Brazil tribes lose ground
Encroaching city and Western culture hit hard
May. 26, 2003 12:00 AM
SAO PAULO, Brazil - Children jostle into the village schoolhouse, chattering in
For Giselda Jera, it's the sound of her people's past, and their uncertain
Jera, 21, is a teacher in Morro da Saudade, the largest of three surviving
Indian villages on the outskirts of Sao Paulo. They are home
to about 1,000 Guarani, who are struggling to preserve their culture against the
encroaching Western civilization.
Just 35 miles away, Sao Paulo bustles in a sprawl of luxury high-rises, malls,
theaters and hotels. With a metropolitan population of 18
million, the city has nearly reached the village gates.
"I am very worried about our future as a people," Jera said. "We have succeeded
in keeping our language and customs alive, but our lifestyle is in danger
because we no longer have enough room to hunt, fish or plant sufficient corn,
manioc and sweet potatoes, the way our grandparents did."
A mile from the nearest paved road, Morro da Saudade, Portuguese for Hill of
Wistfulness, is easy to overlook. Only a sign on a dirt road saying "Indigenous
Area" indicates that the village is near.
Chickens and scrawny dogs wander among the 100 squalid huts of wood, mud and
tin. A few banana trees and tiny plots of corn, manioc and beans barely provide
the 136 families with enough to survive.
Except for the thatch-roof prayer house and community center, the village scene
isn't very different from a Sao Paulo shantytown.
Jera remembers her grandfather spinning tales of hunting and fishing in the
forests. Today, the trees are dwindling, the game is gone, and
many young Guarani are abandoning the village and its customs.
It's a common plight for tribes in Brazil's developed south. The Guarani tribe
is the largest of Brazil's 215 indigenous groups, with about 35,000 members
living in the cities, forests and coastal areas.
A peaceful, semi-nomadic people, the Guarani arrived in this region nearly a
half-century ago and roamed freely over hundreds of acres.
But in 1984 the government confined them to a 62-acre reservation "that is too
small for them to lead a dignified life," said Cristina Alves of the National
Indian Affairs Bureau.
Still, residents consider the area a tekoa, Guarani for good place to live, and
don't want to leave. But Sao Paulo keeps expanding as poor migrants from
Brazil's arid northeast come in search of jobs.
Urban civilization now threatens to engulf the reservation and the Guarani. A
commercial center is barely six miles away, where Indians
buy food and other goods they used to provide for themselves.
"With the exception of the handicrafts they sell in the city, the Guarani have
been deprived of their traditional methods of self-sustainability," said
Mauricio Fonseca of the Indigenous Peoples' Support Program.
Sustained by donations from humanitarian groups and a government stipend of
about $50 a month per family, the Guarani are striving to keep to their
Young children are taught Guarani history and religion in the opy, or prayer
house. The children's education continues at the village's
school, where in bilingual courses they learn Portuguese and other subjects.
But at age 14, they must go outside the village to attend high school.
Many drop out "because they are discriminated and shunned by the White
students," said Jera, the teacher.