Farewell to Damiana Cavanha: Guarani Kaiowá warrior and spiritual leader

Damiana Cavanha, the leader of the Guarani community of Apy Ka'y, smiles holding up one open hand.
Damiana Cavanha, the leader of the Guarani community of Apy Ka’y. © Paul Patrick Borhaug/Survival


Damiana Cavanha, an inspirational figure to all of us who were lucky enough to know her, has died. 

A Guarani Kaiowá leader from Mato Grosso do Sul state in Brazil, her fighting spirit also inspired the broader Indigenous movement in Brazil.

Damiana’s life was marked by tragedy and bitter struggle, but she never gave up on her quest to regain her ancestral land. She remained firmly rooted in her family and community, but her courage and tenacity in the face of adversity became known across the country. 

Damiana and her people were evicted at gunpoint from Apy Ka’y, their tekoha (ancestral land) in the early 1990s, when it was seized by agribusiness companies for vast sugar cane plantations. Damiana said: “We lost everything and were forced to live on the side of the highway - where we can’t grow anything - and had to beg.”

For years, Damiana and her family were confined to a tiny strip of ground by a busy highway, with trucks constantly thundering by. Damiana’s husband Hilário, and three of their children, Agnaldo, Sidnei and Wagner, were all killed in accidents on the road. Across the highway from their camp, a barbed wire fence barred them from their former land, with gunmen patrolling regularly to enforce their dispossession.

The community’s only source of drinking water was (and is) a small stream, polluted by pesticide run-off from the sugar-cane plantations. One woman died from suspected poisoning. 

At least three members of the 15 family groups which made up Apy Ka’y committed suicide in despair at the constant threats and harassment by the sugar-cane farmer; the terrible conditions they were forced to live in; and the lack of any progress by the authorities in recognizing their land rights.

Damiana never gave up. She defied the gunmen, landowners and politicians, at great personal risk to herself, to lead several retomadas (land reoccupations) over the last 15 years. All were brutally suppressed - gunmen repeatedly evicted the Kaiowá, firing on them, burning their houses and destroying their property

In one eviction, a 7-month-old Guarani baby died of cold and malnutrition while gunmen patrolled around the Guarani’s camp 24 hours a day, threatening Damiana and her family.

Damiana declared: “I will never leave here. I will die on our ancestral land. I will not flee. I am a woman, a warrior and I am not afraid.”

Following a retomada in August 2013, the community’s huts were burned down and all their possessions destroyed. Damiana was as defiant as ever: “We say to everyone that we have decided to resist here, by the stream and the forest edge, on our re-occupied land.”

The Guarani have lost one of their strongest leaders and we at Survival have lost a dear friend. Tragically, Damiana did not live to see her community back on its land, but her fighting spirit will live on: an inspiration to her community, to Brazil’s Indigenous movement, and to us. RIP.