Clerics accompany indigenous Brazilians as Supreme Court examines case

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Capuchin Franciscan Father Mateus Bento dos Santos, in hairdressing, joins others in a march for indigenous rights in early September in Brasilia, Brazil. An estimated 6,000 indigenous people along with Catholic religious leaders camped in the Brazilian capital for more than a month, hoping to convince the country’s Supreme Court to reject an offer to strip indigenous land rights. Photo CNS / Marina Oliveira, courtesy of CIMI

An estimated 6,000 indigenous people, along with Catholic religious leaders, camped in Brazil’s capital, Brasilia, for more than a month, hoping to convince the country’s Supreme Court to reject an offer to strip the indigenous land rights.

The issue revolves around the so-called “calendar thesis,” which claims that indigenous peoples were not entitled to land they did not physically occupy when the Brazilian Constitution was promulgated on October 5, 1988.

Indigenous tribes fear the court will rule against their claims to traditionally inhabited land, opening up vast areas for mining and agribusiness.

“They want to stay in these territories. They are concerned about the future of their children and grandchildren, ”Capuchin Franciscan Father Mateus Bento dos Santos told Catholic News Service.

Father dos Santos is the coordinator of the indigenous pastoral ministry of the Archdiocese of São Paulo and joined the campers from August 20 to September 16 to “accompany them in their struggle”.

The demarcation of indigenous lands was guaranteed by Brazil’s constitution of 1988 and gave indigenous peoples the “original right” to ancestral lands. The constitution considered the indigenous people to be the “first natural owners of the land,” declaring that it was the country’s obligation to demarcate all the lands originally inhabited by more than 300 tribes in the country as indigenous territory.

The case before the Supreme Court centers on the situation facing the Xoklengs in the state of Santa Catarina. The court will decide whether the land currently inhabited by the tribe should be returned to the government of Santa Catarina and the owners of private rural properties.

If the court overturns the case, it is likely that lawmakers will have to change the text of a similar, anti-indigenous bill pending in Brazilian Congress or have it ruled unconstitutional. Experts say the calendar thesis was used by President Jair Bolsonaro’s government to block demarcations of indigenous lands.

The decision is expected to affect the future of at least 300 Indigenous land demarcation processes being analyzed as well as dozens of other land claims that have yet to be filed by Indigenous groups. If the thesis is accepted by the court, indigenous peoples can be evicted from the lands they inhabit if they cannot prove that they were there before 1988.

“It would be a huge setback, a factor of legal uncertainty and paralyze new demarcations,” said Antonio Eduardo Cerqueira, executive secretary of the Indigenous Missionary Council, which is linked to the Brazilian bishops’ conference.

For the past four years, Father dos Santos has worked with the Guaraní Mbya and the Tupi-Guaraní, who live in the São Paulo metropolitan area and along the state’s coastline.

The priest said that although the Tupi-Guarani arrived in the area in the 1970s and the Mbya used the land as a passage for decades, the demarcation of the land has not been finalized. He fears that the court’s decision will affect these populations.

“The adoption of the thesis of time would be the negation of the entire history of these populations”, explained Father dos Santos.

The Tupi-Guarani and Guaraní Mbya identified the lands as the place where they believe spirits dwell, where their ancestors were buried, he said.

“The Guarani need to feel the earth… feel the energy of the earth, the spirituality so that they can stay. They want to stay where their God, Nhanderu, lives, ”he said.

Those who support the calendar thesis and oppose other indigenous demarcations argue that the indigenous lands under study extend into areas that generate the highest agricultural yields. The impact of setting aside more land for indigenous peoples could lead to an estimated loss of 1.5 million jobs and a reduction of more than $ 68 billion in agricultural production, they said.

On September 10, Supreme Court Justice Edson Fachin began the vote by rejecting the thesis and reaffirming that Indigenous rights cannot be changed.

“Indigenous land rights consist of a fundamental right of indigenous peoples and materialize in the original right to the lands they traditionally occupy,” Fachin said. Until 1988, he added, traditional populations were governed by a state that acted to “integrate” these peoples into Brazilian society, leaving indigenous people without legal recourse against the theft of their land.

Indigenous groups agree.

“The thesis is unfair because it ignores the expulsions, forced displacements and all the violence suffered by indigenous peoples until the promulgation of the constitution. Furthermore, it ignores the fact that until 1988 they were protected by the state and could not go to court in a proper way to fight for their rights, ”the leaders of the indigenous campsites said in a statement.

“We want the constitution to be respected and that (indigenous) peoples have a right to their territories. The land is the life of indigenous peoples, ”added Father dos Santos.

The trial was suspended in mid-September, however, when another judge requested more time to consider the case. With no date set for the resumption of the hearing, indigenous peoples from more than 175 tribes who had camped began to leave Brasilia, vowing to return. Father dos Santos and his colleagues said they would also come back and camp again if necessary.

“I am ready to continue this fight until the end,” he said. “I am leaving now because the camp is dissolving, but if they (the locals) come back to Brasilia, I will come back here with them. “

Key words: Brasilia, Brazil, Catholic religious leaders, indigenous land rights, indigenous peoples

Category: News from the United States and the World


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