The Xokleng were cleared off their traditional hunting grounds over a century ago to make room for European settlers.
Thousands of Brazil Indigenous people adorned in colourful paint, beads and feathers have set up a protest camp outside of the Supreme Court in advance of an expected landmark ruling on whether they can reclaim lost ancestral lands.
“This is very crucial” to the Indigenous protesters who are camping out in Brasilia, Al Jazeera correspondent Monica Yanakiew reported on Wednesday.
The top court in Brasilia is set to decide whether to recognise Indigenous rights to land occupied prior to 1988 when Brazil’s constitution was ratified, a legal cut-off date sought by Brazilian state governments that are seeking to limit Indigenous claims.
Indigenous peoples and rights groups argue applying the 1988 date erases Indigenous claims across Brazil dating back to the 1950s when they were pushed from their lands by tobacco farms, miners and logging operations.
“If the Supreme Court accepts the ruling of setting-up a cutoff date, and not allowing, barring any claims made by people, anybody who were not occupying their land before 1988, then this would be a big setback for them,” Yanakiew said.
The case arises from a claim by the Xokleng people of southern Brazil against the Santa Catarina state government which the Xokleng say applied an overly narrow interpretation of Indigenous rights by only recognising tribal lands occupied in 1988.
A ruling in favour of the Xokleng could reopen some 800 other claims and lead to the return of lands to Indigenous people.
“It’s a law dispute for the Xokleng people to reclaim their territories in the southern state of Santa Catarina and big landowners who say they have no rights because they weren’t occupying those lands in 1988 when the constitution was approved,” said Raphael Modesto, a lawyer for the Xokleng people.
“It would set jurisprudence for hundreds of pending cases,” Modesto told Al Jazeera.
According to Brazil’s most recent census in 2010, about 900,000 Indigenous people belonging to 305 different groups live in the country.
Deforestation across the Brazilian Amazon has surged in recent years under President Jair Bolsonaro’s pro-agriculture policies.
“We weren’t living in our lands in 1988 because had we lived there we would have been hunted down by the landowners,” said Woie Patte, a Xokleng chieftain.
“They put a price on us. They paid people to kill us and asked them to bring our ears as proof,” Patte told Al Jazeera.
Bolsonaro is pushing legislation in the Congress, backed by Brazil’s powerful agricultural lobby, that would loosen regulatory requirements for mining and agriculture projects in the Amazon rainforest. Another bill would push back Indigenous land claims by allowing squatters in the Amazon rainforest to claim ownership of their properties.
Greenpeace said the bill, if it becomes law, will, in practice, be an amnesty for land invasions, the Reuters news service reported.
“The message lawmakers are sending Brazilians is that it pays to invade and deforest public lands,” said Greenpeace’s Mariana Mota.
Earlier this month, an Indigenous organisation in Brazil asked the International Criminal Court to investigate Bolsonaro for “genocide” and “ecocide”, accusing him of persecuting native peoples and destroying their homelands.
The Articulation of Indigenous Peoples of Brazil alleged in a case filed with The Hague-based court on August 9 that the far-right president has led “an explicit, systematic and intentional anti-Indigenous policy” since taking office in 2019.
“We believe there are acts in progress in Brazil that constitute crimes against humanity, genocide and ecocide,” Eloy Terena, the group’s legal coordinator, said in a statement citing an inability in Brazil’s courts to address the allegations.