Recently, in my Globalization and Human Rights class, we have been researching and learning about different indigenous groups around the world. I have appreciated this immensely as I feel indigenous groups have been left out of our school and others like its curriculum far too often. Moreover, I believe that the euro-centric history curriculum at Poly is part of what directly affects the biases our students hold when discussing global issues. Thus, finally learning about indigenous people as the focus of a lesson rather than a side-group taught in relation to others, though in the final semester of my final year at Poly, is very satisfying. With that, I thought it would be valuable to share about an indigenous group called the Guarani people, whose story I believe is particularly interesting.
First, the Guarani people are indigenous to South America, mainly Paraguay and Brazil, and adjacent regions like Argentina, Uruguay, and Bolivia. They also use their own language and in fact, Guarani is one of the two official languages of Paraguay, more Paraguyans speaking Guarani than Spanish. Additionally, though the Guarani people play a significant role in South America, since the start of the 20th century their population has dwindled from nearly 5 million people to now only 51,000. Finally they are deeply spiritual people often having prayer houses and religious leaders. So, what is currently going on with the Guarani people and why are their numbers dwindling?
To understand current issues concerning the Guarani people, one must first understand their history. The Guarani people first came in contact with the Spanish during their search for gold and silver; however, in the 17th century, the Jesuits established missions in eastern Paraguay. The Jesuits ended up establishing about 30 substantial and successful missions until 1767 when the expulsion of the Jesuits was followed by that of the natives. Along with their expulsion came their enslavement and confiscation of their land. A particularly devastating loss of land was in the state of Mato Grosso do Sul where Guarani land went from 350,000 square kilometers to basically none. Their only remaining land was broken up into tiny land fragments. Even so, these small patches of land were surrounded by cattle ranchers and Fields of sugarcane.
Due to Brazil being one of the largest contributors to the world’s biofuel industry, sugar cane plantations play a major role in the country. The plantations were originally established in the 1980s and rely heavily on indigenous labor who work in terrible conditions and get paid inhumane wages. Furthermore, since Guarani tribes have gendered societies, when men are taken away to work on the plantations it has major impacts on the social dynamics of the tribes. In fact, even when these men return from the plantations, studies have shown an increase in STDs, alcoholism, internal conflicts, and violence. Also, this is still a growing problem as 80 more plantations are planned, many of which are on ancestral Guarani land.
What I found particularly interesting about the Guarani people were the mental health effects of deforestation and forced migration on the tribes. In Guarani culture, the land is the origin of all life so they have been searching for the ancestral idea of "the land without evil," a land where there is said to be no pain or suffering. Thus, the land is integral to their culture but more deeply intertwined with their feelings of hope and well-being. So, in the loss of almost all their land in the last century, suicide rates have skyrocketed for the Guarani people. Since 1986 more than 517 Guarani have committed suicide, the youngest at just nine years old. This was an issue I had never read of before. When learning about indigenous land violations, I always learned about the effects it had on different people’s lives in terms of migration but never their mental health. I thought this was a very interesting aspect of indigenous land violations that made me think about other aspects I had never thought of before.
However, their story does not end there. In 2005, the Guarani people attempted “Retomadas,” or “Re-takings” of the land that was stolen from them. But violently shut down by ruthless farmers who employed gunmen to ensure their victory. So, despite the community's legal entitlement to 9000 hectares of reserved land they now live on a fraction of what is legally theirs. And even on the land that they reside on there surrounded by Ruth's farmers and patrolled by gunmen. Below I have linked a video of Guarani people explaining their situation from their perspective. It is a difficult watch, but an important one.
Researching the Guarani people and similar indigenous groups made me realize the importance of seeing global issues from all perspectives. Especially in the modern day where all news sources are poisoned with biases, I think it is important for people to do their own research about issues they care about. Finally, I have linked a resource where you can help Guarani people below.