Brazilian indigenous activists celebrated on Wednesday after the Supreme Court ruled against a state seeking compensation for land that had been declared tribal reserves.
The ruling against Mato Grosso state in western Brazil was seen as a victory for indigenous rights in the face of constant pressure from the powerful agricultural lobby.
The state had argued that the tribal reserves were created out of its land, but the court rejected this 8-0, saying that the territory had long belonged to the native peoples.
“It was a positive result, maintaining the land borders that had been under question,” Raphaela Lopes, a lawyer for the activist group Justica Global, told AFP news agency.
Another case, which involved a controversial bid to reinterpret a constitutional protection for native lands, was shelved when the government department for indigenous affairs, FUNAI, asked for more time to introduce new material.
Brazil’s 1988 constitution guarantees tribes ownership of ancestral lands. But under a proposal being studied by the Supreme Court, the guarantee would not apply to land unoccupied prior to the law coming into effect that year.
The court’s decisions left indigenous protesters outside happy.
Tribal leaders had promised a demonstration of at least 2,000 people in Brasilia, but in the end, just a few dozen showed up.
There had been concerns about the possibility of a repeat of violent clashes that occurred in April, during which riot police fired tear gas at thousands of tribesmen in traditional headgear and paint – and armed with bows and arrows – outside congress.
Al Jazeera’s Daniel Schweimler, reporting from Brasilia, said it was a “rare victory” for Brazil’s indigenous people who had travelled from across the vast country to the capital to protest at the Supreme Court.
“They won that victory, but their fight is by no means over. They still face a threat from big business, from agro-business, from soya farmers, from people trying to de-forest their land,” he said.
“It’s the same fight they say they’ve been fighting since the arrival of the first European settlers more than 500 years ago.”
Tribal lands under pressure
At issue is ownership of swaths of ancestral tribal lands, much of it in the Amazon, where Brazil’s powerful agricultural industry wants to expand soy, cattle, sugar cane and other commodity farming.
“The indigenous people in Brazil are threatened by the absence of demarcation of their territories,” said Lindomar Ferreira, leader of the Terena ethnic group outside the Supreme Court.
Indigenous communities claim that their way of life has increasingly come under fire during the administration of President Michel Temer.
Last month, Temer signed a recommendation to block the demarcation of any land on which indigenous people were not living by 1988, the year of Brazil’s latest constitution.
Indigenous advocates rejected the proposal, arguing that many native communities had been violently forced from their lands before that date. They accuse Temer of signing the recommendation to cater to the interests of the powerful agribusiness bloc in congress whom he depends on to stay in power.
There are more than 700 requests for the demarcation of indigenous land pending and Temer has not signed one of them during his 16 months in power.
Nearly 900,000 indigenous tribe members currently live in Brazil, or 0.4 percent of the entire population, divided into 305 ethnic groups. Indigenous lands cover 12 percent of Brazil.