According to the Jesuit priest Bartomeu Meliá, the Guaraní moved regularly when the tribe became too big and the pressure on resources increased. "Presumably there were also military conflicts with other tribes. However, the translation of the people of the warriors is based on a confusion with the word guareni, which means war. "The German ethnologist Curt Unckel learned of a legend, according to which the wandering was related to the search for the" land without evil ". This theory quickly caught on because of its parallel to Christianity, and because the Guaraní are generally very spiritual. Their communities have a house of prayer and a religious leader, the Cacique, whose authority is based on status rather than formal power. Religious ceremonies and festivals, which often last for days, are an important part of everyday life.
They were one of the first peoples of South America that the European conquerors came in contact with. In 1567, Ulrich Schmidel reported on their ways in his work "truthful accounts of a wonderful boat voyage". Under Spanish colonial rule the Jesuits spoke out on their behalf.
With the Jesuit missions, they created the first American Indian reservations from 1610 onwards. These protected settlements could only be entered by the Guaraní, Jesuits and invited guests; they were not subject to the jurisdiction of the colonial government, but to the Spanish crown. In the missions the Guaraní were evangelised, in return they were protected from slave hunters and from exploitation by the white upper class. However the Jesuit priest Bartomeu Melia warned in a chronicle that "the uterus of the Guaraní was always occupied by the seeds of the whites“, thus the numbers of pure blood offspring to the Guaraní was dwindling dangerously.
In 1767 conflicts with colonial authorities and oligarchic landowners led – on the orders of the Spanish King Charles III – to the expulsion of the Jesuits from the Spanish regions of Latin America and the Jesuit missions were dissolved. This expulsion is the subject of the movie "The Mission".
Henceforth the Guaraní were forced to fend for themselves. They scattered and founded widely separated settlements, situated in part deliberately far away from the villages of the “whites" (today mining concerns and oil corporations are also interested in these remote areas). Later “New Owners" appeared, fenced off pastures – and suddenly a great number of Indigenous groups were captured and enslaved. The men especially offered themselves as agricultural labourers and often had to stay away from home for months. This led to tensions in the communities. Returning workers often brought back sexually transmitted diseases and alcoholism.
Nearly 58,000 Guaraní live in Bolivia. In Paraguay they make up today about one percent of the population, around 60,000 people. Their main problem is the defence of their land against the soy- and cattle-barons. The destruction of forests for monoculture and the massive use of pesticides have put an end to hunting and fishing. There is also hardly enough land to grow cereals or fruits, and also traditional medicinal plants such as the sweet herb Stevia are hard to find because of the surrounding monocultures. Stevia today is known as a "healthy sugar substitute", one of the great hopes for the future of the food industry – yet without a share of the profits going to the Guaraní, the actual discoverers and guardians of the plant.
In Brazil, the Guaraní are the largest indigenous people in the country with approximately 55,000 members. They are concentrated especially in the state of Mato Grosso do Sul. Their situation is very critical there. The Guaraní once inhabited forests and steppes of the size of Germany. In the last 100 years, however, they have lost almost all their entire land through violent evictions by landowners. Many of them dwell today in tiny settlements surrounded by pastures, soy and sugar cane plantations, where they have no chance to live a self-determined life, or in tent camps on the roadside. The suicide rate has increased dramatically in recent years.
Since 1986, more than 517 Guaraní have committed suicide, the youngest of them just nine years old. In the Dourados reserve some 12,000 indigenous people live on a little more than 30 km². Malnutrition is a serious problem; since 2005, at least 53 Guarani children starved to death. The feature film "Birdwatchers – Land of the Red Man" describes the struggle for survival of the Guaraní in southern Brazil.
The 6.700 Guaraní in Argentina fight similar problems. The loss of their habitat leads to malnutrition, poverty and epidemics such as tuberculosis. The men especially hire themselves out as agricultural day labourers and often have to stay away for months from home. That leads to tensions in the communities. In recent years, aside from bringing sexually transmitted diseases and alcoholism home, more and more evangelical sects proselytize aggressively in Guaraní communities and jeopardize their cultural traditions.
The Threat to the Guaraní World:
Firstly in their respective home countries, from 1980 onwards the Guaraní organized themselves politically. In 2010 the transnational Consejo Continental de la Nación Guaraní was created. Its main concern is the "unrestricted freedom of movement across national borders, the preservation of cultural identity, political autonomy and the recapture of tribal territories”. One of the activities is land occupation.
But even if they have a legal claim for the occupied country, their tent camps are often brutally evicted by the security forces; many indigenous people are considered as "illegal squatters" and end up in prison. There, they are confronted with a deeply racist and class-oriented security and judicial apparatus and hardly have any chance to defend themselves.