Brazil’s indigenous rights depend on tribal legal battle
By Amanda Perobelli
JOSEBOXES, Brazil – Pushed into a degraded corner of their ancestral lands, the Xoklengs of southern Brazil eagerly await a Supreme Court ruling that could restore the land they lost decades ago.
Sitting by a wood-burning stove, the elders of Xokleng remember when fish and game in abundance fed their families, before much of their fertile land was sold by the state to producers of tobacco in the 1950s.
Now the Xoklengs are praying that Brazilian courts will fulfill a dying shaman’s prophecy that they will one day regain their lands.
Brasilia’s highest court will decide on Wednesday whether the government of the state of Santa Catarina applied an overly narrow interpretation of indigenous rights by only recognizing tribal lands occupied by indigenous communities at the time of the ratification of Brazil’s constitution. in 1988.
The case was sparked when the state government used this interpretation to evict a group of Xoklengs from a nature reserve on their ancestral lands. The decision was appealed by Brazilian indigenous affairs agency Funai on behalf of the Xoklengs.
It was “another attempt to eliminate us,” said Brasilio Pripra, a 63-year-old community leader. “Our people have lived here for thousands of years.
State Solicitor General Alisson de Bom de Souza, who will represent Santa Catarina in court on Wednesday, said he was seeking a ruling that respects indigenous rights without infringing other Brazilian constitutional rights.
The Xoklengs were stripped of their traditional hunting grounds over a century ago to make way for European settlers, mostly Germans fleeing economic and political turmoil.
At one point, the state rewarded the killing of indigenous people and mercenaries collected the ears of dead indigenous people, a painful story documented by anthropologists and passed down through generations.
“Before, they used to kill us with firearms, now they kill us with the stroke of a pen,” said João Paté, a former “cacique” or chief.
Determined to keep their traditions alive, the Xokleng gather around bonfires at night to tell stories in their own language and continue their dance and prayer rituals, sometimes painting the faces of their younger ones.
They always share their food at common meals, but the beef they roast is bought on the reserve because they lack land to hunt or raise livestock.
“We cannot plant live food in this hole. They want to get rid of us. They don’t like us, ”said Vanda Kamlem, 87, surrounded by her six grandchildren. Vanda remembers when she harvested pine nuts from the abundant Araucaria pines, known as monkey trees.
Today forests have been cut down and fish have become scarce as rivers have turned cloudy, she said.
“The settlers moved in slowly, taking over. They built two sawmills and devastated the place, ”said Paté, a bespectacled evangelical pastor who heads services in the community church. He says the word of God saved the Xoklengs from the alcoholism that spread in the 1950s.
The Xokleng now number some 3,000 people, crammed into their 14,156 hectares of hilly land, where landslides threaten homes and most of the land is too steep for agriculture.
They claim an additional 24,000 hectares (9,300 square miles) of rich tobacco country which they claim belonged to them for centuries before settlers took hold.
If Wednesday’s decision is in favor of the Xoklengs, more than 800 small-farm families face “chaos” and “no future,” said Tarcisio Boeing, 65, who operates 50 hectares with his family of German origin. for over a century.
“This land has been bought and we have the titles to it,” said Chico Jeremias, 61, who says his German grandfather arrived a century ago and bequeathed him 27 hectares which he farms with his four son.
“If the court decides to expand the indigenous lands, where will these family farmers go? … It will become a land without law, ”he said.
Across Brazil, the Supreme Court’s ruling will affect hundreds of indigenous land claims, many of which provide a bulwark against deforestation in the Amazon rainforest.
A defeat in court for the Xokleng could set a precedent for the dramatic decline in indigenous rights advocated by far-right President Jair Bolsonaro. He says too few indigenous people live on too much land in Brazil, which blocks agricultural expansion.
Powerful agricultural interests would have a stronger legal basis to challenge native land claims, and Congress would be given the green light to enshrine a restrictive definition of native land in federal law.
If they lose their case, the younger Xokleng say they will continue the fight. “We are here and we will resist until the end. This fight will not be over, ”said Lázaro Kamlem, 47.
He is a descendant of Shaman Kamlem, the medicine man Xokleng who declared on his deathbed in 1925 that they would lose their land to “white men”, but that they would one day get it back.