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Land fight simmers over Brasilia’s Shrine of Shamans

Indigenous leadership Marcia Guajajara poses for a photo in indigenous land Santuario dos Pajes in Brasilia December 3, 2017. — Thomson Reuters Foundation pic BRASILIA, Feb 7 — It is one of the most expensive areas in the Brazilian capital — and one of the most sacred.

A plot in downtown Brasilia — known as Santuário dos Pajés or Shrine of the Shamans — is at the centre of a conflict between indigenous people hoping to preserve their traditional way of life and developers eager to build an upmarket neighbourhood.

While property is often contested in Brazil, it is usually waged over remote jungles or distant mountains — vast swathes of land that can be mined or farmed for profit.

This conflict centres on Brasilia’s urban power base. Just minutes from the National Congress, the Shrine of the Shamans — with its unpaved roads, forest and small houses — sits surrounded by lavish high rises.

Indigenous residents say they feel cornered by the encroaching developers, with multiple interests fighting over the last undeveloped plot in Brasilia, a planned city known for its futuristic buildings designed by Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer.

“The sanctuary has been an indigenous land for more than 40 years. We have been fighting for its demarcation,” indigenous leader Márcia Guajajara told the Thomson Reuters Foundation inside the Shrine. “When the developers arrived, we were already here. They think that money always wins,” she said. It is one of many such conflicts in Brazil, rich in land to be exploited and low on deeds and property records.

For land demarcation is controversial in Brazil, despite safeguards in both the constitution and United Nations guidelines that are supposed to enshrine rights for indigenous people.

About a third of almost a million indigenous people live in Brazil’s cities, according to government statistics.

There are several land battles wending their way through the courts, many of them pit native people against powerful business interests.

But it is the prime downtown location that makes the fight over the Shrine stand out in the capital city, declared a World Heritage Site by the United Nations for its modernist architecture and artistic planning.

Conflicting claims 

Conflict began a decade ago when the local government claimed it owned the Brasilia plot, prompting indigenous groups to counterclaim, saying the Fulni-Ô Tapuya had lived and performed religious ceremonies there for decades.

To further complicate matters, the federal government said it took ownership of the area in 2008 and a year later sold it on to building firms to create a green and sustainable neighbourhood called Noroeste (Northwest).

Since then, high-rise buildings have sprung up all around the sacred soil, making the Shrine one of the few areas in the city that is free of new buildings.

Forty-year-old Guajajara has been living in Santuário dos Pajés since 1996, after marrying shaman Santxiê Tapuya, considered the founder of the sacred land. She is one of 180 indigenous people who live in the area.

According to court documents, a receipt from 1980 shows Santxiê bought an area of about 4 hectares (9.8 acres), the size of almost six football pitches.

Indigenous locals say pressure to displace them from the area has steadily increased over the years.

One November afternoon last year, Guajajara said about 10 men — some armed — and three tractors invaded the Santuário dos Pajés’ area, knocking down trees in the hope of clearing the land sufficiently to pave an avenue down its middle.

Her 18-year-old son Fetxa said he tried and failed to stop them by blocking their path. “I did not get out of the front. They pushed me forward, along with the soil, twice. I was shocked.”

According to Guajajara, she and her son — the only ones in the area when the tractors arrived — screamed they could not enter the indigenous land because it is protected by a court decision.

But the men said they had an order “to run it over”.

The local government’s development arm, Terracap, said its staff were doing some infrastructure works in the neighbourhood close to the indigenous area but denied they were armed.

“We are removing garbage in various locations and they understood this as an affront,” Júlio César Reis, the head of Terracap, said by phone.

In an emailed statement, Brazil’s indigenous affairs agency, Funai, said it would not comment.

Federal prosecutors are investigating the case.

The indigenous residents were quick to fence in the area, though it is no barrier to any possible future encroachment.

How much land? 

In 2013, a court recognised the indigenous land ownership rights over the area of about four hectares bought by Santxiê but Funai, Terracap and federal prosecutors appealed.

Terracap said it has not been proven the indigenous people lived in the sacred area before their registered their claim.

The matter was further complicated when in October 2017 federal prosecutors, who act on behalf of indigenous people in Brazil, made a request in court to allocate a further 28 hectares to Santxiê’s family and the ethnic group Fulni-Ô Tapuya.

Federal prosecutor Felipe Fritz Braga said the sanctuary is crucial to ensure the Fulni-Ô Tapuya’s future in the area.

An anthropological report used in the suit found evidence that indigenous tribes have been living in the area since 1956, during the construction process of Brasília, he said.

Santuário dos Pajés has been targeted by almost 30 lawsuits over the last 10 years.

“This number of lawsuits reflects the complexity of the problem,” Braga said in an email to the Thomson Reuters Foundation. — Thomson Reuters Foundation