In Brazil, indigenous people are fighting to keep their children

'I'll always be waiting for him,' says a woman whose baby was taken from her days after he was born.

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Three Kaiowá brothers and a neighbor play in Ñu Vera near Dourados, Brazil. The brothers’ youngest sibling was removed from the family shortly after he was born.

The warm wind of summer whipped across the high plains of the Brazilian city of Dourados on the February day in 2015 when Élida de Oliveira’s newborn was taken away.

Oliveira, a member of the Kaiowá indigenous group, had given birth to her son alone, in the makeshift house where she lived. The boy’s father had left her when he found out she was pregnant with her seventh child. Built of used scraps of wood, plastic sheeting, and tarps, her home occupies a piece of reclaimed land in the state of Mato Grosso do Sul known as Ñu Vera, just outside the perimeter of Brazil’s most populated reservation, the Dourados Indigenous Reserve, which itself borders the city of Dourados, some 75 miles from the Paraguay border. There’s no electricity or running water on this ancestral Kaiowá land and no room on the parched soil to grow the traditional food—white maize, manioc, potatoes, squash—meant to feed body and soul. (See how the coronavirus is affecting indigenous people in the Amazon.)

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Ñu Vera, a stretch of ancestral land outside the Dourados Indigenous Reserve, is being reclaimed by the Guarani-Kaiowá people, although the city of Dourados (top left) encroaches.

A week after Oliveira delivered her son, a community health agent saw Oliveira with the baby. The agent told her to bring him to the reserve’s clinic the next day at 4 p.m. so he could be weighed, issued a health card, and later vaccinated, just as her other children had been when they were born. What the agent didn’t tell her was that a government children’s services agency had already been called.

Ever since the Portuguese colonized Brazil some 520 years ago, indigenous people have struggled to regain their rights, particularly to ancestral land that is the basis of their culture and their connection to traditional food, family, language, and prayer. Today’s government—led by far-right President Jair Bolsonaro, who vowed he wouldn’t give “one more centimeter” of land to indigenous people—has exacerbated the problem, but it’s one that long predates his tenure.

Now, in Dourados, indigenous people are fighting to keep their children, who are being removed from their families at an alarming rate. The families are in an untenable situation: For their culture to survive, they need to maintain their connection to ancestral land. But that land can no longer support them, opening them up to charges of neglect from agencies of a government that would prefer they just assimilate.

A waiting car

At the clinic, Oliveira was told to take a seat as her baby was whisked into another room to be weighed. Her blood pressure would be taken while she waited, she was told. Someone put a cuff on her arm.

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Élida de Oliveira stands inside her home in Ñu Vera, where she gave birth to her son alone.

But it was taking too long. Clinic employees dashed past, never looking in her direction as they attended to others.

Finally, a staff member stopped in front of her. Normally soft-spoken, Oliveira pleaded with the woman to tell her where her son was. The woman sighed. A car had been waiting out back, she said. A representative of the government children’s services agency had taken Oliveira’s baby just minutes after he left her arms.

Oliveira sat at the clinic for hours, sure a mistake had been made. She knew she didn’t have much, but she always did her best to feed her children, to keep a roof over their heads, and to make sure that those who were old enough went to school.

Someone at the clinic told Oliveira she should go home and wait for a letter from a judge that would give her permission to visit her child. She finally gave in, because she needed to go home to take care of her other children. But she wondered how the letter would reach her: There were no addresses in Ñu Vera.

For 30 days Oliveira waited for a letter that would never come. She’d heard of other children being taken from their families in Ñu Vera and on the Dourados reserve, but no one seemed to know where they ended up.

The Indigenous Missionary Council (Cimi) offered to help. The nonprofit, which was created in 1972, had long been working with the people living on the reserve and the surrounding reclaimed land. Along with other indigenous rights activists in the city, Cimi created a support network for Oliveira, helping her gather proper documents to request information about the whereabouts of her son, how she could see him, and how she could get him back.

That’s when they found out why her baby had been taken. That’s when they told Oliveira that the government said he wasn’t hers.

‘The place where we are what we are’

Less than 10 percent of the city of Dourados’ population is indigenous yet indigenous children make up the highest proportion of those held in custody: Seventy percent, according to a 2017 report from the federal government’s National Indian Foundation (FUNAI). The majority of those children—62 percent—were taken in what have been flagged as cases of negligence, usually tied to poverty. However, a federal statute decrees that “the lack of or need for material resources is not a sufficient reason for the loss or suspension of family rights.”

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Florencia Reginaldo, who lives on the Dourados Indigenous Reserve, was looking after her sister Elisabete’s children when authorities removed them and placed them in state care. They were there a week before their mother, who had taken a job out of town, was able to regain custody.

Most of the children taken into custody come from the Dourados reserve. It’s one of seven reservations that Brazil established in the region between 1910 and 1928, to house Kaiowá and Guarani families that the government had forcibly removed from their territories. Families attempting to reclaim their land—their tekohas, a Guarani word that means “the place where we are what we are”—were forced out, often violently, and made to return to the 8,649 acres of the reserve.

Now the reserve has dwindled to 7,413 acres, a change that was made between the time the decree to create the reservation was issued to the time the land was officially registered at a government registry office. That’s a far cry from what its 18,000 residents—mostly Kaiowá, Guarani, and Terena—need to thrive. Jobs are so scarce on the reserve that men leave for months at a time to get work, mainly on sugarcane farms and in mines that sit on land that was once theirs.

Single mothers like Elisabete Reginaldo often have to leave their children with other family members when they go off to work. Reginaldo, a 39-year-old Terena woman, used to work as a cook on a nearby ranch and return home three days a month to see her children. While she was away, her son and daughter stayed with relatives. But accusations of neglect and abandonment led the children’s services agency to remove the two children without warning.

It took Reginaldo a week, but she did regain custody of her children—a rare outcome on the reserve. She used to earn more money as a cook, but has now opened a hair salon where she can stay closer to her children because she fears losing them again.

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Florencia and Elisabete Reginaldo's homes sit side by side in the Jaguapiru village on the Dourados Indigenous Reserve.

The tekohas that families like the Reginaldos and the Oliveiras lost supported large extended families. Indigenous people could move around the land and use it as they saw fit: to live, to plant, to hunt, to fish, to pray. Now they are stuck in place, far from their ancestral territories, the connection to their cultures broken.

“The reserve is a place meant to transform indigenous people into non-indigenous people,” says Eliel Benites, a Kaiowá professor at the Federal University of Greater Dourados. “For indigenous people, everything revolves around their territory. When the tekoha is lost, so are its people.”

Cookies, candy, and yogurt

When a Guarani woman is pregnant, she dreams of parrots. For many of the subgroups within the Guarani ethnicity, including the Kaiowá, children are considered beings constantly in motion, acting as the eyes of God within the family. The children’s souls are represented by birds, and their names—which calm their spirits and allow them to stay on this earth—are chosen carefully.

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Élida de Oliveira begins the two-and-a-half hour walk to Lar Santa Rita, the orphanage in downtown Dourados where her five-year-old son has lived his entire life.

Yet the judge who oversaw Oliveira’s case changed her son’s name. He added the name “Raoni,” after the famous Kayapó chief known for defending the Amazon. For the Kaiowá mother, it made no sense: Chief Raoni was from another people, not hers. The boy’s full name can’t be revealed here because he is a minor under state care. But the way it was changed revealed the judge’s ignorance of the vast differences among the 305 indigenous ethnicities in Brazil, an ignorance shared by many Brazilians.

For Oliveira, the indignities continued when she learned that her son had been taken to Lar Santa Rita, one of four children’s shelters in the city. At first, she was denied visitation. Two other women had come forward to say they were her son’s mother. The community health agent who had summoned children’s services to take Oliveira’s baby insisted she had never seen Oliveira pregnant so she was sure the days-old infant couldn’t be hers.

The courts took more than a year and a half to run a DNA test. It proved that the baby was Oliveira’s child, but another six months passed before she was allowed to see him. Nobody could explain why other women had said they were the child’s mother or what had delayed the DNA test—but even after it proved maternity, her son wasn’t returned to her. Oliveira was deemed negligent and her home unfit. (When children’s services officials were asked about Oliveira’s case for this report, they said they couldn’t speak specifically because none of their current social workers were there when the baby was taken in 2015. The courts also declined to comment, citing confidentiality issues because the case involved a minor.)

After Oliveira was denied custody, visiting her son provided its own challenges. Oliveira had to walk two-and-a-half hours from her home to the Lar Santa Rita shelter in the city center. After a handful of occasions when she couldn’t make the long journey, she was accused of abandoning her son and her visitation rights were revoked.

Oliveira’s son, now five, has lived his entire life at Lar Santa Rita, and doesn’t speak her language or know her culture. He asks her to bring him things like cookies, candy, and yogurt—food he wouldn’t have encountered had he been brought up in the Kaiowá community in Ñu Vera.

For Monica Roberta Marin de Medeiros, director of Lar Santa Rita, insuring that the shelter’s indigenous children maintain contact with their cultures is not a top priority.

“Our indigenous people aren’t those isolated indigenous people from the Amazon,” she said. “These aren’t indigenous children and teenagers that are isolated. They want computers, they want tablets, they want cellphones.”

The shelter director said she once hired an indigenous “social mother,” a woman who lived at the shelter and cared for the children as their mothers would, but that it didn’t work out because “habits, customs, things to do with hygiene” were lacking.

Indigenous activists and professionals who work in the social welfare system say it is a violation of indigenous children’s rights to sever their connections to their families, communities, language, and culture.

“Racism in Brazil is a reality,” said Marco Antônio Delfino de Almeida, a federal prosecutor in Dourados who focuses on the human rights of indigenous people. “The first thing a judge should do is consult the indigenous community. But the law allows the community to be substituted by a representative of the federal branch of government that takes care of indigenous policy, or an anthropologist. So FUNAI and anthropologists end up speaking for them.”

Alice Rocha, a social worker with children’s services in Dourados since 2016, says the decision to put a child in state care is up to a judge and, once that child has gone to a shelter, she no longer oversees their day-to-day lives.

“I think the institutions that take these kids in completely violate their rights when they don’t bother to preserve the culture of each indigenous child under their care,” she said. “What’s happening, as a whole, is genocide. It’s a genocide of indigenous peoples. It’s not of interest to the state to give indigenous peoples strength, to give them a voice.”

‘I’ll always be waiting for him.’

Without enough land to grow their own garden, Oliveira’s family relied on the cesta básica—a box filled with basic food items like rice, beans, pasta, cooking oil, sugar, and coffee—provided by FUNAI. But the government agency decided at the end of last year to cut support to indigenous people in the state of Mato Grosso do Sul who don’t live on officially recognized indigenous land.

For families like Oliveira’s, the agency’s decision not only means hunger, but also gives the courts another reason to keep their children in care. Even if Oliveira wanted to move to a home on the reserve, where benefits are still provided, she couldn’t. There’s no room left on reserve land, and reclaiming the Ñu Vera land is crucial to the survival of the Kaiowá.

A final judgment on what will happen to Oliveira’s little boy—whether he’ll be returned to her custody or placed for adoption—is expected soon. It’s been five years of hearings and decisions, the legalities of which she says she doesn’t fully understand. All she knows is that she wants her son back.

On a sunny Wednesday afternoon this past October, Oliveira watched her son run around the playground equipment in the shelter’s yard, climbing an orange plastic slide as his 11-year-old brother laughed and chased after him. She’d brought the young boy a cherry lollipop—his favorite—and smiled as he stopped next to her to take a drink of water, under a playhouse painted with colorful images of fish.

“It would be the happiest moment of my life if he could come home,” Oliveira said, as she brushed the hair from his face. “I’ll always be here for my son. I’ll always be waiting for him.”

Reporting for this project was supported by the International Women’s Media Foundation’s Reporting Grants for Women’s Stories.