Brazil: Supreme Court rules Raposa-Serra do Sol indigenous territory

In a landmark ruling, Brazil’s Supreme Court March 19 found that the Raposa-Serra do Sol indigenous reserve in northern Roraima state should be maintained as a contiguous territory. The 10-1 decision upholds the demarcation of the territory, home to some 18,000 members of the Makuxi and other tribes, as designated in a 2005 presidential decree. The decision requires the removal of rice growers within the reserve, who brought the legal challenge to the demarcation.

“This was a real victory for the peoples of Raposa Serra do Sol,” said Dionito JosĂ© de Souza, general coordinator of the Indigenous Council of Roraima (CIR). “We’re going to strive to ensure that all indigenous peoples in Brazil enjoy these same rights.” A provisional Court ruling in December also backed the Makuxi, but the final verdict was only issued this week.

While the decision was a victory for Raposa Serra do Sol, the judges also issued a number of conditions to the decision that could limit indigenous peoples’ rights and future demarcation of indigenous lands. One condition, for example, says that the state could build infrastructure projects found to be in the national interest on indigenous lands without the prior and informed consent of the indigenous communities. Another condition could prevent indigenous communities from regaining lands they occupied prior to 1988, the year the Brazilian Constitution was ratified.

However, the decision also found that indigenous lands along national borders do not constitute a threat to national security—an important ruling given the location of many indigenous communities along the northern and eastern borders of Brazil. The ruling comes as a blow to leading Roraima politicians who had backed the rice farmers, and to Brazil’s military, which argued that the reserve represents a national security threat. Raposa-Serra de Sol borders Venezuela on the north.

Said Fiona Watson of Survival International: “This ruling will come as a tremendous relief not only to the 20,000 Indians who live in Raposa, but to the hundreds of thousands of others across the country, and their many friends around the world. At the heart of the case was a very simple principle—should Indians who have lived on the same land since time immemorial be able to continue living there peacefully, or should the farmers and landowners who are so powerful in South America be able to push them off in the name of development? Thankfully the court has come down decisively on the side of the Indians, and also rejected the army’s shameful propaganda that Indian reservations somehow represent a threat to the country’s sovereignty. It’s a great victory for Roraima’s Indians, who have struggled tirelessly for decades for this moment.”

But the CIR and its supporters will be monitoring implementation of the Supreme Court’s decision. The indigenous communities in Raposa-Serra do Sol are particularly concerned about the peaceful removal of the rice growers from the 4.2 million acre (1.7 million hectare) territory. Growers responded with violence last year when authorities tried to evict them. “There is no peaceful solution,” Nelson Itikawa, president of the Roraima Rice Growers Association, told the government’s Agencia Brasil news service. “It’s possible there will be a conflict—there are people who will lose control.” (Rainforest Foundation, Survival International, AP, March 20)

See our last posts on Brazil and the struggle for the Amazon.

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