To ensure their farms and mines prospered in colonial Brazil, the Portuguese in the 16th century imported slaves from Africa, a practice that continued until 1888. Today, descendants of those slaves are again at the center of questions about Brazil's prosperity in the debate over the disposition of the quilombos.
Quilombos are rural settlements founded by freed or runaway slaves. The right of inhabitants to their land is enshrined in the Brazilian constitution of 1988. Since 1995, the government department responsible for land regularization, Incra, has been formalizing their ownership. Still, residents are frequently harassed and threatened with displacement, all the more so when their land rights get in the way of somebody else's business or the government's economic growth plans.
Carlos Tautz, a journalist and coordinator of the More Democracy Institute for Transparency and Citizen Control of Governments and Companies, wrote on the popular Blog do Noblat on the O Globo newspaper site:
The federal court recognizes the prerogatives of indigenous people and the quilombolas, but the economy does not recognize the legitimacy of their rights. It has been this way throughout Brazilian history and has not been any different in this last surge of economic growth that began about ten years ago.
Tautz was commenting on a controversy over a project by minerals giant Vale to add another track to its Amazonian railway, which transports iron ore from the company's Carajas mine in Para state. A judge has suspended work on the railway, citing damage to the environment and the surrounding communities, which include around 80 quilombos. According to the order, Brazil’s environmental agency, Ibama, issued a license for the project without conducting a proper impact assessment.
On the blog Valeqvale, Lucio Flavio Pinto, a journalist based in Para state, described the battle between Vale and the local communities as “the fight between David and Goliath.”
Never mind that battle's surprising outcome. Tautz wrote of this one: “It proves the limit of our democratic model and shows who is in charge under Brazilian capitalism.” Iron ore exports, particularly to China, are hugely important to Brazil’s economy. Vale says that expansion of the Carajas mine and its transportation outlets will increase the company's iron ore exports from 109.8 million metric tons in 2011 to 150 million by 2014.
Pinto acknowledged the economic value of the mine but said Vale was obsessed with speed. “This quest for the maximum seems to have prevented Vale and Ibama from paying attention to the people who exist along the 900 kilometers of railway.” These people, he said, “became an abstraction."
Another battle is simmering in the impoverished community of Alcantara, in Maranhao, Brazil's poorest state. The area is home to many quilombos. In the 1980s, 300 families were relocated to make way for a rocket base, the Centro de Lancamento de Alcantara, built by Brazil to exploit the isolated location near the equator and gain access to the satellite-launch market. Now the government wants to expand the base.
Residents oppose the expansion. They complain that the rocket center has provided them few benefits and that they are unable to fish and farm unfettered because of concerns by base officials that they may be spying.
“We are not against the CLA. We are not against the Brazilian space program,” lawyer and Alcantara quilombo native Danilo Lopes told a conference of the Brazilian Society for the Progression of Science. He continued:
We understand its strategic importance and we want our children to have the chance to participate in these projects as thinkers. But we cannot permit them to continue denying our constitutional right to live on our land.
Jose Coelho, president of the Brazilian space agency, told the conference that research and teaching centers should be established to involve Alcantara’s residents in the space center:
I don’t want the next generations of quilombolas to be mere soldiers in the service of launch sites. I want them, yes, to be scientists and researchers able to carry on our space exploration and to put an end to this history of segregation.
It was a nice idea. The residents of Alcantara were not likely to put much faith in it, however.
In Bahia state, the quilombo of Rio dos Macacos has existed for hundreds of years. A nearby navy base was established in 1972. The base wants 46 families who live nearby to move. A court has said they must.
On Aug. 7 a judge ordered the eviction of the community within 15 days. Thousands signed a petition opposing the eviction. A Facebook group called I Am Quilombo Rio dos Macacos gathered additional support. Then Incra delivered a report saying the community is a legitimate quilombo. A number of government departments are trying to find a solution.
In a video posted on the Centro Pastoral Afro Padree Heitor blog, an Afro-Brazilian rights site, Rosemeire Santos, one of the quilombo’s leaders, said that like most residents of the community, she was illiterate and had not understood the first legal notices that arrived telling residents to leave. “Even now, for us poor and black, human rights don’t exist."
In an interview on the site, she said the military intimidated residents by shining lights on them from helicopters at night and preventing them from leaving and entering the community. “It’s like we are still living in the slave quarters,” she said.
Speaking at the science conference, reporter Henrique Kugler concluded that the situation at the Alcantara base painted "a typical picture of the general contradiction that is Brazil. After all, it is a technology center surrounded by land where the 21st Century has barely arrived." For slave descendants such as Santos, it does sometimes seem like the past is not far behind.
(Dom Phillips is the Rio de Janeiro correspondent for World View. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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