The brutal execution of indigenous leader Nisio Gomes is the latest tragedy to befall the Guarani people – Brazil’s largest indigenous minority and one of the most abused and maligned groups in the world.
When forty masked gunmen entered Nisio’s camp, shot him in the limbs and head in front of his terrified companions, disabled his son with a rubber bullet, then stole his body, they were continuing a contemptible history of oppression that stretches back over centuries, to when Europeans first arrived on Guarani land.
Over that time, the Guarani way of life has been systematically destroyed. As their forest homes are continually torn down to make way for sugar-cane plantations, biofuels and, most prominently of all, cattle ranches, the Guarani have been forced into ever more crowded spaces, robbed of their ability to hunt, fish or plant crops, and in many cases left in squalid encampments next to newly constructed highways.
Some have starved to death, whilst many others have been mercilessly exploited by the businesses moving onto their territory- cutting sugar cane for menial pay, or in the cases of numerous women, turning to prostitution. Alcoholism has became endemic and the suicide rate has grown to catastrophic levels amongst both adults and children.
Those who turn to crime as a recourse often face racism from the authorities and are forced into a legal system utilising a language that they do not understand. Hundreds have been left imprisoned without even access to interpreters.
It is little wonder therefore, that many Guaranis have resorted to retomadas or ‘re-takings’ – public acts of civil disobedience in which they peacefully return to the land stolen from them. However, these have consistently been met with un-restrained violence by those profiting from the ethnic cleansing, especially the cattle ranchers and their hired thugs. In the late 1990s Guarani leader Marcos Verón, led his landless and malnourished community in a brave attempt to assert their legal rights; and when they were knocked-back by the Brazilian courts, set off to the UK to whip-up international backing. Returning to Brazil he led a peaceful retomadas in 2003, but was beaten to death and dumped next to a roadside by ranch workers. He was seventy-five years old.
Last week’s murder of Nisio Gomes was eerily reminiscent of this sickening incident. Before he died the fifty-nine year old leader is reported to have told his son:
“Don’t leave this place. Take care of this land with courage. This is our land. Nobody will drag you from it. Look after my granddaughters and all the children well. I leave this land in your hands.”
If the world does not heed this message, his execution will ultimately mean the execution of the Guarani people.