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Partial Victory for Indigenous Peoples in Brazil

#News and Press Releases#Defense of Territory
October 2023

Chris Morrill

Digital Communications Coordinator

As we have recognized and celebrated Indigenous Peoples’ Day this month, we have a partial victory to celebrate too. Following important mass mobilizations in recent years, Brazil’s Indigenous Peoples have made steps to beat back right-wing efforts to nullify their legal rights.

Agribusiness, big landowners, and far right political movements challenged the right of Indigenous Peoples to apply for legal demarcation on territories they hadn’t been living on (due to prior displacement) before the 1988 Federal Constitution was enacted.

On September 21, the Federal Supreme Court (STF) ruled in favor of Indigenous Peoples, declaring this proposed “marco temporal” as unconstitutional. And on October 20, Brazil’s president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva partially vetoed aspects of the marco temporal bill (PL 2903).

Struggle Wins Victories

This wasn’t just a victory in the courts or by presidential pen. Back in 2021, we provided support for the biggest mobilizations of Indigenous Peoples Brazil had seen in 40 years. Weeks of action in the capital city Brasilia and months of campaigning were crucial in changing both the broader political situation and the makeup of the STF and presidency.

The “demarcation” (or marking out) process is an important legal right enshrined in the constitution created post-dictatorship. Like the rest of the document, it too was originally a product of struggle — movements of Indigenous Peoples fighting to defend and reclaim their territories. Under this process, Indigenous Peoples apply for legal recognition and protection against land grabbing, deforestation, burning, logging and hunting, and other violations.

If accepted by the Supreme Court, the “marco temporal” framework would have only allowed demarcations on lands that were in Indigenous possession or under proven physical or legal dispute as of October 5, 1988. Lawyers and judges in Brazil argue that this could have made 90 percent of Indigenous land demarcations impossible.

Instead, Indigenous Peoples in Brazil are now in a stronger position to defend and take back their territories — an important victory to celebrate. But this isn’t a total victory either.

A Partial Victory

For one thing, Lula vetoed only part of PL 2903. The remaining approved parts, article 20 and article 26, still allow for land grabs of Indigenous lands for national security or through economic contracts with non-Indigenous third parties. And this partial veto can still be overridden by a vote by Brazil’s Congress.

Even if all goes well on the legislative front, the threat of the far right and rural elites remains.

“As is the case with so many victories, this is not a complete win and the struggle is far from over,” said Lydia Simas, Grassroots International’s Solidarity Program Officer for Brazil.

“Many cases related to land reclamation and demarcation were put on hold pending the Marco Temporal decision. Now that the ruling has been made, we may see a wave of evictions as land owners take up legal cases again.”

Indigenous Peoples’ Day — which recognizes the invasion of Turtle Island since 1492 — is a perfect time to celebrate this recent victory and reflect on ongoing struggles to defend territories.

Whether we’re talking 1492, 1988, or today, there is no time limit to Indigenous Peoples’ historic connection to their territories. As Grassroots International, we know that spiritual connection can never be severed. We will always stand in solidarity and accompany Indigenous Peoples in their struggles to defend their ancestral territories.

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