RIO DE JANEIRO -- At least 54 Indians were murdered last year in Brazil in conflicts over land or defending their rights, down 40 percent from 2007, a body linked to the Catholic Church said Tuesday.
According to data from the church's Indigenous Missionary Commission, or CIMI, the most serious situation occurred in the west-central state of Mato Grosso do Sul, which borders with Bolivia and Paraguay, where there were 40 murders and 34 suicides of Indians last year.
The number of suicides in Mato Grosso do Sul grew by more than 50 percent, compared to the 22 Indians who took their lives in 2007, but homicides fell about 25 percent there from the 53 killings the previous year.
Suicide, which was formerly something foreign to the indigenous culture, has been increasing among tribes like the Guarani, which are confronting problems like overcrowding and alcoholism.
Heavily agricultural Mato Grosso do Sul is one of the states with the most Indians and one of the regions with the largest number of land conflicts, given that Indians are concentrated in very small areas.
"CIMI continues to warn about the serious situation of the Guarani Kaiowa people in Mato Grosso do Sul. There were 74 cases of murders and suicides in 2008 and 75 in 2007 among a population of about 40,000 people," said the organization in a communique.
"The lack of land and the confinement in small villages are the main reason, in CIMI's estimation, for the constant threat to physical and cultural survival of this people," added the statement, describing the situation as "genocide."
CIMI denounced the fact that last year the land barons of the region brought heavy economic and political pressure to bear against the initiation of anthropological studies to identify lands that historically belonged to the Guarani Kaiowa, and the organization also complained that the government, in the face of such pressure, decided to postpone the process of establishing a reservation for that people.
Besides the murders, last year there were also "serious cases" of attacks on Indians all over Brazil as a consequence of discrimination and disputes over lands and water sources, CIMI said.
The entity said that in some of those cases, the main aggressor was the state itself via the police.
In that sense, it noted that 20 Indians were injured in a police operation in the southern part of Bahia state in October to dislodge the Indians from land they occupied.
CIMI also expressed its concern over the situation in the Amazon state of Roraima, where landowners refuse to abandon a gigantic reservation created for the Indians by the government.
Despite the fact that the conflict is in the hands of Brazil's highest court, the Indians in the area have been the victims of attacks and threats.
"Besides the attacks that result in physical injury, 2008 was marked by the intense racist campaign against the indigenous peoples in the country's main communications media," CIMI said.