY: And they are ending their lives in record numbers. In the past year 62 Guarani killed themselves, the highest number of suicides in the Americas, sixty times the normal rate in Brazil. Half of the victims were under 16 years of age, and most of them were girls. Children, really. Those who ought to have the greatest enthusiasm for life. Children who are found in the early morning hanging lifeless from trees as other children go to skill. Children who kill themselves purposely, painfully, with rope from a low-hanging branch, with slow-acting poison, with a decided intent to end life. It is a tragedy which gnaws at Guarani village leader, Amilton Lopez.

LOPEZ: [Speaks in native tongue]
TRANSLATOR: It happens more with the young because they are at the end of the branch. Like new sprouts, they are more delicate than the trunk, which is stronger. I talked to 3 young people who tried to kill themselves, and they said almost the same thing. There is no more life for them. There's too much unhappiness. They want to live like the people did before. In the past we were happy.

(A recording plays of a native dance)

ANTON: The Guarani, they were a very happy and healthy people. Before the Europeans arrived we are talking about a big nation, probably the largest in the continent, the whole American continent.

CARTY: Danilo Anton works for the International Development Research Centre, a Canadian-funded organization which supports development projects with the Guarani. Mr. Anton also writes history books about the Guarani nation.

ANTON: They were a very strong civilization, and their knowledge was very impressive. They domesticated hundreds of species of plants, extremely high biodiversity of the farming system is extremely impressive. Highly sustainable, too. The arrival of the Spanish and the Portuguese for them was a disaster.

(Recorded songs)

CARTY: That disaster was chronicled in the film The Mission, a story of massacres, enslavement, and the near annihilation of a people by European diseases. The Guarani may once have numbered more than a million; now they are 25,000. The suicides of today are in part a legacy of this history. When Europeans first met the Guarani, they described them as lazy and immoral because they spent so much time singing and dancing. For the Guarani, however, dancing is not pleasure but prayer. The Conquistadors failed to recognize the Guarani's spiritual relationship with nature. Danilo Anton.

ANTON: The whole culture is based on nature. You have the spirit of the tree, the spirit of the wind, the spirit of the rain, the spirit of the land. They need the forest, they don't exist without the forest, the culture depends on the forest. I think that if the forest is destroyed or if they are expelled from the forest, they become desperate because the whole religion doesn't make any more sense.

(Singing continues. Fade to children playing)

CARTY: Which is exactly what has happened here on the Bororo Reserve in the state of Mato Grosso do Sul. There is no forest left here. Six thousand Guarani are surrounded by a sea of soya bean plantations, what was once their land. Now they have barely one acre per person. It is the same in almost all of the Guarani's 22 reservations.

ANTON: I would say something, people doesn't, don't they have to say, that they are political refugees. Really political ideologies, it's a nation, they took their land, they kept them in refugee camps, concentration camps, where they are starving to death. That moment when they realize there is no hope, then they commit suicide. But they kill themselves not because they are a weak people, but because they are a strong people. Before becoming Brazilians, they prefer to kill themselves because they are not Brazilians. They are Guarani. They have even a legend, there is always a land of no evil beyond. This is why, when the forest goes, they try to move. But sometimes they don't have a place to go, so they decide to go back to the land of no evil and they kill themselves.

CARTY: There are of course other factors behind the suicides. There's alcohol and the breakdown of traditional culture by the mass media, by the presence of a dozen evangelical sects. And there's the suffocation of hope by a government that doesn't seem to care.

(A man speaks in a native tongue)

CARTY: Behind the thatched hut where Guarani children play cricket games, Learte Tetila shows visitors his favorite example of government neglect. Learte Tetila is a university professor and a local politician. He points to an open field to a water tank and a well. It sits idle and unused. Mr. Tetila explains the Guarani are waiting for the government to hook up the pump to a local hydropol. It would take just 30 yards of wire. The Guarani have been waiting for 2 years.

TETILA: [Speaks in native tongue]
TRANSLATOR: Meanwhile, children are drinking dirty water and many children here die because of worms from the water. But they'll keep drinking this dirty water because there are no authorities who care about Indians. A good Indian in Brazil is a dead Indian.

(Native music plays)

CARTY: It's a group of very live Indians, however, with seashells jangling around their ankles, who dance in front of a well-dressed politician from Brazilia. The event is a meeting between 6 Indian groups and Marcio Santilli, the man in charge of Brazil's Indian policy. Guarani leaders are here to take Mr. Santilli aside, to urge him to do something to end the suicides.

SANTILLI: [Speaks in native tongue]
TRANSLATOR: It is perhaps the greatest problem we have to face in '96. What we have before us is a heavy legacy of the Colonial past. These Indians were penned together in very small reserves so that their lands could be taken by non-Indians, cattle ranches and plantations. Now, we believe that by improving their living conditions we can at least reduce the number of suicides.

CARTY: The problem with such promises is that Brazil doesn't have a good track record in its treatment of the country's 180 indigenous nations. Indian policy has mostly been about getting the Indians out of the way of development plans. Earlier this year, a new law gave ranchers and lumber and mining companies the right to challenge the borders of Indian lands. That could reduce what little land the Guarani have left.

(Native music continues)

CARTY: Shortly after my interview with Marcio Santilli, he resigned from government, in disagreement over the new Indian land law and frustrated in his attempts to end corruption in the Indian Agency. None of this really surprises Danilo Anton. He's heard people call the Guarani suicides a sign of government failure. He disagrees.

ANTON: I would say it's a symbol of success of the Indian policy because this is what they wanted and they succeeded. They killed them all. This is what they all wanted in the first place and they are still doing it. Who believes that the policy is to protect the Indians? Shouldn't it be to be knifed? In fact, policies are to get rid of the Indians. The whole system is conceived to take this Indian land.

(Bird calls)

CARTY: Despite the suicides, the poverty, the government in action, Danilo Anton believes things can be done to improve the Guarani situation. People with hope do not end their lives, he contends. So his development agency is supporting projects which expand the Guarani forest lands. Mr. Anton also points out that the majority of Guarani teenagers are not killing themselves. They're studying their own traditions and spirituality. New leaders are coming forward. And in the international arena, the Brazilian government is under severe criticism for its new Indian land law. The suicides are a tragic but effective protest. Danilo Anton.

ANTON: I am hopeful. Things are changing. People are changing. People are understanding that it's better to have the Guarani in the forest than to have a soya bean farm. After a few years erosion takes over and the whole thing is destroyed. The same thing with cattle raising; you have the same type of problems. Instead, if you have the Guarani you keep a high biodiversity environment. Everybody's talking about biodiversity now. And the Latin American governments guilty of all these genocides for a long time, they are feeling the pressure, there is a pressure on them. So we are living in a moment of change.

(Children playing and shouting)

CARTY: On the Bororo Reserve, Guarani children giggle as they scamper after a ball. Guarani leaders say they are not worried about the future of their indigenous nation. They have survived 500 years of colonization. They will persevere, until the Brazilian government and the international community respond to their plight. They have to persevere, they say. After all, they have a special relationship with God. As one of their sayings go, if the Guarani come to an end, who will pray so that the world will not end? For Living on Earth, I'm Bob Carty on the Bororo Reserve in Mato Groso do Sul, Brazil.



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