Residents of Raposa Serra do Sul in northern Brazil struggled for three decades to win the demarcation of what is now the country’s largest indigenous reserve. But they still await compensation for harm under a ruling by an international court. And on May 19, two men were acquitted of the 2003 murder of Macuxi leader Aldo da Silva Mato, one of 21 indigenous people killed in the struggle for rights to that territory.
Raposa Serra do Sul is one of scores of cases involving indigenous people that have been heard by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights in recent years. And although Latin American governments sometimes drag their feet on implementing rulings, the court is gradually setting precedents that advance indigenous rights.
Over the past decade, the court has broadened the concept of human rights in the region, with rulings involving rights to property, natural resources, a decent life and reparation for damages.
“The court has followed the right course in interpreting the (Inter-American Convention on Human Rights) more progressively,” said Jorge Calderón, an attorney with the court in San José, Costa Rica.
Speaking at a seminar on international litigation of indigenous rights on May 24 at American University in Washington, D.C., Calderón noted that the court has also recognized that nature is an intrinsic element of indigenous life.
Those rulings, however, come as many of the region’s countries are granting oil and mining concessions overlapping indigenous lands. Governments have also objected to rulings, sometimes threatening to withdraw from the inter-American justice system over decisions they say threaten their interests.
Last year, Brazil ignored a request from the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights to suspend construction of the Belo Monte dam on the Xingú River, which will flood land used by indigenous groups.
When plaintiffs who believe they have been wronged by their government exhaust legal options in their countries, they can take their cases to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights in Washington, D.C., which investigates. If it believes the case has merit, and especially if it is emblematic of wider issues, the commission refers it to the court.
Besides demarcation of their territory, which the government recognized in 2009, the five indigenous groups in Raposa Serra do Sul also sought other guarantees as their leaders suffered murder, death threats and assaults.
“It’s not just about demarcation, but about the right to life and the right to control over land,” Christine Halverson, program director of the New York-based Rainforest Foundation, which worked with the Indigenous Council of Roraima, which took its case to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights as well as Brazil’s Supreme Court.
Because a case can take up to a decade to make its way through the inter-American system, communities must consider all their options, said Fergus MacKay, a lawyer with the Forest Peoples Program, who has worked with the Saramaka people, a tribal group descended from former slaves in Suriname, which took its fight against timber and mining concessions to the Inter-American Court.
“It takes an incredibly long time to get a decision from the (inter-American) system because it’s overwhelmed by cases” and lacks sufficient funding from the governments belonging to the Organization of American States, MacKay said.
He also urged the court to clarify some issues that are crucial for guaranteeing indigenous rights, including what constitutes self-determination, “reasonable” restitution for damages, and even, in some cases, how people are identified as indigenous under the law.
“Some very fundamental questions remain to be addressed,” MacKay said, “and it requires a great deal of thought and a great deal of care.”