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Time Frame Thesis Is a Climate Dispute, Says Maurício Terena

As Legal Coordinator of the Articulation of Indigenous Peoples of Brazil, Terena claims that Brazil's environmental policy needs to reflect land demarcation concerns

Cristiane Fontes

Four months ago, Maurício Terena was appointed Head of the Legal Coordination Office at APIB (Articulation of Indigenous Peoples of Brazil), one of the largest Indigenous organisations in the country. He replaced Eloy Terena, who became Executive Secretary of the newly created Ministry for Indigenous Peoples.

Over the past few days, he has focused all his attention on a definitive and historic case for the future of the Indigenous peoples of Brazil: the ruling on the "time frame thesis" by the Brazil's Federal Supreme Court (STF). If approved, Indigenous peoples would only be entitled to lands that were in their possession when Brazil's Federal Constitution was enacted on 5 October 1988, or lands that were under physical or judicial dispute on that date.

On 7 June, the STF is due to resume discussions on the case, which had been on hold for two years.

In the meantime, however, Brazil’s Indigenous movements have also had to deal with a bill of law known as PL 490, approved by the Chamber of Deputies in the evening of Tuesday 30 May. PL 490 transfers the competence of Indigenous land demarcation to the Parliament, and opens loopholes for the construction of roads, hydroelectric power plants, and other infrastructure works on Indigenous lands. Terena sees this attempt by the Chamber to vote on the matter quickly, before the STF ruling, as a clear violation of legislative rites.

‘The only way to change rights like this is through a Constitutional Amendment because we are talking about significant changes: mitigating and reducing fundamental rights. But they are doing it with an ordinary law. This is surreal and technically wrong', he told FOLHA, in an interview before the vote.

Maurício Terena defines the time frame thesis as a climate dispute. ‘If approved, its impacts will affect not only the lives of Indigenous peoples, but also the lives of all people, both in Brazil and all over the world. Indigenous lands are a very important asset, and can provide a solution for the climate crisis we are experiencing this century', he adds.

In order to support his statement, Terena cites data from scientific studies that prove that Indigenous territories are essential for Brazil’s achieving its climate goals, and are the areas with the lowest deforestation rates in the Amazon. 'Brazil's environmental policy needs to take into account and reflect the realities of Indigenous lands, together with our Indigenous peoples', he claims.

Homem jovem usa cocar e óculos
Mauricio Terena - TSE/Divulgação

How does the Indigenous movement intend to respond to PL 490?

We have convened an extraordinary meeting with all regional organisations under APIB, from all over Brazil, based on the understanding that it this bill represents the first cannon shot against Indigenous peoples.

In the National Congress, members of the Ruralist Caucus strongly resist any progress in the promotion of Indigenous peoples' rights. They have removed demarcation powers from the Ministry for Indigenous Peoples [through provisional measure MP 1.154, which assigns this responsibility to the Ministry of Justice], and approved an urgent request for a vote [on PL 490].

So, we are going to convene and mobilise our people, and denounce what they are doing both at home and overseas. Our Indigenous peoples will fight against it.

Earlier this year, APIB met with STF's Chief Justice Rosa Weber. How did that meeting go, and what were the Indigenous movement's recommendations for her?

In her role as chief justice, Rosa Weber has always been extremely sensitive to issues related to Indigenous peoples. We discussed the need to resume the time frame trial.

She asked us if the Indigenous movement might be interested in reaching an agreement. As APIB representatives, we said, 'No, because our law is very clear: fundamental rights are not negotiable'. Our territories are not subject to negotiation.

You are part of a group of Indigenous and non-Indigenous lawyers who represent Indigenous peoples in the time frame case at the STF. What is the current focus of this group?

On June 7, what will be decided is the continued existence of Indigenous peoples, considering that traditional territories are fundamental for us to exercise our cultures.

The outcome of the trial is still not certain. We believe that justices Cármen Lúcia, Luís Roberto Barroso, Edson Fachin, and Rosa Weber will vote in our favour. Justices Gilmar Mendes, Alexandre de Moraes, Kassio Nunes, and André Mendonça will vote against us.

Two other justices have not made up their minds yet: Dias Toffoli and Luiz Fux. So, we are developing strategies to sensitise them, pointing out that they should not want to bear the burden of enacting the end of an extremely effective policy against climate change.

We are coordinating our efforts, and mobilising partners and artists. We are also putting together international strategies under [international] human rights mechanisms to which Brazil is a signatory.

We are in the middle of a war operation, trying to state the obvious to the Federal Supreme Court.

In February, the AGU (Federal Solicitor General's Office) announced that it would create a specific team to act in the defence of Indigenous peoples. What are your initial views on the AGU's performance under this new administration?

Without a doubt, I can say that we have had major reservations about the AGU. Firstly, it was the AGU that issued Official Opinion 001 establishing the time frame. This was done during the Temer administration, and was binding for the entire government, including FUNAI. All agencies and departments had the obligation to apply time frame principles in their administrative procedures.

As soon as Minister Sonia [Guajajara] took office as Minister for Indigenous Peoples, she met with Jorge Messias, Head of the AGU, and asked him to revoke that opinion. However, they have not done it yet, and according to some behind-the-scenes information, the Agribusiness Caucus has been systematically meeting with him to ask him not to do it.

In the context of the time frame trial, you and other Indigenous lawyers have taken part in debates in different law schools around the country, including the Getulio Vargas Foundation. What have these exchanges generated in terms of new perspectives?

When an Indigenous lawyer goes to a predominantly white institution, which serves the interests of the São Paulo elite, and proposes a debate on the rights of Indigenous peoples, this generates impact in several dimensions.

Firstly, from a symbolic perspective. Whenever I am in such a place, I insist on wearing a headdress, for example. Beyond the symbolism, we have a different way of thinking about the law. Law tends to be a hard, positivist science, which will sometimes be used to maintain power relations and domination under an ambivalent logic: right vs. wrong; conviction vs. acquittal.

When Indigenous peoples make use of this technical knowledge and promote discussions like the current ones, they cause an epistemological (and consequently political) shift.

We start looking at the law as mechanisms that must serve subjects who have never been historically recognised as subjects of rights.

How can we solve disputes that have dragged on for decades, such as in your state, Mato Grosso do Sul?

Undoubtedly, I would first try to address the Indigenous land demarcation policy. We need to move forward in demarcations outside the Legal Amazon.

The demarcation policy is a structural problem in our country. It demands resources, people, and political will.

It would be essential to establish a great pact in our Republic, admitting what Brazil has done to its Indigenous peoples for centuries: genocide, extermination, and colonisation.

It seems to me that Brazil has not got over this yet. How are we going to change a political stance built on extermination, violence, segregation of human rights, and non-demarcation of Indigenous lands if we still fail to understand ourselves as a country with Indigenous roots? We also need to promote a cultural and epistemological shift in the minds of Brazilians.

How could we change this mind frame?

Politics. Political work can be used as a tool to understand the subjectivity of a country.

President Lula, for example, could speak up in a much more assertive way against the time frame. He could record a video explaining the time frame thesis, and broadcast it on national television. How much impact could that generate? It would affect the political narrative and help to inform people.

The Ministry of Education could also issue new guidelines to include Indigenous history in our universities and schools.

This would ensure that our republic is indeed a Republic. We are not an actual Republic, and we will never become one as long as there are Indigenous people dying in our country.

How may we contain the growing threats and ensure the protection of Indigenous territories?

It is essential to restructure the National Indigenous Peoples Foundation [FUNAI], with a proper budget and more staff, to ensure it may have enough people to carry out studies and identify and demarcate Indigenous lands.

In addition, we must resume a basic Indigenous land management policy, where Indigenous people themselves could think about the protection and development of their territories.


Mauricio Terena, 27

Maurício Terena has a first degree in Law, and an MA in Education. He is currently pursuing his doctoral studies in Social Anthropology at USP (University of São Paulo). He mainly works in cases involving the criminalisation of Indigenous leaders and territorial conflicts. He is the Legal Coordinator of APIB (Articulation of Indigenous Peoples of Brazil), and a member of the Observatory System of Criminal Justice and Indigenous Peoples, which launched a dossier titled 'Interfaces of Indigenous Criminalisation' in March 2023.


Planeta em Transe (Entranced Planet ) is a series of reports and interviews with new players and experts on climate change in Brazil and around the world. This special coverage will also focus on the responses to the climate crisis during the 2022 general elections in Brazil and at COP27 (UN Climate Conference that took place in Egypt in November 2022). This project is supported by the Open Society Foundations.