How the health of tribal peoples suffers when they are dispossessed of their lands

Posted on | april 8, 2011 | No Comments

Evictions from their lands for biofules and cattle ranching has forced the Guarani to live on the road side. © Sarah Shenker/Survival

The man in the photograph stands at the side of a dusty road, his arms outstretched, a mbaraka rattle in his left hand.  In front of him, a black car thunders past.  There is a dignity in his gesture that is not in keeping with the black-tarpaulined shacks of his temporary community. The red earth on which the shacks are built was once covered by forest; now it is denuded and littered with rubbish.

The roadside camp is home to a community of Guarani-Kaiowá Indians, who belong to the largest tribe in Brazil.  For the Guarani, land is everything.  It is not only the origin of all life, and a precious gift from Nande Ru, the great father; it is life itself.  Today, however, the endless deforestation of Mato Grosso do Sul, (which ironically means ‘thick forest of the south’), in southern Brazil has turned their land into a vast, dry network of cattle ranches, soya fields and the sugar cane plantations that supply the booming bio-fuels market. 

Destroying vast swathes of forest has left many Guarani squeezed onto tiny patches of land, either in designated reserves or by the road, where they drink water from plastic tanks and polluted streams. Gone, for most, are the forest gardens where they planted manioc and corn; gone is the ability to freely hunt game. The impact of this land loss on the physical and mental health of the Guarani people has been profound. ‘How can you survive if in your house you have no fire?’ said Guarani-Kaiowá leader Amilton Lopes. ‘You become spiritually empty.  When you are linked with nature, surrounded by forests, you have life.  You have everything.’

The life expectancy of the Guarani people is low (45 years, compared with 72 years for Brazilians as a whole), and their levels of malnutrition, alcoholism, violence and suicide are high.  Statistics released by the Brazilian organisation CIMI (Conselho Indigenista Missionario, the Indigenist Missionary Council) in 2008 reveal that 80 Guarani children had died as a result of malnutrition in just 5 years. ‘Almost all the Guarani’s forest been taken from them in the past 100 years, so they have been left with very little land to plant on,’ says Fiona Watson, Field Director of Survival International, the organisation that campaigns for the rights of tribal peoples.

Watson visited the Guarani people’s Apyka’y community at the end of 2010 and found that not only do the they have very little access to clean water, but they are being affected by chemicals used on sugarcane plantations are polluting their rivers, killing their fish and causing diarrhoea. “They are also suffering from intense headaches caused by vinhoto, a chemical that is the by-product of converting sugar cane into ethanol,’ Watson says. Dilma Modesto, a Guarani health agent from the Guyraroká community, which featured in the acclaimed ‘Birdwatchers’ film, is extremely worried. ‘Since the sugarcane has been planted, children, adults and the elderly have been suffering from many diseases,’ she says. ‘We have coughs, sore throats, headaches, diarrhoea and vomiting. Many children are suffering. I want the children to be as they were before, when all was ok.’

When all was ok, however, was when the Guarani occupied their ancestral lands, and were surrounded by forest, water, plants, animals – everything, in fact, that makes up a healthy ecosystem and gives their lives meaning and sustenance. ‘Almost no other tribe in Brazil has survived after suffering such a scale of loss of land as the Guaraní,’ says Fiona Watson. This dispossession has not only triggered physical problems, but severe mental health issues as well: more than 625 Guarani have committed suicide since 1981, the youngest being only 9 years old.  In 2009, their suicide rate was 10 times the national average according to CIMI. ‘The Guarani are committing suicide because we have no land,’ said Rosalino Ortiz, leader of the Yvy Katu community. ‘In the old days, we were free.  Now we are no longer.  So our young people look around them and think there is nothing left. They lose themselves. Then they commit suicide.’

Tragically, the Guarani’s health problems are not uncommon.  To most of the world’s 150 million tribal people, land and life are inextricably linked.  Earth is the bedrock of their lives, the provider of food and shelter and the spiritual force of their lives. The health of their spiritual, physical and emotional lives are intimately linked to the health of their lands. ‘We cannot separate our place on the earth from our lives on the earth nor from our vision and our meaning as a people,’ stated a Cherokee statement, a thought echoed by George Rich, an Innu man from Canada, when he says, ‘The land is a part of your life. Without it, you are nothing. Everything that is connected to the land are symbols of Innu identity – of who you are as a human being.’

For the Innu, the northernmost Algonquin speaking peoples of North America, this ‘nothingness’ that comes from being divorced from ‘Nitassinan’, the sub-arctic expanse of tundra, lakes and forests that has been their homelands for 7,500 years, has resulted in alcoholism, glue-sniffing, and shocking suicide rates.  During the 1950s and 1960s, the once-nomadic Innu were pressured into settling in fixed communities by the Canadian government and Catholic Church. The transition for a traditionally mobile people was traumatic – and still is. A recent report published by Dr. Michael Jong, Vice President of Medical Services at the Labrador Health Centre, shows that suicides between 2006 and 2009 amounted to 75 per 100,00 per year.  This equates to 7 times the Canadian average.

‘I’ve seen Innu people who, when in ‘the country’ were strong, healthy, intelligent and felt good about themselves, become drunk as soon as they return to the resettlement village,’ says Colin Samson, a sociologist based at the University of Essex who has worked with the Innu since 1994. Samson says that it is hard to prove that Innu suicides are directly linked to their dispossession, but it is clear their onset coincided with the Canadian government’s resettlement programme. ‘It is not accidental that as the Innu people have gone from having meaning and purpose in life to having none, and as their position and authority have been taken away, so severe mental health problems have arisen,’ he says. 

This loss of meaning in life is compounded by the marked difference in exercise levels between a hunting way of life and a sedentary existence in resettlement villages. The Innu commonly speak of a loss of vitality incurred by disconnections from land and from vigorous physical activity,’ adds Samson. It is surely not just a coincidence that those Innu people who still maintain strong links to ‘Nitassinan’, often record no suicides at all. Similarly, there are many indicators suggesting that the Guarani’s high suicide rate is directly linked to their loss of land. Many Guarani say that their relatives who took their own lives did so as they felt trapped without their ancestral land, and it is quite telling that Guarani communities who are back on part of their land show a much lower suicide rate than those who are living in overcrowded reserves or camps.

In general, the standard of health of tribes who still live on their own lands is far better than those who have been forcibly removed. Indices show that when tribal peoples are forced off their lands, when they are wrenched away from their lands, homes, myths and memories – in short everything that gives their lives meaning – their health and well-being plummet.  Correspondingly, rates of depression, addiction, and suicide soar.

A glance at indigenous health figures around the world is testament to this. The World Health Organisation (WHO)’s statistics show that in some regions of Australia, Aborigines with sedentary lives have a diabetes prevalence rate as high as 26%, while in the Pima reservation of Arizona, more than half of Indians over the age of 35 have diabetes (while those living in the mountains have none). In Africa, since the Botswana government forced the Bushmen from the Central Kalahari Game Reserve (CKGR) to eviction camps outside the reserve, the Bushmen have been gripped by alcoholism, boredom, depression and HIV/AIDS. 

‘Indigenous populations are more likely to suffer from substance abuse, depression, and other mental disorders,’ says the World Health Organisation (WHO), which also defines health as ‘a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being, and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.’  This definition is distinct from that of western medicine, which has tended to view the human body as composed of separate entities that need individual treatment, and not part of a complex whole. Most tribal peoples have an approach to human wellbeing that is, philosophically, more in keeping with the holism defined by the WHO.  To them, health is the sum of many parts; it is about a harmonious state that exists between individuals, communities and their homelands.

Among the Innu today, however, there is hope and determination. In 2011, a band of young Innu men will walk across their ancestral territory, as they did in 2010, to raise awareness of the chronic levels of diabetes among Innu people.  ‘Dressed in white, like winter caribou, they walked in single file hauling their toboggans, rising early in the morning, travelling through the Innu homeland Nitassinan, until nightfall,’ wrote Armand Mackenzie, a lawyer for the Quebec Innu, of their journey last year.  ‘The Young Innu Cultural Health Walkers don’t walk to be popular,’ he continued, ‘but for a simple reason: to fight against diabetes and to promote physical activity amongst our People.’

For hundreds of years, the Guarani have also travelled vast distances across their ancestral territories, but for a different reason: in search of the fabled place where their people can live free from pain and suffering.  This place they call yvy marane’ý,’ or, the ‘Land without Evil’.  Living in roadside camps, they are still far from this land.  Neither their health is likely to improve, nor their suffering diminish, unless they are able to recover parts of their ka’aguy’ (forest).  ‘We are like the plants,’ said the late Marta Guarani. ‘We cannot live without our earth, without our land.’ 

AUTHOR: Joanna Eede
E-MAIL: je [at]


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