Saturday, March 21st 2009 - 08:33 UTC

Milestone ruling in Brazil supports Amazon Indian reservations

Amazon indigenous groups have won a major victory with Brazil's Supreme Court upholding the integrity of a vast native reserve in the northern state of Roraima next to Venezuela.

Friday's ruling paves the way for the expulsion of white farmers living in the Raposa Serra do Sol reserve the government created in 2005. The reservation stretches more than 1.7 million hectares along the Venezuelan border and is home to up to 20,000 Amazonian Indians.

The court voted 10-1 against a petition by two senators who wanted the 17,000 square kilometre area in the north of the country reduced in size.

Gilmar Mendes, president of the court, said the ruling should set a precedent for Indian land rights.

“We've established a statute that has to be applied not only in the Raposa Serra do Sol case, but also in other cases of demarcation,” he said.

Mendes also criticised what he called the neglect of the indigenous community by the government. He said that beyond setting out the territory where they lived, the Indian population had been left to their own luck.

“It is a complete neglect of public responsibility,” he added.

Dozens of brightly painted Indians celebrated the decision outside the court in the capital Brasilia.

“Without a doubt, it's a victory for Brazil, its international image, human rights and the Indian people,” Marcio Meira, chairman of Funai, the government agency for

indigenous affairs, said.

Supporters see the ruling as a confirmation of land rights that Brazil's indigenous groups were granted in the 1988 constitution. However critics say the reserve, with an area the size of Kuwait, is too big for the 20.000 Indians who will have the sole right to live there and work the land.

Some mining, timber and agriculture businesses say it is an obstacle to growth. Rice farmers who settled on the land before it became a reserve and who will now be expelled, mocked the decision.

“There is no peaceful solution,” Nelson Itikawa, president of the Roraima Rice Growers Association, told the Brazilian government news service.

“It's possible there will be a conflict - there are people who will lose control.”

A land dispute has raged since the 1970s between Indians and businesses who seek to use the land for farming and mining. Farmers clashed with Indians on several occasions last year.

Some Indians who wanted their towns excluded from the reserve for fear they would be cut off from modernity, were not happy with the court's decision.

“We want to continue doing business with the white man. They want us to be primitive Indians, but we're civilised” Caetano Raposa, 65, who travelled 2,700km from the reserve to hear the ruling, said.

Others warned that a single reserve could not accommodate rival Indians of the same ethnicity, driven apart over decades by outsiders.

“The church, settlers, NGOs [non-governmental organisations], they all divided our people,” Abel Barbosa, a Macuxi Indian from the town of Flechao, said.

“There will be more blood shed in that land.”

Another sensitive issue given it’s a border area refers to the Armed Forces. To meet these concerns the court imposed a series of conditions that guarantee access by the police and military to the territory.

Brazil, the largest country in South America, has set aside 12% of its territory for reserves for native groups whose ancestors lived in the country before the arrival of Europeans around 500 years ago.

The indigenous population was decimated by the arrival of Portuguese settlers, notably as a result of diseases the immigrants brought with them, such as tuberculosis, against which tribal groups had no defence.

According to Funai, their number has decreased from 10 million to 460,000. The total population of Brazil is 190 million people.

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