“All of a sudden the white man arrived. No one knows where he came from. We were all scared, so we ran into the woods. We went there to hide, because the Indian is afraid of the white man.”
Cláudio Barros lays his hands on his lap. At 98 years old, he’s living proof of the resilience of the Guarani. He is the oldest member of the oldest indigenous village in the region – the only one that was able to retain a small portion of its original territory through all these years, albeit without legal title to the land. Born in Guaíra during a time in which it was virtually uninhabited by non-Indians, Cláudio experienced firsthand the changes that drastically shaped the course of his life and his people.
In 1939 the federal government created the Iguaçu National Park to “guarantee the preservation of ecosystems for future generations.” The project, which delineated park boundaries in an area largely populated by the Guarani, led to the violent expulsion of the indigenous families who live within its 185,262.5 hectares.
In the early 1940s, a campaign to colonize the region began. During the following decades various Guarani villages were invaded and ransacked by the colonizing companies that took over the area. In the process many indigenous families were killed. Fearing for their lives, the Guarani began to flee Guaíra, some immigrating to Paraguay, others dispersing to the nearby states of Mato Grosso do Sul, Santa Catarina and São Paulo.
“We watched many people leave. They would take off in the middle night, so the white man wouldn’t know. They would disappear into the woods. We wouldn’t hear from them until many years later,” he remembers.
Cláudio’s voice is faint, sometimes hard to hear – a distant sound in the midst of the cacophonous rooster choir that surrounds us. He switches back and forth between Guarani and Portuguese, speaking the words that come most naturally to him, as he needs them. He tells me about the fear, the confusion, the sense of not belonging.
“For many years we worked without getting paid. We were scared. We watched what happened to the people that confronted, the people that demanded they be paid. They were killed. One by one. And sometimes their families too.”
Starting in the 1950s, Paraná became one of Brazil’s agriculture powerhouses. To this day, the state is one of the largest producers of soy and corn in the country, not to mention the nation’s leader in chicken production, accounting for 30 per cent of chicken slaughtering in 2012.
The region’s vital role in the country’s economic growth was reinforced in the 1970s with the construction of the Itaipu Hydroelectric Dam, a bi-national energy project between Brazil and Paraguay. The project, concluded nearly a decade after it began, inundated many indigenous villages, leading to the further displacement of the Guarani. To this day the plant is the largest operating hydroelectric facility in terms of annual energy generation, supplying 17 per cent of all the energy consumed in Brazil.
Cláudio is quiet. Other men have joined in the conversation and he doesn’t feel the need to continue talking. He looks up at Ilson Soares, the husband of one his granddaughters. The fight is no longer his. It belongs to a new generation. And maybe that’s for the best. He’s tired and, by now, skeptical of what can be achieved. It’s time for someone else, someone younger with new ideas, to stand up for the Guarani. He’s done his part.