Page last updated at 11:02 GMT, Thursday, 11 December 2008

'Half celebration' for Brazil Indians

Indigenous leaders in Brazil say they are on course to win an important victory for their community's rights. But tensions are high over the final outcome of a Supreme Court ruling on an Amazonian reservation, the BBC's Gary Duffy reports.

An Indian of the Amazonian Koruba tribe protests in Brasilia on 10 December
The case is seen as crucial to the issue of indigenous rights in Brazil

They sat on opposite sides of the Supreme Court - a building designed like much of the Brazilian capital by the architect Oscar Niemeyer.

It may have only been a short distance between the two sides but in their views, as well as their appearance, they seemed worlds apart.

In one part of the court room, in among lawyers, politicians and other activists, sat members of Brazil's indigenous tribes - some dressed in traditional headgear with tribal paint on their faces.

On the other, a group of rice farmers and their leaders - less distinctive in their clothing but, it seemed, no less determined.

Map showing location of reserve

Both groups were there to hear Brazil's Supreme Court deliver a landmark decision over the rights of the country's indigenous people.

The court had been asked to rule on whether an indigenous reservation, which stretches over 1.7m hectares (4.2m acres) in the Amazonian state of Roraima, should remain a single unbroken territory.

The area, known as Raposa Serra do Sol, which translates roughly as "land of the fox and hill of the sun", is home to up to 20,0000 indigenous people and was declared an official indigenous reservation in 2005.

Indian leaders viewed the case as setting a crucial precedent regarding the protection of their rights and ancestral lands, with implications for all of Brazil's indigenous communities.

Their fear, they said, was that a ruling against them would be a signal to land grabbers, prospectors and loggers that it would be acceptable to invade their territory.

An adverse judgement would also create a set of "islands", weakening the whole concept of an indigenous community, they said.

Sovereignty issues

The small group of rice farmers, also living in the area, argued that if the court upheld the status of the reservation as a continuous territory they would be forced to leave.

In their view, it would also undermine economic development in the state of Roraima.

Indians of Amazonian tribes watch the court's session on a screen
It is not clear when a definitive ruling on the reserve will happen

The issue has been the subject of growing tension and conflict between the two sides. Even as the Supreme Court hearing came to an end there were threats of violence and retaliation.

There are more than 100 similar cases before the Supreme Court but it is thought this ruling will establish an important legal precedent.

It also seemed to touch off a wider and sensitive debate about Brazilian sovereignty.

Some military leaders said they feared that a large, quasi-autonomous Indian reservation running along a lengthy section of Brazil's northern border would undermine national security and sovereignty - a claim strongly contested by indigenous communities who say it would remain Brazilian territory.

Brazil's 1988 constitution states that all Indian ancestral lands should be handed over to their tribal owners within five years but that process has still to be completed.

Eleven per cent of Brazilian territory and 22% of the Amazon is now said to be in Indian hands.


The court began delivering its judgement in this significant case in August.

In the end, the judges - or at least some of them - delivered what they regarded as a compromise ruling, recognising indigenous fears, but also taking account of worries about the country's sovereignty as well.

Eight of the court's 11 judges voted to maintain a reservation in Roraima as a single, unbroken territory.

A Brazilian Indian writes in Portuguese "The fight goes on" on the back of another as await the court's decision
The wrangling over the reserve's future is set to continue

But they also made it clear that the army and police should have full access to the region without having to consult indigenous leaders.

Outside the court, indigenous lawyer Joenia Batista de Carvalho said she was satisfied with the votes so far, but she was disappointed the formal outcome would be delayed as one judge had asked for more time before giving his ruling.

"I was expecting the case to be concluded today," she said.

"Unfortunately our feeling is one of half a celebration, because what we wanted to see was the practical result of this - to see our land free of any invaders."

Past violence

The apparent losers in this case are the rice farmers who live and work in the reservation area and who believe the implication of the court's decision is that they will have to move elsewhere.

There were angry words and even threats as they and some of their supporters left the court.

This divisive issue has led to violence in the past.

Several Indians were shot and injured in May - and following the Supreme Court case there were more threats of violence.

Brazil's Supreme Court had many concerns to balance, and it will only be clear in the months ahead if they have done enough to ease the still simmering tensions surrounding this debate.

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