Civil Society, Development & Aid, Environment, Headlines, Human Rights, Indigenous Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean

BRAZIL: Landmark Ruling Confirms Indian Reservation

Fabiana Frayssinet

RIO DE JANEIRO, Mar 19 2009 (IPS) - Chanting “Anna Pata, Ana Yan” (Our Land, Our Mother), members of indigenous organisations and activists celebrated a Brazilian Supreme Court ruling Thursday that confirmed the borders of a huge indigenous reservation in the Amazon jungle and set an important precedent for future land disputes.

After a heated two-day session, the Supreme Court judges voted ten to one to uphold a presidential decree that the Raposa Serra do Sol reservation in the northern state of Roraima must be returned intact to 19,000 indigenous people belonging to the Macuxi, Wapichana, Patamona, Ingaricó and Taurepang ethnic groups.

In 2005, President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva signed into law the demarcation of the vast reservation and ordered a handful of non-indigenous large rice producers to leave the area.

Indigenous land, “occupied since remote times,” is “inalienable,” and native rights to that property do not expire, said Judge Celso de Mello.

Without these rights, native peoples are exposed to the “extremely serious risk” of “cultural disintegration, the loss of their ethnic identity, and the dissolution of historic, social and anthropological ties,” he added.

The 1.7 million hectare reserve, which borders Venezuela and Guyana, was demarcated in 1998 under the administration of Lula’s predecessor, Fernando Henrique Cardoso (1995-2003).

“After 500 years of discrimination against indigenous people, this decision not only favours Raposa Serra do Sol but Brazil as a whole, and besides recognising our land, it brings life and respect for indigenous peoples,” Macuxi leader Dionito Jose de Sousa, head of the Roraima Indigenous Council, told IPS in a telephone interview.

“Justice took a while, but it arrived,” he added.

According to de Sousa, the ruling will set a precedent for similar court disputes, and “recognises indigenous culture in the eyes of the entire world, by permanently defining the property of indigenous peoples.”

“Now they are paying back the more than 500-year-old debt for killing Indians and using authoritarianism and violence against us. Today, the law has been enforced. Today we have freedom and authority,” the indigenous leader said.

The trial, which began in August 2008, had been interrupted twice. In December, eight members of the 11-judge panel voted that the reservation should remain intact as one continuous tract of land and that the large-scale rice farmers should be thrown out.

The landowners wanted to break up the reserve in order to hold on to their “fazendas” (estates).

But the final decision was postponed at the time, when Judge Marco Aurelio Mello asked for a recess to further investigate the case.

Mello is the only judge who voted against the current borders of the reservation and the removal of the rice farmers.

The judge argued that the demarcation process was marred by irregularities, and that not all of the concerned parties were heard at the trial, like representatives of all of the ethnic groups and non-indigenous people holding title deeds to portions of the reservation.

Citing statements by the army brass, the magistrate also referred to alleged threats to national sovereignty, given that the reservation is located in a strategic border area.

In addition, he questioned whether a tract of land 12 times the size of greater Sao Paulo – which is home to more than 19 million people – should be reserved for just 19,000 indigenous people, many of whom, he said, are “acculturated.”

But his positions were criticised by his colleague Carlos Ayres de Britto, who had already cast his vote in favour of keeping the reservation intact, in December.

Britto said that granting legal status to the reservation helps “repair” the injustices that have historically been committed against the country’s indigenous people.

With respect to Mello’s concern about national sovereignty, Supreme Court chief justice Gilmar Mendes pointed out that exceptions were established to allow, for example, the armed forces or federal police to circulate freely in the reservation in order to defend the country’s borders.

But de Sousa was not so pleased with that exception. “We cannot accept the government allowing the army and the police to enter the reservation without previously consulting with the communities. We have to talk about this,” he said.

The ruling also authorises the native inhabitants of the reservation to fish, hunt and gather plant products in the Mount Roraima National Park, which makes up nearly seven percent of the reservation, but only if they receive permits from the national environmental authorities.

The rice farmers, who had resisted government efforts to remove them from the reservation and had refused the compensation payments offered by the national agency on indigenous affairs, FUNAI, will now have no choice but to leave.

In case of further resistance, FUNAI, with backing from the federal police and the national security forces, is authorised and prepared to remove them by force, if necessary.

“We hope their departure will be immediate, because we have already been waiting for three years,” said de Sousa. “We can’t wait any longer.”

Paulo Cesar Quartiero, the leader of the landowners, who owns the biggest farm on the reservation, warned that keeping the reservation intact would give rise to more land disputes and social conflicts.

The president of the Roraima association of rice farmers, Nelson Itikawa, complained to the public news agency Agência Brasil that the farmers have no way to move their crops and keep up production levels.

Representatives of the indigenous groups were allowed to wear traditional dress and face and body paints while attending the trial.

Hundreds of demonstrators held a vigil since Wednesday evening outside the Supreme Court in Brasilia. Demonstrations by indigenous people, small farmers’ associations and human rights activists were also held in Boa Vista, the capital of Roraima, and on the reservation itself.

De Sousa said that once the rice farmers were gone, the land would be used for “indigenous” agriculture, “free of chemicals.”

The non-indigenous small farmers who will remain on their land in the reservation, and who already live in close contact with the native groups, will use technology provided by the Brazilian Agricultural Research Corporation (EMBRAPA), a government network of 41 research centres.

The Raposa Serra do Sol reservation has been at the centre of land conflicts since the 1970s, when the process of land titling in the area began. But the landowners who have been refusing to leave did not establish their farms there until the early 1990s.

After the trial was postponed in December, the rice farmers secured permission from the Supreme Court to remain on the land until the final ruling was handed down.

There were moments of tension during the dispute, with continuous protests, roadblocks and the occupation of buildings by people on both sides.

And over the years, 12 Indians were murdered within the borders of the reservation, including Manuel Tavares, acting FUNAI administrator in the region, whose body was found in January 2003, just 100 metres from the main house of a “fazenda”.

In early May 2008, Quartiero was arrested and held in Brasilia for nine days on charges of possession of explosives and supplying guns to men who shot 10 indigenous people who, he claimed, were invading his land.

According to FUNAI statistics, there are 488 indigenous reservations in Brazil in the process of demarcation, totaling 105.7 million hectares, and another 123 areas that are still being identified and mapped out.

Republish | | Print |

Related Tags