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Quilombos and Land Rights in Contemporary Brazil

The Brazilian Constitution of 1988 for the first time recognized the right of descendants of slave-era quilombos to receive lands from the state: "The definitive property rights of remanescentes ["remnants"] of quilombos that have been occupying the same lands are hereby recognized, and the state shall grant them title to such lands." (Art. 68) In the political context of 1988 -- the year Brazil celebrated the centennial of the abolition of slavery -- this clause seemed largely symbolic, a minor concession to the vociferous militants of the Afro-Brazilian "Black Movement." But only four years later, the first land claims were put forth by communities claiming to be "remnants of quilombos."

Most of the cases involved communities of black peasants confronted by the kind of land conflict that had long been endemic in rural Brazil. Under the guidance of political groups and non-governmental organizations, these families were invoking their quilombola origins in an attempt to gain legal title to land they had been occupying, in some cases, for more than 200 years. They were trying out new strategies to arrive at an agrarian reform which was otherwise nearly paralyzed by procedural delays and political unwillingness.

Considered by the state simply as objects of the nation's cultural and historical patrimony, and presented by the mass media as authentic and archaic African tribes in the midst of contemporary Brazil, the remnant quilombo communities briefly mentioned in the constitution were now taking on a new shape within a modernity framed by urgent issues of rights and citizenship, cultural minorities, racism, and agrarian reform.

Today, more than 700 such remnant communities have been identified throughout Brazil. About 30 have been recognized by the Ministry of Culture. Even if, so far, only a small minority have received their land titles, the ongoing process has gained a rather unexpected magnitude.

Quilombos: The Emergence of a National Question

It was at the beginning of the 1980s that the issue of "black communities" came to public attention, under the impetus of the organized Black Movement. Breaking out of the conciliatory integrationist posture they had held since the 1930s, Afro-Brazilian activists moved in a new direction, denouncing racial inequalities without compromise. According to the new creed, black people should affirm their negritude and valorize their African roots and their unique history on the American continent. The quilombismo ideology developed by the militant-intellectual Abdias do Nascimento (Vozes, 1980) reaffirmed such ideas, relating them to the spirit of resistance of the ancient quilombos. In this context, the black communities descended from quilombos could be seen as the historic sanctuaries of this new, self-reflective identity. Efforts by black militants to secure the fundamental rights of such communities were soon organized. On a regular basis, and mainly in the northern states (Pará, Maranh…o), meetings were held during which the quilombo issue reached the first stage of its political construction.

In 1988, when these rights were finally acknowledged, Brazil was emerging from two decades of military rule. The new constitution was marked by a will to fully include the various minorities that until then had been excluded from citizenship. The recognition of quilombo remnant communities formed part of this wish for a renewed vision of Brazilian society. As the country was celebrating the centennial of abolition, the aim was to rehabilitate the historical resistance of its black population and to counter the dominant and widespread thesis of a docile slave population.

The state, however, viewed these remnant communities more as sites of history and memory than as living components of contemporary Brazilian society. They were thus considered part of the "wealth of the Brazilian patrimony" and were given the same status as the sites of "artistic, historic, archeological, and ecological" value mentioned in Article 216 of the constitution. The task of identifying and legalizing the land of quilombos was therefore entrusted to the Palmares Cultural Foundation, linked to the Ministry of Culture, rather than to the Institute of National Colonization and Agricultural Reform, the agency usually responsible for agrarian reform. It was furthermore decided that the claims for legal property would be examined on the basis of an anthropological assessment, which would evaluate the authenticity of claims to a quilombo ancestry. Such indicators -- the existence of an "ethnic identity" and "ethnic territory," a "myth of origins," a "quilombo memory," and significant elements of "black traditional culture" -- would be considered evidence to be deposited in the legalization procedure files of communities claiming quilombo origins.

The constitutional clause of 1988 was followed by seven years of virtual immobility. Even though the militant movements, NGOs, and church organizations carried out activities alongside rural black communities, and even though the "experts" did attest to the "authenticity" of some of them, none of these communities had its right to property recognized. Competent authorities often claimed that Article 68 was "non auto-applicable." This argument was a smokescreen hiding the political ill-will nourished by fear of legal changes that could lead to large-scale redistribution of land, but the questions continued. Instructions were said to be lacking. What was to be understood by "quilombo"? What was meant by "quilombo remnant"? What government agency ought to be empowered to process the land legalization?

It was 1995 before these issues were finally debated in public. That year, quilombos almost became fashionable. The government declared a year of national celebration to commemorate the 300(th) anniverary of the death of Zumbi, hero of the famous quilombo of Palmares. Zumbi was officially proclaimed "hero of the Brazilian nation" and a stamp and medal were issued in his memory. In the wake of the national commemorations, Zumbi and the quilombos became the objects, for a few weeks, of a national mania expressed through telenovelas (Brazilian soap operas), theater, brochures, academic seminars, and popular manifestations such as carnival. That year, the highly respected newspaper Folha de S…o Paulo mentioned the name of Zumbi in 460 articles; only five articles had referred to him during the previous year. It was thus in the context of the "Zumbi Year" that the issue of remnant communities achieved its most notable upturn. Two legal amendments were enacted in the House of Representatives to finally allow the constitution to be implemented. Perceived by the militants and the public as contemporary quilombos, Brazil's black communities gained a genuine celebrity that year. The state, which had sought to link the Zumbi commemorations to a broader reflection on racial inequalities, showed eagerness to make concessions to the highly mobilized militant movements. On Zumbi Memorial Day (November 20(th)), President Cardoso, using extraordinary legal procedures, announced the first legalization of several quilombo remnant communities.

Quilombo Remnant Communities

On Zumbi Memorial Day, the representatives of some 20 black communities were invited to a large Zumbi for Justice and Life march, organized in Brasília as a boycott of the official ceremonies. (The government had been accused of appropriating Zumbi for national reconciliation ends.) For the crowd of militants, politicians, and journalists who gathered for that event, the opportunity finally arrived to meet those enigmatic black communities. For the latter, what was at stake was mainly the opportunity to take advantage of exposure to a national audience in order to express their claims and complaints.

The community representatives from Kalunga, Frechal, Saco das Almas, Itapecuru, Bananal, Pau d'Arco, and Jamary dos Pretos in turn denounced land speculators threatening to expel the population of their towns, the hydroelectric project that would lead to major land flooding, and the excessive constraints imposed by the state on natural resource exploitation. All representatives demanded equipment for medical care, schools, wells for water supply, and electricity. In general, the practical concerns these people voiced were distant from the "forgotten Africa" image that journalists, politicians, and militants had been promulgating.

Nonetheless, that image of forgotten Africa later allowed the black community of Rio das R…s, in the state of Bahia, to put an end to the violent land conflict that pitted them against a rich landowner who showed no hesitation in threatening them and burning their fields with the sole purpose of expelling 200 or so families who had been living on the land for more than two centuries. In 1993, after fruitless attempts to obtain legal land titles through the agrarian reform procedures, a congressman suggested that the families' defense should be organized on the grounds of the recent quilombo legislation: "Are we black? Yes! Are we descended from runaway slaves? Yes! And we're not ashamed of this at all. We must recognize that the historic roots of Bahia lie in our black blood."

This manifesto of the local leaders of Rio das R…s marked a significant shift in identity. The community was no longer composed of "workers on the land" pressing for agrarian reform, but of quilombolas demanding the recognition of their territory. This ethnicization of the discourse coincided with a reorganization of the community around a quilombola association. Young politicized leaders replaced the traditional leaders. Having perfectly identified the stakes surrounding their new quilombola image, they quickly learned to shape it to the one produced by the distorting mirror handed them. To be visible, they had to conform. The publicity about the conflict, spread by the black movements and the progressive branch of the Catholic Church, rapidly led to an onslaught by journalists, anthropologists, college students, sightseers, and other outsiders. The community doyen, Chico Tomé -- celebrating his 100(th) birthday in 1994 -- was proclaimed a "living symbol of the quilombo." In Salvador, capital of the state of Bahia and cultural capital of black Brazil, events were organized in association with Afro-Brazilian carnival groups. In the Zumbi Year, the members of one of these organized groups marched in carnival wearing costumes emblazoned with "Rio das R…s."

In the community itself, very few really understood this "quilombo story." For the local population, what mattered was that an end had finally come to the land conflict that had meant the destruction of their fields and the exile of many families. Except for the gradually politicized leaders, nobody really perceived how their ancestors' history could ensure land rights. That history, as they themselves remembered it, told about "Nâgos" who spoke a language nobody else could understand, or about an "Alley of the Blacks" through which the neighboring estate slaves escaped temporarily to "dance and flirt." The elder ones still describe today, miming on their bodies, the tortures inflicted back then on those who were caught.

Since 1865, the families had been living in peace in the Rio das R…s area, sharing the land with the half-wild cattle of a white man who claimed to be the landowner but was never there. In the 1970s, when Brazilian agriculture was evolving into the "great projects" era, and when land was acquiring a speculative value, the expulsion threats began. Today, however, the victory of the people of Rio das R…s is complete. Officially recognized as a quilombo remnant by the Ministry of Culture, the population now owns some 66,690 acres of land. The legal title to the property is collective -- that is, the land is indivisible and cannot be sold, which should shelter the families from any further aggression.

The population, which had been ignored by the local state authorities and never touched by a public budget, experienced a complete material revolution. The neighboring City Hall had the sandy track leading to the diverse settlements of the community resurfaced; a sophisticated mill for producing manioc flour was finished; a new school was inaugurated (although, a few years ago, a political shift put a premature end to its construction), and the CODEVASF (Company of Development of the S…o Francisco Valley) quickly made two major investments. A well, finished within a few weeks, solved the drought problem that had plagued the region eight months of the year. A 20-acre irrigation project involving a gas pump and motor was completed. Electricity later made its way to Rio das R…s.

Toward a Steadier Recognition Process

Rio das R…s and the other five black communities that received land titles around 1995 took advantage of a fortunate set of circumstances. Held up as symbols in the context of the Zumbi Year, these communities were chosen by a government eager to make a public gesture. Nevertheless, these developments have continued and there are numerous positive ongoing occurrences regarding quilombo remnant communities. As the NGOs, lawyers, politicians, anthropologists, historians, and even photographers who specialize in the promotion and defense of the remnant communities proliferate, the legislation regarding these communities is improving in light of practical realities. For its part, the Palmares Foundation, gaining in stability and maturity, is committing itself to the systematic task of recognition. By the year 2000, 724 black communities had already been identified, involving a total population estimated at two million (see the map on page 22). A little more than 30 of them have been attributed the status of quilombo remnants on the basis of an anthropological assessment attesting to the legitimacy of their claims. Eighteen of them have already received their land titles, corresponding to a total area of 872,194 acres for some 25,000 people. Four more communities are currently in the process of legalizing another 34,152 acres of land inhabited by about 10,000 people.

In spite of this undeniable progress, numerous barriers remain. The official recognition of a remnant community too rarely leads to effective land legalization. The often violent resistance of big landowners makes a truly large-scale and systematic application of the law impossible. Heterogeneous but always hostile landed estate and political configurations require that the problem be handled case by case. Everywhere, especially in situations involving private property, seemingly interminable legal battles are being fought. And the quilombo remnant ethno-historical requisites stated in the law generate numerous problems. The anthropological assessments are expensive, take time to be carried out, and sometimes lead to rather odd land demarcations. The exclusiveness of the cultural and anthropological criteria, for example, once led experts to delimit a territory that deprived a community of its vital withdrawal zone during the neighboring river's flood season solely because that zone did not correspond to their ancestors' historic land. The mistake, in that case, was quickly corrected. It does, however, highlight the distance between the cultural or urban representation of what quilombo remnant communities are expected to be (forgotten Africa) and the reality of rural black people dealing with real-life situations and confronted with modernity.

The appeal to a quilombo image imposed by law and by some urban partners drives the concerned populations to perplexity, and even to revolt. The urge toward modernity by rural populations does not fit the politicized and racialized discourses of black urban militants, the emphatic incentives of some NGOs for collective community work, or the natural resources control (dictated by conservation logic) that the state tries to link to quilombo status.

Increasingly aware of these serious conceptual discrepancies, most actors involved in the quilombo issue are now showing a greater degree of pragmatism and realism. Anthropologists and historians have come to a better understanding of rural black communities; they are calling for a broader definition of quilombo remnants. Regardless of their specific history and whether or not it began with a quilombo, these communities share characteristics such as an ethnic identity -- they stand out as "black" in a highly mixed society -- or a collective conception of land ownership. It should therefore be those characteristics, deeply rooted in the present, that the legislation considers, not historical ones. The recent legalization of some black communities without a quilombo past demonstrates a new flexibility of the type academics have been calling for. The Palmares Foundation is increasingly linking the recognition process to development issues on the grounds that black communities must be given help in their quest for modernity; a large-scale school equipment program has been launched, along with diverse economic development projects. Moreover, a growing number of NGOs are working to get the black communities involved in the fair trade economic network. Finally, political actors are (sometimes successfully) inciting the new "quilombo elite" to enter the local political arena.

Even if the forgotten Africa image still dominates the national imagination, quilombo remnant communities are progressively making their way toward full citizenship.

References & further reading

Agier, M. (1992). Ethnopolitique Racisme, statut et mouvement noir à Bahia. Cahiers d'Etudes Africaines 22:1, pp 53-81.

Gusm...o, N.M. Mendes de (1990). A quest...o política das chamadas "terras de preto." In Tetras e territórios de negros no Brasil: textos e debates. Florianópolis: UFSC. Pp 25-37.

Fundaç...o Cultural Palmares (2000). Quilombos no Brasil. Revista Palmares 5, Brasília [available upon request at].

Nascimento, Abdias do. (1980). O quilombismo; documentos de urea milit...ncia pan-Africanista. Petrópolis: Editora Vozes.

O'Dwyer, E.C. (1993). Remanescentes de quilombos na fronteira Amazônica a etnicidade como instrumento de luta pela terra. Revista da Associaç...o Brasileira para a Reforma Agrária (ABRA) 3:3, pp 26-38.

Price, R. (1998). Scrapping Maroon History: Brazil's Promise, Suriname's Shame. New West Indian Guide 72, pp 233-255.

Véran, J-F. (1999). Rio das R...s, "terre de noir" entre marché ethnique et conflit foncier au Brésil. Ph.D. dissertation, Marseille: EHESS. Available by request of the author:

Véran, J-F. (1999, janvier-mars). Brésil: les découvertes du quilombo. La construction hétérogène d'une question nationale. La Documentation Française, Problèmes d'Amérique Latine 32, pp 53-72.

Vogt, C. & Fry, P. (1996). A ....frica no Brasil Cafundó. S...o Paulo, Brazil: Companhia das Letras.

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