Brazilian court shelves controversial indigenous rights case

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Brasília (AFP)

Brazil's Supreme Court on Wednesday adjourned a hearing on a controversial change to indigenous land rights, defusing what had been feared to be a tense standoff with protesters in the capital.

The court shelved the case after the federal body looking after indigenous people's affairs, FUNAI, said it wanted to introduce new arguments.

At issue is ownership of swaths of ancestral tribal lands, much of it in the Amazon, where Brazil's powerful agricultural industry wants to expand soy, cattle, sugar cane and other commodity farming.

Brazil's 1988 constitution guarantees tribes ownership of ancestral lands. But under a proposal being studied by the Supreme Court, the guarantee would not apply to land unoccupied prior to the law coming into effect that year.

Activists say that makes no sense given the reality of life in sparsely inhabited territory claimed by tribes.

Tribal leaders had promised a demonstration of at least 2,000 people in Brasilia but in the end just a few dozen showed up.

There had been concerns of the possibility of a repeat of violent clashes in April at which riot police fired tear gas at thousands of tribesmen in traditional headgear and paint -- and armed with bows and arrows -- outside Congress.

"The indigenous people in Brazil are threatened by the absence of demarcation of their territories," said Lindomar Ferreira, leader of the Terena ethnic group outside the Supreme Court.

Nearly 900,000 indigenous tribe members currently live in Brazil, or 0.4 percent of the entire population, divided into 305 ethnic groups. Indigenous lands cover 12 percent of Brazil.