Brazil: Indians Celebrate Supreme’s Ruling on Land, But Farmers Vow to Fight

Woman Indian from the Macuxis thanks God and Justice Across Brazil Indians are celebrating a resolution by the Brazilian Supreme Court, where the majority of judges ruled to uphold indigenous land rights in a key case. Indian representatives have called the decision, made Wednesday, December 10, 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 signed the territory into law in 2005.

Eight out of eleven Supreme Court judges affirmed the Indians' rights to the land, saying it had been demarcated according to the Brazilian constitution. They affirmed the importance of maintaining indigenous territories as single, continuous areas and stated that 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 Indians 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 Indian community, throwing homemade bombs and firing assault rifles. Ten Indians were wounded in the attack.

The judges also ruled that the farmers must leave Raposa-Serra do Sol, but 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), commenting on the decision, said "The land is our mother. We are happy that [our land] has been reclaimed and that the Supreme Court has vindicated indigenous people."

The Indians of Raposa-Serra do Sol believe that the loss of their land would have destroyed their way of life. Indians 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.

Stephen Corry, the director of international organization Survival, which defends the rights of tribal peoples, saluted enthusiastically the Brazilian justice's ruling:

"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."

The Other Side

Farmer Ailton Cabral, 65, who owns 12,000 hectares (29.6 acres) of land in Raposa Serra do Sol, told reporters that he will not leave his farm unless he gets 1 million Brazilian reais (US$ 423,000) as compensation.

Like him many other farmers vow to stay and fight for what they see as their rightful property.

Cabral was born and grew up in the indigenous reservations of Raposa Serra do Sol and São Marcos. He seems very bitter with the Supreme's decision.

"When I was 8, I was already riding horses with my father throughout this land," he says. "After walking all I walked and building all that I have for 57 years I'm not abandoning all of this behind."

In his farm Cabral raises cattle, sheep and horses. What he plants is just for family use.

"I'll leave only if I get 1 million. If the Funai (National Indian Foundation) had conducted a fair and honest survey over the value of the lands and improvements nobody would be here." He accuses the government agency of having  vastly underestimated the value of his property.

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