Brazilian Indigenous Lands Case Filed by Female Legal Star

WASHINGTON, DC, March 29, 2004 (ENS) - Brazil’s first female indigenous lawyer makes her legal debut today in Washington, DC. Joenia Batista de Carvalho, 30, a Wapixana woman who is one of this year's Reebok Human Rights awardees, is presenting her people's land rights case to the InterAmerican Commission on Human Rights.

On behalf of the Indigenous Council of Roraima, she will ask this branch of the Organization of American States to intervene in a landmark battle for ancestral indigenous land known as Raposa Serra do Sol.

The Rainforest Foundation US is co-filing the petition with the Indigenous Council of Roraima. Batista's work is fully supported by the U.S. branch of The Rainforest Foundation, a nonprofit organization based in New York City, London, and Oslo founded in 1989 by Sting and Trudie Styler.

Batista will ask the human rights commission to pressure Brazilian President Luíz Inácio da Silva to keep a campaign promise to protect indigenous rights after decades of harassment, assassinations, and court battles have failed to produce legal demarcation of their territory.

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Joenia Batista de Carvalho is representing the Indigenous Council of Roraima before the InterAmerican Commission on Human Rights. (Photo courtesy The Rainforest Foundation)
The Raposa Serra do Sol territory in Roraima state is home to the Macuxi, Patamona, Ingaricó, Wapichana, and Taurepang peoples.

Since authorities in Roraima favor the mining, ranching, and agricultural industries, the atmosphere is anti-indigenous. According to figures provided by the Rainforest Foundation, between 1981 and 1999, 20 indigenous people were killed; 54 received death threats, and dozens more have been assaulted.

Eighty indigenous homes have been destroyed, and 71 people were illegally arrested. Last year, another Raposa Serra do Sol resident was found dead, shot in the back.

As the only lawyer for the Indigenous Council of Roraima, Batista is risking her life for her cause. In 2002, she got a warning. Following a community workshop she led, three workshop participants were run off the road and killed.

In January - responding to a government announcement that the territory would be officially recognized as indigenous land by the end of the month - vigilante mobs began to terrorize the indigenous residents of Raposa Serra do Sol. They took three hostages, blocked all major highways, and threatened to shut down the airport in the capital of Boa Vista.

The demarcation did not take place, but the human rights situation is still tense. After exhausting all recourse in Brazil, Batista is turning to the international community for help.

Batista grew up in extreme poverty in one of the poorest regions of Brazil. “From an early age,” she told Reebok, “whenever I saw discrimination against my father or mother or brothers, I would always go in front and fight for them, which would scare them, but I wasn’t afraid.”

In Boa Vista, she worked in the evening and studied at night to put herself through college and then law school. Throughout that time, she continued to face bias. “I was discriminated against for three things,” she says. “I was poor, I was indigenous, and I was a woman.”

She graduated from the University of Roraima Law School in 1997, becoming Brazil’s first female indigenous lawyer.

As the only lawyer at the Indigenous Council of Roraima, Batista has been a leader in the demarcation movement, and defeated an attempt by the state government to overturn the demarcation at the Brazilian Supreme Court in Brasilia.

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Indigenous men herd cattle in Raposa Serra do Sol. (Photo courtesy Indigenous Council of Roraima)
In February 2003, she traveled to Washington, DC, to present her report, “Indigenous Peoples of Brazil: Violations of the Inter–American Convention on Human Rights of the OAS.”

The report details the conflicts and cases of violence, murder, and torture practiced by invaders of Raposa Serra do Sol and by diamond miners in the nearby area of Cinta Larga. The report was presented to an OAS panel that is working to develop the historic “American Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People.”

If the InterAmerican Commission on Human Rights accepts Batista's brief as a case it can carry out its own investigations, conduct on-site visits, and request specific information from the parties. The Commission may hold a hearing during the processing of the case in which both parties are present and are asked to set forth their legal and factual arguments.

The Commission then prepares a report which includes its conclusions and also generally provides recommendations to the country concerned. This report is not public. The Commission gives the country a period of time to resolve the situation and to comply with the recommendations of the Commission.

In almost every case, the Commission will offer to assist the parties in negotiating a friendly settlement if they so desire.

If an agreement is not reached at this point, the Commission can prepare a second report for publication, or decide to take the case to the Inter-American Court.

Batista's work was recognized earlier this month by the Reebok Corporation which named her as one of four recipients of the 2004 Reebok Human Rights Award.

Established in 1988, the award honors activists 30 years old or younger who, often at great personal risk, have made significant contributions to the field of human rights through nonviolent means. She will accept her $50,000 award at a ceremony on May 5, 2004, at Alice Tully Hall, Lincoln Center, in New York City.