May 17, 2018 / 10:20 AM / in 10 months

Rural slave descendants risk all to fight for land in Brazil

MARIA JOAQUINA, Brazil (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Rejane Maria da Costa has fallen out with neighbors and faced repeated death threats in her battle for Brazil to recognize her community’s claim to the land their ancestors inhabited.

Yet the 42-year-old, who makes a meager living growing cassava on a small patch of land behind her single-story home, is determined to keep up the fight for the rights of her small rural settlement descended from slaves.

“We won’t give up,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation at her home in the poor neighborhood of Maria Joaquina, about 170 km (105 miles) northeast of Rio de Janeiro.

“I can’t be afraid. I’m not just fighting for something for me. I’m fighting for something for all of us.”

When Brazil abolished slavery 130 years ago this week, at least 4 million slaves had arrived there from Africa to work on sugar plantations and in other sectors of the country’s flourishing economy.

Many of those who escaped the harsh working conditions set up homes in settlements across Brazil known as quilombos.

The fight for a safe home by the 16 million quilombolas, as the inhabitants of these settlements are known, is part of an increasingly violent struggle for land across Brazil.

The country is rich in land for development but low on deeds and formal records, leading to enormous tension and conflict over property rights.


For the quilombolas slavery’s bitter legacy persists.

They are among the poorest in Brazil and even though the 1988 constitution enshrined their property rights, most of them have no formal documents to prove ownership of their land.

Only 250 quilombo communities out of some 5,000 throughout Brazil have legal titles to their land, according to the Fundacao Cultural Palmares, the government body in charge of recognizing their territory and ancestry.

Maria Joaquina is home to 87 families descended from former slaves and Da Costa is spearheading their efforts to get the papers that will prove their rights to the land they inhabit.

It is a difficult and dangerous job.

Last year 14 quilombo residents were murdered across Brazil, according to the Brazilian rural violence watchdog Comissão Pastoral da Terra (CPT). Six of them were activists.

Da Costa, who received death threats she believes were made by a neighbor with a rival claim, still looks over her shoulder and avoids going out at night.

“For my own protection I have been advised to disappear for a while,” she said.

Brazil’s constitution states quilombolas are entitled to a permanent, non-transferable title to the land they occupy.

But it is a long and bureaucratic process.

Maria Joaquina was only officially recognized as a quilombo in 2011 but the process of getting land titles has been stalled since 2013.

The Brazilian government’s budget for certifying the land rights of quilombo residents has been cut by 94 percent in the past five years.

Officials say there are not enough resources to sponsor field studies or to pay compensation to those evicted.


Meanwhile, the lack of legal clarity over ownership has caused a rift between neighbors.

Several inhabitants of the quilombo say they have clashed with the occupant of a farm who has staked his own legal claim to some of the land.

The quilombolas accuse the farmer of blocking access to forest where they used to collect pepper seeds, an important source of income for the community.

The farmer denies any conflict, but disputes the quilombolas’ right to the land they have occupied for generations, citing a lack of documentation.

Professor Nilma Acciolli, a historian who has been studying 10 quilombos in the area, said Maria Joaquina had been established as a cassava farm about 200 years ago, using slave labor.

“This area was predominantly occupied by black people since the 19th century,” he said.

“Apart from being slaves’ descendants, they have been there living, farming, occupying the land for a long time. If you live and keep the land productive, you have the right to it.”

For Da Costa, the prospect of finally holding the title deed in her hands is motivation enough to fight on.

“I picture the day when we will get the document,” she said. “It’s going to be raining and we will be singing, dancing, jumping and celebrating. Because only then we will be really free.”

Reporting by Elisangela Mendonca, Editing by Claire Cozens and Astrid Zweynert @azweynert. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. Visit

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