The highest court assesses whether a state government has applied an overly narrow interpretation of indigenous rights by recognizing only tribal lands occupied by indigenous communities at the time of the ratification of Brazil’s constitution in 1988.
Indigenous rights groups say the rule was unconstitutional because there was no time limit in the 1988 constitution, which guaranteed the right to ancestral lands.
The case was put on hold after one of the judges, Alexandre De Moraes, requested more time.
As it stands, two members of the 11-member tribunal have so far ruled, one judge in favor of a deadline for land claims, while another has voted to end the deadline.
The government of far-right President Jair Bolsonaro relies on the agricultural sector, which largely defends the timetable. He argues that the time frame has given legal certainty to farmers, many of whom have lived for decades on land once inhabited by indigenous peoples.
Protected indigenous lands provide a bulwark against deforestation in the Amazon, advocates say.
Critics also say that a defeat in court for indigenous peoples would set a precedent for the removal of rights that Bolsonaro has demanded with the support of powerful agricultural interests.
Advocates for indigenous peoples, who today number some 850,000 in Brazil, say the constitution that carved in stone their rights to ancestral lands makes no mention of a time frame.
Their ancestors were driven from their hunting grounds when European settlers began arriving centuries ago, or were evicted from coveted farmland more recently, but before the 1988 shutdown.
White farming families have in many cases lived for decades on land now claimed by indigenous communities, and even hold title in some cases showing that they bought it from the state.
“If the Supreme Court does not keep the 1988 schedule… it will kill agribusiness in Brazil, there will be no incentive to invest in agriculture,” Bolsonaro said recently.