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Brazil's Indigenous people win landmark case

By Ella Polak Nov. 9, 2023

Bearing thousands of years of history and culture, Brazil’s Indigenous peoples gained new protections from the country’s Supreme Court in a landmark ruling on ancestral land claims. On Sep. 21, the court ruled in favor of Indigenous groups, supporting their right to claim new areas of Brazilian land as their historic territories. Such land claims allow Indigenous tribes to establish protected territories where they can live according to their customs and practices.

Daniel Choi Art

The ruling, which was passed by nine of the court’s 11 justices, rejected a lawsuit from Brazil’s Santa Catarina state that sought to limit Indigenous land claims. The dispute emerged due to contesting land claims between the state and the Xokleng Indigenous people. The state argued that all Indigenous land claims made after 1988—when Brazil’s Constitution was put into effect—should be considered invalid. This meant that any lands that were not inhabited by Indigenous people before 1988 could not be claimed. However, the Supreme Court rejected that argument, affirming that ancestral Indigenous lands are protected under the law, even if they are not presently populated by tribes. Indigenous rights groups also opposed Santa Catarina’s claims, calling it unfair to impose a deadline on land claims considering Brazil’s extensive history of oppression against native peoples, per the Associated Press. Many Indigenous groups have been displaced from their lands by farmers and ranchers, keeping them from physically inhabiting the land and living there.

“The indigenous tribes in Brazil were the original inhabitants of the land and therefore have the right to claim it back. Taking their land would erase important history that has shaped Brazil into what it is today,” Sophomore Mariam Jiva said.

Hundreds of Indigenous people celebrated, danced and cheered in the capital city of Brasilia after the case was resolved. The decision was a rare win for the Indigenous groups that have faced years of repression under the government of former President Jair Bolsonaro, who largely promoted landowner interests and the commercial development of Indigenous lands, in spite of pushback from the Indigenous people. According to CNN, the illegal extraction of natural resources from Indigenous lands tripled after Bolsonaro took office in 2019. The majority of Indigenous territories in Brazil are located in the Amazon Rainforest, where deforestation and illegal logging occur relatively unchecked. Thus, the ruling marked a key victory in the effort to turn the tide and protect Indigenous lands.

In contrast, Brazil’s Indigenous groups have been supported by current President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who vetoed a bill in October that also sought to delegitimize new land claims since 1988. Although the Supreme Court ruling would have overturned the law had it passed, Lula’s veto stands as a show of solidarity with Indigenous Brazilians. Since assuming office in January, Lula has recognized eight new Indigenous territories, which gives them legal protection to fight against loggers, gold miners and cattle ranchers encroaching on their lands.

Daniel Choi Art

In the Amazon, the ruling does more than just protect Indigenous lands; the forest itself is also a direct benefactor. According to the Environmental Defense Fund, an advocacy group, Indigenous people help maintain over 30% of the Amazon through sustainable practices like low-impact agriculture and agroforestry. As a result of their protection and oversight, deforestation rates in Indigenous territories are roughly half of those in other parts of the rainforest. The Amazon plays a critical role in combating climate change—it is the world’s largest tropical forest and one of the most biodiverse regions on Earth. By validating Indigenous land claims, the Supreme Court has ensured that Brazil’s threatened ecosystems will continue to be defended.

The precedent set by the Supreme Court’s ruling may have ripple effects beyond Brazil as other Indigenous groups take inspiration from the victory. Indigenous groups such as the Native American Landback movement in the U.S. and Canada have also advocated for the return of their ancestral territory.

“Brazil’s ruling serves as a powerful shift towards the indigenous people reclaiming the land they should rightfully own. Native Americans from the U.S. can use Brazil as a model to fight for the reclamation of their historic lands,” Junior Vedika Byakod said.

By affirming Indigenous peoples’ right to live on their territory without interference, Brazil has propelled a movement that could spread internationally and restore autonomy to native communities worldwide. While recent policies have degraded the rights and freedoms of Brazil’s Indigenous people, the milestone ruling marks a turning point in the fight to preserve Indigenous history.


About the Contributors

Ella Polak

Feature World and Lifestyle page editor

Ella Polak is a junior at Leland High School and is the Feature World and Lifestyle Page Editor for The Charger Account. She enjoys watching TV, listening to music and hanging out with friends.

Daniel Choi


Daniel Choi is a junior at Leland High School and an artist for The Charger Account. During his free time, he enjoys watching shows, taking walks and sleeping.

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