Slaves' descendants in Brazil braced for land titles' fight

RIO DE JANEIRO (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - As Brazil marks 130 years since the abolition of slavery this year, the descendants of runaway slaves have been celebrating two major victories in their long fight to get legal title to their land.

In the northern state of Para, 500 of them in Quilombo Cachoeira Porteira took formal ownership of 220,000 hectares (543,631 acres) this month, one of the largest such awards, after a legal fight that lasted more than two decades.

“It is a story that has involved crying, remorse and attack by many who thought it was impossible,” Ivanildo Souza, head of the Quilombola Association of Cachoeira Porteira, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone.

When Brazil abolished slavery in 1888, at least 4 million slaves had been brought there from Africa to work on sugar plantations and in other sectors of the country’s flourishing economy.

Some 16 million of the quilombolas, as the slaves’ descendants are known, live in around 5,000 rural settlements, according to the Fundação Cultural Palmares, a government body that preserves and promotes Afro-Brazilian art and culture.

They are among the poorest people in Brazil, with a poverty rate of around 75 percent among quilombolas, compared to 25.4 percent in the general population, government data shows.

In Quilombo Cachoeira Porteira where Souza, 43, lives, the quilombolas eke out a living by harvesting nuts, and through subsistence farming and fishing.

Estimates vary but it is thought only around 250 of the country’s quilombolo settlements have title deeds to their land, benefiting some 31,000 families, according to government data.

Without land titles, the quilombolas don’t have access to social benefits, such as subsidized housing.

“These communities can only have access to public policies if they have land titles,” Erivaldo Oliveira, head of Fundação Cultural Palmares, said.

But threats are also looming from illegal loggers and gold miners encroaching on quilombola land, activists said.


The land titles for Quilombo Cachoeira Porteira came just a month after the Supreme Court dismissed a 15-year legal fight in which a right-wing party tried to overturn a decree that guaranteed land for quilombolas.

In a majority vote, the judges on Feb. 8 ruled a 2003 decree by former president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva did not breach the constitution, and upheld the right of quilombolas to self-identify in order to qualify for plots of land.

The ruling was celebrated as a major victory for the quilombolas at a time when indigenous and communal territories are under threat by center-right President Michel Temer’s drive to open up the Amazon to mining and other commercial interests.

“The territorial guarantee is very important,” said Juliana de Paula, a lawyer at advocacy group Instituto Socioambiental (ISA).

Yet the quilombolas face an uphill struggle as austerity measures have seen cuts to government departments aimed at lifting Brazil out of its worst recession in decades.

INCRA, the government body tasked with managing and demarcating rural land, has seen its budget cut 90 percent since 2012 to just 4.75 million reais ($1.46 million).

“The fight is very arduous ... we have to fight every moment as INCRA has no budget for land demarcation to quilombolas,” Oliveira said.

In a statement, INCRA said the February court ruling guaranteed legal security for land demarcation processes to benefit communities that lack titles.

“The government cannot be negligent claiming budget constraints forever,” said de Paula.

De Paula said lack of land titles also made the quilombolas more vulnerable to pressure and violence from illegal loggers and gold miners encroaching on their land.

The number of quilombolas murdered in Brazil reached a record high of 14 in 2017, up from eight deaths in the previous year and just one case in 2015, according to a survey by the National Coordination of Rural Black Communities.

Advocacy group ISA said it was unclear whether the murders recorded in 2017 were related to conflicts over property, but at least six of those killed last year were leaders of the quilombola land rights movement.