Descendants of enslaved Africans seek land rights in the Amazon

A slave descendant person, or a Quilombola looks on during a protest for recognition and support of Indigenous people in education and against Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro's Government in Brasilia, Brazil October 7, 2021

A slave descendant person, or a Quilombola looks on during a protest for recognition and support of Indigenous people in education and against Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro's Government in Brasilia, Brazil October 7, 2021. REUTERS/Adriano Machado

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At the Amazon rainforest summit in Brazil's Belem, descendants of slaves including quilombola communities demand more rights

  • Summit on Amazon rainforest begins in Brazil's Belem
  • Brazil vows to protect Black populations, tackle racism
  • 'Quilombola' communities call for recognition, land titles

BELÉM, Brazil - As leaders of Amazon nations meet in Brazil for a summit on protecting the rainforest, descendants of African slaves who escaped into the forest centuries ago are seeking land rights in an echo of the struggle by Indigenous peoples.

President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva is meeting heads of other Amazon nations in the Brazilian city of Belém on Tuesday and Wednesday to better conserve the rainforest, promote its sustainable use, stem biodiversity loss and attract funding.

And his Minister of Racial Equality Anielle Franco is spearheading policies to reduce a historical racial divide in the nation between the descendants of European settlers, Africans, Indigenous peoples and others.

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"This is a moment to alert that the Amazon should not be seen only as the lungs of the world, rather as the home of Indigenous, Black ... people and traditional communities that experience inequality and violence daily", Franco said at a meeting in Belém.

At the event, Franco launched a committee to monitor Black populations and confront environmental racism in the Amazon.

In redressing historical wrongs in the Amazon, much of the focus is on the rights of 400 Indigenous peoples for whom the forest has always been home. Brazil has 1.7 million Indigenous people, representing 0.8% of its population of 214 million.

Escaped captives

However, recently released census data shows, for the first time, that Brazil also has 1.32 million "quilombolas" – descendants of slaves brought from Africa who took refuge and formed communities, usually in natural areas, as they escaped from captivity.

Brazil formally abolished slavery in 1888.

After Franco's weekend speech at the Amazon Dialogues, a civil society meeting, the audience chanted: "the strong Black has a lot of history, the Amazon is also quilombola". Franco herself is of Black African descent, but not quilombola.

New Minister of Racial Equality Anielle Franco gestures near the new Minister of Indigenous Peoples Sonia Guajajara during an inauguration ceremony at the Planalto Palace, in Brasilia, Brazil January, 11, 2023

New Minister of Racial Equality Anielle Franco gestures near the new Minister of Indigenous Peoples Sonia Guajajara during an inauguration ceremony at the Planalto Palace, in Brasilia, Brazil January, 11, 2023. REUTERS/Ueslei Marcelino

New Minister of Racial Equality Anielle Franco gestures near the new Minister of Indigenous Peoples Sonia Guajajara during an inauguration ceremony at the Planalto Palace, in Brasilia, Brazil January, 11, 2023. REUTERS/Ueslei Marcelino

If the government really does intend to implement a new, sustainable, development model for the Amazon, the quilombola populations want their land rights assured.

"People fled (captivity) and went to the countryside, the denser the woods, the better", as it is from nature that quilombolas survive, said Valdener Pereira, a quilombola activist.

"We need the forests, or else we live as employees at farms or in the cities", said Pereira, who is an advisor at ASSEMA, an association that promotes responsible exploitation of forest products by communities.

Land rights

As in the case of Indigenous populations, a growing body of research shows that recognizing the rights of quilombola communities to the land they inhabit is an effective way of protecting nature.

But the census also revealed that only 5% of quilombolas currently live in fully recognized areas.

Black Brazilians attend the Amazon Dialogues ahead of the Amazon Summit in Belém, Brazil, August, 7, 2023

Black Brazilians attend the Amazon Dialogues ahead of the Amazon Summit in Belém, Brazil, August, 7, 2023. Thomson Reuters Foundation/André Cabette Fábio

Black Brazilians attend the Amazon Dialogues ahead of the Amazon Summit in Belém, Brazil, August, 7, 2023. Thomson Reuters Foundation/André Cabette Fábio

Recent government data obtained by journalism initiative InfoAmazonia indicates that there are 148 fully recognized quilombos - communities founded by fugitive slaves - and 583 under the process of recognition in Amazon states.

Without territory recognition, Amazon quilombola land has often been deforested, turned into farms and handed out to private owners, leading many quilombolas to flee, said Pereira, who was raised in a city.

"Wherever there was a quilombo, there was a forest, which only ended with the introduction of extensive cattle ranching, and, over the last 20 years, monocultures", said Pereira.

Often, this process has been driven through violence.

"It is as if we were outsiders at the Amazon", even though many communities have inhabited it for hundreds of years, he said.

Celso Isidoro Araújo Pacheco, youth coordinator at CONAQ (National Coordination of Black Rural Quilombola Communities), said that the recent census puts a spotlight on the quilombola presence in the Amazon.

Without land documents, "we do not have access to important public policies", such as housing and financial incentives, he said. Pacheco lives in a territory that has not been fully recognized.

He believes the same will apply in the case of the economically friendly environmental policies discussed at the summit, such as carbon credits and agroforestry projects.

"In order to have a bioeconomy, you have to title the territories", he said, or else communities will be left out of the environmental policies.

Violence has also scarred Franco's family.

As Franco climbed to the stage in Belém for her weekend speech, the audience chanted: "Anielle present, Marielle present!".

It was a reference to Anielle's sister, Marielle Franco, a city councillor from Rio de Janeiro who became a symbol of Brazil's Black movement after her assassination by gunmen in 2018. Two suspects are currently on trial.

(Reporting by Andre Cabette Fabio; Editing by Alister Doyle)


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Silvana Nihua, president of the Waorani Organization of Pastaza (OWAP), travels along the Curaray River where indigenous communities reside in riverside villages in the Amazon province of Pastaza, Ecuador, on April 26, 2022

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Updated: August 11, 2023


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