SÃO PAULO – As indigenous activists demonstrate in Brazil against legal proposals that would change the way lands are granted to them by the government, church organizations and several members of the hierarchy have expressed support for their struggle.

The “temporal landmark thesis” advocated by some Brazilian conservatives holds that only territories effectively occupied by indigenous groups when the current constitution was approved, in 1988, should be conceded by the Brazilian state. Such a thesis has appeared in legal suits and legislative bills in recent years.

Beginning in 2021, Brazil’s Supreme Court began to analyze that thesis in a lawsuit involving a land dispute with an indigenous nation in the Southern part of Brazil, but the process was suspended when one of the justices asked to individually examine the case file.

The court resumed its analysis June 7.

At the same time, Brazil’s lower house of the legislature approved a bill May 30 that validated the temporal landmark thesis. The move was seen by many analysts as a way of pressuring the Supreme Court, and amplifying the legal uncertainties concerning the process. The bill is now under analysis in the senate.

Indigenous activists and human rights organizations, including ecclesial movements, have been promoting protests in the national capital of Brasilia and other regions since the end of May, in order to push the Supreme Court and the Congress to repudiate the temporal landmark thesis.

To this point, the thesis has been endorsed by only one of the justices, while two others have rejected it. Justice André Mendonça asked to examine the case file and interrupted the analysis on the same day the Supreme Court resumed the process. He has up to 90 days to complete his review.

Several Catholic leaders already have spoken out against such a restrictive interpretation of the law.

The Archbishop of Manaus, for example, Cardinal Leonardo Steiner, called the approval of the temporal landmark thesis by the Chamber of Deputies “anti-ethical and immoral.”

“They demonstrated that they are not worried about the indigenous peoples. The bill is totally unconstitutional,” Steiner told Crux.

He emphasized that the temporal landmark thesis does not consider the fact that many indigenous groups were not in their traditional territories in 1988 because they had been displaced by invaders.

“That is the case of the Guarani Kaiowá in Mato Grosso do Sul state. Their lands were grabbed and sold, and now they live in small areas in the city of Dourados and by state roads,” Steiner said.

Archbishop Roque Paloschi of Porto Velho, who heads the Bishops’ Conference’s Indigenous Missionary Council (known by the Portuguese acronym CIMI), said that several indigenous groups were not recognized as such before 1988, so they could not officially demand land grants.

“It would not be fair to leave them out of their territories for such a reason. The demarcation of indigenous lands should not have its rules changed now,” Paloschi told Crux.

He recalled that the 1988 Constitution determined that all indigenous territories should be conceded within five years.

“The government did not comply with the constitution, and now many groups are excluded from their territories. They should not be the ones to pay that price,” he lamented.

Antônio Eduardo de Oliveira, CIMI’s secretary general, does not think the Supreme Court will validate the temporal landmark thesis, given that justices Edson Fachin and Alexandre de Moraes’s votes against it likely will be followed by most of the other justices.

But he fears some exceptions may be introduced by de Moraes.

Current legislation allows people who bought indigenous lands in good faith to be indemnified by the Brazilian government for improvements they carried out, such as houses built on a farm. In his decision, de Moraes included the possibility of indemnities for the land itself, in addition to the idea that occupiers and indigenous groups may agree to exchange traditional territory for lands in other locations.

“That could generate divisions among the indigenous peoples. It could also open the possibility of selling traditional territories, and both things are undesirable,” de Oliveira told Crux.

Proposals concerning indemnities are already circulating among big landowners and in congress, he added. Landowners in Brazil are politically powerful and have strong ties with former President Jair Bolsonaro, often creating political difficulties for President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva in Congress.

“We fear that [Lula’s] federal government is interested in delaying a final decision concerning the temporal landmark thesis while it tries to negotiate alliances with the agribusiness sector,” de Oliveira declared.

That’s why indigenous activists and movements like CIMI have been organizing demonstrations and exerting as much pressure as possible on Congress and the Supreme Court.

“It has been years since the temporal landmark thesis began to be analyzed. A decision is taking too long and that weakens indigenous rights,” he said.

That struggle is not of minor importance for the Brazilian Church, Paloschi said. He recalled that the former heads of the bishops’ conference visited an indigenous camp in Brasilia formed when large demonstrations were staged there during Supreme Court sessions in previous years.

“That theme was also discussed with priority by the bishops gathered in the Amazon Synod in 2019,” he said.

Steiner said that a number of Brazilian bishops discussed the temporal landmark thesis in individual talks with Pope Francis, and that although he has not addressed the issue in public, the pontiff is worried about it.

“The indigenous issues are vital for him. When he called me during the worst phase of the COVID-19 pandemic, the first thing he asked me was: ‘What is the situation of the indigenous groups?’ He always expresses that we should be by their side,” Steiner said.

Sister Laura Pereira Manso, one of the vice presidents of the Ecclesial Conference of the Amazon Region, met with Pope Francis on June 1, along with two other indigenous women from the region. She told Crux that the temporal landmark thesis was one of the topics they discussed.

“We handed in a letter to the pontiff asking him to publicly manifest his opinion on that issue. He was moved by our request,” she said.

Manso, who lives in Porto Velho and works with the Karipuna people, a group that has been facing a large and destructive invasion to their territory, said that the legal uncertainties brought by the lack of a final decision have been extremely harmful.

“Lula’s administration has been launching police raids against the invaders, but they always end up coming back. They think their situation may change, depending on the [Supreme Court] ruling,” she said.

According to Manso, who is also a member of CIMI, “indigenous peoples must keep mobilizing and struggling to impede the big landowners’ moves.”

Follow Eduardo Campos Lima on Twitter: @ECamposLima