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The Brazilian Supreme Court has delayed a ruling that could have far-reaching effects on the Amazon and the thousands of indigenous people who live there. In question is the legality of a process that created an Indigenous Territory in northern Brazil, and the case threatens to reverse decades of progress on indigenous and social rights throughout the country.
After more than two decades of struggle for recognition, five indigenous groups in Brazil's northern Roraima state won the rights to their ancestral lands in 2005. Their efforts culminated in the creation of a new Indigenous Territory, Raposa Serra do Sol, which covers a large swath of the Amazon Rainforest on the border with Guyana.
In a decree signed by Brazilian President Luiz Ignacio Lula da Silva, over 18,000 indigenous Makuxi, Wapixana, Ingariko, Taukepang and Patamona peoples were granted 1.7 million hectares. Non-indigenous peoples were compensated and forced to leave the area. Although this might have brought an end to the long struggle for recognition of their territorial rights, the indigenous peoples of Raposa have faced fierce opposition from entrenched economic interests in Roraima.
In particular, a group of seven wealthy rice farmers has refused to leave the region, throwing the reserve into chaos. Known as fazendeiros, these large-scale farmers have rejected compensation and relocation, despite having arrived in the area less than 15 years ago.
A recent spate of violence against the indigenous peoples in the Raposa Territory has increased tensions. In April, an indigenous leader was attacked when a bomb was thrown at his house. In May, six Macuxi children and four adults were attacked and shot by armed men working for a rice farmer, and local mayor Paulo Cesar Quartiero. Quartiero was detained by police and later released, despite the discovery of a large weapons cache on his property.
Earlier, in April, the Supreme Court suspended an operation by the federal police to remove the remaining seven illegal occupants of the reserve: the fazendeiros had set up blockades and destroyed bridges in order to fight their eviction.
"Even with all the destruction carried out by the rice growers, the Supreme Court decided in their favor," Macuxi chief Dionito Jose de Sousa told the Associated Press in April.
According to Catarina Vianna, a member of Makunaima Grita, a Brazilian group dedicated to helping the indigenous people at Raposo Serra do Sol, the current struggle is a basic one for the peoples of Raposa.
"This is really a local conflict. It's about use of water, about the farms getting bigger and bigger,” she said by phone from London. “Now the indigenous people are saying, 'Enough, this has been recognized as our land.’"
With the support of the Roraima state government, the fazendeiros and state Governor José de Anchieta have appealed to Brazil's Supreme Court to break up the Raposa Territory and free up large amounts of the land.
"The farmers want the indigenous land to be divided into islands. They don't want the indigenous land to be a continuous tract of land. But legal experts in Brazil maintain that there is no legal basis to annul the 2005 demarcation," said Vianna.
This comes at a time when President Silva has signed a decree to station troops permanently on all Indigenous Territories on the border. There has been talk among top officials in the Brazilian Armed Forces about foreign meddling in the largely-indigenous border region. Citing risks to national sovereignty, it appears the military feels threatened by the formation of Indigenous Territories.
"The military has an agenda," said Vianna, "to protect Brazilian sovereignty. It's been their main discourse since the dictatorship in the 60s and 70s. They are against the demarcation of continuous indigenous lands near the border because they want to control what happens [there], and they're afraid that what they call 'foreign interests' will use the Indians to then exploit the Amazon."
The military is using the conflict in Roraima to support these goals, suggesting the presence of drug traffickers and guerrilla groups in indigenous lands, and has called for the Supreme Court to annul Raposa Serra do Sol's boundaries.
According to Tim Cahill, a researcher on Brazil with human-rights organization Amnesty International, the military has long tried to taint social movements in Brazil by claiming connections to foreign revolutionary groups.
"In relation to the accusations of money coming in from Venezuela and FARC rebels – I have no evidence for or against it," he said. "But it's fair to say that whenever there's some criticism or attack to be made against social movements in Brazil... the FARC are always dragged out, although very little evidence is ever provided to prove these allegations. So it seems once again that it's an attempt to criminalize social movements in Brazil and discredit their work [that benefits] the poor and the marginalized."
Cahill says that the military – which has total access and freedom of movement in Indigenous Territories – does not have a good reputation among indigenous peoples.
"Indigenous people across the Amazon have persistently complained to Amnesty and denounced violations committed by soldiers who work indigenous areas – sexual abuse, physical abuse, and intimidation," he said. "There seems to be a clear contradiction in the sense that indigenous areas are meant to limit the access into those areas to guarantee their safety and protection. Yet when the Army goes in there, time and time again we see that [indigenous] rights are violated."
However, the military is unrepentant and has made it clear that no group's rights supersede those of the Brazilian Armed Forces.
"We want to be clear on something fundamental – Indian lands are Brazilian lands," said Defense Minister Nelson Jobim, according to a May Reuters article. "There are no nations or Indian peoples, there are Brazilians who are Indians."
The Brazilian Ministry of Defense was contacted for this piece, but declined to comment.
Cahill believes the real causes for the current conflict over Raposa go deeper than the military's security concerns. He says that this case represents a key moment in the face-off between indigenous rights and the interests of big business in Brazil, and big agrobusiness in particular.
"This is something we see not only in the Amazon, but across Brazil," he said. "The cultural, social and economic rights of indigenous peoples tend to come into conflict with the economic interests of big agro-industry. And big agro-industry has been the driving force of the recent economic boom that's occuring in Brazil, and we've seen that there's a lot of political and judicial support for their interests."
"In this case, it's not that the military has allied itself with the farmers," said Vianna. "Rather, two separate interests have come together. This handful of farmers – they're extremely wealthy. It's not about them. It's about how Brazil will use the Amazon. Are they going to just leave it to the Indians, who won't develop it? Or does Brazil have a plan for developing the Amazon? This is a discourse of economic development.
"That's why the farmers are using economic arguments. They are saying, 'What we do is good for the state and national economy.' They call themselves the 'Nationalist Resistance.' They consider themselves those who represent the nation, against the Indians who are supported by 'foreign interests.' They never say who these 'interests' are. But by conflating the local conflict into this language of nationalism and development – of developing the nation – they were able to get closer to the military's cause."
Rogerio Duarte do Pateo, a Sao Paulo-based member of Makunaima Grita, signalled that the consequences of the court's ruling could extend far beyond Raposa's borders.
"A decision against Raposa would create the legal precedents to revoke all indigenous titles to land in Brazil," he said. "Any other territory could be contested, [such as] the Yanomami, Kayapó."
Both Pateo and Cahill believe a decision against Raposa would not only violate the Brazilian Constitution, but it could put at risk the gains made over the last 30 years in terms of indigenous rights, throughout Brazil.
"What is on the line here is Article 231 of the Brazilian Constitution and the indigenous rights that are laid out in that article," Pateo said. "It's not that the court decision will directly affect the Constitution, but the arguments that are being used go against Article 231 – it seems that the justice system is going to favour the big landowners – and this will open up the way to revise Article 231."
"The 1988 Constitution allows indigenous people the process to set out and identify their ancestral lands," said Cahill. "There's a real fear that this will set back cases across the country of indigenous peoples who continue to fight for the rights to their land, and who, through this process, continue to seek the provision of their basic human rights and cultural rights."
According to a statement signed by 85 Brazilian NGOs in support of Raposa Serra do Sol, the Constitution "defined the rights of indigenous peoples over their lands and established that these rights enjoy over-riding precedence over any subsequent rights granted to non-indigenous holders."
However, Brazil's indigenous peoples are still fighting for these rights – and those outlined in the recently-adopted UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples – to be upheld and put into practice.
"Indigenous peoples are considered minors under Brazilian law… The demarcation process doesn't give [them] full rights to their land, but allows the land to be held by the federal government in custody for them," Cahill said. "[It is] an issue which has been hotly contested and which many believe limits the rights of indigenous peoples to their full citizenship and full rights under international law."
Whatever the Supreme Court decides, the case represents a key moment in the decades-long struggle for indigenous rights in Brazil.
"It would seriously undermine the whole system of Indian reserves in Brazil if the courts were to bow to pressure from influential landowners and politicians, particularly given the violence the Indians have been subjected to," said Miriam Ross, from Survival International.
According to Pateo, a ruling against the Raposa territory would not only undermine the recent successes in relation to indigenous rights, but would "mark the future of development in Brazil in relation to the Amazon,” giving a clear signal to logging, hydroelectric and agricultural companies that the Amazon is up for grabs.
The ruling was to be announced on August 27, but was delayed when one of the judges requested more time to look into the case.
"Will we continue a predatory model of exploitation that doesn't respect the law?" Pateo asks. "Or will Brazil be transformed – definitively – into a country that develops itself sustainably, and respects human rights?"
Watch video of the May attack on Macuxi Indians in Raposa Serra do Sol.
The Dominion is a monthly paper published by an incipient network of independent journalists in Canada. It aims to provide accurate, critical coverage that is accountable to its readers and the subjects it tackles. Taking its name from Canada's official status as both a colony and a colonial force, the Dominion examines politics, culture and daily life with a view to understanding the exercise of power.