In a landmark decision yesterday, eight of the eleven judges of the Brazilian Supreme Court voted in favour of the demarcation of the Raposa/Serra do Sol Indigenous Reserve respecting the existing boundaries mapped by FUNAI, the government Indian agency, with no votes against.
Disappointingly, one judge asked for more time to consider his decision, putting back the effective date of the judgement until early 2009, and another also decided to delay casting his vote. The third undecided judge was the president of the court, who traditionally only casts his vote last.
However, it seems that all parties now accept that the final decision will mean the removal of large industrial rice farms from Indian land, the expulsion of settlers and an eventual end to the threats and violence the Indians have suffered for thirty years at the hands of invading farmers.
Discussion is now moving towards demands for massive compensation, with the Governor of Roraima State, José Anchieta Júnior, supporting the claims of six large-scale rice farmers, while accepting that there is now no alternative but to accept the ruling.
The delay in making the judgement final means that there will be a period of several months when the 19,000 Indian inhabitants will be at the mercy of the invaders’ frustration. There is a serious danger of renewed violence in the area.
Joênia Batista de Carvalho, a lawyer acting for the Indians who is herself a Wapichana Indian, called for heightened security in the area.
“We are demanding that the authorities and FUNAI immediately reinforce the security in the region to maintain the peace,” she said. “We already know the outcome, and they [the rice farmers] also know that they are going to have to leave the area, so it is essential to increase security to avoid new conflicts.”
The Indians belong to five ethnic groups: Macuxi, Wapichana, Ingarikó, Taurepang and Patamona. They occupy an area of 1.7 million hectares. The rice producers wanted to exclude them from practically all of the fertile areas, leaving them to scratch a living from small patches of less productive land.
The judges brushed aside wild claims by the rice farmers and their supporters that demarcation of the reserve would be handing over control of a sensitive border area to foreign interests, insisting that the police and army would retain the right of access to the area despite the demarcation.
In other areas, the army often maintains good relations with indigenous people, who often benefit from transport and health provided by the army.
The judgement will affect the demarcation of other disputed Indian territories. The government will have to adopt new directives laid down by the court, which affect the process by which the remaining Indian territories which still have not been fully demarcated are handled.
A decision in favour of reducing the legally demarcated area, which would have left the Indians isolated in a series of small ‘islands’ of reserve, could have opened up the possibility of a new wave of challenges to other reserves which have already been demarcated. This is now much less likely, leaving Indians in many parts of Brazil with added security and more confidence in their future.
© Patrick Cunningham