Brazil’s Supreme Court Ends Indians’ 34-Year Fight for Land

Indians celebrate Supreme's decision After a 34-year-old struggle by a group of Brazilian Indians and four days of deliberation, the Brazilian Supreme Court (Supremo Tribunal Federal – STF) upheld, on March 19, the legal recognition of the indigenous lands of Raposa Serra do Sol in Roraima, which was questioned by the state senators of Roraima and the rice farmers who occupy the land. 

The removal of illegal occupants will be the responsibility of the judiciary, under the authority of the judge-reporter of the case, Carlos Ayres Britto.

By ten votes to one, the judges upheld the administrative procedure that, in 2005, resulted in the recognition of 1.7 million hectares as indigenous land, where approximately 18,000 people from the Ingarikó, Makuxi, Taurepang, Patamona and Wapichana peoples live.

The only dissenting vote was from judge Marco Aurélio de Mello.  On December 10, 2008, in the second court session, after eight judges had already voted for maintaining the recognition, Mello delayed a decision through legal maneuvering. 

On March 18, when the STF returned to session, Mello read his earlier vote for about seven hours, full of long quotations from news articles.  Shortly after, Celso de Mello voted for maintaining the recognition.  On March 19, judge Gilmar Mendes also voted in favor of the recognition of the lands.

After the verdict was announced, approximately 30 Indians who were following the court proceedings celebrated the victory in the Plaza of the Three Branches of Government (Praça doe Três Poderes).  "We lost many family members who were killed during these years of struggle, but today, they are here celebrating with us," declared an emotional Júlio Makuxi.

The result from March 19 annulled a court order that suspended the operation of the Federal Police to remove the non-Indian occupants from the land in April, 2008.  Meanwhile, the responsibility for extricating the invaders will no longer be left to the executive branch but with the judicial branch.  It will be under the coordination of TRF 1 and Judge Ayres Britto.

The judge Richard Lewandoski pointed out that the STF repeatedly called for the immediate removal of the occupants and the decision of the court cannot be set aside.

Beyond having decided on the demarcation of the Raposa Serra do Sol land, the STF judges established 19 conditions for the defining and fixing of boundaries of any indigenous lands in the country. 

In the evaluation of the Indigenous Missionary Council (CIMI – Conselho Indigenista Missionário), the ruling established by the STF, "must be understood in the context of the restrictions of the rights of indigenous peoples, traditional populations, rural populations and others, in favor of the interests of private capital. 

In the face of this, CIMI warns of the dangers that restricting the rights of others can cause, as in the inciting of conflict because the indigenous peoples and communities have a legitimate right to defend the land they own."

The conditions were proposed in the vote of judge Menezes Direito on December 10, 2008.  On March 18, Celso de Mello added another condition.  The judge-reporter Ayres Britto accepted the conditions, except for the one which prohibits the review of boundaries of indigenous lands. 

Judges Eros Grau and Carmem Lúcia agreed with Britto.  The majority of judges approved  all of the conditions, except for judge Joaquim Barbosa who agreed with none of them.  According to Barbosa, the content of the conditions was not sufficiently discussed.

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