Via Vanessa and the excellent Survival International some shocking news and a reminder that, for some, counterrevolutionary activity is serious business – not a luxury or middle-class hobby* but a way of life and, ultimately, a necessity for survival. When your culture hasn’t been fully metabolised into the global monoculture this also makes it very dangerous (though arguably not as dangerous as the loss that would come from lying down and giving up your whole identity):
Guarani Indian leader and film-star Ambrósio Vilhalva was murdered on Sunday night, after decades of campaigning for his tribe’s right to live on their ancestral land.
Ambrósio was reportedly stabbed at the entrance to his community, known as Guyra Roká, in Brazil’s Mato Grosso do Sul state. He was found dead in his hut, with multiple knife wounds. He had been repeatedly threatened in recent months. (link)
I remember being impressed by his performance in the film ‘Birdwatchers‘ which poignantly depicts the struggle of one band of Guarani people to reclaim their ancestral land from a sugarcane rancher. For some reason this made his killing more incomprehensible, more appalling to me. Surely having gained some success and international recognition as an actor would offer some protection against this kind of fate? Apparently not enough to put off those who wanted to crush his personal resistance, as well as the wider refusal of his culture to give in to the encroachments of civilisation:
In the last 500 years virtually all the Guarani’s land in Mato Grosso do Sul state has been taken from them.
Waves of deforestation have converted the once-fertile Guarani homeland into a vast network of cattle ranches, and sugar cane plantations for Brazil’s biofuels market.
Many of the Guarani were herded into small reservations, which are now chronically overcrowded. In the Dourados reserve, for example, 12,000 Indians are living on little more than 3,000 hectares.
The destruction of the forest has meant that hunting and fishing are no longer possible, and there is barely enough land even to plant crops. (link)
(Yes, they derive some of their subsistence from agriculture – at the time of first contact with Europeans ‘they were sedentary and agricultural, subsisting largely on manioc, maize, wild game, and honey’ according to Wikipedia. So this isn’t a ‘pure’ agricultural counterrevolution – actually I doubt there ever was one as I think practically all human peoples ever encountered have practiced some form of cultivation – but I’m guessing vast field monocrops and total deforestation would be entirely alien to them all the same.)
Vilhava is not the first Guarani Indian to be murdered in these circumstances. From SI’s page again we hear of a story strikingly similar to the plotline of ‘Birdwatchers’:
The killing of Guarani leader Marcos Veron in 2003 was a tragic but all too typical example of the violence that his people are subject to.
Mr Veron, aged around 70, was the leader of the Guarani-Kaiowá community of Takuára. For fifty years his people had been trying to recover a small piece of their ancestral land, after it was seized by a wealthy Brazilian and turned into a vast cattle ranch. Most of the forest that once covered the area had since been cleared.
In April 1997, desperate after years of lobbying the government in vain, Marcos led his community back onto the ranch. They began to rebuild their houses, and could plant their own crops again.
But the rancher who had occupied the area went to court, and a judge ordered the Indians out.
In October 2001, more than one hundred heavily armed police and soldiers forced the Indians to leave their land once more. They eventually ended up living under plastic sheets by the side of a highway.
While still in Takuára, Marcos said, ‘This here is my life, my soul. If you take me away from this land, you take my life.’
His words came prophetically and tragically true early in 2003, when, during another attempt to return peacefully to his land, he was viciously beaten by employees of the rancher. He died a few hours later.
What do these happenings tell us about the stirrings of counterrevolutionary thought and action in the modern centers of Empire, where traditional peoples were overrun centuries, millennia ago? Should I be worried about the local rapeseed farmer killing me in my sleep because I harvest acorns, nettles and hawthorn berries from around ‘his’ land? Probably not, so long as my foraging remains mostly a solitary endeavour merely supplementing my main subsistence which comes via the wage economy and the global food supply systems. Also I should be ‘safe’ while I don’t challenge the unjust pattern of land ownership in this country† – ie: stick to quietly paying rent for my small flat and be thankful I get a tiny garden, a half-size allotment to play with, and a few parcels of common land to forage in (with whatever’s left of my spare time after I’m done earning enough money to pay all the bills) while those who have claimed ownership of the vast tracts of land continue to wreck them with impunity and thereby cement their fortunes and positions in the hierarchy. If I were to set up camp with a tribe of like-minded types keen to attempt to recreate a full-time foraging subsistence culture I would soon run into a whole series of challenges and obstacles thrown up by the land-owners with the full weight of the law behind them. It would be a struggle similar to that facing the Diggers 2012, who, against the odds, appear to still be holding on to their spot near Runnymede.
Hounded by police and bailiffs, evicted wherever they stopped, they did not mean to settle here. They had walked out of London to occupy disused farmland on the Queen’s estates surrounding Windsor Castle. Perhaps unsurprisingly, that didn’t work out very well. But after several days of pursuit, they landed two fields away from the place where modern democracy is commonly supposed to have been born.
At first this group of mostly young, dispossessed people, who (after the 17th century revolutionaries) call themselves Diggers 2012(1), camped on the old rugby pitch of Brunel University’s Runnymede campus. It’s a weed-choked complex of grand old buildings and modern halls of residence, whose mildewed curtains flap in the wind behind open windows, all mysteriously abandoned as if struck by a plague or a neutron bomb. The diggers were evicted again, and moved down the hill into the woods behind the campus: pressed, as if by the ineluctable force of history, ever closer to the symbolic spot. From the meeting house they have built and their cluster of tents, you can see across the meadows to where the Magna Carta was sealed almost 800 years ago.
Their aim is simple: to remove themselves from the corporate economy, to house themselves, grow food and build a community on abandoned land. (George Monbiot, ‘The Promised Land‘)
It has been said that those who resist effectively will face the full repressive power of the state. Can I call my small scale foraging subversive if the worst I’ve suffered as a result was a few cases of people telling me I was ‘trespassing’ and implying they would call the police if I didn’t go away? Perhaps the powers-that-be just don’t recognise it for the existential threat it truly poses?? Or maybe it’s a sign that I’m not doin’ it right… I’m certainly not in the position right now where I could say and truly mean the words of Marcos Veron: ‘This here is my life, my soul. If you take me away from this land, you take my life.’ I would be sad if forced to leave this place where I grew up and learned so many things about the nonhuman world, but I know it wouldn’t kill me. I’m in the same position as the farmer in Birdwatchers who has the nerve to lay claim to the Indian’s ancestral land on the basis of a three generation occupation, a statement which Vilhava’s character and his supporting cast treat with appropriate contempt and a powerful gesture indicating their indivisibility from the land (see video below).
The Indians portrayed in the film appear to have a longstanding connection to the specific area of land they are attempting to reclaim but it seems that there is a tradition among the Guarani people as a whole of searching far and wide for what they call ‘a land without evil’:
For as long as they can remember, the Guarani have been searching – searching for a place revealed to them by their ancestors where people live free from pain and suffering, which they call ‘the land without evil’.
Over hundreds of years, the Guarani have travelled vast distances in search of this land.
One 16th century chronicler noted their ‘constant desire to seek new lands, in which they imagine they will find immortality and perpetual ease’.
This permanent quest is indicative of the unique character of the Guarani, a ‘difference’ about them which has often been noted by outsiders. (SI ibid.)
How much this stems from the brutality, enslavement and genocide meted out to them by European colonialists since first contact in 1537 isn’t clear but it brings their struggle a little closer to the experience of colonised people in the West, particularly those among us who are attempting to decolonise our minds, souls, our whole existence. Orphaned and homeless, we don’t have strong ties to anywhere. Rootless, but only until we find a new place to settle down, as the Runnymede Diggers appear to have done. For now. I wouldn’t call it a privilege – in fact I understand many indigenous, place-based people have found the thought of living like that unbearably sad, if not inconceivable – but it does offer some flexibility and the possibility of preserving life, albeit in an impoverished, insecure way, until conditions become more favourable. Like the ‘resurrection plant‘ of the Sahara desert which blows about in the winds apparently dead for decades, even centuries until it finds water and finally drops its seeds.
So rest in peace Ambrósio Vilhalva. Meanwhile the struggle continues for the Guarani. Follow the links on the SI pages to see how you can offer your support, but as the Zapatistas said perhaps the best support would be to follow their example in your own country.
I missed this obituary which shows that Vilhava was basically acting out scenes from his own life:
Ambrósio’s life typified that of so many Guarani. His community, Guyra Roka or ‘Place of the Bird’, was expelled from their tekoha (ancestral land) in the 1940s and 50s by ranchers and farmers, and dumped in a tiny reserve already overcrowded with hundreds of other Guarani refugees. Violence, suicide and malnutrition were soon rife.
Like many, Ambrósio and his community dreamed of returning to their tekoha. In 2000, led by Ambrósio and his father Papito (the rezador or religious leader) the community moved out of the reserve to camp on a roadside near their land, now cleared, fenced off and filled with endless fields of sugar cane. Life here was grim too – their rickety tarpaulin shelters were permanently enveloped in clouds of dust from the trucks thundering past day and night. Children were malnourished, and adults were forced to seek work on the ranches occupying their land.
Tired of waiting for the government to take action, Ambrósio and Papito led three attempts to reoccupy their land, finally succeeding in 2004. Avoiding the ranchers’ pistoleiros, the community settled on a tiny piece of land where they planted crops amidst the sugar cane. Largely thanks to Ambrósio’s tireless and passionate advocacy, the Minster of Justice finally recognized Guyra Roka as Guarani land in 2009. But it was a victory in name only – the landowners vowed not to move, and occupy the area to this day. The largest and most powerful is Zé Teixeira, a state congressman.
Ambrósio was catapulted into international stardom in 2008 when he played the lead role in Birdwatchers, an award-winning feature film that highlighted the bitter conflict between the ranchers and the Guarani. With his love of language and powerful, brooding presence, Ambrósio was a natural. The film’s director later said he tore up the script and let the Guarani speak their parts as they saw fit.
Read more about the Diggers 2012 and their 1649 forebears in this superb article by historian Dr. John Gurney. Sample paragraph:
It was in April 1649 that the Diggers, inspired by the writings of Gerrard Winstanley, occupied waste land on St George’s Hill in Surrey, and sowed the ground with parsnips, carrots and beans. For Winstanley, the earth had been corrupted by covetousness and the rise of private property, and the time was ripe for it to become once more a ‘common treasury for all’. Change was to be brought about by the poor working the land in common and refusing to work for hire. The common people had ‘by their labours … lifted up their landlords and others to rule in tyranny and oppression over them’, and, Winstanley insisted, ‘so long as such are rulers as calls the land theirs … the common people shall never have their liberty; nor the land ever freed from troubles, oppressions and complainings’. The earth was made ‘to preserve all her children’, and not to ‘preserve a few covetous, proud men to live at ease, and for them to bag and barn up the treasures of the earth from others, that they might beg or starve in a fruitful land’ – everyone should be able to ‘live upon the increase of the earth comfortably’. Soon all people – rich as well as poor – would, Winstanley hoped, be persuaded to throw in their lot with the Diggers and work to create a new, and better society. To Winstanley, agency was key, for ‘action is the life of all and if thou dost not act, thou dost nothing’.
* – h/t Dmitry Orlov: ‘resilience and sustainability are often little more than middle-class hobbies, while the overwhelming trend throughout the world is toward a different kind of steady state, one characterized by something called durable disorder‘