Lost worlds: the Guarani-Kaiowa confront mundicide

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Photo (‘Alone in the dark’) by Samchio licensed under creative commons attribution 2.0 Generic. This picture shows deforestation undertaken to make way for sugar cane farming.

According to a recent report by the NGO Survival, the Guarani- Kaiowa tribe of Brazil faces one of the highest suicide rates in the world.  Indeed, in 2012, it was reported that the entire tribe threatened to commit suicide after a court ruled that they must leave their sacred land. This epidemic of self-harm has been linked to the destruction of the landscapes the Guarani- Kaiowa hold sacred and have traditionally inhabited. Much of this land has been sold for the purposes of ranching, sugar cane farming and the production of biofuels – all of which require the destruction of ancient forests and their ecosystems.  Many landowners have hired armed security guards to deter members of the tribe from returning to the land. Thousands of Guarani- Kaiowa have been moved to crowded camps fraught by violence, where they face high rates of depression and alcoholism.

How can we understand harm of this kind? It goes far beyond the loss of ‘land’. What the Guarani- Kaiowa are suffering from is not simply the absence of a set of resources for production and consumption, or a source of ‘livelihood’ (the way the courts understand it). They are also severed from relationships that they had with this land, its other living inhabitants and its inanimate features.  These relationships gave rise to distinctive ways of life, whose histories were inscribed into the earth, trees and bodies of the people and animals who lived there.

A recent article claims that we might frame this situation as a ‘silent genocide’. But genocide is not quite the right term, and not only because this kind of harm fails to meet its basic legal criteria (for instance, the intention to destroy a people). It is also, in another sense, not extensive enough,
because it refers specifically to the destruction of human groups. That is, it presumes that groups of humans can be destroyed in isolation from the complex worlds in which they are embedded, and which they co-constitute with other beings.  What the Guarani- Kaiowa are confronted with is not only the loss of a people, but also the loss of a world.

Indeed, the article goes on to quote Mary Nolan, a US nun and human rights lawyer, who argues that  “the Guarani people think their relationship with the universe is broken when they are separated from their land”.  This framing of the situation  – as the destruction of an irreducible, intricate, unique whole – comes much closer to expressing the kind of harm in question. Indeed, the author states, “many in the community cosmologically interpret their situation as a symptom of the destruction of the world”.

This is a very astute observation (and it’s not every day that journalists write about cosmology). The destruction of ‘world’ is not just about damage to ecosystems or the removal of land rights. It involves the destruction of the conditions of being that make being on earth what it is.

In his book Being Singular Plural, Jean-Luc Nancy argues that the term ‘world’ does not denote a planet or a social construct. Rather, ‘world’ refers to conditions of ‘being-together’ with multiple kinds of beings.  Each form of being exists only in relation to others, and no particular form of being has ontological primacy. In fact, as Nancy puts it, we would not be ‘humans’ if there were not ‘dogs’ or ‘stones’. From this perspective, worldliness is a state in which radically diverse kinds of beings co-constitute each other and form collectives that cannot be reduced or disaggregated.

If we understand worlds in this way, it is impossible to imagine harm like that faced by the Guarani tribe occurring just to humans – or, for that matter, to any other set of beings. Instead, it is the conditions of worldliness that are harmed or destroyed. For this very reason, Nancy argues in his book The Sense of the World that we cannot understand genocide adequately if we think of it only as an attack on a people. Rather, he claims, it is an attempt to destroy the conditions of worldliness – “the putting to death of the world”.

This is precisely what is happening in south-western Brazil, and existing concepts of harm cannot capture it – not the loss of ‘land’ or territory, not the collapse of human rights, not even genocide. We need to call harms like this what they really are: mundicide, or the destruction of worlds. Only this term can capture the depth, complexity and irreplaceability of what is lost.

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