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Brazil’s Indians on the march in last ditch effort to stop land theft

  • Last week, indigenous organizations and civil society bodies demonstrated widely against what they see as the Brazilian government’s on going moves to reduce Indian land rights, and to demand the government open a dialogue with indigenous representatives.
  • Of greatest concern is President Temer’s recommendation to approve the “marco temporal” a 1988 cut-off date for Indian occupation of traditional lands.
  • Critics say the marco temporal is designed to deny indigenous land rights guaranteed under Brazil’s 1988 constitution, while legalizing claims of land thieves and wealthy elite ruralists who have long hungered for control of Indian lands.
  • Brazilian Supreme Court rulings that will help determine the legality of the marco temporal are expected this Wednesday, 16 August.
Indians protest in Brasilia last week against the Temer government’s assault on indigenous land rights guaranteed by the 1988 constitution. Photo courtesy of Guilherme Cavalli / Cimi

Brazil’s Indians were on the march all of last week, carrying out major demonstrations, public meetings and hearings, culminating on 9 August, the International Day of the World’s Indigenous People. The protests came in response to perceived attempts by the Temer government to delegitimize indigenous land rights assured by the nation’s 1988 constitution — legal maneuvering by the government which most critics say would largely benefit wealthy Brazilians trying to lay claim to traditional Indian lands.

The week culminated with the dispatch of a series of documents, along with an accompanying letter signed by 48 indigenous organizations and civil society bodies, addressed to the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, part of the Organization of American States (OAS).

The letter condemns the growing pace of indigenous rights violations in Brazil since the visit of Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, the UN’s special rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples, in March 2016. It notes that “violent attacks on the indigenous communities and people have continued to grow, revealing a high level of racism.”

According to the letter, the increasing number of violations is the result of “the deliberate weakening of the indigenous agency, Funai; the government’s refusal to demarcate indigenous land; and the complete absence of dialogue between the government and indigenous representatives.”

Indians demonstrating against the “marco temporal” in Brasilia. Photo courtesy of Guilherme Cavalli / Cimi

The 48 organizations call on the government to put an end to the criminalization of indigenous leaders, to re-open dialogue with indigenous organizations, to revoke laws that violate indigenous rights, and to make the justice system accessible to indigenous people.

Above all, Brazil’s indigenous people have called on the Temer administration to re-think its recent recommendation that all government departments, including Funai, accept the so-called ‘marco temporal’ — a cut-off date fixed at 5 October 1988, the day that Brazil’s most recent constitution was promulgated. According to the new guidance, no indigenous group will be able to claim land they were not occupying on this particular date.

Many Indians see this date as arbitrary and unfair because it comes shortly after the end of 25 years of military rule during which many indigenous groups were brutally evicted from lands they had occupied for decades or even centuries. The cut-off date, they say, legitimizes military abuses of indigenous human rights. The 1988 date also favors land thieves, cattle ranchers, soy farmers, mining companies, and other interests among wealthy elite ruralists who have long coveted indigenous lands, say experts.

An indian taking part in the ceremony last week at the Brazilian Supreme Court. Photo by Tiago Motto / Cimi

On 8 August the Indians held a public hearing in the Senate in Brasilia. “If the marco temporal is approved, the massacres, the spilling of blood, the genocide, the evictions that we are suffering in our lands today, will also be approved,” warned Eliseu Lopes Guarani Kaioawá, a member of the ruling body of the Articulation of Indigenous People in Brazil (Apib). “Our history doesn’t begin in 1988!” he declared.

The marco temporal “is absolutely unsustainable and rotten in its very base,” said Luciano Mariz Maia, from the Federal Public MInistry (MPF), an independent branch of government made up of public prosecutors at both the federal and state level.

On the same day, a public debate was held at the University of São Paulo. “The marco temporal is unconstitutional. Our rights as the original inhabitants are recognized in the Constitution. We must shout this out loud and clear,” said Tiago Honório dos Santos, a member of the Guarani Yvyrupa Commission and an inhabitant of the Tenondé Porã indigenous territory

Anthropologist Manuela Carneiro da Cunha declared that Brazil is currently dominated by a “president who doesn’t care how unpopular he is, and is capable of doing anything to remain in power. It is in this way that agribusiness is getting everything it wants.”

Anthropologist Manuela Carneiro da Cunha said that Brazil’s President Temer “doesn’t care how unpopular he is, and is capable of doing anything to remain in power. It is in this way that agribusiness is getting everything it wants.” Photo courtesy of YouTube

The week culminated in an indigenous ceremony, led by the Guarani and Kaiowá Indians, in front of the Federal Supreme Court (STF) building. The site was chosen because on 16 August the STF is due to make several important rulings, one of which will directly affect the marco temporal.

“We are asking the eleven STF ministers not to approve this,” said Leila Rocha Guarani Nhandeva, a leader from the Yvy Katu indigenous territory. “If need be, I’ll kneel before minister Cármen Lúcia [president of the STF], begging her not to approve it.”

The ruling in question concerns the civil proceeding (AC0 469) brought by Funai against the Rio Grande do Sul government. Funai is asking for the cancellation of land rights given to private owners within land traditionally occupied by the Kaingang Indians.

Cármen Lúcia, president of the Brazilian Supreme Court (STF), which will make important rulings this week that will impact Indian rights in Brazil. Those decisions could also seriously impact deforestation in the Amazon, because indigenous groups have proven to be the best stewards of the land there. Photo courtesy of the STF.

Evicted from their land decades ago and confined within tiny plots, the Kaingang Indians tried unsuccessfully during the military government to reoccupy their traditional territory. They only succeeded after the approval of the 1988 Constitution, which strengthened indigenous rights. They finally got their land demarcated in the 1990s.

However, as they were not living on their land in 1988, the marco temporal recommendation would appear to legally deny them all claims to occupy what is widely recognized as their ancestral territory.

Many indigenous leaders see this week’s ruling by the Supreme Court as a litmus test. “This marco temporal allows landowners to invade land that is demarcated, and to prevent land that is not demarcated from ever being demarcated,” said Hozana Puruborá, an indigenous leader from the state of Rondônia. “It is bringing a great deal of violence to indigenous lands. We ask the Supreme Court to bury it once and for all.”

If the Supreme Court rules in favor of the marco temporal, many experts believe that an increase in indigenous conflict is inevitable.

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Guarani and Kaiowá indians participating in the ceremony at the Supreme Court building. Photo courtesy of Tiago Miotto / Cimi
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