Indigenous groups from the Amazon have won a major victory after Brazil's Supreme Court upheld the integrity of a vast native reserve, paving the way for the eviction of white farmers who have resisted leaving.
Dozens of bare-chested, brightly painted indigenous people celebrated on Thursday the landmark ruling by dancing and singing outside Brazil's top court, which weighed into a 30-year dispute over the rights of native groups to lands in South America's largest nation.
"This decision is a great victory for Indians and enshrines the rights of indigenous peoples," Marcio Meira, president of the National Indian Foundation (FUNAI), told AFP.
|A Makunaimi tribe member attends a session at the Supreme Federal Court on March 18 in Brasilia|
In a 10-1 vote, the tribunal's judges reaffirmed the borders of the Raposa Serra do Sol reserve and ordered the rice farmers' expulsion.
The eagerly awaited decision was seen as crucial to indigenous politics in the country and especially to hundreds of similar court cases in Brazil, which has set aside 12 percent of its enormous territory for reserves for native peoples whose ancestors lived in the country before the arrival of Europeans some 500 years ago.
At 17,000 square kilometers (6,560 square miles), the immense forested territory in northern Brazil, along the border with Venezuela and Guyana, is equal to half the size of Belgium.
Some 19,000 members of the indigenous Macuxi, Wapichana, Ingariko, Taurepang and Patamona tribes call the territory home.
The dispute has raged since the 1970s between the native groups seeking to protect the forest, their ancestral lands and their traditional way of life, and white agricultural and industrial interests seeking to exploit the land for farming and mining.
The court's decision routed an attempt by the farmers -- who were backed by powerful regional political and economic interests -- to have the reserve broken up so they could continue to live in enclaves. Many had been there for two decades or more.
Before the matter was heard by the court, the farmers vowed to fight any attempt to force them out, and several stockpiled arms and threatened to blow up bridges and spike roads if police moved in.
Court justice Ellen Gracie likened the Raposa Serra do Sol reserve's demarcation to an "ancestral debt" for Brazil that would be enshrined for indigenous use.
President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva signed a decree creating the reserve in 2005 after a 30-year legal battle. In the reaffirming decision Thursday, the Supreme Court even ruled in favor of free movement of Brazilian armed forces in the reserve to defend the borders.
In December, eight of the court's 11 judges cast their votes in favor of the reserve's indigenous people, but then one judge called a suspension to allow more time to read documents related to the issue.
Defenders for the white farmers' rights and the interests of large agricultural interests, calling for the reserve to be broken up for continued exploitation, said rice production amounts to seven percent of the region's GDP.
The indigenous population was decimated by the arrival of Portuguese settlers in the early 16th century, notably as a result of diseases the immigrants brought with them such as tuberculosis, chicken pox and the common cold, against which tribal groups had no defense.
According to FUNAI, their number was cut from as many as 10 million to just 460,000 today -- a tiny fraction of the 190 million people who now live in Brazil.