To mark World Mental Health Day earlier this month, the human rights organization Survival International has presented new, shocking figures on the suicide epidemic striking Brazil’s indigenous Guarani people.

The Guarani nation, which numbers more than 46,000, has suicide rates no less than 34 times higher than their country's national average, and as Britain’s Guardian newspaper observed in a special report, the death rate in the Dourados camp housing one Guarani community is 50% higher than in Iraq.

Why? The Guarani have lost the greater part of the ancestral lands with which they have a deep spiritual connection because of the invasion of ranchers and sugar cane plantations. The natives are pushed into living on the roadside or are confined to reservations. They face malnutrition, precarious health and alcoholism.

Those communities that try and return to their lands face extreme violence at the hands of gunmen hired by ranchers to attack and often kill the Guarani.

It could become even worse

Despite the fact that demarcation of Guarani territory should have been completed years ago, the process has stagnated and Brazilian politicians are currently debating a constitutional amendment to boost the demarcation powers of Congress, currently influenced by anti-indigenous, rural groups. That would be disastrous for the Guarani and their territorial campaign.

Certain indigenous activists protested last week in Brazil’s Congress against the constitutional reform that would transfer from the executive to the legislative branch powers to delineate, approve and establish native lands and nature reserves.

Minister of Justice Eduardo Cardozo himself qualifies the initiative as unconstitutional, while several government and non-governmental reports have pointed out that the demarcation of Guarani territories should have been completed years ago.

Figures from Survival International show that since 2000, there has been at least one suicide a week among the Guarani. The Brazilian Health Ministry believes 56 Guarani died this way in 2012, though the real figure may be greater as not all cases are reported.

A worrying situation — Photo: Jesus Leon

Notably, the majority of victims are between just 15 and 29 years old. In fact, the last known victim was a 17-year-old girl who killed herself Oct. 9.

“The Guarani are killing themselves because we have no lands. We don’t have any more space,” says Rosalino Ortiz, a Guarani man. “We were free before. Now we are not. So our youngsters look around them and think there is nothing left, and ask themselves how they can live. They sit and think, forget, lose themselves and finally commit suicide.”

Anthropologist Efraín Jaramillo who worked on a study compiled by UNICEF and the International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs (IWGIA), recently told Radio Netherlands that the Guarani were “no longer alone in this world, which they had possessed and dominated and which had assured them a dignified life. Those communities most affected by suicide were kings in their territories. They had no conflicts, neither with settlers nor loggers nor with any of those who want to take over their natural resources. This is no longer possible.”

The anthropologist said particularly with the state of girls in such communities that they were “mistreated by their environment and made to undertake grueling work days. They have to wake up very early to go to the pond for food. Then they have to cook and wash clothes while they take care of younger siblings and make handicrafts to generate some income. It’s a depressing situation that deprives these girls of the will to go on. They think living this way makes absolutely no sense.”

The same ill oppresses the Embera tribe in Colombia. UNICEF estimates that their youngsters (particularly those aged between 10 and 14 years) have the country’s leading suicide rate.

Like Brazil goes Colombia

Efráin Jaramillo observes a much more complex phenomenon with suicides here than in Brazil, related to a changing social context in Colombia’s Pacific region, he says. It has transformed from a “haven of peace” into one of Colombia’s most violent regions, because of invasion by peasants displaced by violence in the Colombian hinterland after the collapse of rural reforms in the mid-1970s.

“From 1995 the collision became really intense in the Pacific region, previously separated from the rest of the country by the Western mountains,” says Jaramillo. “Within years, it became the epicenter of violent land grabs, outstanding for its political and economic exclusion, for racial discrimination and for having the highest rates of failure to satisfy basic needs. In these years, figures for teenage suicides among natives began to be registered.”

Survival International is asking the Brazilian Government to define Guarani territory with the necessary urgency and has urged companies such as the U.S. agribusiness firm Bunge to stop buying sugar cane cultivated on Guarani land.

Survival’s Director Stephen Corry calls this a “clear and disheartening reminder of the devastation and misery land theft has caused among indigenous peoples,” and not just the Guaraní. He observed that across the world native peoples registered far higher suicide rates than those affecting the social majority. “So-called progress,” he says, was frequently destructive of native peoples, although “in this case there is a clear solution: define Guaraní territory before more lives are lost.”