top of page

             in abundance 

Brazil is an agrarian power

However, the focus is on exports, while more and more people at home suffer from hunger.

von Sandra Weiss



In the midst of Brazil's breadbasket, surrounded by pastures and cornfields, Gilda Rodrigues stares at a blackened pot and wonders if she will have something to eat today. It is still early on this winter morning. The thermometer reads 15 degrees, and the rising sun struggles against the ground fog that envelops the surroundings in an eerie cotton-like mist. Rodrigues shivers and moves closer to the glowing embers of her cooking stove in her small wooden hut. Water simmers over the fire for chimarrão, the bitter mate tea. "Chimarrão is magical. It has healing powers and drives away hunger," says the 21-year-old. It also provides comfort. The gourd filled to the brim with herbs is repeatedly refilled with hot water and passed around among the extended family. Everyone drinks from it as often as they like, even though the taste of herbs now only lightly caresses their palates. This creates an illusion of abundance, and this ritual binds them together in times of hardship.


Bildschirmfoto 2018-12-30 um

The Rodrigues Guaraní family survives on rice, cassava, and mate tea.


The blackened pot with half a kilo of rice from the previous evening is covered and reserved for Gilda's three young children: Thallis, 8, Hellen, 4, and Lemuel, 2. Natanel, the youngest at just two months old, is still breastfed. If the children leave anything behind, her husband Geraldo will get some so that he has strength for hunting. "Yesterday was a good day," Rodrigues says with a smile. "He caught a quail and I was able to add some meat to the rice."

Geraldo will not eat everything that the children leave behind, but rather share it neatly with his wife.

Geraldo, with his weathered face and sinewy build, is a good man and a concerned father. He will not eat everything that the children leave behind, but rather share it neatly with his wife. Neither of them will be fully satisfied, but at least the nagging feeling in their stomachs subsides a little. For Gilda, three spoonfuls of rice provide enough energy to do laundry, while Geraldo searches for firewood in the nearby eucalyptus grove.

The family lives in Pyelito Kué, in the state of Mato Grosso do Sul. They belong to the Guaraní ethnic group. Once, they were the masters of the vast plains of Brazil. However, the Portuguese colonial rulers claimed the best lands for themselves, pushing the Guaraní further and further back. After independence in the 19th century, politically connected politicians, lawyers, notaries, and merchants seized huge tracts of land by issuing ownership titles among themselves due to their familial connections.


Today, there are still 45,000 Guaraní people living in Mato Grosso do Sul, a state the size of Germany. Most of them are confined to eight reserves along with other indigenous ethnic groups, waiting for the government to return their ancestral lands as guaranteed by the constitution. "242,322 hectares have been designated by the Indigenous Agency for restitution," says Matías Rempel, coordinator of the Indigenous Missionary Council CIMI. "Only 70,370 hectares have been returned." This is equivalent to 1.3 times the size of Lake Constance and represents less than one percent of the state's total area. The rest is entangled in legal disputes within the Brazilian justice system - some cases have been ongoing for over 30 years.


Gilda's community, consisting of nearly 50 families, grew impatient. In their reserve, there was not enough land for all families to engage in agriculture, and in the nearest city of Itaguemi, where large landowners hold sway, indigenous people are seen as useless troublemakers and face discrimination. Hardly anyone is willing to give them work, and if they do, it is often under exploitative conditions. "Sometimes they only offer me food," Geraldo explains. "At best, they pay minimum wage for backbreaking labor." In the reserves, murders and suicides have skyrocketed over the past 20 years to levels far above the Brazilian average rate. "There we could only die but not live," says Geraldo.

Eight years ago, they left the reserve together with like-minded individuals. The 50 families initially settled on a strip of land next to the highway, and then they occupied the farm located on their ancestral land in Pyelito Kué. It was a traumatic period as there were traumatic months due to the constant police raids, large landowner threatened them.

When Gilda recalls those times, her otherwise gentle voice becomes loud. She recounts how the "pistoleiros" would repeatedly drive them away, burn down their huts, trample their fields. There were deaths, injuries, and women who were raped. And they had to start from scratch over and over again. Gilda was pregnant during that time and experienced severe bleeding. Thallis was born prematurely and is almost blind. She never received an explanation for it at the hospital. The world of the "Cara-y," the white people, is foreign to Gilda. She associates it only with suffering, hunger, and violence.

"We want to return to our Teko-há," she says firmly.

"We want to return to our Teko-há," she says firmly. The concept, which is most comparable to "home" in German, means "the place where we can be who we are" in Guarani. This includes the present as well as the graves of their ancestors. It encompasses forests where they find their natural medicinal herbs, rivers for fishing, and plains for hunting and cultivating fields that are regularly rotated to prevent soil depletion. However, this clashes directly with the claims and worldview of large landowners, for whom every square meter of land represents profitable cultivation area. What is a return home for the Guaraní is seen by the large landowners as illegal occupation - even when courts express serious doubts about the legitimacy of their land titles. Because it involves a lot of money. The subtropical climate allows for two harvests per year if the iron-rich clay soils are properly treated with fertilizers and pesticides. Primarily soybeans and corn for export are grown in the region. 8.6 million tons of soybeans were shipped from here worldwide in 2021 alone. This protein-rich bean is used to fatten chickens, cattle, and pigs in China and Europe so that supermarkets there can offer consumers cheap meat. "But this soybean comes with blood," warns Rempel.


"But blood stains this soy," warns Rempel.


Eventually, under pressure from Cimi, the state intervened in Pyellito Kué and organized negotiations. The large landowner regained his estate, while he granted a small piece of land to the Indigenous people. The state promised to install water and electricity lines, build a school and a health post in that area. Six years later, only the promise of the school was fulfilled. The community had to negotiate with the electricity provider themselves to get access to power; an NGO built water tanks for them, but they are still waiting for the construction of the health post. The soil is sandy, making it nearly impossible to grow anything without artificial fertilizers or agricultural expertise. And even if something does grow, it doesn't guarantee a successful harvest.


Gilda's aunt, Maria Aparecida Goncalves, stands in her heavily damaged cassava field near the hut, utterly dismayed. She points silently at a few large cow droppings. "It took me so much effort to grow something here," she sighs, tears welling up in her eyes. "And then the cows come and destroy everything in one night." Sadly, she gathers a few undamaged cassava plants. "And if we try to drive away the cows and something happens to them, the large landowner sends the police and accuses us of cattle theft," she sighs.

"And if we try to drive away the cows and something happens to them, the large landowner sends the police and accuses us of cattle theft."

It is now noon, and the sun mercilessly beats down on the sandy, red earth. Gilda's pot of rice is empty, and the children whimper with hunger. However, they soon spot a few ripe mulberries by the roadside and become distracted. "Fortunately, Thallis gets a meal at school," Gilda sighs as she looks at her "pantry" a wooden board nailed halfway up the wall of the hut. There's still three-quarters of a liter of cooking oil, some sugar, salt, and a kilogram of cornmeal left. These are remnants from one of the food baskets that Brazil's government distributes to the poorest every month. However, they come irregularly. Since right-wing populist President Jair Bolsonaro came to power - who considers Indigenous people backward and wants to exploit the natural resources on their land - these intervals have become longer. Gilda has been waiting for a new food basket for four months now.

Today, the government's food basket doesn't arrive again. However, instead of the government, neighbor Goncalves stops by and brings some cassava that she managed to salvage from her trampled field. Solidarity is an unwavering law among the Guaraní. Within the extended family, everything is shared. Gilda beams as she peels the tubers and boils them in hot water. "We'll have them tonight with a bit of salt and oil," she says happily. While their family's diet may not be balanced, Gilda is grateful for the assurance that at least her children won't go to bed on empty stomachs.


Solidarity is an unwavering law among the Guaraní. Within the extended family, everything is shared.

The reportage was commissioned by Misereor            

bottom of page