Brazil: high court upholds Amazon indigenous land rights

<em>Makuxi children at Serra do Sol</em>” title=”<em>Makuxi children at Serra do Sol</em>”  class=”image image-_original” width=”250″ height=”188″ /><span class=Makuxi children at Serra do SolIndians across Brazil celebrated Dec. 10 as the majority of judges in the country’s Supreme Court ruled to uphold indigenous land rights in a key case. Indigenous leaders called the decision, made on the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a “great victory.” The ruling concerns the indigenous territory Raposa-Serra do Sol (“Land of the Fox and Mountain of the Sun”) in the Amazon state of Roraima. A small group of powerful farmers, who want the Indians’ land and are supported by local politicians, had petitioned the Supreme Court to overturn the Brazilian government’s legal recognition of the territory. President Lula da Silva signed a decree recognizing the territory in 2005.

Eight out of eleven Supreme Court judges affirmed the indigenous peoples’ rights to the land, saying it had been demarcated according to the constitution. They affirmed the importance of maintaining indigenous territories as single, continuous areas, and stated that indigenous territories on Brazil’s borders do not pose a risk to national sovereignty.

The five tribes of Raposa-Serra do Sol had struggled for 30 years to reclaim their ancestral land. The group of farmers refused to leave the area when it was demarcated as an indigenous territory, and since the demarcation they have been waging a campaign of violence against the tribes in order to resist being removed from the land.

Shocking footage taken in May this year shows gunmen hired by one of the farmers attacking a Makuxi indigenous community, throwing homemade bombs and firing assault rifles. Ten Makuxi were wounded in the attack.

The judges also ruled that the farmers must leave Raposa-Serra do Sol, although they did not specify when. This will be decided when the ruling is concluded during the court’s next session starting in February 2009, when the remaining three judges deliver their rulings.

Makuxi leader Jacir José de Souza of the Indigenous Council of Roraima (CIR) said in response to the ruling, “The land is our mother. We are happy that [our land] has been reclaimed and that the Supreme Court has vindicated indigenous people.”

The indigenous people of Raposa-Serra do Sol believe that the loss of their land would have destroyed their way of life. Indigenous peoples elsewhere in Brazil also feared that if the Supreme Court had overturned the demarcation of the territory, it would have left their lands open to similar legal challenges.

Survival International’s director Stephen Corry said, “This is fantastic news for the people of Raposa-Serra do Sol. The Brazilian government must now make sure that the farmers leave the area and that the campaign of terror against the Indians ends. It must also ensure that Indian land rights are upheld nationwide, so that never again will we see such blatant attacks on Indians on their own land.” (Survival International, Dec. 11)

Photo: Survival International

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