RIO DE JANEIRO, Feb 7 (IPS) – The unity of Guaraní Indians, whose communities are spread out over five South American nations, was sealed in a gathering that ended Tuesday with a march by around 8,000 demonstrators in the southern Brazilian city of Sao Gabriel, where indigenous hero Sepé Tiarajú died on Feb. 7, 1756.
The Continental Assembly of the Guaraní People, which began Friday, was aimed at “rescuing the memory of what happened to our people, in order to reflect, learn and continue fighting for our rights, principally the sacred right to land,” states the final declaration adopted by the participants.
Around 1,500 Guaraní Indians from several countries took part in the Assembly itself, along with some 100 representatives of other Brazilian indigenous groups, said Mario Karaí, a Guaraní leader from the state of Rio Grande do Sul and one of the organisers of the event.
But the gathering, which paid homage to Sepé, a leader of the Guaraní resistance struggles, actually drew more than 4,000 participants, because it included parallel meetings by landless rural activists, a youth camp, and an assembly of 200 “quilombolas” — Afro-Brazilians who continue to live in the communities created by their ancestors, who were fugitive slaves — as well as local organisations and church groups.
The movements are allies in the struggle for “one basic demand: land” and in their common fight against social exclusion, said the organisers.
The 700 participants in the youth camp included representatives of the homeless, garbage pickers, and the hip hop movement.
Local residents also took part in Tuesday’s march. Sepé was not only a symbol of Guaraní resistance but also profoundly marked the culture of Rio Grande do Sul as a whole. A group of Catholics is even seeking his canonisation.
Three books on his life were launched during the five-day gathering.
This was the first time that Guaraní indigenous people from Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay came together, and the event “gave birth to a movement never before seen in the history of the Guaraní people,” Karaí told IPS.
A permanent committee that was set up will meet monthly to discuss the problems facing indigenous people and the steps to be taken by the movement, which “for now is Guaraní” but could eventually be extended to include other indigenous groups that were represented in Sao Gabriel.
The election of Evo Morales, a member of the Aymara community, as Bolivia’s first indigenous president “makes him a great ally,” said Karaí.
“With Morales’s support, within two or three years a huge indigenous gathering could be held in Bolivia,” he added.
The unity of the Guaraní in the struggle for change is indispensable, he added, because the group is facing “appalling exclusion and marginalisation” in all five countries, and is only now beginning to come together, after centuries of dispersal triggered by killings and massacres at the hands of Spanish and Portuguese colonists.
The worst of the massacres occurred exactly 250 years ago, when Spanish and Portuguese troops tortured and killed Sepé and three days later slaughtered roughly 1,500 Guaraní Indians, thereby wiping out the so-called Seven Peoples mission, whose ruins in the southern Brazilian state of Rio Grande do Sul are now a tourist attraction.
The Seven Peoples mission was one of 23 “reductions” established by the Jesuit Catholic order in what is today Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay. Each of these settlements was home to between 5,000 and 10,000 Guaraní, who lived communally, sharing the land and everything they produced from it equally. Orphans like Sepé and widows were supported by the community, from which no one was excluded or abandoned to their own fate.
In 1750, Spain and Portugal signed the Treaty of Madrid, dividing up the lands in the region between them. As a result, the inhabitants of the Seven Peoples mission were to be moved to the other side of the Uruguay River, to the territory under Spanish control. The Guaraní fought back against this displacement, with Sepé leading up the resistance.
The Spanish and Portuguese united, despite their territorial disputes, to destroy the Seven Peoples mission, “because they realised that it constituted a great Guaraní nation” that impinged on the interests of the two colonial powers, said Roberto Liebgott, coordinator of the Indigenous Missionary Council (CIMI) in southern Brazil, in an interview with IPS.
The Guaraní who survived the massacres in numerous settlements were forced to scatter and flee. At the Assembly, there were even representatives of Guaraní communities from the state of Pará in the northern Amazon region of Brazil.
However, the majority of the 150,000 Guaraní people living today û according to Liebgott’s estimate û are concentrated in midwestern and southern Brazil, and in Paraguay, where the Guaraní language is spoken by a large part of the population and has the status of an official language alongside Spanish.
But according to the coordinator of CIMI, a Catholic organisation, this dispersal is not a problem, because the Guaraní are a people who move about a great deal and recognise no borders in the search for their mythical “Land Without Evil”.
Liebgott said the Assembly was “extraordinary” for consolidating a region-wide movement around the figure of Sepé, a symbol of the struggle for land as well as something “much deeper, because he has a sacred dimension, and is present in the prayers and rites of the Guaraní.”
The final declaration of the Continental Assembly of the Guaraní People notes that indigenous land rights are recognised by the national constitutions of Argentina and Brazil.
But they are not recognised by the provincial constitutions of Argentina, while Brazil did nothing to fulfil the pledge to demarcate all indigenous lands until 1993.
“Only around 40 percent of indigenous territories have been officially demarcated in Brazil,” the declaration states, adding that these lands are subject to frequent invasions and occupations that lead to violent conflicts and the murders of indigenous people.
In Paraguay, indigenous mobilisations blocked the adoption of a law that would have violated many of their rights.
But “the situation of indigenous territories is scandalous,” due to the small size of the reserves or the lack of official recognition of indigenous land. Many of those who have moved in and taken over indigenous territory are so-called “Brasiguayos”, Brazilian entrepreneurs who have occupied extensive tracts of land in Paraguay for large-scale agriculture. Inter-Press Service