UK and EU must not abet the theft of indigenous territory in Brazil

Brazil’s indigenous people are anxiously awaiting a supreme court judgement on our land rights. Proposed new laws in the EU and UK will profoundly affect us too

Indigenous protestors outside the Supreme Federal Court of Brazil, September 2021 (Pic: Matheus Veloso/Midia NINJA)


For three weeks until the middle of September, thousands of indigenous people from all corners of Brazil were camped a few kilometres from Brasilia’s imposing Supreme Federal Court. 

We danced, sang, prayed and chanted. We anxiously watched proceedings unfold inside the court on a large outdoor screen, as we waited for a decision by Brazil’s 11 supreme court judges which will shape the future of indigenous land demarcations and our own destinies.

Our vigil was part of a global action led by the Articulation of Indigenous Peoples of Brazil (APIB), the country’s largest indigenous organisation where I act as member of the coordination board – and has coincided with similar, smaller events in London, Berlin, the Hague, San Francisco and other cities around the world.

At stake is our right to peacefully occupy the areas of our customary lands – and the fate of some of the world’s most important forests and wildlife.

For now, though, our tents and banners have been packed away, and we wait. The judges have postponed their decision, but for how long, we do not know. According to internal supreme court guidelines, it should be no more than 60 days, but this is rarely complied with.

What is clear is that the outcome of their decision will reverberate far beyond Brazil.

The issue they are deliberating is whether Brazil’s indigenous peoples only have the right to territory that we were physically occupying on 5 October, 1988 – when the current constitution came into force after years of military dictatorship.

If upheld, at a stroke this so-called “marco temporal” or “time limit” would endanger indigenous territories already recognised by the state, set a precedent for hundreds of other indigenous land claims and represent an open invitation for farming and mining interests to destroy precious ecosystems in the name of commerce.

Agriculture, cattle raising and mining are the biggest causes of deforestation in Brazil, responsible for rampant destruction in the Amazon, the Cerrado and elsewhere. Meanwhile, overwhelming evidence shows that we indigenous people have been a bulwark against deforestation and protector of our lands.

Relentless assault

This “marco temporal” case is just the latest assault on the rights of Brazil’s indigenous peoples. We are more than 300 peoples, living in all regions of the country.

Since Jair Bolsonaro became president in January 2019, there has been a sharp rise in armed invasions of our lands, environmental safeguards have been shredded, while deforestation and attacks against indigenous people have soared.

This is why APIB has asked the International Criminal Court (ICC) to investigate Bolsonaro for genocide and ecocide for his explicit, systematic and intentional anti-indigenous policy and public statements.

Awareness of these crimes is widespread.

So is the knowledge that responsibility for them rests not simply with Bolsonaro, the agribusiness sector and the land grabbers themselves, but those trading in and consuming goods which have led to human rights violations, or been produced on land stolen from indigenous communities.

For this reason, while Brazil’s Federal Supreme Court decides on our right to our own land, laws which could also have a profound influence on our future and that of Brazil’s precious biomes, are under development in legislative bodies on the other side of the Atlantic.

Both the European Union (EU) and the United Kingdom are planning laws to eradicate deforestation from their supply chains (both are big importers of goods, including soy and beef, which drive deforestation in Brazil).

But the due diligence laws that the EU and the UK are proposing are fundamentally flawed.

As they stand, both the EU and UK proposals fail to adequately address the human rights violations which often go hand in hand with deforestation. They both rely solely on laws in producer countries to determine whether community land rights are protected.

Leaving the protection of indigenous rights in Bolsonaro’s hands is like leaving a fox in charge of a chicken coop.

If, for instance, our Federal Supreme Court judges uphold the time limit and more of our land is seized from us, then any goods grown or produced on that land would be deemed legal under the current UK and EU proposals.

Our ancestors were driven from their land when European invaders arrived here 521 years ago, and the theft has continued ever since.

Brazil’s supreme court judges and EU and UK lawmakers must not abet it.

Read more on: Comment | Forests | Indigenous peoples | South America