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'Freedom, but no dignity' - Brazil slave descendants fight for land

by Karla Mendes | @karlamendes | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Friday, 11 May 2018 16:05 GMT

"We are a true African archipelago here, a heap of black surrounded by white people"

By Karla Mendes

RIO DE JANEIRO, May 11 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Looking at the statue of Christ the Redeemer, Luiz Pinto sits outside his small house as small monkeys steal fruit from a tree in the lush rainforest surrounding his home in one of Rio's most expensive neighborhoods.

Pinto is not a rich man - he is a quilombola, one of 16 million people in Brazil descended from runaway slaves. His small brick house next to the Rodrigo de Freitas lagoon sits on prime Rio real estate.

The neighborhood has been gentrified since the 1960s as affluent people have been seeking homes in the lakeside area popular for its views of one of the city's most iconic sights and proximity to the Atlantic Ocean.

When Brazil abolished slavery 130 years ago this Sunday, at least 4 million slaves had arrived there from Africa to work on sugar plantations and in other sectors of the country's flourishing economy.

Many of those who escaped the harsh working conditions set up homes in settlements across Brazil, known as quilombos.

"We are a true African archipelago here, a heap of black surrounded by white people," said Pinto, 76, pointing to high-rise buildings on the edge of Quilombo Sacopa, where he lives with his 31 relatives.

For quilombolas like Pinto, freedom has been bittersweet.

The Pinto family has fought in the courts for five decades to secure comprehensive land rights for their quilombo, in an area once dominated by sugar mills.

Quilombolas are among the poorest in Brazil and even though the 1988 constitution enshrined their property rights, most of them have no formal documents to prove ownership of their land.

Only 250 quilombo communities out of some 5,000 throughout Brazil have legal titles to their land, according to the Fundacao Cultural Palmares, the government body in charge of recognizing their territory and ancestry.


This lack of formal title leaves them at risk of losing their homes to real estate development and deprives them of social benefits, such as subsidised housing, or access to credit lines to fund farming or other businesses, experts say.

"They gave us our freedom 130 years ago, but no dignity," Pinto, 76, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation on the patio of his house in Quilombo Sacopa, one of five such settlements in the city of 6.5 million.

South America's largest country, Brazil is rich in land ripe for development and low on deeds and formal records, leading to enormous tension and conflict over property rights.

Rio, once the country's largest slave market with more than a million slaves, now boasts its priciest real estate costing on average $2,700 per square meter, according to FipeZap, an index that tracks property prices.

In the Rodrigo de Freitas lagoon neighborhood, a square meter can cost as much as $5,000, making the 1.6 acre of land where Pinto and his 31 relatives live worth about $32 million.

"The favelas (slums), the poor people who lived here, they were all removed," said Pinto. "We have resisted - perhaps a unique victory against real estate speculation."

But resistance has come at a price, said Pinto.

After complaints from neighbors a court ordered his family in 1989 to stop running a tourism business inside the quilombo, depriving them of the opportunity to sell traditional food and perform dances for a living.


Government recognition as a quilombo is the first step to get legal rights to land, an arduous process that can last years.

"The slowness of the land titling process and racism are the major problems for quilombolas today in Brazil," said Layza Queiroz, a legal advisor at rights group Terra de Direitos.

"The country is racist as people believe these people should not exist or should not exist according to their way of life."

At the current rate, it would take 970 years to complete the process of giving land titles to all quilombolas, Terra de Direitos estimates.

For Antonio Oliveira Santos, a government official in charge of land titling, the problem derives from the long-winded bureaucratic process to obtain land titles, which depends on surveys and investigations into the ancestry of communities.

"It is not a simple thing. The legislation requires us to take several steps," said Oliveira Santos, general coordinator of quilombola regularization at INCRA, a government body tasked with managing and demarcating quilombo land.

INCRA is required by law to provide a complex report about the community's history, the ancestry of its members, as well as environmental, cultural and religious issues, he said. Land survey data are also needed to complete the report, he added.

The government's budget for providing land titles to quilombo residents has been reduced by 93 percent in the past five years, according to rights group Justica Global.

"Our budget has been cut a lot, but we're moving forward," said Oliveira Santos.

An example of land titling gathering momentum came last March when the 500 people of Quilombo Cachoeira Porteira in Para state obtained title for 220,000 hectares (543,631 acres) of land, one of the largest such awards.


Quilombolas don't just face legal delays - those campaigning for their land rights have faced threats, violence and death.

Last year, 14 quilombo residents were murdered across Brazil, almost the double from eight deaths in the previous year, according to a survey by the National Coordination of Rural Black Communities. Six of them were activists.

Just last month, a prominent anti-palm oil campaigner, quilombola Nazildo dos Santos Brito, was shot dead in Para state, authorities said, raising concerns of increased violence tied to property disputes affecting slaves' descendants.

In the urban jungle of Rio, Adilson Almeida is still reeling from the day in 2014 when bulldozers arrived in his Quilombo Camorim, an area once dominated by sugar plantations and mills where a slave owner's residence still stands.

Camorim in the middle-class Jacarepagua neighborhood gained recognition as a quilombo in 2014 and residents started a claim to a seven-acre area, said Almeida.

But they were too late - a construction firm said it had bought the land the quilombolas claim from private owners to build housing for international journalists covering the 2016 Rio Olympics.

In an emailed statement, construction firm Living said it acquired the land in accordance with the law and other government requirements and had not been notified of any claim over the area by the quilombola community.

Two years after the Olympics, most of the apartments built to house journalists are up for sale, said Almeida.

"My ancestors worked at the mill during slavery (some 300 years ago) ... it is land that has been ours for many years," said Almeida, the leader of Quilombola Camorim.

Almeida is still fighting to get full ownership of an area inside the quilombo where 20 families live.

He narrowly escaped injury when a homemade bomb exploded in his house in 2015 but vowed to keep fighting for the quilombo's land rights.

"Being a quilombola is everything to me. It means seeking my ancestry, my identity, my roots," said Almeida, as his fellow quilombolas performed the traditional jongo dance during a celebration.

(Reporting by Karla Mendes, additional reporting by Elisângela Mendonça. Editing by Astrid Zweynert @azweynert and Claire Cozens. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. Visit http://news.trust.org and http://www.thisisplace.org)


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