Brazil’s land war between Indigenous people and farmers: ‘We just need to be home’

Genito Gomes, third from left, is one of a group of Kaiowa who filed a claim for land but, subsequently, have been driven off of it three times. Mr. Gomes says his father was murdered the final time, by men sent by local landowners.

Munir Chami and Genito Gomes have a considerable amount in common. They’re Brazilians who grew up in the countryside, straight-backed, clear-eyed men in their mid-30s. Each has a ready smile, hospitable nature and a quiet air of authority. Each is married with young children. They each work hard: They spend their days on their families’ land, and they are immensely proud of their connection with it and what they have built there.

In another country, Mr. Chami and Mr. Gomes might well be friends.

Not here. That land they work, it’s the same piece of land, and each man believes with utter conviction that he owns it – and that the other is an invader, a thief, who seeks to take both the land and the identity that comes with it.

Munir Chami’s family bought their farm outside the town of Aral Moreira in 1970, before Brazil’s constitution formally granted Indigenous people land rights. Now, Mr. Chami’s business pays the equivalent of $17,000 a month on private security to protect the property.

Mr. Chami is a soy grower whose family owns a 5,000-hectare industrial farm in the western breadbasket state of Mato Grosso do Sul. They live in a gracious farmhouse surrounded by tall trees, an island in an ocean of dark green fields, outside the town of Aral Moreira.

And Mr. Gomes lives with his family across the road and a few kilometres away, in a settlement of a half-dozen dwellings built of sticks and thatch, at the edge of the last tiny patch of forest in any direction. This land, he says, has belonged to his people, the Kaiowa, since there were first humans on Earth; his people were created from this red soil, and Brazil’s constitution has recognized their right to it since 1988.

Mr. Gomes’s parents and grandparents were driven out by government in the 1950s; their ancestral lands were sold as plantations to farmers. The Kaiowa shifted around the state for decades eking out a living with a bit of hunting and farming, until in 1990 they decided to try to exercise their new constitutional right and filed a claim for the land.

But they had no response for years, and finally in 2004, they decided to go and live there. That year, and in 2007 when they tried again to occupy the land, they were driven out after a couple of days by the farmers who held title. In a third attempt, in 2011, they set up a rough camp of a few houses – and then a group of armed men came to confront them, and Mr. Gomes’s father, Nizio, was shot and killed. Mr. Gomes says the killers were sent by local landowners, including Mr. Chami’s family, in an attempt to force them off the land.

These two men, divided by a couple of kilometres and a lifetime’s worth of conviction, are living out a daily confrontation that is both a historical legacy and an urgent modern problem for Brazil.

Their competing claims to the land echo disputes in Canada and across the New World, between Indigenous communities and the governments of states that were built over top of them. Canada’s own land claims issues are far from resolved, but there the usual battleground is the courts. In Brazil, these disputes still regularly erupt into bloodshed.

A soy field next to the village of Jiguarapiru in Mato Grosso do Sul. Disputes between Indigenous people and landowners in this western breadbasket state still regularly erupt into violent conflict.

There are 900,000 Indigenous people in Brazil, and 12.2 per cent of the country has been declared Indigenous territory, collectively owned by First Nations. Some 98.2 per cent of that land is in the Amazon, and there is conflict around parts of it: Illegal loggers invade it, cattle ranchers try to claim it, and some areas have been irrevocably altered by large government infrastructure projects such as the Belo Monte Dam.