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Indigenous Rights

“This Land is Our Land”

Indigenous Rights in Brazil


Brazil knows that the time has come to honor ethnic purity: for too long indigenous peoples have suffered a common history of displacement to the detriment of their communities and way of life. However, a groundbreaking case in the northern indigenous zone of Roraima is set to change history. Rights have been reaffirmed and reinforced to the indigenous people of the Raposa Serra do Sol reservation, where a Supreme Court decision authorized the removal of encroaching non-indigenous residents from the Indian zone.


The reservation has suffered white encroachment for a number of years, despite its demarcation in 2005. Intruders have ignored signs declaring the zone as ´protected land´ and have introduced schools, shops and even an airstrip to the area. Powerful rice farmers have illegally cultivated their plantations in the territory under the guise of building up the economy, whilst diverting water away from the streams where the indigenous people choose to fish and bathe.


“You can see that our blood is flowing from our land” (indigenous voice)


The illegal presence of these farmers has undermined indigenous autonomy in the reservation. Farmers have been able to use their social standing and power as key economic players in the rice industry to appeal and campaign for the eviction of the Indians, despite their ancestral claims to the land. Such victimization was not stopped by the government, who despite promising their support to the indigenous communities over land abuse issues, failed to act in the face of them. Disputes over the land therefore remained unresolved and violent until the Supreme Court’s intervention this year.


In March of 2009, the Raposa Serra do Sol dispute reached climax when non-indigenous farmers were ordered to leave the reservation. This marks a huge victory not only for Indians in this reservation but for Indians in conflicted reservations all over Brazil. Rights of indigenous people are at last beginning to hold some significance in a world of white assailants.


"Old sins have long shadows, and there are a lot of sins on all sides that complicate this case…" (political analyst’s voice)


The decision was not welcomed by many of the non-indigenous residents still occupying the reservation. Settlers have lived and cultivated the land for decades, since the first generations invaded the then non-regularized Indigenous land. The government’s proposal to give them land elsewhere is of little consolation, especially as the proposed land is not thought to be fertile enough for their plantations. There are also worries that there is not enough land to resettle all the displaced families from Raposa Serra do Sol.


Raposa Serra do Sol signifies the conflict in Brazil between preserving the rights of indigenous people and developing the economy. The region is not the only one in Brazil where indigenous rights have come into conflict with economic progress. Farmers believe that enforcing boundaries of indigenous land strangles economic growth in sparsely populated states. They also speculate that leaving land exclusively in the hands of Indians threatens national security as drug traffickers are able to take advantage of the state's absence and use aborigines to smuggle cocaine.


International concern over the safety of the rainforests in the face of such economic development is also an issue. Whilst international environmental groups pressure Brazil to be more sustainable in its rainforest use, the government has to contend with Brazilian farmers who wish to use this very region of the country to develop Brazil’s economic power and status.


The disputed territory of Raposa Serra do Sol then seems only to be a spark in the fire of a much wider social and economic problem: that is, the future of the Amazon rainforest and Brazil’s stilted economic development.


Giving the Indians the Amazon means less rainforest deforestation as it is believed they use the reservations in a sustainable way that protects the land. Indians hold about 11 percent of land in Brazil as a whole, much of which is in the Amazon. Whilst they hold this, they can protect parts of the rainforest which are increasingly sought by farmers producing some of Brazil's biggest exports.


As long as this relationship is upheld, Brazil holds little hope of becoming an economic giant. We have to question though, can Brazil fulfill its desires of developing economically without destroying its indigenous cultures? And if not, can it respect indigenous cultures enough to forfeit this desire?


By Abigail Foulkes
I`m living in Quito and working for Viva having just enjoyed three months traveling in South America. I love music and play the guitar and flute...
06 May 2009

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