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Eliseu Lopes: At the forefront of the struggle for indigenous rights in Brazil

The Guarani people have lost land and many lives to ruthless developers. Eliseu Lopes, the leading indigenous voice in Brazil, campaigns for the recuperation of Guarani ancestral land and to bring national and international attention to his people's plight.

AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews

It's a difficult, frightening situation because we have nowhere to run to. We have to face up to this life; there's no alternative: we have to fight for what is ours.


Eliseu Lopes

In November 2011, masked gunmen appeared at a camp set up by around 60 indigenous people in Guayviry, close to Brazil's border with Paraguay. The camp was part of a peaceful occupation of ancestral lands carried out by the Guarani-Kaiowá - a sub-group of the Guarani people - and was led by Nísio Gomes, a highly-respected leader.

According to news reports, there were up to 40 gunmen. They ordered the camp dwellers to lie face down on the ground and, when some resisted, they opened fire. Many of the Guarani escaped into the surrounding forest; some were wounded and others were reportedly kidnapped.

But it was clear that the gunmen had come with a specific target in mind. Multiple witnesses saw the masked men shoot Gomes in the head, chest, arms and legs before carrying away his body (which has never been recovered).

Eliseu Lopes, also a Guarani leader and today Brazil's best-known campaigner for indigenous people's rights, has been actively campaigning for indigenous land rights (and thereby risking his life) since 2003, when he went to work as a teacher in the indigenous village of Taquapiri, Mato Grosso do Sul. The experience opened his eyes: "I saw leaders killed, my own relatives suffering, camped at the side of the federal highway waiting for the government to deliver on promises to allocate them land... which never happened."

Of the horrific 2011 attack, Lopes said "Nísio was my friend and one of the main leaders of the Guarani-Kaiowá. He always said, 'That land is ours, it belonged to my grandfathers, to my parents.' He always said that he'd return; he returned and he died."

After Gomes' murder, Lopes and other Guarani leaders organised a campaign to bring the guilty to justice. Nineteen men were eventually charged in relation to the murder but, of the seven jailed in 2012, none served more than two years. Today, the only man convicted and still detained is Aurelino Arce, a retired military police officer and owner of the private security business for which many of the gunmen worked. He is kept under house arrest.

What is remarkable about the murder of Nísio Gomes is not the brutality of the attack, nor the leniency of the sentencing, but the fact that anyone was convicted at all. Killing indigenous people in land disputes has a nearly 100% impunity rate in Brazil.

Lopes summarised both the brutality and the injustice of the situation in 2015 when he addressed the United Nations Special Rapporteur on indigenous rights in New York:

"In the region in which I live [Mato Grosso do Sul], there were at least 150 violent confrontations between ranchers/farmers and my people from 2003 to 2013. Fifteen indigenous leaders were killed... police investigations led nowhere... According to the government's own statistics, one Guarani-Kaiowá has been killed every twelve days for the last ten years. That's over 380 murders, representing 53% of the total number of indigenous people killed in Brazil."

When the Europeans first arrived in Brazil, there were an estimated 1.5 million Guarani-Kaiowá people; today there are approximately 51,000. Around 100 years ago, the Brazilian government took their lands and handed them to ranchers and farmers for development. The indigenous people were placed on reservations - often the poorest, least productive land. Nowadays, the Guarani find themselves crammed into small patches of land like Dourados, a stretch measuring 12 square miles and home to more than 12,000 people. The lack of space and services leads to poor health and malnutrition.

And it's not just the Guaranis' physical health that suffers. Having to live in these conditions, risking violence from local ranchers and seeing family members shot places an extraordinary strain on their mental health. As a result, the Guarani have the highest suicide rate in the world. "There was one indigenous suicide every week for the last 12 years," Lopes reported to the UN in 2015. Children as young as nine have taken their own lives.

The Guarani people face an uphill battle for justice, land and better living conditions. They organise protests and bring legal cases to local courts, where, due to the enormous influence of rich landowners, they invariably lose.

Since 2007, Lopes has been the spokesman for the Aty Guasu Movement, an organisation that fights for the recuperation of the Guaranis' ancestral lands; he is also a leading figure on the Board of Indigenous Peoples of Brazil.

Lopes intends to stay at the forefront of this movement for justice despite the high personal toll that it has taken:

"From 2007 onwards [due to threats to my life] I couldn't stay in one place for long. Every month I had to relocate to another village. This contributed to the breakdown of my marriage.... It's a difficult, frightening situation because we have nowhere to run to. We have to face up to this life; there's no alternative: we have to fight for what is ours."

Last Updated: 18 November 2016

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