OVER the years, the villages of the Guarani-Kaiowa tribe and other Indian territories in this booming agricultural center have been invaded by ranchers and farmers seeking to exploit resources on their land.
Now, Indian support groups say the survival of Brazil's estimated 300,000 indigenous peoples depends on enforcement of a constitutional statute that recognizes their right to ancestral lands.
A presidential decree in 1991 bolstered the constitutional statute to give the National Indian Foundation, known as Funai, the right to demarcate indigenous territories without legal interference from non-Indians. Funai is the Brazilian equivalent of the United States Bureau of Indian Affairs.
But a decree signed by President Fernando Henrique Cardoso in January is alarming Indian support groups. Decree 1775 permits states, municipalities, and individuals to contest demarcation of Indian land, and possibly gain title.
''The Brazilian government just voted in favor of loggers, miners, and ranchers and against indigenous peoples and the rain forest,'' said Melina Selverston, director of the Washington-based Coalition for Amazonian Peoples and their Environment.
Some political observers believe President Cardoso signed the 1775 decree to appease the powerful lobby that represents the seven states of the Amazon basin, where most of the Indian reserves are to be marked out. Analysts say Cardoso, a reformer who is reshaping the nation's political and economic systems, needs the lobby's support to push his programs through Congress.
''He [Cardoso] has his priorities, and Indians aren't one of them,'' says Antonio Brand, who has studied the Guarani since 1978.
Critics also fear that the decree has left Brazil's Indians more open to incursions and violence.
In recent weeks, press reports indicate that 28 reserves have been invaded by both individuals and groups of miners, loggers, and most recently marijuana farmers, causing Funai director Marcio Santilli to request official permission to arm his agents.
According to Amnesty International, 123 Indians have been killed in land disputes over the past five years.
Supporters of Decree 1775, however, say it may end much of the violence by giving a legal forum to non-Indians who want to claim Indian lands. They will now have 90 days to contest a demarcation, after which Funai has 60 days to respond. The final decision is made 30 days later by the Justice Ministry.
''Before, nobody could say anything but Funai,'' says federal congressman Elton da Luz Rohnelt. ''Now, anyone has the right to speak.''
Cardoso says the decree may actually protect some Indian land already demarcated if the Supreme Court had thrown out the 1991 decree as unconstitutional. In a luncheon for foreign journalists in Rio on Tuesday, he said, ''As far as I'm concerned, the more land for Indians the better.''
Currently, 210 Indian reserves have been created, with 344 in the process of registration. Funai's Santilli says that the decree will not have any major impact. ''It's always unpleasant for Indian groups to accept the argument of the other side,'' he says, ''but the decree does not mean that we will reverse our [demarcation] policies.''
Santilli says that when the process is finished, Brazil's 180 tribes will receive some 198 million acres, or 11 percent of the nation's total territory. But Congressman Rohnelt, who represents the Amazon state of Roraima, says the decree is the first step in rethinking a policy that gives too much land to just two-tenths of the population.
As examples, Rohnelt points to two Funai demarcations: 4.6 million acres in Para state to 65 members of the Menkragnotire tribe and 23 million acres in Roraima and Amazonas states to 10,000 Yanomami Indians.
''Those demarcations were ridiculous,'' he says. ''Now [with Decree 1775], we have the means to defeat one of the planet's most absurd laws.''
Indian supporters, however, say the size of Indian lands has always been used as an argument to divert attention from the concentration of large farms in the country. A survey by the Indianist Missionary Council shows that fewer than 1 percent of Brazil's landowners control almost 49 percent of national territory.
''If Brazil is going to determine property law by a population per-square-foot assessment, then it should be applied to non-Indians as well,'' says Steven Tullberg, director of the Washington-based Indian Law Resource Center. ''It's discriminatory and a bogus argument, otherwise.''
In the state of Mato Grosso do Sul, few would charge the Guarani with having too much land. Palito Akino remembers when he lived by fishing and hunting and roamed the area's once vast rain forests.
''We are as old as the forests,'' he said inside a straw structure he called the ''praying hut.'' ''But the white man has all the power.''
Mr. Akino, the 108-year-old religious leader of the Guarani-Kaiowa community of Panambizinho, is referring to the ranchers and farmers who over the years have cut down trees, built fences, and restricted access to the land.
Today, his community of 255 inhabitants - located outside Dourados, in Mato Grosso do Sul, - lives on just 148 acres. In Bororo, a Guarani village located two miles from downtown Dourados, 3,700 are jammed into 3,600 acres. Villagers live in dilapidated shacks and draw water from a contaminated reservoir.
Although the soil is unable to provide ample sustenance for many, men still tend small plots of corn and manioc root.
As a result, many Guarani men have become itinerant laborers called boias frias, or ''cold lunches,'' on nearby sugar plantations. There, they clear land or cut sugarcane for distilleries that produce alcohol for Brazil's cars.
''When they come home, they fight with their wives over lack of money and start drinking,'' says Albino Nunes, a Bororo resident. Some even kill themselves. In the past decade, 206 members of the Guarani-Kaiowa tribe have taken their own lives, reaching a high of 56 last year. Anthropologists attribute poverty, the loss of lands in on-going disputes with farmers and ranchers, and subsequent overcrowding of villages as reasons for the despair.
Dourados Councilman Jose Laerte Tetila fears Decree 1775 may increase that distress. ''The ranchers will surely contest even the miniscule leftovers [of land],'' he says.