CBC in Brazil

Brazil communities founded by escaped slaves under new threat

On top of the economic and political chaos enveloping Brazil, a certain group of residents are facing another battle. Communities founded by escaped slaves are losing their land to developers. Though some are now fighting back.

Many of the country's 3,500 'quilombos' are on valuable land coveted by developers

The pedra do sal, a cultural touchstone in the Rio quilombo that bears its name (Kim Brunhuber/CBC)

Nestled in the heart of Rio is a neighbourhood known as Little Africa. A large rock forms its touchstone, and after school, children glide screaming down its surface. It is a rock that has been worn smooth not by these children, though, but by slaves.

"This is called 'Rock of Salt,'" says historian Claudio Honorato, "because here there was the salt warehouse. Slaves unloaded salt here and other goods."

Honorato points to steps hewn in its surface. "These steps in the rock were made by the slaves in order to climb the stone. This is the synthesis of the history of the Afro-Brazilian culture in Rio de Janeiro."

This neighbourhood, formally known as Pedra do Sal, is what is known as a quilombo, one of the more than 3,500 Brazilian communities founded by escaped slaves.

In 1988, Brazil gave those who live in quilombos a constitutional right to stay on their land, in part as reparations for the country's sad legacy of slavery. 

But now, more than 25 years later, many feel that Brazil's guarantee is as empty as the promise made to American slaves of 40 acres and a mule.

A few quilombos are totally urban, like this one. However most are rural and many are impoverished. (Kim Brunhuber/CBC)

Several kilometres to the east, hidden among the trees, is a much smaller community called Quilombo Sacopã.

It's a collection of about a dozen houses owned by the descendants of the Sacopãs. They've been here, says Luiz Sacopã, for six generations.

And as you walk through the community, you can see vestiges of African culture: in one corner is a small candomblé shrine, a Brazilian reinvention of an old West African religion.

Land now valuable

"If this Brazil today exists, it's because it was made with the slave labour," says Sacopã. "And today I think that the figure of the quilombolas is the representation of the pathfinders that suffered in the past and still suffer today."

For more than a century the families of Quilombo Sacopã say they fended off evictions and forced relocations. 

One of the residents, Marcia Pinto, says that, these days, it feels like the well-off in adjacent neighbourhoods want them moved into slums.

"I believe they think the poor people can't stay here together with them," Pinto says.

Luiz Sacopã has helped residents of other quilombos fight for their land titles (Kim Brunhuber/CBC)

But the opposition is about more than race. The quilombos are often built on land that is now extremely valuable.

"This area of the Sacopã quilombo is valued at 360 million Reals ($130 million). This has drawn the attention of the real estate market and they're now pursuing us."

In other areas, Sacopã says, developers have even contaminated the water in order to force people off their land.

"From the government, he says, we've seen nothing but cowardice," he says.

A candomblé shrine, based on religious traditions that originated in West Africa (Kim Brunhuber/CBC)

After a long legal battle, Sacopã says he managed to get a document recognizing his family's claim.

"We don't have the final title, but we have the domain. So at this moment, the real estate speculation is inhibited because they know that this area can't be commercialized. They can't act against us." 

But he's the exception.

"In many parts of Brazil, although the areas were recognized as quilombos, the land titles haven't been provided yet," Honorato says. "There are very few entitled quilombo lands in Brazil." 

Historian Claudio Onorato says reparations have to be more than "just an apology." (Kim Brunhuber/CBC)

 Honorato says that only about 10 per cent of the land claims have been recognized. 

The Brazilian government — cash-strapped, facing daily demonstrations — has more immediate concerns than righting historical wrongs. 

Those who live in the quilombos have traditionally voted for the ruling party. But those who live here say if their demands are ignored, their support can't be taken for granted.

"The slavery reparations," Honorato says, "have to be more than just an apology."

About the Author

Kim Brunhuber

Los Angeles correspondent

Kim Brunhuber is a CBC News Senior Reporter based in Los Angeles. He has travelled the world from Sierra Leone to Afghanistan as a videojournalist, shooting and editing pieces for TV, radio and online. Originally from Montreal, he speaks French and Spanish, and is also a published novelist.

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