BRAZIL’S SUPREME COURT UPHOLDS RIGHTS OF INDIGENOUS PEOPLES

COMMENTARY ARCHIVES, 18 Dec 2008

Amnesty International

A vote in Brazil’s Supreme Court on Wednesday [Dec 10/08] upheld the rights of Indigenous Peoples in the reservation of Raposa Serra do Sol on the frontier between Brazil and Guyana/Venezuela. The vote is seen as a victory for all Indigenous Peoples across Brazil.

The Supreme Court’s vote is a milestone in the thirty-year battle of the Makuxi, Wapixana, Ingarikó, Taurepang and Patamona indigenous peoples for the recognition of their constitutional right to their ancestral lands.

Raposa Serra do Sol is a 1.7 million hectare reservation and is home to 20,000 people, the majority of them Macaxi. The reservation was decreed by President Lula in April 2005, ending a thirty-year struggle for the recognition of the lands.

During that period, at least twenty Indigenous people were killed, hundreds more beaten and their homes and livestock destroyed by local landowners, settlers and members of the military police.

The state government continues to oppose the process of demarcation, supporting illegal settlements in the area and rice farmers who, despite an earlier offer of compensation to leave the area, have illegally maintained their operations on reservation land. Army officials have also criticised the existence of the reservation on the grounds that is a threat to national sovereignty.

In April, the Supreme Court suspended a federal police operation to evict the rice farmers pending a ruling on an appeal against the ratification process brought by the state government and two deputies. In August, the Supreme Court hearing was adjourned after one of the judges requested time for further consideration.

Eight out of eleven Supreme Court judges voted to maintain the original demarcation of the Reposa Serra do Sol reservation as a single, continuous area, after state politicians and local farmers challenged the constitutionality of the reservation. However, the final ruling has been delayed until next year, after one of the remaining judges requested more time for consideration.

While the majority vote has secured the integrity of the reservation, Amnesty International expressed concerns over the delay in delivering a final ruling. The delay means that an eviction order against large-scale rice farmers, who are illegally operating on the reservation, will be suspended for a further period.

These rice growers have attacked and intimidated the Indigenous Peoples – including the violent attacks in May 2008 where masked men injured 10 people with petrol bombs and guns. More recently, there have been further reports of petrol bomb attacks, as well as men on motorcycles riding close to the reservation and firing shots into the air.

"It is essential that all these incidents are thoroughly investigated and Indigenous Peoples are provided full protection, while awaiting the Supreme Court’s final decision," said Patrick Wilcken, campaigner on the Brazil team at Amnesty International.

Amnesty International also called on the Brazilian government to use this victory to complete the long overdue process of ratification of other outstanding lands, such as those of the Guarani in Mato Grosso do Sul.

"This will be the only way to ensure an end to the violence and social deprivation Indigenous Peoples continue to suffer," said Patrick Wilcken.

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