Missão Tapepora

The Tapepora Methodist Mission helps empower the Guarani-Kaiowa indigenous people in Dourados, Brazil.

Wedged between a busy road and a sugar cane field in Bororo Village, Dourados, Brazil, is the home of Damiana Kavainha. Kavainha, 76, is a longtime leader for the Guarani-Kaiowa people of the village Apykia.

She lives on the grassy median in a simple wood hut. The inconvenient location is intentional—the land now used for sugar cane was stolen from her and her people. She built her home right beside the field to remind the agricultural corporation that she isn’t going anywhere.

“I have resisted and have built my house across from the land where I want to go back one day,” she said.

This action is not without risk. In addition to the danger from traffic, proximity to constant toxic emissions from motor vehicles and lack of access to food and water, if she trespasses onto the field she risks bodily harm or death. There are armed security guards, she said, ready to stop her from stepping onto the land.

According to Kavainha, the police raided her village in the early morning, removing people and animals and destroying farmland.

“They arrived at 7 a.m., about 300 police officers, and they got everybody out, they got rid of the pork and the chicken and all the farmwork that we had. Not even the government that was responsible for the indigenous community knew about it—it was something that the police did even without informing them,” she said.

She’s lost much of her family to this fight. Her husband was run over by a truck, believed to be an intentional act.

“Everybody agrees that the truck was one of the farm owners who asked somebody to run my husband over,” Kavainha said.

Keila Guimaraes, national coordinator for the Shade and Fresh Water Project, confirmed that such contract killing is a common practice against indigenous communities. Shade and Fresh Water is a project of the Methodist Church of Brazil supported by the General Board of Global Ministries and United Methodist Women. The project helps provide Kavainha with material support. “They have told me that they will kill me if I walk out of here,” said Kavainha. “If I trespass on the property on the other side, I’m going to be killed.”

Tapepora Methodist Mission

The Tapepora Methodist Mission, or Missao Tapepora, a partner program of Shade and Fresh Water, has been a part of the indigenous community in Dourados for 40 years. Tapepora means “good path” or “good way,” according to the Rev. Paulo de Silva Costa, who together with his wife the Rev. Maria Imaculada Costa founded the mission. Both serve as pastors in the Methodist church of Brazil and until recently served as coordinators for Tapepora. United Methodist Women supports the mission work with women, children and youth toward self-determination and access to health care.

Structured toward empowerment, the mission has historically offered space for the community to come together to voice concerns and to learn new and traditional skills. Especially by offering a place for the women to gather, Tapepora learned what the community needed. Many homes lacked beds, so the mission began bringing women together to make hammocks, which gave families places to sleep and helped preserve a traditional craft.

“We discovered a lot of things by being together with the women,” said Ms. Costa, whom community members call Pastor Ima. “So we started to think about it with them and developed programs according to what they needed and what they suggested. That’s when we started making the hammocks. We also found out in these conversations that they didn’t have milk, that the food in the school was lacking. That’s when we started the mechanical cow, which would produce soymilk for the community. And we also developed the kitchen, because whatever came from the soy could be used to make bread, cookies, cakes and other goods.”

Together with the community, Tapepora also planted an herbal medicine garden and started offering preventative health and dental services. Now with the partnership of Shade and Fresh Water, Tapepora has been able to expand its outreach to children and youth.

“Tapepora is very important for the community,” said Ronaldo Arevalo, current coordinator of Tapepora. “They have worked for the health and dental care, and also the soy milk, the mechanical cow. And now Shade and Fresh Water came, and it’s something very important because the children are learning how to be together and to have some guidance.”

Arevalo is the son of Guarani father and Kaiowa mother and has been working with the mission since he was 7 or 8 years old, he said. He was involved in the agricultural program and helped operate the mechanical cow. He also worked as a nurse’s aide at the health clinic. He is of the village, so it makes sense that he lead mission with the village.

Balancing act

“We have many challenges and difficulties,” said Arevalo. “One of them is that a lot of people are lost in the world, the indigenous community is lost in the world.”

It was only recently in Brazil that indigenous peoples could even get passports. For a long time they were considered property of the government. In general the government owns the land they live on. Even slim advances in civil rights have been hard fought.

Often life in the Bororo Village is a balancing act between tradition and change. Tapepora focuses on bilingual education so that students can maintain their indigenous language while also learning Portuguese. Advances in technology put the rest of the world within closer reach, but it’s a world in which indigenous peoples are often marginalized. “I know what it is to be indigenous and how important it is to be indigenous. Nowadays, indigenous people are getting involved with technology and on it hide the fact that they are indigenous,” said Rafael Sanabrio Espindola, 16. “It’s important to be a Kaiowa. I know who I am and I know my identity, and I don’t want to lose my identity.”

Espindola is a student at the Agustinho indigenous school, supported by Tapepora. In the afternoons he teaches music lessons. He also plays in three bands. He hopes to make a living one day as a famous musician.

Tapepora helps make school a reality for youth like Espindola.

“If I were not coming to school I would be out working. I’m 16, but I have friends who are 14 and they are already married, so they have to work. If I were not studying I would probably be home helping my parents. We suffer a lot, so I would need to be working,” he said.

Early marriage is common among the Guarani-Kaiowa. This makes the outreach programming unique because of the blurred distinction between “youth” and “adult.” For example, youth programming must also include parenting and job skills. Tapepora also offers education on reproduction and safe sex.

“Here we offer sex education, how to prevent diseases and pregnancy, especially because it’s very common in the indigenous community for youth to start to be sexually active once they are 13, 14 years old. We give them information, because a lot of times they do not get information at home,” said Arevalo.

Girls who get married often drop out of school. Once girls begin their menstrual cycle, according to Ms. Costa, they are of age to be married. Tapepora is meeting with the schools and the public clinic to help keep girls in school.

Ludimila Fernandes, 15, attends the Agustinho school “to learn more about math, chemistry and more subjects.” She is from the Guaraní indigenous group and has attended the school since she was 8 years old.

“It’s very important to go to school to improve what we have and take forward the things we have learned,” she said. “My dream is to become a medical doctor.”

Like Espindola, she likes music and dancing and is proud of her indigenous heritage.

“For me, to be Guaraní is to be proud of being indigenous, to be part of a culture that comes all the way from my great, great-grandparents. It is something I am very proud of, something I will give to my children and grandchildren,” she said.

A safe place to grow

Though they face particular challenges as indigenous youth, Guarani-Kaiowa teenagers are “typical” teenagers in many ways. Filling leisure time is another need Tapepora tries to help meet.

“One of the needs that we noticed was the need for leisure, sports. Much of the time youth just go to school and that was about it—there were no organized leisure and sports activities,” said Mr. Costa.

In this way the mission can offer alternatives to more harmful options. “Tapepora Methodist Mission takes the kids out from the streets, takes them from doing bad activities, like going out drinking and smoking and using drugs,” said Carol Arevalo Machado, 16. She is Kaiowa, and Arevalo’s niece. “We have church services. We also have movies and other activities, even in the morning. When we do activities here it’s very important because otherwise people probably would go to parties to be drinking and so on, so it’s good.”

Tapepora also works to educate the community on the dangers of drugs, smoking and alcohol, Arevalo said. They also talk about the discrimination they face and ways to advocate for themselves.

Building relationships

Guimaraes is a frequent visitor to Tapepora. In addition to serving as national coordinator for Shade and Fresh Water Project, she was also my translator in Dourados. We visited Tapepora on a Saturday morning. Games of soccer were in full swing, as were art and dance activities.

“The Methodist Church in Brazil works with underprivileged children, especially those facing discrimination based on their ethnic background,” said Guimaraes. “We are building relationships, and they are building relationships among themselves. They are also building the strength that they will need to overcome adversity. We have people working with them both in their native language, Guaraní, and in Portuguese. We have some volunteers who are older, who were children here with the program and now they feel like they can give back to the community.”

The village is beautiful. Mango trees and lush green fields are set against bright red dirt. People cruise around on scooters, bicycles and horse-drawn carts. Even in the face of extreme marginalization, the people fill Bororo Village with life. It’s easy to understand why Kavainha fights for it, and why the Guarani-Kaiowa are so proud of their heritage—and their future.

Nile Sprague is a photographer based in Mendocino, California. Tara Barnes is editor of response.