How Brazil’s Indigenous rights hinge on one tribe’s legal battle

The Xokleng were cleared off their traditional hunting grounds over a century ago to make room for the European settlers.

Pushed into a degraded corner of their ancestral lands, the Xokleng people of southern Brazil anxiously await a Supreme Court ruling that could restore territory they lost decades ago.

Sitting by a wood stove, Xokleng elders recall the days when plentiful fish and game fed their families, before the bulk of their fertile lands were sold by the state to tobacco farmers in the 1950s.

Now the Xokleng pray that Brazilian courts will fulfil a dying shaman’s prophecy that they would one day win their lands back.

On Wednesday, the top court in Brasilia will decide whether the Santa Catarina state government has applied an overly narrow interpretation of Indigenous rights by only recognising tribal lands occupied by native communities at the time Brazil’s constitution was ratified in 1988.

The case began when the state government used that interpretation to evict a group of Xokleng from a nature reserve in their ancestral lands. The decision was appealed by Brazil’s Indigenous affairs agency Funai on behalf of the Xokleng.

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.”

The Xokleng were cleared off their traditional hunting grounds over a century ago to make room 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 their dead, a painful history documented by anthropologists and passed between generations.

“Before they killed us with guns, now they kill us with the stroke of a pen,” said João Paté, a former “cacique” or chief.

Across Brazil, the Supreme Court ruling will affect hundreds of Indigenous land claims, many of which offer a bulwark against deforestation in the Amazon rainforest.

A defeat in court for the Xokleng could set a precedent for the dramatic rollback of Indigenous rights which far-right President Jair Bolsonaro advocates. He says too few Indigenous people live on too much land in Brazil, blocking agricultural expansion.

Xokleng elders recall the days when plentiful fish and game fed their families, before the bulk of their fertile lands were sold by the state to tobacco farmers in the 1950s. [Amanda Perobelli/Reuters]

AL JAZEERA

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