Brazil: Sugar rush destroys indigenous communities’ way of life

by Oxfam | October 17, 2013
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People around the world rely on land, literally, for their bread and butter. Land grabs, however, are leaving some of the world's poorest people hungry and homeless and we want your favorite food and drink brands to do more to protect them. Caroline Gluck reports from Brazil.

Village chief Ezequiel Joâo Kaiowá leads me to a forest clearing located on his tribe’s ancestral land known as Panambi-Lagoa Rica, in the State of Mato Grosso do Sul, south-western Brazil. The state’s name translates as ‘thick forest of the South’ but today there’s little heavy forest cover left; a disaster for Brazil’s indigenous communities who have relied on their land for their culture and traditional way of life for centuries.

Chief Ezequiel points to the ground: charred wood, burnt remains and metal parts lie scattered about. This used to be his family’s house. The wooden foundations are still standing. He holds up a chunk of metal: “this used to be part of the television,” he said.

His family are lucky to be alive. For many years, Chief Ezequiel and his community have been fighting for the legal rights to their ancestral land. It’s a lengthy process which has brought them into conflict with powerful political and business interests.

Brazil’s constitution recognizes and guarantees the traditional rights of indigenous communities to their land. In practice these rights have been widely ignored. “The constitution is on our side,” another indigenous leader told me a few days later. “We have our rights. But the law is not being respected.”

The rapid growth of the sugar industry is a major part to the problem. Chief Ezequiel believes his home was burned down because he led protests against sugarcane production on the tribe’s ancestral land.

Sugar is big business in Brazil. In Mato Grosso do Sul alone, the area of land given over to sugarcane production more than tripled between 2007 and 2012. Many of the sugar mills supply to large international food and drink companies.

The sugar rush

Unfortunately the problems facing Chief Ezequiel and his community are not unique. Oxfam’s Behind the Brands campaign has launched a new report, ‘Sugar Rush’, which outlines how the production of sugar and other commercial crops such as soy and palm oil are fueling land grabs across the developing world.

Oxfam is calling on the world’s biggest producers and buyers of sugar – Coca Cola, PepsiCo and Associated British Food – to act now to ensure land grabs are not a feature of their supply chains.

In Ponta Porã municipality, Mato Grosso do Sul, nearly 9,000 hectares of land has been officially designated indigenous territory, called Jatayvary. But that hasn’t stopped farmers occupying the land and clearing forest to grow sugarcane. And it hasn’t stopped the nearby sugar mill, owned by the US food giant Bunge, from buying sugar grown there.

Coca-Cola purchases sugar from Bunge in Brazil. While the drinks giant says it does not buy from this particular mill the case highlights that the drinks giant is not doing enough to ensure that its suppliers’ operations do not lead to land grabs.

During the harvest period, trucks work day and night, creating pollution and causing road accidents, some of which involve children. The pesticides sprayed on the sugar plantations from the air have caused health problems including respiratory infections, skin infections and acute diarrhea. The psychological toll which the loss of their ancestral land and destruction of their native forest has had on the community has led to a number of suicides.

“Everything has been cleared”

Edilza Duarte, a member of the Guaraní-Kaiowá community that is occupying a patch of land on the border of one of the sugar plantations, worries about how the loss of their land will affect her family and fears for the health and future of her two children. “They have put an end to our culture,” she said.

“Before, there was forest and we could go hunting. Everything has been cleared. There is nothing for us to eat. There is nothing more to hunt, or fish. They have spread the poison and killed everything.”

When we arrive Edilza’s husband, Silvino Vargas Savala, has just returned carrying a wild boar caught on a day’s hunting. Families used to be self-sufficient but the loss of their land and native plants and trees means that’s almost impossible now. Until recently, Silvano was forced to relocate to another town to find work – returning home on his one day off a week to see his family. Ironically, his job was with another sugarcane company. He says nearby farms supplying to Bunge refused to employ anyone from his tribe.

His wife says it’s been hard to bring up the family on her own and is bitter about the impact the sugarcane production has had on the community.

“They finished our reality and decimated us,” she said. “Because they are so big, we can’t do anything against them. [But] something must be done to them to stop harming us so much.”

Caroline Gluck is Oxfam Great Britain's Humanitarian Press Officer.

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