Published: June 17, 2007Brazil
Children play under coconut palms that line the Atlantic shore of Ilha de Maré, an island in the Bay of All Saints in northeastern Brazil. The island's tiny community of Praia Grande was declared a 'quilombo' in 2004, giving its black residents some rights to the land. (Carl Juste/Miami Herald)
Tug of war over land, customs
Afro-Brazilians are pushing for the government to recognize an increasing number of quilombos black settlements to help preserve their culture.

RIO DE JANEIRO -- José Luiz Pinto's grandparents first came to Quilombo Sacopa more than 120 years ago as escaped slaves.

A hillside cave, then in virgin jungle but now in the heart of Rio de Janeiro, provided a good hiding place at first. They later built a house nearby.

That house has since sprouted into a community housing Pinto and about 30 relatives. It has also joined a key part of Brazilian history as one of the country's more than 1,100 recognized quilombos, or historic historical settlements founded by escaped slaves or their descendants.

For Pinto, a 65-year-old musician, living where his grandparents settled to escape an unjust, bloody institution is a point of pride.

"My grandparents died always fighting and resisting the injustice around them," Pinto said on a recent morning while walking through the quilombo. "That's what this community represents."

Increasingly, black leaders are drawing inspiration from that history and hailing the quilombos as symbols of a rising movement to give more political and economic power to Afro-Brazilians. At the same time, more settlements are winning federal recognition and seeking title to the land they are built on.

Pinto said that winning such recognition in 2004 was crucial to ensuring his quilombo's future.

Since his grandparents' days, the surrounding neighborhood has turned into one of Rio de Janeiro's most exclusive, and developers and neighbors have tried for decades to remove Pinto and his family.

Those efforts have since stopped, and Pinto is applying for title to the 4.4 acres that his family lives on. They also receive government aid for quilombos.

Since taking office in 2003, President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva has jump-started the quilombo movement, and upset powerful landowners, by streamlining the process for granting them the settlements official recognition and land rights.

A fisherman maneuvers his boat off Ilha de Maré. Black residents of a nearby 'quilombo' -- population 40 -- are applying for title to their farms. (Carl Juste/Miami Herald)

Rolf Hachbart, head of the country's land-reform agency, said that helping quilombos is one way the government is paying a historic historical debt for slavery. More than half of the 63 settlements with land titles nationwide received them under Lula da Silva's government.

The Brazilian government estimates that as many as 2 two million people live in recognized and unrecognized quilombos that total about 116,000 square miles of land.

"These people came here as slaves and never had the right to land," Hachbart said. ‘‘They were poor and excluded, and we are trying to fix what was historically wrong."

Landowner groups and other critics, however, have accused the communities of abusing the system to seize more land than they are entitled to. They have also assailed reforms that allow communities to identify themselves as descended from escaped slaves, rather than await word from anthropologists.

"Having these quilombos self-declare has created a very messy system," said Leôncio de Souza Brito Filho, president of the land-issues commission of Brazil's main agricultural industry group. ‘‘This is creating mistrust everywhere."

Hugo Dutra, 11, plays in a 'quilombo' in Rio de Janeiro.(Carl Juste/Miami Herald)

Quilombo leaders said their fight wasn't just about land. Many also keep alive the traditions of their communities' founders, including growing the same foods and practicing the same religions.

"The difference between us and other communities is that people are preserving the customs of our ancestors, of the people who came in the 18th century," said Ananias Nery, a leader of a group of quilombos near the northeastern Brazilian town of Cachoeira.

For 76-year-old Gregório Capistano and about 40 farmers and fishermen on an island in the Bay of All Saints near Cachoeira, winning quilombo status in 2004 brought long-delayed self-determination.

The conditions on the island more than 40 years ago were not much better than slavery, Capistano said. Every farmer had to give up to half of his crops to a local family that controlled the island, although even though it was mostly public land. Farmers who refused were beaten.

Now, Capistano and his neighbors get to keep what they produce and are applying for title to their farms.

"When I first came here, there was so much suffering," he said. "Everything we grew, they took. . . . Now, we work for ourselves."


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