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Brazil: Indigenous people celebrate land rights ruling

September 22, 2023

An attempt to restrict Indigenous people's access to land has failed after a Supreme Court ruling that is seen as a major win for Indigenous rights and has set a nationwide precedent.

Indigenous person in traditional outfit celebrates landmark court ruling
The court ruling could be a game changer for Brazil's 1.7 million Indigenous peopleImage: Gustavo Moreno/AP/picture alliance

Brazil's Supreme Court rejected a legal doctrine limiting Indigenous people's access to land in a much-anticipated ruling on Thursday.

In the case, the state of Santa Catarina argued that Indigenous groups only had rights to land they had claimed at the time when Brazil's constitution was publicly announced in 1988.

Nine out of 11 Justices at the country's highest court deemed this "time limit" argument unconstitutional, saying the constitution protected Indigenous people's right to ancestral lands.

What was the case about?

The Supreme Court's ruling concerned a dispute between the state of Santa Catarina and Indigenous groups in the area, including the Xokleng people.

State authorities sought to repossess land that the country's Indigenous foundation said was traditionally occupied by Indigenous people. A lower court initially ruled in favor of the state, saying the Indigenous groups had not lived on the land in 1988.

With the support of Brazil's Indigenous foundation, the groups took their appeal to the Supreme Court, which ruled in their favor.

"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, who voted with the majority, said.

Indigenous ecosystem at risk in Brazil

Indigenous groups celebrate historic win 

Indigenous rights groups have criticized the "time limit" argument as unfair, especially as it ignores forced displacements of Indigenous populations during Brazil's military dictatorship between 1964 and 1985.  

Members of Indigenous groups — many of them wearing traditional outfits — gathered in the capital, Brasilia, to follow the trial and celebrate the Supreme Court's decision on Thursday.

"I am relieved that we are getting our land back. We have been through a lot, I can't describe what I feel," said Jaciara Pripra of the Xokleng people.

What does it mean for Indigenous land rights?

The ruling is expected to have a significant impact on Indigenous land rights as it sets a legal precedent for hundreds of land claims in Brazil.

It will also give Brazil's President Lula da Silva grounds to veto a proposal in Congress which would have enshrined the "time limit" argument into law. The proposal is backed by farmers and former President Jair Bolsonaro's party, which has a majority in both houses of Congress.

Brazil is home to around 1.7 million indigenous people and around 14% of its territory are Indigenous lands.

fg/rs (dpa, AFP, Reuters)