By Sam Cowie
SAO PAULO, April 21 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – An international human rights commission has accused Brazil of failing to obey its own constitution and ringfence ancient tribal territories in a landmark court case that pits the state against indigenous people.
Brazil could be forced to pay damages if it loses the trial in the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, which is hearing evidence from both sides in Guatemala.
“This case could strengthen the fight of indigenous people, who continue to have their rights threatened in Brazil,” said Raphaela Lopes, a lawyer at Global Justice, a non-governmental organisation that is supporting the case.
The case seeks to end a vicious dispute over land which the indigenous Xucuru people say has dragged on for 27 years, cost it lives and threatens to erode an ancient way of life.
“Our case is emblematic of indigenous people across Brazil,” Marcos Xucuru, leader of the indigenous group, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by telephone.
“More than 20 years after the constitution, demarcating land is still in chaos, during which time violence against indigenous people continues to increase,” said Xucuru.
Brazil has been a pioneer in setting aside – or demarcating – parcels of land for its indigenous people, a process meant to safeguard their culture, ward off unwelcome incomers and enshrine legal rights over ancient turf.
But activists fear the government is now backsliding on its much-praised commitment to indigenous people, who number about 900,000, as it is rattled by economic and political uncertainty.
At stake is access to the traditional homeland of the Xucuru and with it the preservation of their customs and economy. Lawyers say Brazil is delaying setting aside the land.
Whoever wins, the case sets a precedent.
Giorgina Vargas, a lawyer at the court, said this is the first time the Brazilian state stands accused of indigenous rights violations at an international court.
In an interview with the Thomson Reuters Foundation, she was unable to estimate what…