Avá-Guarani Indigenous people sieged by glyphosate in Brazil

The case was used in Germany as an example in the accusation of human rights violations committed by Bayer

Translated by: Ana Paula Rocha

Brasil de Fato | São Paulo |
Indigenous people from 14 villages participated in the training activity on reporting pesticide contamination - Foto: Lizely Borges

About 4,000 Avá-Guarani Indigenous individuals live in the far west of the state of Paraná at risk of glyphosate contamination. The substance is the active ingredient in Roundup, the world's best-selling pesticide for eliminating weeds from crops and even public spaces.

Headaches, dizziness, itchy patches on the skin and diseases such as cancer have become part of Avá-Guarani's routine in recent years. "When they spray poison, a lot of people get headaches and go to the health center more frequently. Every time they use poison, we face a set of medical problems. In the long term, some people had cancer. We've never had that [before],” says Celso Japoty Alves, an Avá-Guarani leader and former cacique – Indigenous leader of a specific Indigenous community – of the Ocoy Indigenous community in the town of São Miguel do Iguaçu. 

The community is one of three Avá-Guarani communities demarcated as Indigenous territory by the federal government. Even so, it does not guarantee security for residents

"We're being harmed because there's no land protection regarding this issue. There is no green area. The machine has been spraying poison and various pesticides next to Indigenous communities, affecting our houses and crops, which we aren’t able to maintain. When they spray poison and rain comes, it reaches Indigenous communities,” says Alves.

"All of these Indigenous communities are being affected by poison, mainly from soy plantations. There are two monocultures here in the region: corn and soy. We have no protection. There are around four thousand Indigenous people at risk from glyphosate because most communities have no protection. For example, there is no green area or safe distance,” says the Indigenous leader. “In some places, on one side, there are houses and on the other soy plantations where they used to spray poison.”

A 2023 survey by the Guarani Yvyrupá Commission (CGY, in Portuguese), which brings together collectives of the Guarani people from southern and southeastern Brazil in the struggle for land, showed that, except for three villages located in urban areas, all the other Avá-Guarani communities are next to plantations.  

In some cases, the distance between plantations and Indigenous homes is less than two meters, far less than the minimum distance of 50 meters from water sources, population centers, schools, among others, for land application of pesticides, as determined by Ordinance 129/2023. The survey also points out that around 60% of Indigenous communities’ territories have been taken by agribusiness, with only 1.3% occupied by small farms and Indigenous housing and 12% by forested areas.

Some Avá-Guarani communities are located in the towns of Guaíra and Terra Roxa, around 645 kilometers from Curitiba, the capital city of Paraná, and on the border between Brazil and Paraguay. According to the petitioning organizations, 509 of the 661 agricultural establishments in Guaíra and 921 of the 1,209 agricultural establishments in Terra Roxa use pesticides, predominantly on soy and corn plantations.  

In total, there are 28 Avá-Guarani communities in the region, including three that have been demarcated. The others are in what Indigenous leaders call a process of retaking (known in Brazil as “retomada”), that is, they are returning to their ancestral territories. The Indigenous people were expelled from the region in the 1970s for the construction of the Itaipu Hydroelectric Power Plant, which caused much of the Avá-Guarani territory to be flooded.

Complaint to the OECD

The contamination of the Avá-Guarani people by glyphosate has become the subject of a complaint against the biochemical company Bayer at the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) for the harms of the pesticide on the environment and human health.  

Along with the Avá-Guarani, three other cases from Latin America joined the complaint made to the National Contact Point (NCP) in Germany, where Bayer's headquarters are located. The agency is responsible for promoting the OECD guidelines for multinational companies, as well as dealing with cases through non-judicial complaint mechanisms.  

Glyphosate has been produced by the agrochemical company Monsanto since the 1970s, which was bought by Bayer for US$66 billion in 2018, consolidating the company as the world's largest agrochemical and transgenic group.

Among the organizations that filed the complaint at the end of April are Centro de Estudios Legales y Sociales, from Argentina; Terra de Direitos, from Brazil; Base Investigaciones Sociales, from Paraguay; Fundación Tierra, from Bolivia; and the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights, from Germany.

The abovementioned organizations report that “the intensive use of pesticides contaminates rivers, food, animals and Indigenous peoples. Pesticides are used as a chemical weapon to confine Indigenous peoples to a strip of land that gets smaller every day. Dependent on rivers and springs to access water, Indigenous communities report frequent illnesses such as vomiting, headaches, miscarriages, difficulty breathing and others, especially among the elderly and children."

They also highlight “the disappearance of wild species of birds, bees, butterflies, game animals and a decrease in the number of fish and loss of food production capacity due to the contamination of rivers, affecting the food sovereignty of the Avá-Guarani people. There are areas fumigated with pesticides near Indigenous houses or roads."  

Jaqueline Andrade, a lawyer at the Brazilian NGO Terra de Direitos, explains that “the communities are surrounded by large farms, with monoculture, mainly transgenic soy with high pesticide usage. As a result, Indigenous communities have been denouncing a process of territorial confinement,” she said of the Avá-Guarani. 

"Due to the presence of agribusiness around these communities, the level of contamination of the soil, water and intoxication of Indigenous people – both acute and chronic – is alarming. Also, Indigenous people are denouncing the process of losing biodiversity, subsistence crops such as manioc, corn and beans, because pesticides fall on these plants and they wither, their roots rot and their fruits don’t grow,” she says.  

In the lawyer's words, this is also a state of “food insecurity” added to latent health issues. There are “reported cases of itchy skin, fever, vomiting, headaches, which are classic symptoms of acute intoxication, as well as many cases of depression and suicide. According to the studies we've done, pesticides play an important role in contributing to mental illness."

"There are cases of miscarriages precisely because of pesticide drift [according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, “is the movement of pesticide dust or droplets through the air at the time of application or soon after”]. Several studies prove that having pesticides in these areas is a risk because they cause endocrine and carcinogenic diseases, which influence breast milk contamination."

There are even records of proximity between farms and villages, in some cases less than two meters from the homes of Indigenous leaders, which goes against Brazilian regulations that establish minimum distances for the application of pesticides, whether by ground spraying, aerial spraying or spraying with drones. “These farmers are violating the very regulations created by environmental agencies or even by the Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock and Food Supply.”

In addition, in some situations, says Andrade, “pesticides are used as chemical weapons against Indigenous communities” to expel them from ancestral territories they are retaking and curb the struggle for land demarcation, which includes areas occupied by agribusiness.  

Brasil de Fato asked the National Foundation for Indigenous Peoples (FUNAI, in Portuguese) about the situation of the Avá-Guarani people in western Paraná state. So far, there has been no response. If they do so, this news story will be updated.

Regarding the complaint against Bayer, the company said it has “no knowledge of the alleged incidents”. "Official approvals are regulated by numerous national and international laws and guidelines. Safety studies submitted for pesticide approval are conducted following the strict international guidelines of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). Our internal safety criteria are even stricter than legal requirements,” the multinational company said in a statement.

Edited by: Thalita Pires