Brazil: Controversial demarcation of indigenous land confirmed

Five indigenous tribes of Brazil have won a 30-year battle to reclaim 1.7 million hectares of their ancestral land in Roraima in the Amazon on the border to Venezuela and Guyana. On March 19, the Brazilian Supreme Court (STF) ruled on the integrity of the Raposa Serra do Sol indigenous land, keeping its size and borders intact as a continuous area, disappointing ranchers and rice farmers who coveted the land.

The court deliberations began in August 2008, but the trial was suspended twice. In December, one of the 11 judges hearing the case, Marco Aurélio Mello, requested the case to be adjourned for further investigations, even though 8 judges had already cast their votes in favour of the current demarcation. Voting resumed on Wednesday, March 18, and despite the fact that there were only 3 judges left to cast their votes, a decision was not reached by end of day as expected.


Indians at the Brazilian Supreme Court in Brasília. Photo: Antonio Cruz/ABr used under a Creative Commons license

Aurélio Mello was the first to speak yesterday, reading a 120-page ruling over six hours. He voted against the current demarcation of Raposa Serra do Sol because, “errors committed during the process should invalidate the demarcation,” and argued that the integrity of the reserve as it is now may put Brazilian national sovereignty at risk. He suggested a new demarcation process.

Mércio Gomes [pt] laments his vote:

Foi péssimo. Trata-se de um longo e caudaloso pronunciamento em que o ministro considera processo viciado pela falta de diversas ações, depoimentos, deslocamento da parte passiva, etc. O voto parcial do ministro Marco Aurélio requer que todo o processo seja “sanado”, o que exigiria uma série de providências que adiaria para as calendas gregas a decisão sobre o processo.

It was awful. This was a long and profuse statement in which the judge declared the process flawed by lack of various actions, statements, liabilities, etc… Judge Marco Aurelio's partial vote requires that the whole process is “resolved” first, which would require a series of measures that could postpone the decision until God knows when.

Some bloggers, on the other hand, congratulated Marco Aurélio de Melo for having cast the first vote against the demarcation. Among them, José Leite Mesquita [pt] thought the judge made a very lucid decision:

O voto do ministro será resgatado pela história quando o Brasil deixar de ser um Estado Federativo, e tiver se transformado, conforme estará sacramentado pela maioria de votos favoráveis, num Estado de Nações, por conta do surrealismo que manterá a demarcação contínua das terras indígenas na Reserva Raposa Serra do Sol.

Assistimos espantados, e temerosos, pouco mais de 200 mil indivíduos, alguns já aculturados, ter a posse permanente de 13% do território brasileiro.

A Constituição é clara: a terra é da união. Os índios tem a posse permanente.

This judge will be redeemed by history when Brazil ceases to be a federal state and becomes a state of [indigenous] nations to be formalized by the majority of votes [in favour of the demarcation] because of the surrealism that maintains the indigenous lands in Raposa Serra do Sol as a single reservation. We have watched, amazed and afraid, just over 200 thousand individuals, some of whom already acculturated, having permanent possession of 13% of the Brazilian territory. The Constitution is clear: the land belongs to the federation. The Indians have its permanent possession.


Just outside the Brazilian Supreme Court in Brasília. Photo: Antonio Cruz/ABr used under a Creative Commons license

It was early evening on Wednesday when judge Marco Aurélio Mello finished his long speech, and only one more judge had time to vote. This judge, Celso de Mello, did not need much time to vote in favour of the indigenous people. The final vote, by the court president judge Gilmar Mendes, was postponed to Thursday afternoon. Watching live on a video stream provided by Povos Indigenas, people posted remarks on Twitter from throughout the country. After nearly two hours, @povosindigenas announced [pt]:

#raposa Placar 10X1 a favor da demarcação contínua….

#raposa Score 10 vs 1 for the continuous demarcation….


In the Supreme Court in Brasília. Photo: Antonio Cruz/ABr used under a Creative Commons license

Over 3,000 indigenous people gathered to watch the court proceedings either in Brasília, where the trial took place, in the state capital's Boa Vista or in Raposa Serra do Sol. Because of tensions between tribes and local farmers in the past, the national guard were stationed on the land to contain any eventual violence after the verdict.

Luiz Valerio Silva [pt] is covering the ruling from the Surumú community where 200 people awaits the result. He says the decision days went over peacefully there:

Os índios favoráveis à homologação contínua da reserva índigena Raposa Serra do Sol dançam a parixara e a arerúnia desde as primeiras horas da manhã. Eles estão certos da vitória. Creem que a demarcação pernamecerá em área contínua. (…)

A vila Surumú comporta neste momento, entre moradores e indígenas que vieram de fora para comemorar o resultado do julgamento, algo em torno de 400 pessoas. Ao todo, cinquenta famílias moram na vila. A estimativa é que cerca de 200 índios foram trazido para cá pelo Conselho Indígena de Roraima (CIR). Antes, falava-se em cerca de 3.000 mil índios. (…)

Entre os que esperam com ansiedade pela voto dos três ministros do STF que ainda falta se manifestar sobre o assunto, já há preparativos para uma intensa noite de forró em comemoração à confirmação da demarcação contínua da reserva. Sob um sol de mais de 40 graus, índios se movimentam nas ruas empoeiradas do Surrumu, aguardando a decisão.

The Indians who support the integrity of the Raposa Serra do Sol reserve, danced the parixaha and arerunia rituals since the early hours of the morning. They are sure of victory. They believe the demarcation will be integrally kept. (…)At this moment, the Surumú village now counts, between residents and indigenous who came from other areas to celebrate the outcome of ruling, somewhere around 400 people. An estimated 200 Indians have been brought here by the Indigenous Council of Roraima (CIR). (…)

Among those waiting anxiously for the three last ministers to vote, preparations are underway for an intense evening of forró dancing to celebrate the confirmation of the full demarcation of the reserve. Beneath a 40-degree sun, the Indians move around in the dusty streets of Surumú, awaiting the decision.


Just outside the Brazilian Supreme Court in Brasília. Photo: Antonio Cruz/ABr used under a Creative Commons license

After confirming the integrity of the reserve, the court discussed canceling farmers’ deeds, conditions and deadlines for the remaining farmers to leave the area, and the 18 additional measures that the Indians will have to abide by. Most ranchers and some rice farmers had already left the territory in exchange for compensation from the government, but a small group of rice farmers refused. These farmers, many of whom have been there for over two decades and were backed by powerful regional political and economic interests, are now expected to leave immediately (with a deadline up to May) or be evicted by police.


At Raposa Serra do Sol, a group of Indians watch the ruling on TV. Photo: Valter Campanato/ABr published under a Creative Commons License.

An estimated 18,000 indigenous peoples from the Macuxi, Wapixana, Ingaricó, Taurepangs and Patamona tribes live in the area known as Serra Raposa do Sol, a reserve created by the Brazilian government in 2005.


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