Brazil's Indians Reclaim Land, Citing Promises, Using Force : Parallels Brazil has become a global powerhouse when it comes to agriculture. Yet there's friction in the country's rural heartland: Cattle ranchers and soybean producers are facing off with indigenous tribes over who has rights to vast tracts of land.
NPR logo

Brazil's Indians Reclaim Land, Citing Promises, Using Force

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Brazil's Indians Reclaim Land, Citing Promises, Using Force

Brazil's Indians Reclaim Land, Citing Promises, Using Force

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


And there are other conflicts in Brazil. In the country's rural heartland, ranchers and soybean producers are facing off with indigenous tribes over the rights to vast farms. NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro recently visited the west Brazilian state of Mato Grosso do Sul, and she filed this report.


LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO, BYLINE: It was once the cattle farm of a former congressman, but now his stately house is a burned-out shell. Once the purview of one farmer's family, it's now being lived in by dozens of indigenous ones. And Indian activists say this is just the beginning.


GARCIA-NAVARRO: This bucolic spot called the Buriti Farm is now the unlikely epicenter of tensions that are erupting the length and breadth of rural Brazil as the indigenous tribes of this vast country seek the land rights they say have historically been denied them.

ALBERTO: (Foreign language spoken)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Forty-six-year-old teacher Alberto is a member of the Terena Indian tribe who lay claim to around 17,000 hectares in this area. Their reservation now is only 2,000 hectares, too small, he says, for the community. It's a fight that in this farm alone has already cost one of the tribesmen his life this month when he was shot by police who were trying to evict them. Other indigenous groups have moved to block large infrastructure projects like the Belo Monte Dam.

ALBERTO: (Through Translator) I'm in favor of progress, but not at the cost of our cultural history, our survival as a people. The name of our tribe is the Terena, because the earth is our mother.

Since the Portuguese conquest, Brazil's indigenous population have been subjected to slavery, genocide, murder, land theft and discrimination. Brazil's most recent constitution, written in 1988, was meant to redress some of those ills, returning historic lands to the tribes. It's now 20 years later, though, and the process is still incomplete. And while the government has dithered, many native Brazilians have taken matters into their own hands, taking over land that is owned by large scale farmers.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: It's a warm afternoon and a group of men in cowboy hats and pressed jeans are handing out flyers by the roadside in the rural town of Sidrolandia, just near the ex-congressman's occupied farm. They are part of the local farmers association and they're all white, the descendants of Europeans from Italy and Germany who were encouraged to come and settle here, in some cases generations ago.

OZORIO LUIZ STRALIOTTO: (Foreign language spoken)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Ozorio Luiz Straliotto is the head of the rancher's union. He says we have the titles to these lands; they are legally ours, given to us by the government, he says. The Indians say that this is their ancestral land. He says, well, all the land of Brazil is theirs actually, should we give them Sao Paulo and Copacabana too, he asks? He tells us that much of Brazil's wealth comes from the soy beans, beef and sugar cane that the famers produce here.

STRALIOTTO: (Foreign language spoken)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Brazil is an important global power because of us farmers, he says. We are one of the breadbaskets of the world. The farmers also point out that indigenous peoples are less than 1 percent of the population of Brazil but already have 12 percent of the land designated as theirs. Almost all of those areas, though, are in the uninhabited Amazon.


GARCIA-NAVARRO: We go to meet the ex-congressman who's had his farm recently taken over. Ricardo Bacho greets us in the main cattle ranchers headquarters in the state.

RICARDO BACHO: (Foreign language spoken)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: My farm was founded in 1928, he says, and it's been in my family since then. He tells us how the Terena Indians burned his house to the ground after taking over his farm. He claims he's under a death threat.

BACHO: (Foreign language spoken)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: He says there's a big misconception. The Indians here are supposed to be given the land so that they can go back to being subsistence farmers, hunting and fishing like they did historically. But our Indians, he says, no longer walk around in a thong. They have telephones, Internet, cell phones. The cultures have mixed, he says.

BACHO: (Through Translator) There are only two choices. Either you throw out the farmers or you throw out the Indians. The Indians can do something else. Tourists could come and pay to see them dance or exhibit their culture.

BASILIO JORGE: Basilio Jorge, (Foreign language spoken).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Back in the countryside, we go to another farm that has been taken over by the Indians. Wearing a headdress of blue and red macaw feathers, 63-year-old Basilio Jorge explains tearfully that for him the equation is very simple.

JORGE: (Through Translator) We Indians were always treated with discrimination. We are treated like animals. We have no space to live.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Where will we put our children, our grandchildren? We don't want them living on the streets. This is our land, he says. Brazil's government announced last night that it will buy one of the occupied ranches and give it to the Terena Indians in an effort to diffuse the protests. The Indians say, though, they will continue their struggle. Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, NPR News.

Copyright © 2013 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.