In a historic moment on Thursday Sep. 21, Brazil’s top court has ruled to protect this Indigenous group’s right to their ancestral land, setting a precedent for the country’s hundreds of Indigenous land claims.
In 2009, the Santa Catarina state, backed by tobacco farmers, ordered the Indigenous Xokleng people to leave their land.
The state government argued that Indigenous people could only claim their land if they proved that they were occupying the land when Brazil passed its constitution in 1988.
The Xokleng, an Indigenous community consisting of around 2,300 people, were then evicted in 2013 after they were unable to provide proof because they had been forced off their lands decades earlier.
They had been driven out of their ancestral lands during one of the most ruthless land clearance perpetrated by foreign settlers in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Since 1996, they have shared the Ibirama La-Klãnã highlands of Santa Catarina State, Southern Brazil, with two other indigenous groups, according to the BBC.
But on Thursday Sep. 21, 9 out of 11 judges ruled that Indigenous lands are protected under the constitution even if they have not been legally defined – or demarcated.
They ruled against what farming lobbyists refer to as “marco temporal” — “time frame” in Portuguese — a legal tactic the state authorities adopted in 2013.
The argument disregarded the likelihood that the Indigenous communities had been forcibly removed from their lands decades earlier and contradicted the Indigenous people’s constitutional right to their ancestral territory.
Only two judges voted against the Indigenous people, and they had both been appointed by far-right former president Jair Bolsonaro, who attacked Indigenous rights during his rule.
The ruling now legally serves as a precedent for future Indigenous land recognition cases, including more than 300 similar cases that are currently pending.
Upon hearing the final verdict, the Xokleng community danced and shed tears of joy outside the Supreme Court in Brasilia.
The ruling is expected to bolster Indigenous rights, which faced challenges during Jair Bolsonaro’s presidency and continue to face obstacles as his party retains influence over President Lula’s government.
Only half of Brazil’s 1.6 million Indigenous citizens currently reside on their ancestral lands, according to Reuters.