For Brazil’s historic slave communities, the future is uncertain

. Oct 23, 2017
Kalungas, a traditional slave community in Brazil Photo: Weverson Paulino/EBC
Kalungas, a traditional slave community in Brazil

Photo: Weverson Paulino/EBC

“This decision messes with our lives,” says Denilson Rodrigues. “It could put to rest our entire history, our entire identity.”

Rodrigues has spent his entire life in Ivaporunduva, the oldest quilombo community in São Paulo’s pristine Vale do Ribeira. Unlike the vast majority of Brazil’s quilombos – secretive communities formed by runaway slaves in the West’s last country to abolish slavery – Rodrigues’s community has a land title. But Rodrigues, now a coordinator at National Coordination of Articulation of Quilombolas Rural Black Communities (CONAQ), is concerned that even the fate of his community hangs in the balance.

In August this year, Brazil’s Supreme Court was set to judge on a Direct Action of Unconstitutionality (ADI), known as ADI 3239/04. The decision, postponed in August and delayed for a second time this week, is now due to return to the Supreme Court in November. The measure, Rodrigues argues, has the potential to effectively revoke the quilombo land rights that are protected by Brazil’s Constitution.

“Quilombos are a symbol of resistance to slavery in Brazil,” he says. “It would be a huge step backwards for us; we would be going back more than a hundred years.”

</p> <p>Brazil has 220 titled quilombo communities, with the highest concentration in Bahia, according to the National Institute for Colonization and Agrarian Reform (INCRA). A further 1,536 communities throughout the country are waiting to receive their titles. But those numbers could be much higher: cultural quilombo institution Fundação Palmares has so far certified more than 2,600 communities eligible for titling, while CONAQ estimates there are approximately 6,000 in existence.</p> <h3>Without titles, communities are vulnerable to violent threats</h3> <p>But before any quilombo can receive a legal land title, it must first be &#8216;regularized.&#8217; ADI 3239/04 argues that the regularization process is unconstitutional, and if approved would lead to immediate suspension of regularization processes.</p> <p>“If it is considered unconstitutional, this would mean that procedures underway, and those still awaiting recognition and titling, will stagnate,” explains Rebeca Campos Ferreira, an anthropological advisor to the Federal Public Ministry in Rondonia and researcher of the Center for the Study of Contemporary Religions and Black Cultures (CERNe – USP). “Groups, right holders, will not have effective access to land rights.”</p> <p>Consequently, many territories currently claimed as quilombos would be unable to proceed with titling. Thousands of Brazilian citizens could suddenly find themselves without the legal right to remain on land that they have always called home – but CONAQ’s Rodrigues is worried about more than just homes. “This would put these communities in a vulnerable situation,” he warns. “The threats are constant in quilombo territories.”</p> <p>Between mass killings of indigenous populations and numerous threats in rural locations, the Pastoral Land Commission, a land rights NGO, warns that 2017 could be the most lethal on record for rural workers. Quilombos, too, have found themselves on the receiving end of far more violence than normal in 2017: so far this year, CONAQ says that 14 quilombo leaders have been murdered in land-related disputes. By contrast, there were eight such killings in 2016, and just one in 2015.</p> <p><iframe src="" width="640" height="480"></iframe></p> <p>The violence is directly related to land title issues, according to NGO Socioenvironmental Institute (ISA). The non-profit’s research among quilombo communities <a href="">found</a> that violent attacks create an atmosphere of fear, leading to chaos that agribusiness players can use to move in on the land. Of the 14 deaths this year, 70 percent have occurred in Bahia.</p> <p>Following the recent <a href="">killing of six workers</a> from the Iúna quilombo in Bahia, the state’s secretariat for the promotion of racial equality noted that Bahia has “a historical characteristic of a great concentration of land, mineral wealth, among others elements that contribute to disputes and conflicts by varied interests.”</p> <p>The Secretariat’s statement continues: “The traditional quilombola communities, unfortunately, find themselves in this context, which sometimes puts at risk the security of their leaders and territories.”</p> <h3>Rural lobbies claim “fraud”</h3> <p>Originally proposed in 2004, the ADI seeks a revision of current recognition and demarcation guidelines for quilombos, arguing that anthropological identification methods for territories “distort” the Brazilian Constitution. Instead, lawmakers at the time sought determination by “geography”, asking that quilombos prove that they occupied a certain territory when the Constitution came into effect on October 5, 1988.</p> <p>This approach, according to leaders of the rural movement in Brazil’s Congress, means that territorial claims made by quilombolas are not always justified. “The great fraud is in this process of self-declaration,” congressman Alceu Moreira <a href="">told BBC Brasil</a> in August this year. He said that rural landowners in his home state, Rio Grande do Sul, are losing out on land which has been their home for several generations &#8220;because one day eight or ten people decided that they were quilombolas, guided by NGOs and university professors.&#8221; Moreira’s office did not respond to The Brazilian Report’s request for comment.</p> <div id="attachment_851" style="width: 2058px" class="wp-caption aligncenter"><img aria-describedby="caption-attachment-851" loading="lazy" class="size-full wp-image-851" src="" alt="quilombolas brazil slave" width="2048" height="1349" srcset=" 2048w, 300w, 768w, 1024w" sizes="(max-width: 2048px) 100vw, 2048px" /><p id="caption-attachment-851" class="wp-caption-text">Photo: Janine Moraes/MinC</p></div> <p>Congressmen are not the only parties with such fears. The ADI’s 2012 return to the Supreme Court was accompanied by the Brazilian Association of Pulp and Paper (Bracelpa) and the Brazilian Rural Society (SRB) as <em>amici curaie</em> – a legal term which loosely translates to ‘friends of the Court’ and describes an impartial advisor.</p> <p>Speaking on behalf of the SRB in 2012, lawyer Francisco de Godoy Bueno <a href=";caixaBusca=N">told</a> the Supreme Court, “Self-declaration and self-acknowledgment are obviously discretionary and subjective criteria that should not serve for the granting of rights by the State.”</p> <p>Bracelpa, since absorbed by the Brazilian Tree Industry (Ibá), has declined to comment on the issue. However, SRB representatives confirmed to <strong>The Brazilian Report</strong> that the SRB’s stance on the issue remains unchanged.</p> <p>“The decree [upholding quilombo titling] has induced frauds and land conflicts that do not correspond to the protection of these traditional communities,” SRB’s president Marcelo Vieira <a href="">said</a> shortly before the ADI was due in the Supreme Court in August this year. “It is inadmissible to create, on the pretext of protecting quilombola communities that have ceased to exist, land conflicts for the expropriation of productive properties, protected by the Federal Constitution.”</p> <h3>Congress protects landowners</h3> <p>Rodrigues is skeptical that it is small landowners who are truly interested in quilombo land. Instead, he says, it is “large developers” who stand to make large gains through the ADI – like those in Matopiba, a large agricultural area spanning the states of Maranhao, Tocantins, Piauí and parts of Bahia.</p> <p>“We have many violent threats, including in the Matopiba region,” Rodrigues says. Proposed developments in the area, he explains, will affect almost 300 of the quilombo communities recognized by CONAQ. “Depending on the conditions they put in the decree, big developments could end up being built on our lands, which for us are sacred.”</p> <p>Anthropologist Ferreira believes that the Supreme Court’s decision could have serious consequences not just for land demarcations, but also for the lives of quilombolas who live there. “If the decree is unconstitutional, we will have a serious violation of human rights,” she says.</p> <p>“It’s not just a technical or legal issue – it’s much more than that,” Ferreira continues. “These are rights obtained and related to human dignity, and they are being questioned for political and economic interests.”</p> <p>In April this year, for the first time since 1995, Brazil’s government suspended titling processes for all quilombos. This followed a meeting between several government agencies that took place in September 2016, which BBC Brasil <a href="">reports</a> as resulting in “the return […] of all processes related to the territory of quilombolas” to the Special Secretariat for Agrarian Development (SEAD). The decision took place at a crucial moment for Temer to gain congressional support among rural interests, whose <a href="">original</a> optimism <a href="">remains unfettered</a>.</p> <p>For Rodrigues, future uncertainty is a frightening prospect. “The Brazilian state is giving a blank card for farmers to continue with the ethnocide of the quilombo population in the Brazilian countryside,” he said. “We&#8217;re very afraid of what they put in the <a href="">decree</a>.”

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Ciara Long

Based in Rio de Janeiro, Ciara focuses on covering human rights, culture, and politics.

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