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Brazilian Supreme Court Delivers 'Historic Victory' to Indigenous Peoples

The court ruled against the Big Ag-backed "time limit trick," which would have only recognized Indigenous land claims if the group could prove they were living in a given territory on October 5, 1988.

Indigenous Brazilians celebrate Supreme Court victory September 21


By Olivia Rosane


In a major victory for Indigenous rights, Brazil's Supreme Federal Court rejected an argument Thursday that could have forced hundreds of thousands from their ancestral lands.


The so-called "time limit trick," backed by the nation's powerful agricultural interests, would have only recognized Indigenous land claims if the group could prove they were living in a given territory on October 5, 1988, the day the current Brazilian constitution was signed, as Survival International explained. The proposed rule ignored the fact that Brazil's military dictatorship displaced many Indigenous groups before it finally ended in 1985, The Guardian pointed out.


"I'm shaking," Jéssica Nghe Mum Priprá of the Xokleng-Laklano Indigenous group told The Associated Press while celebrating the news. "It took a while, but we did it. It's a very beautiful and strong feeling. Our ancestors are present—no doubt about it."


The particular case the nation's highest court heard Thursday involved a land dispute in the state of Santa Catarina, Reuters reported. The Xokleng people were driven from much of their traditional lands in the state during the 1950s, when Brazil sold the land to tobacco farmers, the outlet explained in 2021. Santa Catarina then used the 1988 time limit to push more members of the Xokleng group out of a national park, prompting the current dispute.

"Before they killed us with guns, now they kill us with the stroke of a pen," former chief João Paté told Reuters in 2021.


However, the court on Thursday ruled 9-2 in favor of the Xokleng.


"Areas occupied by Indigenous people and areas that are linked to the ancestry and tradition of Indigenous peoples have constitutional protection, even if they are not demarcated," Justice Luiz Fux said.


The only two dissenting judges were appointed by right-wing former Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, who supported extractive industries at the expense of Indigenous rights.

The court also said that the decision had "general repercussion" status, meaning it would apply to other rulings involving Indigenous land claims.


"This is a momentous, historic victory for Brazil's Indigenous peoples, and a massive defeat for the agribusiness lobby," Survival International research and advocacy director Fiona Watson said in a statement, adding that a broad application of the time limit trick would have threatened many Indigenous groups in the country, among them the uncontacted Kawahiva.

"It was all part of a devastating assault on Brazil's Indigenous peoples and the Amazon rainforest, so this rejection of it is hugely important, not only for Indigenous peoples, but for the global fight against climate change too," she said.



Indigenous peoples gathered in Brasilia celebrated the news with dancing and weeping, The Guardian reported, as did those following the case from their homes in the Amazon region.


"We're crying with joy," Aty Guasu, an organization representing the Guarani group, said in a statement translated by Survival International. "Today we're going to sing the song of life and dance the dance of joy. The Supreme Court has shown that it cares about our lives and that it's against genocide. It has listened to the cry of the Indigenous peoples of Brazil."


National Indigenous rights group APIB also welcomed the decision, but said that there were other pending threats to Indigenous rights.


"We have indeed emerged victorious from the time frame thesis, but there is still much to be done," the group's executive coordinator Dinamam Tuxá said in a statement.


Tuxá pointed to a bill currently in the Senate that would only allow new reservations in land occupied by Indigenous groups as of 1988, as Reuters described it. While the court decision may make this provision harder to pass, the bill would also ease the way for mining, farming, dams, and transportation projects in Indigenous territory, AP explained.


"We remain mobilized," Tuxá said. "We continue to fight because we need to ensure and protect the rights of Indigenous peoples."


Olivia Rosane is a staff writer for Common Dreams.


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