Brazil’s Pankararu finally win land rights, but fight isn’t over

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Jatoba, Brazil – Sarapo Pankararu, 36, sits in front of his house on the indigenous reserve in Brazil‘s semi-arid Sertao region, where, after a bitter 25-year struggle, his Pankararu people have finally won their land rights.

But intitial relief has given way to tension and unease as a long-running land conflict in the region flares up again. 

“We have had cameras installed on our houses because of the threats,” Sarapo tells Al Jazeera.

The indigenous leader says the threats – physical, verbal and online – are from the settler farmers who live on the edge of the reserve and are set to be evicted this month. He and nine other Pankararu leaders are part of a state government human rights protection programme.

The settlers’ eviction was first ordered in 1993 and a final eviction was ordered in June this year. Under the order, about 300 settler families must leave the 8100-hectare reserve in Pernambuco state where 6,500 Pankararu tribespeople live and was demarcated by the Brazilian government in 1987.

In the Sertao, long-running land disputes between indigenous people, settlers and landowners are common and often deadly. Experts blame slow-moving courts, impunity and the state’s incapacity or indifference to resolve conflicts in this poverty-stricken region.

“The biggest provoker of land conflict is the Brazilian state, with its failed land policy,” says Saulo Ferreira Feitosa, a professor and indigenous specialist at the Federal University of Pernambuco.

In the early 20th century, indigenous groups began to demand their ancestral lands back [Sam Cowie/Al Jazeera]

During Brazil’s colonisation in the northeast, indigenous people were boxed into villages by the Portuguese crown. In the 19th century, these lands were given to farmers, where indigenous people were forced to work. Then, in the early 20th century, they began to organise and demand their ancestral lands back.

In February of this year, Brazil was convicted at the Inter-American Court of Human Rights for its 16-year fumble to demarcate the Xucuru indigenous land, also in Pernambuco, during which several were killed, including tribal leader Francisco de Assis Araujo.

Today, in Pernambuco, where 12 indigenous groups live, only one has its land fully demarcated while hundreds of other territories across the country remain in limbo with demarcations all but frozen in recent years.

Under Brazil’s 1988 post-military dictatorship constitution, indigenous people have the exclusive right to their traditionally occupied lands. Demarcation of indigenous territories throughout Brazil was supposed to be completed by 1993.

Last year was one of Brazil’s deadliest years on record for land conflict killings, according to local watchdog Comissao Pastoral da Terra, with a disproportionate number of indigenous people attacked or murdered. 

Land conflict heats up again

The Pankararu reserve is a 10-hour drive from Pernambuco state capital Recife, through Brazil’s impoverished dry backlands, passing mud houses, failed and abandoned water irrigation projects, and vast plantations commanded by powerful local landowners. 

Sarapo and nine other Pankararu leaders are part of a state government human rights protection programme [Sam Cowie/Al Jazeera]

The reserve sits behind a mountain range by the great Sao Francisco River where centuries ago Sarapo Pankararu says his ancestors roamed the river’s banks, fishing and hunting. Today, this stretch of the river is mostly riverside properties and tilapia fish farms.

Sarapo was just a boy when Pankararu leader Quiteria Binga was forced to flee her reserve after an attempt on her life by hired gunman believed contracted by the settlers. As with most murders and death threats to life in the Sertao, there wasn’t a conviction.

It was 1993, the first time the settlers were told they had to leave. Civil society groups intervened and the indigenous reached an uneasy truce with the settlers: they could stay until the government provided them with land and compensation.

“It was like a cold war,” says Tiago Da Silva Oliveira, 34, a Pankararu leader and indigenous school teacher. But with the looming eviction, the conflict has begun to heat up again.

Pankararu leaders say the human rights protection programme installed the security cameras because a gunshot was fired at a house last year. Al Jazeera confirmed with the public prosecutor’s office that an official complaint about the gunfire had been filed and that federal police were called to the scene. 

“It’s a very tense situation,” says Maria Beatriz Ribeiro Goncalves, a prosecutor who visited the reserve. “It’s clear that there are political interests involved, referring to the leaders of the settlers.”

Settlers say they’ve been cheated 

While some have already left, 302 settler families remain. They claim they’ve been cheated and that compensation cash offered for their homes and land is inadequate.

“Our fight is for all 302 families to be justly compensated and resettled here in the municipality of Jatoba,” says Eraldo Jose de Souza, 63, the group’s leader and a former city councilman for Jatoba. Souza denies the accusations by Pankararu leaders that he incited violence against them.

“This is fiction,” he tells Al Jazeera. 

Hilda Isabel da Silva, 64, will receive 88,000 Brazilian real (about $21,100) for her home where she lives with her sons Jailson and Nildo and three other family members and keeps livestock and crops. She says the money is not enough for her to buy another home in Jatoba where a three-bedroom house with no land goes for more than 100,000 Brazilian real (about $24,000). 

“We are children of this land and we want to stay here,” she tells Al Jazeera.

Hilda Isabel da Silva will receive 88,000 Brazilian real (about $21,100) for her home where she lives with her sons Jailson and Nildo [Sam Cowie/Al Jazeera]

Fernanda Antonia Bezerra, 35, who is blind, will not receive any compensation because her home was built after an agreed 1994 timeframe. Altogether, 153 families will not receive any compensation.

Brazil’s National Indigenous Foundation (Funai) is charged with providing compensation and told Al Jazeera in an email that the payments were “scientifically elaborated by official agencies and priced in the region where it is located”. 

Regarding the settlers who will not receive compensation, the agency said: Homes “existing before the timeframe are considered as having been installed in a time of good faith,” and “only such improvements are entitled to compensation.” Last year, Funai’s budget was cut by 44 percent.

The settlers also say the land where they will be resettled is not suitable for family agriculture. A report by Brazil’s state-owned Brazilian Agricultural Research Corporation, produced at their request, noted the land was “considered unfit for crops”.

The state needs to act, because we need our land and [the settlers] need somewhere to go

Sarapo Pankararu, indigenous Pankararu leader

Felipe Mota Pimentel de Oliveira, a Pernambuco judge who ruled on the settlers’ eviction in March, tells Al Jazeera that he has sympathy for all parties, “but above all, we must uphold the law.”

The settlers appealed, but judge Pimentel’s decision was upheld. In late June, a 90-day limit for the eviction was established. Failure to comply means police will evict the settlers.

In the meantime, Sarapo and other Pankararu leaders continue to live in unease.

“The state needs to act, because we need our land and [the settlers] need somewhere to go,” he says.

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