Indigenous rights v. soybean farmers

This week, thousands of indigenous people have gathered outside the Supreme Court’s headquarters in Brasília amid expectations that the country’s top court would rule on a case that could drastically alter the criteria on what constitutes indigenous land.

The dispute in question concerns a piece of land in the southern state of Santa Catarina that is claimed by the Xokleng people, an originally nomadic tribe almost wiped out after a history of struggles against settlers and rural producers.

The community is currently confined to a small stretch of land on the banks of the Itajaí River, but rural producers claim the indigenous group has no right to the land as there is no proof it occupied the area on October 5, 1988 — the day the Brazilian Constitution was enacted.

The Supreme Court is set to rule whether this 1988 cutoff point will remain valid for this and all similar cases. Prospects for indigenous activists look reasonably bleak however, as the Supreme Court chose to delay the trial — despite the massive peaceful demonstrations outside their front door.

The issue with the 1988 cutoff point is clear: material proof that indigenous communities occupied a given territory over 30 years ago is extremely difficult to obtain, and predatory landowners in Brazil have long engaged in the practice of grilagem — forging documents to claim ownership of land.

Per a study published in scientific journal Land Use Policy, indigenous land makes up 13 percent of the Brazilian territory, while a group of 97,000 landowners possess 21.5 percent of the country’s area.

The dispute between indigenous rights and rural producers is an ever-present one in the Brazilian legal system, yet for so long the country’s traditional peoples have been on the losing side. Whether this will be repeated in what indigenous activists call “the trial of the century,” remains to be seen.