There are over 2,200 quilombos - rural Afro-Brazilian communities that formed colonies of resistance against slavery - in Brazil today. (Ministry of Agrarian Development figures, 2005) In the African language Iorubá, 'quilombos' means 'housing'. Many slaves rebelled and constituted quilombo communities as territories of housing, resistance and social organization.
There are also quilombos formed by lands where the slaves were fattened to be sold, or through lands donated or abandoned by former landlords. Some quilombos were also formed on lands bought by freed slaves. In 1850, trafficking in slaves was forbidden by law. From then on, the campaign to abolish slavery became stronger, and had the support of intellectuals and politicians. Finally, in 1880, during the absence of the emperor, who was travelling in Europe, Princess Isabel - acting as regent - promulgated the Aurea Law, abolishing slavery.
Although the Brazilian Constitution of 1988 guarantees return of land titles to Quilombolas (residents of Quilombos), so far only 70 communities have had their lands regulated by the federal government. While local and state governments are also authorized to regularize lands, so far there has not been a single initiative to register quilombo lands at the local level.
"We are praying to God for the accomplishment of this dream. We have been waiting since my great-grandfather's generation. But hope never dies. This land is ours by right," says Therezinha Fernandes de Azedias, 61, born and raised in the quilombo of São José da Serra in the city of Valenga, Rio de Janeiro.
This quilombo occupies an area of 400 hectares and is a group of 30 families, all descendants of slaves. In all, there are 130 people here. The community continues to live as their ancestors did. In its almost 200 years of existence, there has been just one innovation - the arrival of electricity, bringing with it the television. Most residents are, however, agreed that the most useful function electricity performs in their lives is to heat water for their bath in winter. Before they had access to electricity, these people would boil water on a wood stove.
Therezinha Fernandes is the religious leader of the community, and entrusted with the task of ensuring the continuity of the community's identity and culture. The maintenance of their ancestral cults, in fact, became a form of resistance for the slave communities. The Catholic Church tried to convert them to Christianity, and the communities formed a unique fusion of the African Yoruba Candomblé religion, Catholicism and European spiritism. The have their own rituals, including dances, where women chant in Yoruba and drum complex and powerful African rhythms.
There are quilombos across the country, though most of them are based in northeastern Brazil. In the state of Rio de Janeiro, there are 22 quilombos. So far, just one quilombo in Rio - the Campinho da Independência - has received land titles (in 1999). (The title is given to the community as a whole, through the association of residents.)
The matter of land titles is complicated for the government as well. When the communities are settled on public lands, where there is no conflict with other assumed owners, the titling is fairly straightforward. However, when the land is the target of conflict with farmers, squatters or other people presenting land titles, the government has to settle the question of claim first. If the presented title is legitimate, the owner needs to be paid high compensation in exchange for dispossession.
"Unhappily, most areas are under conflict, with a number of titles - mostly of doubtful origin - being presented. Each time land is regularized for a quilombo, there are seven phases to go through - from the initial study of the community's claim to the final act of registration of title. By its very nature, that procedure is very long," explains Mozar Artur Dietrich, representative of the Minister of Agrarian Development. Mozar also clarifies that although the Constitution guarantees title of lands to descendants of slaves, it was only in 2003 - through Ordinance 4.887 - that the necessary mechanisms, such as dispossession of private lands and the creation of a new administrative structure, were created. The Quilombolas, however, are not impressed with this explanation. They point out that even with all this initiative, in the past two-and-a-half years since the Ordinance, only two communities have been regularized.
While organization working with the quilombos understand the bureaucratic hurdles, they point out that there is a racist streak in Brazilian society, which seeks to deny the Afro-Brazilian people their properties. These organizations - Centre on Housing Rights and Evictions; National Coordination of Quilombos Communities; and Association of Rural Negro Quilombos Communities - launched a national campaign 'A Matter of Social Justice: Regularizing Land Ownership in the Quilombos Territories' in June 2004 to fight this racism.
Today, there are 278 regularization claims by quilombos pending with the Ministry of Agrarian Development. "More than 90 per cent of the quilombo lands are located in areas that already have assumed owners. In other words, the regularization will demand slow judicial battles and need hundreds of presidential ordinances or declarations of social interest for dispossession," explains Mozart. He says that the ministry is preparing to work simultaneously on 500 community claims (the ministry will work even on claims that have not yet been presented), representing roughly 20 per cent of all quilombos in the country. By the end of the year, they hope to regularize 10 communities and recognize at least 20. (Recognition is a phase prior to land titling. Besides strengthening claim to the land, it guarantees access to programs and public projects for basic sanitation, family agriculture, education, culture, health and housing.)
The government - both federal and state - believes that land titles must come with social, economic, environmental and cultural measures to assure the preservation of the historical legacy of the quilombo communities and the protection of their members.
One such initiative is the promotion of ethnic tourism in the quilombo of São José da Serra. On an average, the place receives about 40 visitors a month. The community organizes two celebrations a year - on May 13 to celebrate the abolition of slavery in Brazil, and in November in memory of Zumbi, a leader of the Quilombo dos Palmares. The Quilombo dos Palmares is the most famous quilombo in the country. By 1700, it had a population of over 30,000 and functioned almost like an autonomous state, resisting attacks from Dutch colonists, Luso-Brazilians (the Portuguese colonists) and slave hunters. During these celebrations, the community sells handmade products, such as dolls of corn straw, and meals.
"Now we will ask the government to expand the infrastructure in order to increase the number of visitors and, thus, our family revenue," says the President of the Association of Residents of the Quilombo Sco Josi da Serra, Antonio dos Nascimento Fernandes, 56. He asserts, though, that the most ardent desire of the community is the regularization of their lands.