For centuries, the Kalunga people managed to keep their land a secret from most people. That success is partially thanks to the land’s characteristics, being located at the heart of the Chapada dos Veadeiros National Park, a place known for its dramatic canyons and quartz crystal rock formations. But sophisticated stealth techniques also helped the Kalunga endure as Brazil’s biggest remaining quilombo, which are communities originally founded by runaway slaves.
Today, more than a century after slavery was abolished in Brazil, the risk for quilombolas (as the communities’ descendants are called) has only changed its form. Agricultural producers and real estate speculators are preying on their land—a right to which the quilombolas are granted by the Constitution.
In his efforts to protect his community, Adriano Paulino da Silva, a 21-year-old information systems student, believes technology could help preserve his people’s natural resources and ancestral knowledge.
Born and raised in the Engenho II community, close to some of the quilombo’s most important touristic spots—the Candaru and Santa Bárbara waterfalls—he is one of the quilombolas leading a georeferencing project in the Historical and Cultural Heritage Site of Kalunga (HSCHK).
The quilombolas’ progressive reconnection with modern society has sped up in recent years, mainly because of recent policies to recognize the rights of traditional peoples in the country. Many young Kalungas, such as Adriano, have started college classes, opening the community up to a new time, synthesized in this ongoing georeferencing project.
“For months I have studied new georeferencing software devices, such as ArqGIS, as well as dataset control programs, in order to create a broad questionnaire to understand our land use, traditional farming techniques, and basic sanitation issues, among other crucial information,” he says.
For the Kalunga Quilombola Association, the project is also useful to map threats to the quilombo. The area faces historical problems brought by invaders, such as illegal gold mining, the expansion of soy farms, and predatory fishing.
“Anyone can see the mining ferries along the Paranã river, and the illegal fishing equipment used by invaders, which reduce the amount of fish available to our community,” says Vilmar Souza Costa, the association’s president.
Parts of the quilombo are under dispute, and the project deals with personal information of the population and details about the range of ores and coveted native species, such as the vanilla endemic to the Cerrado, a savannah-like biome which spreads over 2 million square kilometers and encompasses 12 Brazilian states. It is believed that the Cerrado soil is among the oldest on the planet.
“Preliminary data is helping the Kalungas map areas of land rich in minerals such as laterite, used in alloys to make asphalt, or gold (which has made the area attractive to illegal miners) as well as the river courses and the springs, regions where there are latent conflicts—whether due to environmental degradation or land dispute,” says Durval Mota, an advisor for the quilombolas.
The initiative is supported by the Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund (CEPF)—a joint initiative of the French Development Agency, the non-profit Conservation International, the European Union, the Global Environment Facility, the Government of Japan, and the World Bank.”
Data that helps protecting the quilombo’s biodiversity
The Kalunga georeferencing initiative was made possible with a USD 139,000 grant from the CEPF, not only for improving the quilombo’s management but also to protect its biodiversity.
The initiative aims to protect at least 19 endangered fauna and flora species, such as the South American grey eagle, a bird typical to the Cerrado. “Knowing all geographical aspects of the quilombo is very important for mapping the habitats of these species, and also for protecting the natural resources that are needed for them to thrive,” explains Elizon Nunes, technical advisor of the project.
In order to publicize and to raise awareness of the quilombolas about the endangered species to be protected, the Kalunga association also used the grant’s resources to print at least 4,000 copies of a banner with all species in question, which were distributed to all communities within the quilombo along with precise instructions on how to protect them.
Another intent of the initiative is to protect Kalunga biodiversity by mapping their geographical aspects and water resources. According to preliminary data, the Kalungas have more than 300 water sources inside their land, essential for maintaining the Chapada dos Veadeiros basin, distributed throughout their 647,402-acre territory. It is worth noting that not all of their land is under Kalunga control, mainly due to a longstanding land reform that is far from being completed: the quilombolas association says that deeds have not been issued for at least 291,584 acres.
This is quite sensitive data, which could be misused by invaders and others who intend to exploit the Kalungas’ natural resources. For this reason, the quilombolas have created a special security protocol.
“The amount of users that can extract and access data is limited, and we work with offline techniques in very specific formats to reduce exposure,” explains Mr. Nunes. Only the geographical aspects will be shared with the Federal University of Goiás, in a wider database for the state.
The grant is also being used for the acquisition of a 4×4 jeep, to help the association members to reach certain spots faster in case of emergencies and routine monitoring, to analyze and organize the produced data and also to obtain computers and software to help the georeferencing to continue after the international funding runs out.
Linking ancient knowledge to the Kalunga youth
For the quilombolas, another way of protecting their land is by improving their organic crops. The Kalungas harvest a wide array of organic products—such as rice, beans, vanilla and sesame, all planted without the use of pesticides and from non-genetically modified seeds. With the georeferenced data, the quilombolas expect to organize the collective farming spots of their territory, and also to adapt individual farming lands.
“By mapping and monitoring our territory, we make our farming better and are able to protect our water sources and rivers, updating our practices to the environment legislation’s requirements,” says Adriano Paulino.
At the conclusion of the project, the Kalungas will have full access to satellite images, updated every five days, identifying points that need specific management for agriculture or places where degradation and invasions occur, according to Adriano Paulino. He says that the presence of youth in the project—who are responsible for applying the questionnaires—strengthens their ties with historical leaders.
“Even if the older people in general still rely much more on traditional and ancient knowledge, they have opened up to us, the younger ones, and believed that with new tools we can protect their teachings. They are relying on us to keep our culture alive,” says Mr. Paulino.
The integration of the Kalunga youth in the community is key to their survival. Preliminary data shows that the profile of the quilombo population has radically changed in the last decade. A relevant factor for this trend were social insertion policies, such as special education programs for traditional peoples in federal institutes and public universities, currently at risk under the present federal administration.
“There is a considerable exodus of Kalunga men and women between the ages of 18 and 29: a large number take technical or undergraduate courses outside the quilombo, in places such as Brasilia, Goiânia and Planaltina, and many of them do not return—continuing with master’s degrees and other postgraduate courses,” says Elizon Nunes, technical assessor for the georeferencing project.
One of the initiative’s objectives is to offer alternatives so that the quilombola territory can better accommodate its youth. It is expected that, with data about their needs, the integration of Kalunga lawyers, environmental engineers, agronomists, biologists, historians and information technicians to the development of the quilombo will be more effective.
“Besides the fact that, with the mapping under their care, the Kalungas will be able to better exploit their natural attractions and strengthen sustainable tourism—which requires a qualification that can be made without future guides leaving the territory,” says Mr. Nunes. He says that there are at least another 11 touristic spots that could be better used by the Kalungas.