Brazilian Former Slave Community Fights for Land

In the small community of Rio dos Macacos, Brazil, a tall, leafy tree stands as a living reminder of history. Residents say it grew around a pole where slaves used to be tied and beaten. A rusty chain still hangs from its thick trunk, a chilling witness to the past.

Rio dos Macacos is home to 67 families, one of Brazil's quilombos— communities started by former slaves before forced slavery ended in 1888. Brazil has more than 2,400 quilombos. Many still keep alive ancient traditions, such as African dance and forms of worship.

Quilombos were mainly formed by runaway slaves who went into hiding. They survived by working the land.

The ancestors of Rio dos Macacos were brought from Africa to work as slaves in the area's sugarcane fields 200 years ago. Even after slavery was abolished, the freed people had few rights. They continued to work the sugarcane fields in return for food and housing. After the farms declined, the locals were allowed to keep some of the profit for themselves. They never officially received title to any land, and this is the root of their current problems.

Brazil's constitution—signed in 1988, 100 years after slavery was abolished—ruled that quilombolas were entitled to the land they had historically occupied. However, only 207 quilombos have been issued with property titles. More than 1,200 requests have not been handled. It is a long and complicated legal process, setting very poor communities against big landowners.

In the case of Rio dos Macacos, the quilombo is in conflict with the Brazilian state itself. The navy built a naval base there in 1950, and as the military base grew, the area for residents shrank.

Seventy farming families were forcibly moved to build housing for the families of navy personnel. The land formally belongs to the state, but the quilombolas say they are entitled to it under the constitution.

The federal government has offered the community 28 hectares of land in the area, on a plot some distance from their current houses. But the government authority in charge of overseeing quilombo land applications says the families are entitled to 10 times as much.

Community leader Rosimeire dos Santos Silva says the residents are under increasing pressure from navy personnel. “They harass our children on their way to school. And if we try to work the soil, we're beaten up, they don't let us. It's like we're still slaves,” she says.

Without land titles and facing uncertainty, many families have already left the quilombo.

Source: Brazilian Former Slave Community Fights for Land
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