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“Struggle for Life” movement becomes largest Indigenous mobilization in Brazilian history

Thousands advocate for the nation’s supreme court to honor Indigenous land claims predating 1988 constitution

Thousands of Indigenous leaders gather in Brazil’s capital Brasília to advocate for land rights. Martha Fellows, Global Landscapes Forum
8 September 2021
8 September 2021

Some 6,000 people have flooded Brazil’s capital Brasília in recent weeks as the nation’s Supreme Court weighs a case that could impact hundreds of Indigenous land claims and set a precedent for more. The “Struggle for Life” movement, led by Indigenous leaders from across the country, has become the largest mobilization of Indigenous peoples in Brazil’s history, according to the advocacy group Articulation of Indigenous Peoples of Brazil (APIB).

Beginning 22 August, participants set up camps and demonstrated on the grounds surrounding the capital’s ministerial buildings and organized marches, protests, dancing and speeches. In the case being heard, Brazil’s Supreme Court will decide whether land claims brought by the Indigenous Xokleng tribe in Santa Catarina state are legitimate and whether some 24,000 hectares of land should be returned to them.

Until now, the state has only recognized tribal land occupied by Indigenous peoples since the ratification of Brazil’s constitution in 1988. For the Xokleng today, that amounts to 14,000 hectares. Much of the land that the Xokleng are hoping to reclaim, including a nature reserve from which they were recently evicted by the state, has been turned over to farming and ranching. 

The protests are in response to a Supreme Court hearing that could set a historic precedent for Indigenous land rights in Brazil. Martha Fellows, Global Landscapes Forum
The protests are in response to a Supreme Court hearing that could set a historic precedent for Indigenous land rights in Brazil. Martha Fellows, Global Landscapes Forum

If the court rules that the state’s previous 1988 cutoff was too narrow, and that land claims predating 1988 deserve to be heard and even legitimized, it could set the precedent for many more land claims from tribes across the country and result in better protection against deforestation in the Amazon. 

If the court rules against them, it would give powerful industries in Brazil greater grounds to challenge existing Indigenous land claims. Farmers and ranchers on former Xokleng land claim the 1988 framework gives them legal security to continue farming tobacco, corn and other products in perpetuity, and to raise livestock and continue ranching. More than 800 non-Indigenous families who have been farming on former Xokleng land could lose their properties if the court rules in favor of the Xokleng, according to a report from Reuters. During this last year, Santa Catarina’s agribusinesses reached their highest production levels in history, according to The Rio Times.

The decision to recognize Indigenous lands occupied only after 1988 is called the “Temporal Mark” framework and was passed in 2016.

“Our mark is not temporal, our mark is ancestral,” said Brazilian Indigenous activist Célia Xakriabá in a video posted to Twitter from the demonstrations. 

"Our history doesn't start at 1988. We want respect as the original people of this land," reads a sign at the demonstrations. Martha Fellows, Global Landscapes Forum
“Our history doesn’t start at 1988. We want respect as the original people of this land,” reads a sign at the demonstrations. Martha Fellows, Global Landscapes Forum

The court’s ruling could immediately affect more than 200 Indigenous land claims that have been bound up in courts for several decades. Demonstrations and the Struggle for Life movement, originally planned for 22 to 28 August, were extended as the court pushed the hearings a week later than was anticipated. By Wednesday, 1 September, the court had heard the first arguments in the case, and it is expected to issue a decision in several more days. 

The movement also aims to bring awareness to racism and violence waged against Indigenous peoples in Brazil and to the continued loss of land and land rights. Protestors are also vocalizing opposition to a bill being considered in Brazil’s congress called PL 490 that would open even more Indigenous land not fully demarcated before 1988 to extraction industries like mining, logging and agriculture. The impact of that bill hinges on the Supreme Court’s decision on whether to acknowledge Indigenous claims that predate Brazil’s ratified constitution.


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