Indigenous & tribal populations


October 8, 2014 by Madeleine Lesser

June, 2013  | Securing land titles is a challenging and lengthy process for indigenous people. The Terena tribe in Brazil, whose lands were wrongly granted to foreigners and destroyed for economic gain, have been fighting an uphill battle for decades.

The Terena tribe from Mato Grosso do Sul and Sao Paulo, Brazil, are determined to gain legal right to their ancestral lands – ones that were taken from them in 1928 and given to cattle farmers.  The Terena tribe lays claim to about 17,000 hectares of land, but were forced to live on a reservation of only 2,000 hectares, which a community member, Alberto, has stated is too small for his community.

In 1988, the Brazilian constitution was amended to include a provision that called for the return of ancestral lands to indigenous peoples in an effort to compensate for a long history of discrimination, violence and slavery.  But, now, it is 20 years past the deadline to return these lands and traditional populations are still displaced.[1]

In 2013, the indigenous people from the district of Taunay began protesting and demanding that the government take a position regarding their land ownership. About 80 tribe members occupied a 4,800 hectare ranch called Esperança (‘hope’ in English). Men, women and children participated in this protest, which demanded that the property residents leave within 24 hours. [2]  These protests turned violent and one member of the tribe was killed. Shortly thereafter, different villages started to invade local farms, demanding to get their land back.

Land titles are but one battle among many for indigenous people, but securing such legal rights is arguably the most vital. With rights to lands, other rights (to resources, water, etc.), ideally, follow.  In the case of the Terena tribe, it seems that they must fight two battles: to get the land titles themselves, but first, to have them taken away from merciless farmers.

During the height of clashes and occupations of the Terena traditional lands in 2013, Brazilian photographer Eliseu Cavalcante sought to document the tribe’s daily life in order to tell their story and bring awareness to the plights of indigenous people as a whole. Eliseu’s childhood neighbor, Junior, is from the Terena tribe.  For years, Eliseu asked Junior if there was an opportunity to go to his father’s village to photograph the tribe, and in 2013 Junior told Eliseu “You always wanted to come and photograph my people. Now is the time to do it.”

Unsurprisingly, Eliseu experienced some difficulty in gaining the trust of the Terena people and the access to photograph them.  After some discussion and finding common ground, the tribe allowed him in.  During Eliseu’s time with the Terena, he saw people struggling for necessities like food, water and safety.  He said, “They just want the basics; they want the basic human rights.”

Currently, the Terena are still awaiting a government decision to reimburse the rancher who currently owns the land so they can reclaim it. Eliseu was told that some families are still living at the Esperança ranch.

Some fear the worst after a history of turmoil: “We Indians were always treated with discrimination. We are treated like animals. We had no space to live. Where will we put our children, our grandchildren? We don’t want them living on the streets. This is our land.”

Photo Credit: Eliseu Cavalcante, 2013.

FOR MORE IMAGES AND THE FULL PROJECT:  www.terenaproject.com

*Eliseu plans to go back to Brazil and photograph the Terena in 2015.  

Works consulted and cited:






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