'Protected Land' -but for how long?

About 600 indigenous people living in eight villages located in the city of Peruíbe, on the coast of São Paulo state, are at risk of losing their lands. After decades of living in a territory that has 6 km of beach, popular with tourists and people from the city, indigenous people of the Tupi-Guarani ethnic group won approval to claim their territory in 2016. But in June of the same year, a local land owner whose properties surround and overlap with the villages, filed a petition in the Federal Supreme Court (STF) against the demarcation process.

A former community leader, Lillian is no stranger to challenging existing stereotypes of indigenous, Guarani women. She now works as a teacher in her community of Piaçaguera to teach Guarani language and culture to local children. Faced with threats from the outside world, including threats to their land by extractive industries, the work of women like Lillian is vital to preserving Guarani traditions and identity in the future. She says: ‘You don’t often see in Guarani community women in the front line. Nowadays you can see more, but there are still few of us.’ Photo: Christian Aid

In early June, there was a new development on the case. The Minister of the Supreme Federal Court, Celso de Mello suspended temporarily the land demarcation process. He issued a precautionary measure that prevents the Tupi-Guaranis from registering their land borders with the local registry – the last step of the demarcation process before it is filed at the Supreme Court.  The land owner is asking for the annulment of the presidential decree and consequently the invalidation of the entire administrative process of demarcation. He argues that the process is unlawful because it prevented the State of São Paulo from participating.

However, renowned Brazilian lawyer and jurist Dalmo Dallari questioned the validity of the request of the claim and the decision of the minister Celso de Mello.

According to Dallari, ‘this has no constitutional basis. I insist on that. I thoroughly examined the details of the Federal Constitution, I examined the legislation around demarcation. There is no provision for the participation of particular States. So, it’s not really a legal problem, it’s a false legal problem that’s being raised. They resorted to this in an attempt to deceive, because they could not really find any valid argument’.

Christian Aid partner Pro-Indigenous Commission (CPI-SP), who has been working in Piaçaguera since 2013, claims that from the start of the process, local land owners have tried to undermine the claim by the Tupi-Guarani.

‘In this particular case, it is someone who’s been devising procedures against indigenous land since the beginning. They try to push different arguments to question the demarcation of the land, because they have many economic interests in the area … No one [in the case] is discussing the impacts on the indigenous population, for whom this is a vital issue – their land”.

Hernani Vilela, the village chief of the Piaçaguera land, agrees and defines the decision as a major setback:

This is where we get our education, health… Without the land, we are nothing — Hernani Vileda

Hernani Vilela. Photo: Christian Aid

‘This is where we cultivate our culture, our tradition, our crops, the house of prayer. We understand that the land is the most important thing… This a beach area where they want to prioritize real estate and port developments. They really just want to divide everything and build a gated community because the City Hall thinks that we are hindering the growth of the city’.

Demarcation of the Piaçaguera Indigenous lands was approved in May 2016 with 2,733 hectares. Around 230 families of the Tupi-Guarani people live there. The process of land demarcation has been going on since the year 2000. Being placed near an urbanized area in the State of Sao Paulo it faces attacks against their territory that go beyond the economic interests of the owner of the neighboring lands. Recently the Tupi-Guaranis scored a major victory when, after years of mobilization, they were able to halt the construction of a large thermoelectric plant in the region of Peruibe that threatenedto have a serious impact on their lands.

According the Instituto Socioambiental (ISA), the case of Piaçaguera is not an isolated one. There are more than 9 million hectares of indigenous lands at risk, which may not be demarcated due to pressure from 42 infrastructure and 193 mining projects.

The  decision by the Supreme Court coincides with an unprecedented number of threats directed at indigenous people who claim their right to land: a reduction in the number of areas of conservation;  an increase in the rate of deforestation in indigenous lands – which has tripled between 2015 and 2016; budget cuts to the Agrarian Reform and Land Demarcation technical bodies; reforms to  environmental licensing; restrictions to access to their traditional lands; and, finally, a proposed amendment to the Constitution that could completely halt all land demarcation in the country. If all of the agenda being proposed by the more conservative sectors in Congress is carried through, entire ecosystems and traditional populations will vanish.

There is no date for the final trial regarding the local land owner’s claim to the Supreme Court, thus the land titling remains suspended. The expectation is that the Ministers will vote to ensure Indigenous Peoples’ Constitutional right to land. But until then, the Tupi-Guaranis will continue to mobilise: ‘The land is sacred to us. We believe things will work out for the best, but nothing is easy, for everything there is a struggle’, says Hernany Vilela.

Stop press: On 14 June, Minister Celso de Mello dismissed the request for annulment. The appeal stands, but CPI-SP regard the judge’s decision as positive, especially since the injunction (suspending the settlement reached) was revoked. Thus, there is now no judicial impediment to FUNAI (the government protection agency for Indian interests and their culture) proceeding to complete the demarcation.

(With additional information from Pro-Indigenous Commisions and Brasil de Fato)

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