The Battle for the Amazon

On August 27th, the Brazilian Supreme Court will decide a case that could have far reaching effects on the Amazon and the thousands of indigenous people who live there. The case questions the legality of a process that created an Indigenous Territory in northern Brazil, and threatens to reverse decades of progress on indigenous and social rights throughout the country.

In 2005, after more than two decades of struggle for recognition, five indigenous groups in Brazil’s northern Roraima state won the rights to their ancestral lands. Their efforts culminated in the creation of a new Indigenous Territory, Raposa Serra do Sol, covering a large swath of the Amazon Rainforest on the border with Guyana.

In a decree signed by Brazilian President Luiz Ignacio Lula da Silva, over 18 thousand indigenous Makuxi, Wapixana, Ingariko, Taukepang, and Patamona peoples were given 1.7 million hectares and non-indigenous peoples were compensated and forced to leave the area. Although this may have brought to end the long struggle to have their territorial rights recognized, the indigenous peoples of Raposa have faced fierce opposition from entrenched economic interests in Roraima.

In particular, group of seven wealthy rice farmers has refused to leave the region, throwing the reserve into chaos. These large-scale farmers–known as fazendeiros in Portuguese–have rejected compensation and relocation, despite having arrived in the area less than 15 years ago.

A recent spate of violence against the indigenous peoples in the Raposa Territory has further increased tensions. In April, an indigenous leader was attacked when a bomb was thrown at his house. In May, ten Macuxi–including six children–were attacked and shot by armed men working for rice farmer and local mayor Paulo Cesar Quartiero. Quartiero was detained by police and later released, despite the discovery of a large weapons cache on his property.

Earlier, in April, the Supreme Court had suspended an operation by the federal police to remove the remaining seven illegal occupants of the reserve, because the farmers set up blockades and destroyed bridges in order to fight their eviction.

“Even with all the destruction carried out by the rice growers, the Supreme Court decided in their favor,” Macuxi chief Dionito Jose de Sousa told the AP in April.
According to Catarina Vianna, a member of Makunaima Grita–a Brazilian group dedicated to helping the indigenous people at Raposo Serra do Sol, the current struggle is a basic one for the peoples of Raposa.

“This is really a local conflict. It’s about use of water, about the farms getting bigger and bigger. Now the indigenous people are saying “enough, this has been recognized as our land,” she said by phone from London.

With the support of the Roraima state government, the farmers and state Governor José de Anchieta have appealed to Brazil’s Supreme Court to break up the Raposa Territory and free up large amount of the land.

“The farmers want the indigenous land to be divided into islands. They don’t want the indigenous land to be a continuous tract of land. But legal experts in Brazil maintain that there is no legal basis to annul the 2005 demarcation,” said Vianna.

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All of this comes at a time when President Silva has signed a decree to station troops permanently on all Indigenous Territories on the border. Top officials in the Brazilian Armed Forces have been talking about foreign meddling in the largely-indigenous border region. It appears the military brass feels threatened by the formation of Indigenous Territories, speaking constantly of risks to national sovereignty.

“The military has an agenda,” said Vianna, “to protect Brazilian sovereignty. It’s been their main discourse since the dictatorship in the 60’s and 70’s. They are against the demarcation of continuous indigenous lands near the border because they want to control what happens, and they’re afraid that what they call “foreign interests” will use the Indians to then exploit the Amazon.”

The military is using the conflict in Roraima to support these goals–suggesting the presence of drug traffickers and guerrilla groups in indigenous lands–and has called for the Supreme Court to annul Raposa Serra do Sol’s boundries.

According to Tim Cahill, a researcher on Brazil with Amnesty International, the military has long tried to taint social movements in Brazil by claiming connections to foreign revolutionary groups.

“In relation to the accusations of money coming in from Venezuela and FARC rebels–I have no evidence for or against it,” he said. “But it’s fair to say that whenever there’s some criticism or attack to be made against social movements in Brazil… the FARC are always dragged out, although very little evidence is ever provided to prove these allegations. So it seems once again that it’s an attempt to criminalize social movements in Brazil and discredit their work in favor of the poor and the marginalized.”

Cahill says that the military–which has total access and freedom of movement in Indigenous Territories–does not have a good reputation among indigenous peoples.

“Indigenous people across the Amazon have persistently complained to Amnesty and denounced violations committed by soldiers who work indigenous areas–sexual abuse, physical abuse, and intimidation,” he said. “There seems to be a clear contradiction in the sense that indigenous areas are meant to limit the access into those areas to guarantee their safety and protection. Yet when the Army goes in there, time and time again we see that their rights are violated.”

However, the military is unrepentant and has been very clear that nobody’s rights supercede those of the Brazilian Armed Forces.

“We want to be clear on something fundamental — Indian lands are Brazilian lands,” said Defense Minister Nelson Jobim according to a May Reuters article. “There are no nations or Indian peoples, there are Brazilians who are Indians”.
The Brazilian Ministry of Defense was contacted for this piece, but declined to comment.

But Cahill believes that the real causes for the current conflict over Raposa go deeper than the military’s security concerns. He says that this case represents a key moment in the face-off between indigenous rights and the interests of big business in Brazil, and big agrobusiness in particular.

“This is something we see not only in the Amazon, but across Brazil”, he said. “The cultural, social and economic rights of indigneous peoples tend to come into conflict with the economic interests of big agro-industry. And big agro-industry has been the driving force of the recent economic boom that’s occuring in Brazil, and we’ve seen that there’s a lot of political and judicial support for their interests.”

“When the federal authorities comply with their obligations under the Constitution–and under international legislation–to identify and guarantee indigenous access to their ancestral lands,” he added, “The challenges which come up tend to be around the economic interests of big agro-industry–in this case, the rice farmers. And time and again, the indigenous peoples are losing out because vested interests tend to side with those with economic power.”

“In this case, it’s not that the military has allied itself with the farmers,” said Vianna. “Rather, two separate interests have come together. This handful of farmers, they’re extremely wealthy. It’s not about them. It’s about how Brazil will use the Amazon. Are they going to just leave it to the Indians, who won’t develop it? Or does Brazil have a plan for developing the Amazon? This is a discourse of economic development.”

“That’s why the farmers are using economic arguments,” Vianna added. “They are saying ‘what we do is good for the state and national economy’. They call themselves the ‘Nationalist Resistance’. They consider themselves those who represent the nation, against the Indians who are supported by ‘foreign interests’. They never say who these ‘interests’ are. But by conflating the local conflict into this language of nationalism and development–of developing the nation–they were able to get closer to the military’s cause.”

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Rogerio Duarte do Pateo–a Sao Paulo based member of Makunaima Grita–signaled that the consequences of the court’s ruling could extend far beyond Raposa’s borders.

“A decision against Raposa would create the legal precedents to revoke all indigenous titles to land in Brazil,” he said. “Any other territory could be contested, like the Yanomami, Kayapó, etcetera.”

Both Pateo and Cahill believe that a decision against Raposa would not only go against the Brazilian Constitution, but it could put at risk the gains made over the last 30 years in terms of indigenous rights, throughout Brazil.

“What is on the line here is Article 231 of the Brazilian Constitution and the indigenous rights that are layed out in that article,” Pateo said. “It’s not that the court decision will directly affect the Constitution, but the arguments that are being used go against Article 231–it seems that the justice system is going to favor the big landowners–and this will open up the way to revise Article 231.”

“The 1988 Constitution allows indigenous people the process to set out and identify their ancestral lands,” said Cahill. “There’s a real fear that this will set back cases across the country of indigenous peoples who continue to fight for the rights to their land. And who, through this process, continue to seek the provision of their basic human rights and cultural rights.”

According to a statement signed by 85 Brazilian NGO’s in support of Raposa Serra do Sol, the Constitution “defined the rights of indigenous peoples over their lands and established that these rights enjoy over-riding precedence over any subsequent rights granted to non-indigenous holders”.

However, Brazil’s indigenous peoples are still fighting for these rights–and those outlined in the recently-adopted UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples–to be upheld and put into practice.

“The demarcation process doesn’t give indigenous people the full rights to their land, but allows the land to be held by the Federal government in custody for them,” Cahill said.

“Indigenous peoples are considered minors under Brazilian law and thus do not have the right to hold the land for themselves and decide on the land for themselves,” he said. “[It is] an issue which has been hotly contested and which many believe limit the rights of indigenous peoples to their full citizenship and full rights under international law.”

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Whatever the Supreme Court decides on August 27th, the case represents a key moment in the decades long struggle for indigenous rights in Brazil.

“It would seriously undermine the whole system of Indian reserves in Brazil if the courts were to bow to pressure from influential landowners and politicians, particularly given the violence the Indians have been subjected to,” said Miriam Ross, from Survival International.

According to Pateo, a ruling against the Raposa territory would not only undermine the recent successes in relation to indigenous rights, but would “mark the future of development in Brazil in relation to the Amazon”, giving a clear signal to logging, hydroelectric, and agricultural companies that the Amazon is fair game.

“Will we continue a predatory model of exploitation that doesn’t respect the law?,” he asked. “Or will Brazil be transformed–definitively–into a country that develops itself sustainably, and respects human rights?”

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To help the peoples of Raposa Serra do Sol maintain their current territory, please sign this petition, which will be sent to the Supreme Court Justices a week before the ruling is expected.

Watch video of the May attack on Macuxi Indians in Raposa Serra do Sol

CHARLES MOSTOLLER can be reached at:



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