Sugarcane farms have overtaken much of the Guarani people's ancestral land in western Brazil. Survival International

The chieftain’s daughter-in-law watched as the rancher’s four henchmen struck her father-in-law in the head with their rifle butts until he was lying breathless in the dirt.

“I watched … the death of Marcos, and I couldn’t stand it, that murder they carried out,” said Geisalia Veron, one of the indigenous Guarani people in Brazil, speaking on camera with the indigenous-rights group Survival International.

Eight years after the death of Marcos Veron, three of the men would be acquitted of homicide, charged instead with kidnapping, torture, and criminal conspiracy, and each handed relatively lenient 12-year prison sentences. The fourth man was never found.

No charges were brought against their wealthy employer, Jacinto Honorio da Silva Filho, whose cattle ranch had been built on the Guarani's ancestral land, amid the receding rain forests of western Brazil’s Mato Grosso state.

Veron, the leader of a group of 100 villagers who reoccupied the land, was 72 when he died in January 2003.

They came with tools, and they began to rebuild their homes on the overgrazed pastures that had once been shaded by a dense forest canopy. Silva’s men confronted them with guns.

The old chieftain often said the land was his life and soul, and that he could not be separated from it.

And his body was buried in the soil he died for, a final act of defiance.

A Developing Story

Veron’s story is one that has played out in some form many times across the lands of the Guarani as cattle ranchers and sugarcane farmers encroach further and further into their territory every year. There are also gas drillers, loggers, and miners -- spearheading the steady advance of development in South America's biggest country, now the world's seventh-largest economy in the International Monetary Fund national rankings.

The story doesn’t always involve murder or even direct violence. Sometimes, it is the pollution of a vital stream because of pesticides or mine runoff. Or malnutrition and poverty brought on as the traditional, self-sustaining lifestyles disappear with the land.

Last month, a Guarani community in Mato Grosso complained that a stream, their main source of water, had been polluted with a thick layer of white foam in the midst of a bitter land dispute with a local rancher located upstream.

The Guarani community told Survival International that its members used the stream “for drinking, bathing, cooking, and washing our clothes. Now we cannot use it … we are very scared.”

The problem facing the Guarani is not merely the individuals who exploit their land for resources, but the industries that support them. In some cases, foreign companies are providing the economic incentive for these individuals' actions.

The expansion of sugarcane cultivation, especially for the development of ethanol as Brazil aims to avoid dependence on oil imports, is a main driver of deforestation and the associated displacement of the Guarani.

Bret Gustafson, associate professor of sociocultural anthropology at Washington University in St. Louis, said the issue of displacement is particularly prevalent in Mato Grosso, near the border with Bolivia.

“Because of the boom in sugarcane and soy in this region, landowners have been able to mobilize local political power in their favor -- what is often referred to as the ‘rural lobby,'” Gustafson said.

Despite efforts by Brazil's federal government to protect indigenous lands, he added, local politicians have resisted, and allowed landowners to continue occupying disputed land.

Meanwhile, multinational companies provide landowners with business.

Follow The Money

Bunge Ltd. (NYSE:BG), based in White Plains, N.Y., purchases sugarcane for the production of sugar and ethanol from farms on lands that are in the process of being demarcated by Brazil's federal government as Guarani land.

“It’s clear it’s indigenous land. It’s just a matter of process,” said Fiona Watson, Brazil researcher at Survival International.

Watson’s organization is currently appealing to Bunge to withdraw from its contracts with sugarcane farmers whose plantations lie within land she said has already been designated as indigenous.

Susan Burns, a Bunge representative, said the company would withdraw from its contracts only when the land was officially demarcated, a process that could be prolonged by appeals from landowners.

“Bunge purchases a portion of the sugarcane used at a mill in Mato Grosso do Sul in Brazil from farmers whose land is being claimed by members of a local indigenous group, but which has not been designated as such by the competent authorities,” Burns wrote in an email.

“Multiple contracts to purchase this sugarcane were entered into prior to Bunge’s acquisition of the mill, and Bunge is legally required to honor them,” Burns added. “The contracts expire over the course of the coming years, starting in 2013, and Bunge has decided not to renew them, although such sourcing is completely legal in terms of the law.”

Bunge declined to disclose the value of the contracts.

'Send A Message'

Watson said her organization is aware that Bunge is within its legal rights to buy sugarcane from the land until it is officially demarcated as indigenous, but she said that the ethical decision would be to withdraw now.

Ending the contracts would “send a message” to other farmers who are exploiting indigenous land that they will not be receiving business from large companies like Bunge, and it would set an example for other multinationals.

Bunge operates sugarcane mills in Brazil, where it produces both sugar and ethanol primarily for the Brazilian market.

“Three Bunge sugarcane mills in Brazil are certified by Bonsucro, a multi-stakeholder organization focused on the social, environmental and economic sustainability of sugarcane production … Bunge is working to have all its sugarcane mills in Brazil certified,” reads a statement on the company’s website.

However, the farmers who sell sugarcane to Bunge do not have such standards.

Many Guarani end up doing manual labor for low wages on these plantations.

“They’ve managed to convert the Guarani into a cheap labor force,” Gustafson said. “This is some of the toughest work you can imagine, cutting sugarcane with a machete for 12 hours a day. You don’t last very long doing this kind of work.”

Gustafson said the industry has had a severe impact on the Guarani way of life.

Many have been forced off their land and live in overcrowded camps on the side of roads, dependent on limited government assistance to survive.

The situation has also caused a breakdown of social cohesion within Guarani communities, with high rates of suicide, alcoholism, and self-destructive behavior, Gustafson added.

According to Gustafson, a legal solution exists: The government could compensate the landowners and return the land to the Guarani. But the federal government has been more focused on economic development than on protecting indigenous people’s rights.

While Survival International is focusing on Bunge because it is a major corporation, it has also criticized the Brazilian government for failing to take enough action to protect the Guarani way of life.

In particular, Watson said the government “must be more proactive on the landowners,” meaning they need to be held accountable by local law enforcement officials and encouraged to respect the rights of indigenous peoples.

“It is the Brazilian government’s moral and legal responsibility to ensure that the human-rights abuses and the racial discrimination which the Guarani are suffering is stopped,” Survival International Director Stephen Corry said in a statement. “If swift and efficient action is not taken, many more Guarani will suffer and die.”