With their land on the line, Indigenous Brazilians gather for landmark ruling

“Indigenous people are facing a series of threats at this moment and we decided to resist.”

  • Thousands of Indigenous leaders have gathered in Brazil’s capital, Brasília, in a massive demonstration as the country’s Supreme Federal Court prepares to rule in a landmark land rights case.
  • The marches, which drew about 6,000 Indigenous leaders, are believed to be the largest mobilization of Indigenous activists in more than three decades, organizers say; supporters in cities around the world, including London and San Francisco, have also staged solidarity protests.
  • The case being heard will set an important precedent on whether courts can deny land claims by Indigenous people whose ancestral lands were appropriated before the Brazilian Constitution came into force in 1988.
  • Indigenous leaders in Brasília have also denounced a series of other “anti-Indigenous” proposals, including a bill in Congress that would open up Indigenous lands awaiting demarcation to land grabbers, loggers and miners.

Thousands of Indigenous people marched in Brazil’s capital this week, ahead of a landmark Supreme Federal Court ruling that activists warn could hamper the official recognition of Indigenous people’s territories and roll back their rights in the country.

About 6,000 leaders from 176 Indigenous groups camped in tents outside the courthouse in the heart of Brasília, the capital, demanding a decision in favor of Indigenous rights. The weeklong demonstrations are believed to be Brazil’s largest mobilization of Indigenous people in more than three decades, according to organizers.

“Indigenous people are facing a series of threats at this moment,” said Dinamam Tuxá, executive coordinator of APIB, Brazil’s largest Indigenous organization, in a phone interview with Mongabay. “And we decided to resist. Because we cannot die within our territories without fighting back, without coming here to Brasília to spread our message and show the society our suffering.”

Indigenous leaders are gathered in Brazil’s capital, Brasília, from Aug. 22-28, in a movement called “Struggle for Life” or Luta Pela Vida in Portuguese. The country’s Supreme Federal Court is expected to rule on a landmark case that could put limits on Indigenous land claims and roll back Indigenous rights. Image courtesy of Scott Hill/Luta Pela Vida.

A focus of the demonstrations is a much-anticipated Supreme Federal Court (STF) ruling that will set an important precedent for whether courts can deny land claims by Indigenous people whose ancestral lands were appropriated before 1988. This cutoff date, known as the marco temporal, marks the year the Brazilian Constitution came into force and officially recognized the land rights of Native people.

The demonstrators, clad in traditional Indigenous dress, chanted, danced and waved signs painted with the slogan of their movement, “Struggle for Life,” or Luta Pela Vida in Portuguese, which they are also using on social media through the hashtags #MarcoTemporalNão and #AcampamentoLutaPelaVida. Supporters in cities around the world, from London to San Francisco, have also held protests in solidarity with Brazil’s Indigenous people, mobilized by NGOs supporting the fight.

“At this moment, as the debate on this case begins, we’re really hopeful and confident that the Supreme Federal Court justices will uphold our constitutional rights,” Dinamam Tuxá said from Brasília.

Around 6,000 Indigenous leaders gathered in Brazil’s capital, Brasília. The demonstrators are chanting, singing and camping outside the Supreme Federal Court, which is expected to decide in the landmark case that could place limits on Indigenous claims to territories not occupied as of 1988, when the Brazilian Constitution came into force. Image courtesy of Jacy Santos/Luta Pela Vida.

Proponents of the marco temporal argue that Indigenous people can only lay claim to land they were living on in 1988 or before. Indigenous rights defenders disagree, arguing this cutoff date is arbitrary, since many Indigenous groups were forced off their ancestral lands long before, since the colonization of South America by Europeans in the 1500s.

“The thesis is unfair because it disregards expulsions, forced removals and all the violence suffered by Indigenous peoples until the promulgation of the Constitution,” the Luta Pela Vida movement said in a statement.

Because of the contentious nature of the issue, the STF review of the case has suffered a series of delays since hearings were first scheduled for October 2020. This week saw another delay: the ruling, initially scheduled for Aug. 25, has been postponed once again; Indigenous activists expect the STF to resume the ruling decision next week.

Thousands of Indigenous leaders camped outside the Supreme Federal Court in Brazil’s capital, Brasília, as the court prepared to decide on a landmark case that critics say could curb Indigenous land rights. Image courtesy of Kamikia Kisedje/Luta Pela Vida.

At the heart of the legal dispute is a case involving the Xokleng Indigenous people in southern Santa Catarina state, where the government is trying to reclaim the Ibirama-La Klãnõ Indigenous Reserve they call home. The 37,000-hectare (91,400-acre) reserve is home to 2,057 Indigenous people from the Xokleng, Guarani and Kaingang Indigenous groups, according to the Instituto Socioambiental (ISA), a nonprofit that advocates for the rights of Indigenous and traditional peoples.

The land was fully demarcated by federal agencies in 2003, recognized as a protected reserve exclusively for the use of Indigenous people. But the state government has argued the Xokleng have no legal claim to the land since they were not living on it when the Brazilian Constitution came into force.

The Indigenous community says they were forced off their ancestral territory through land grabbing and development and infrastructure projects, including a massive dam that was commissioned in the 1970s under Brazil’s military dictatorship.

“The Xokleng people lost their territory in the most violent, the most vile, the most terrible way,” Rafael Modesto, a lawyer for the Xokleng community and legal adviser to the Indigenist Missionary Council (Cimi), said in a statement. The return of the community’s “stolen land” should be guaranteed, he added.

“What we want and need is for the STF to guarantee our rights, and for the lands that are ours to be recognized,” Brasílio Priprá, a leader of the Xokleng people, said in a statement. “The marco temporal is an affront to Indigenous peoples, which seeks to take away the peoples’ right to ancestral lands.”

Indigenous leaders gathered in Brasilia to protest against a slew of proposals and bills that they say attack Indigenous rights. Activists say President Jair Bolsonaro’s friendly signals to cattle ranchers, land grabbers and illegal miners have led to a spike in invasions of Indigenous lands. Image courtesy of Jacy Santos/Luta Pela Vida.

Still, the marco temporal enjoys strong support from Brazil’s powerful agribusiness lobby, which argues that demarcations stifle development and economic growth. In the lead-up to the ruling, agribusiness proponents launched a propaganda campaign falsely claiming demarcations would cost the southwestern state of Mato Grosso state — Brazil’s agricultural heartland — some 1.95 billion reais ($370 million) in economic losses.

In reality, Indigenous reserves occupy less than 14% of the Brazilian territory, while agricultural land — mostly sprawling soy farms and cattle ranches — account for 41%, according to the ISA.

Attacks on Indigenous land rights have surged under the government of President Jair Bolsonaro, who has repeatedly defended opening up protected areas to agriculture and mining since taking office at the start of 2019. He has also vowed not to demarcate a “single centimeter” more of Indigenous land.

The government’s rhetoric and actions have coincided with a surge in illegal invasions of Indigenous territories by land grabbers, loggers and ranchers. Affected areas include both reserves under full federal protection and those still awaiting full demarcation.

Indigenous leaders have planned demonstrations in Brazil’s capital, Brasília, from Aug. 22-28, in a mobilization meant to place pressure on the Supreme Federal Court to rule in favor of Indigenous land rights in a controversial landmark case currently under review. Image courtesy of the Indigenist Missionary Council (Cimi).

“These are threats that are already materializing,” Dinamam Tuxá said. “We are seeing the president’s discourse of hate reverberate in Indigenous territories. We have a huge rise in deforestation, we have a huge rise in invasions of our lands. It’s intensifying social and environmental conflicts.”

The number of land conflicts in Brazil hit 1,576 cases in 2020, the highest number ever recorded by the Catholic Church-affiliated Pastoral Land Commission (CPT), which has been keeping track of the issue since 1985. More than two-fifths of the conflicts involved Indigenous peoples, according to the report released in June.

Indigenous rights are also under threat from a slew of other proposals at the state and federal levels that critics call “anti-Indigenous.” Earlier this month, a controversial proposal — dubbed the “land grab bill” by critics — cleared a key legislative hurdle when it was approved by Brazil’s lower house of Congress.

If approved by the Senate, the bill would allow for the legalization of claims by squatters illegally occupying public lands — including undesignated forests and Indigenous territories still awaiting full recognition and demarcation by the federal government — with little oversight by environmental authorities, activists say.

This is a developing story. Mongabay will report any updates as they become available.


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