Brazil: “Suicide Crisis” for Indigenous Adolescents
Photo Courtesy of the Globe and Mail
Suicide rates of indigenous Brazilians adolescents are 22 times higher than those of non-indigenous Brazilian. The Globe and Mail travelled to Mato Grosso do Sul and spoke with older generations of Guarani-Kaiowá, that highlighted how this “suicide crisis” was not the case when they were adolescents. In 2015 the federal government had announced a prevention plan for the worst affected regions, promising to cut suicide rates by at least 10%, however they never made the budget or plans for implementation public. Moreover, community-level resources are extremely scarce, especially in Mato Grosso do Sul where the 70,000 indigenous people present in the region have access to a mere 13 psychologists, all of which don’t have any more specialisations than an undergraduate degree. Locals believe this suicide surge could be explained by the loss of land and rituals, alongside the lure of the city and alcohol and drug abuse.
Below is an article published by The Globe and Mail:
In Guarani, they are called mokoi and gwyra. You can think of them like two small birds that fly to join you at the moment of birth and travel on your shoulder all your life. They are the guardians of your ayvu, your animating force, your soul. If you grow old, and your body wears out, then the birds depart for their natural home in the cosmos. That’s a good death.
But the birds can also be frightened off your shoulder, long before your body wears out. They can be dislodged by harsh words, or by a shocking sight – your lover encircled in someone else’s arms, for example. The birds may settle and return to you – but they may not. That is when trouble begins: The most evil spirits, the angue, that are around us and in us, can take over then.
The angue can lead you to do all manner of bad things. They may even give you the idea to pick up a rope, toss it over the branch of a tree, pull it tight around your own neck, and jump. Jejuvy, in Guarani: It is usually translated as suicide in English, but that’s a limited word – the clear implication is that the angue suffocated you, after giving you a wish to die. And then the spirits are loose, and if no one is on hand to take steps to stop them, they can fan out to cause new suffering – including jejuvy in many others.
Once the hangings have started, it can be a very long time before they stop.
Jejuvy took hold in December, 2015, in Sassoró, an Indigenous reserve in central Brazil that is home to 3,800 people. The first to die was Junior Silveira, who was 20. He hanged himself from a large tree in a clearing between the houses. His family found him near dusk, and the chief, Paulo Fiel, called the police – but they are never quick to answer calls from the reserve, and it wasn’t until the next day that Mr. Fiel was given permission to cut his body down.
“By then, everyone had seen, even the little ones,” said Junior’s mother, Maria Benites. Years ago, a child would never have been permitted to see a victim of jejuvy. These days, you can hardly prevent it.
After Junior, the deaths came swiftly, a 15-year-old boy, a 14-year-old girl. Until the last to die: Junior’s brother, Gilmar, who strangled himself with a belt on a post inside the family’s rough board house in October.
“They were not sad boys – they were normal,” Ms. Benites told me, her voice flat. “They liked school. They played football. They went to dances. They were always together.
“Something happened to them.”
There is a suicide crisis among Brazil’s Indigenous people, who take their own lives at an average rate 22 times that of non-Indigenous Brazilians. Among the non-Indigenous Brazilian population, it is men over 60 who are most likely to kill themselves (a statistic that is in line with most Western countries); on Brazilian reserves, it is almost entirely adolescents who take their own lives. More boys kill themselves than girls, but the rate of suicide by girls is growing more quickly. The overall Indigenous suicide rate is higher than the national one across the country, but it is wildly higher in a handful of places.
The situation has many parallels with the phenomenon of Indigenous suicide in Canada, with one conspicuous difference: In Canada, it is called a “crisis.” Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has pledged urgent action on Indigenous suicide, and cabinet ministers have promised a federal intervention (although Indigenous leaders say both a plan and resources are still starkly lacking).
In Brazil, however, there is no talk of a crisis. In 2015 the federal government announced a prevention plan for what it calls the worst-affected reserves (pledging to cut suicide by 10 per cent) but it will not make public the budget or where that plan is supposedly being implemented. This belated and haphazard response reflects, in part, the fact that the country is mired in economic and political turmoil that has pulled away resources and attention from most social problems. But even at the best of times, Brazil’s 900,000 Indigenous people are profoundly marginalized, the poorest citizens, little remembered, less served.
No more than a dozen people in Brazil, a country of 210 million, are researching the possible causes of the astronomical rates of Indigenous suicide. Community-level resources are pitifully scarce: For the 70,000 Indigenous people in the state of Mato Grosso do Sul, where Sassoró is located, there are 13 psychologists, none with more than an undergraduate degree.
It is difficult to determine precisely when this problem began, because data are predictably scarce: A federal Indigenous health service has kept statistics only since the mid-1990s. But suicides – occurring in such large numbers, not just one or two in a generation – are by all accounts a recent phenomenon. Most people the age of Ms. Benites, who is 52, say it never happened when she was young. The phenomenon first drew attention in Brazil with a spate of suicides among her people, the Guarani-Kaiowa, in 1986, when the Brazilian Indigenous affairs agency noticed a spike – from about five a year to 40. Statistics collected since 1996 show an average of 46 a year – a rate that is 21 times greater than the national one. Many of those who work in the field say this is probably a sharp underestimation, since Indigenous deaths are almost never subjected to a coroner’s analysis, and are often simply not recorded at all.
As a series of suicides by young girls in Northern Saskatchewan made news in Canada in recent months, I went to Sassoró, and to reserves scattered through Guarani-Kaiowa territory, to try to understand what is happening here, and what, if anything, is being done in response. I talked to the psychologist whose catchment area includes the Benites family; to the regional health authority; to traditional healers and to anthropologists; to parents and siblings of the dead.
When I asked people why they thought the young Guarani-Kaiowa are killing themselves, they told me about lost land and lost rituals, and the lure of the city and fancy sneakers and cellphones. About chronic disease and near-universal unemployment. About alcohol and drug abuse, and a generation of children whose parents feel they cannot control them. (And a generation of children who feel their parents should not try to control them.) I heard about the nature of the Kaiowa, some of whom described their people to me as closed, reserved, disinclined to share emotion but prone to sticking fiercely to an idea once it has entered their minds.
And I heard about the mokoi and gwyra, the birds of protection that can be startled away. That explanation, in the end, made as much sense as any of the others.
Brazil has 900,000 Indigenous people, and 480 “demarcated territories” encompassing just over a million square kilometres, 12 per cent of the country’s land – land set aside for Indigenous people to live on. (Indians, as they are almost universally known here, have no ownership rights, or control of minerals or anything else beneath the soil.) Some 400,000 of those indigenous people live away from those demarcated territories, in rural areas or in cities.
The Indigenous people of the Amazon rain forest, with their bowl haircuts and yellow feather headdresses that are a National Geographic staple, are the archetypical Brazilian Indian. And 98 per cent of the demarcated Indigenous land is in the Amazon. But the second-largest Indigenous population in the country is here in Mato Grosso do Sul, a state on the western flank of Brazil that shares a border with Paraguay and Bolivia. There are eight First Nations in the state – “ethnicities,” they are called in Brazil; the largest, by far, is the Guarani-Kaiowa, who make up two-thirds of the Indigenous population and whose traditional territory is today fractured between the three countries.
On the Brazilian side of the border, the Guarani-Kaiowa have nine reserves in the south of Mato Grosso do Sul. This is breadbasket territory, the heart of Brazil’s thriving industrial agriculture business. The land is a vast sea of green fields of soy, spiky sugar cane, and darker green corn, owned by a handful of giant firms, many of them multinationals. While the rest of Brazil staggers under the weight of a stalled economy, plenty of money is still being made here: The Asian market’s hunger for Brazilian soy, and for beef fed on soy, has not dimmed. Once in a long while the farmland is interrupted by a town, built around a plaza, with a handful of clothing stores and gift shops, a couple of bakeries, and lines of big trucks idling at the one traffic light.
You can drive for 15 or 20 minutes at a stretch and pass only fields that are pasture for white Brahman cows. After a while, you realize that far more land here has been given to cows than to Indigenous humans.
The reserves are unmarked; you have to know what you are looking for to find them, down long, rutted, red dirt roads. Eventually there are houses in among the scrubby bush – the best ones a couple of low rooms with plaster over mud brick; the poorest, such as that of Ms. Benites, just tarp pulled over sticks. Each reserve has a school, where all classes except Guarani language are taught in Portuguese. The schools are chronically short of teachers and the most basic quality control. Just 5,400 Indigenous people in the state have made it as far as the first year of high school. There is usually a small health post on each reserve, where for a few hours each day an “Indigenous health agent” vaccinates babies and doles out tuberculosis medication.
There are plenty of trees between the houses, and a sense of spaciousness; there is also a total absence of any kind of economic activity. The teacher and the health agent are the only people on most reserves with paid employment. The only jobs to be had are day labour on the farms, a few months a year during harvest – but farmers don’t like to hire “ Índios.” Sometimes women get jobs washing clothes or floors for white people in the town – but it’s far, and the work pays only about $20 a day.
Brazil’s Indigenous people had their first interactions with European colonizers in 1500, along the Atlantic Coast. So, some of them have more than 500 years’ experience dealing with the mundo branco, the white world. But colonialism came much later to the deep interior of the country. The first plantation land grants in Mato Grosso (“thick forest” in Portuguese) were doled out to white settlers in the 1800s, but a major effort to control the movements of the Indigenous people began only in 1915.
For decades, most of the Guarani-Kaiowa managed to stay away from the reserves, and kept to the forests. But by the 1970s, the last swaths of forest were being cut down for cattle ranches and maté plantations, and the government drove the Guarani-Kaiowa off their land and into small reserves. The pain of the displacement was then compounded: Before they were moved, the Indigenous occupants were forced to act as slave labour, clearing the land for the new farms, and building the roads that would serve them; some were obliged to continue for generations as unpaid farm workers.
The relocation was, by all accounts, a catastrophe for the Guarani-Kaiowa. They were a semi-nomadic people used to ranging over large distances, suddenly denied access to their traditional means of supporting themselves. The forests were razed, the wild animals they hunted disappeared, and the water sources were drained to irrigate plantations. The relocations upended the Guarani-Kaiowa in another, terrible way: Particular places are essential for the practice of their rituals for planting, for hunting, for marriages and treating illness. A family’s tekoha, its original and sacred land, is the source of teko pora – words that mean, essentially, to be alive and well. When they were “interned” – that is the word people usually use to describe the dislocation – everything began to fall apart.