The color of the salt of the earth

Anthropologists are helping quilombolas get legal protection for their properties and revive traditions

MIGUEL BOYAYANA new kind of battle in the rural regions seems to have attracted very little attention in the mainstream media: the battle of the quilombola (the hiding place of runaway slaves) communities to retrieve their lands that lie throughout the entire country. Perhaps this issue is still relatively new. Although the Constitution of 1988 (article 68 of the Chapter on the Transitory Constitutional Provisions) has created an instrument for legal protection, it was only after Decree 4.887, of November 20, 2003, was enacted that the issue became a dispute. Article 2 thereof establishes broader criteria to conceptualize the term and qualifies the descendants of the quilombo communities and the ethnic-racial groups according to self-attributed criteria, specific historical background, the presupposition of African ancestry, and resistance to the historical oppression undergone by these communities.

The process of property entitlement, however, is slow and bureaucratically cumbersome. At present, the Fundação Cultural Palmares foundation is analyzing the issue of land regularizing for the descendants of the quilombos; this is expected to benefit 500 communities in 300 territories. The goal is to certify 22,650 families from 969 quilombola communities spread throughout the national territory by the end of this year. One thousand locations have already been officially identified as qualifying for certification; these locations are found in all states in Brazil, from North to South – most of them lie in the States of Bahia and Maranhão.

The controversy among landowners, local governments and rural entities began to increase when the boundaries of these lands began to be fixed. The quilombola communities rely on human rights organizations for protection, especially the Catholic Church’s Pastoral da Terra. This has led Congress to be the arena for battles between lobbyists from both sides. As a result, the Chamber of Deputies is already analyzing a Bill of Law (PDL) 44/2007) submitted by Congressman Valdir Colatto (PMDB-SC). If the bill of law is approved, it will render the decree enacted in 2003 without effect.

In the meantime, the quilombola communities and their rich history has increasingly become the object of masters’ and doctorate theses. In fact, the debate on providing these communities with legal protection included the active participation of the academic community, as stated by Neusa Maria Mendes de Gusmão, one of the pioneers in this respect. She is an anthropologist and associate professor at the College of Philosophy and Human Sciences at Unicamp. She explains that the discussion on the quilombola communities is a result of social activism by black activists. She adds that these discussions have also involved, since the seventies, researchers and members of the academic community who are concerned about the racial issue in Brazil.

This includes anthropologists. “In the nineties, many anthropologists were asked to state their positions in view of the legal provision; many of them were also asked to help draw up the territorial specialist reports necessary for the proceedings to claim the quilombola lands.” However, there was a controversy in the terms used in the law – namely, the definition of “remaining descendants” and “quilombos”. The first term is defined as something which “survived”; the other term is consolidated by conservative historiography and the domination of the common meaning given to a group of fugitive negroes (fleeing slavery). “The issue has become the target of heated discussions not only among academics but also among legal scholars and politicians.”

The stalemate, she says, mobilized anthropologists and the Brazilian Association of Anthropology/ABA to review the possible meanings of these terms, in order to make it feasible for these groups to exercise their rights to those lands. This happened not only because of the nature of the Brazilian anthropologists’ involvement with the populations they study but also because of the demands of the State, which asked the ABA to use its expertise to draw up and issue expert reports on native Indian lands and other lands, in order to make feasible the principles set forth in article 68.

The definition of “quilombo” as “a community of fugitive negro slaves,” she states, might suggest in legal proceedings that the existing communities are “remnants” of the past and as such would have to prove this origin. “However, the creation of these rural negro realities obeyed historical events and did not spring up by means of a single, homogeneous pathway, as so well explained in the story of the Campinho da Independência.” Thus, the multiple forms of access to land, historically constituted, could not be defined by the traditional concept of quilombo. Hence, the law, more than an attempt at benefiting the groups, as was the original intent, could actually create a constraint on the retrieval of the land.

MIGUEL BOYAYANWithin this context, the GT of ABA, seeking to find conceptual cover for the effective application of the law, determined the use of the term “remaining descendants of quilombos” as a legacy, a cultural and material heritage which gives these groups in a rural context their own reference and a way of being in and belonging to a specific place (Doc. of ABA, 1994). In this sense, Neusa Gusmão explains, it becomes clear that these groups are not remnants, or survivors, or anything else. “These are groups with their own daily resistance techniques, which allow them to maintain and reproduce themselves by means of specific ways of life linked to a territory which they consider as their own, as well as by means of rules on belonging and on the collective use of the land. They are organized and guided by family ties and by ties of solidarity and reciprocity.”

In the anthropologist’s opinion, “the scenario is still full of challenges, two decades after the law was decreed. The debates involve many agents and agencies, public entities and others as regards the definition and property deeds of the quilombola lands; the issue is still challenging.” She states that the lack of definition of the legal and political parameters still persists because of different interpretations and of new demands referring to the interests in the spaces occupied by the negroes, within one or another specific reality. “There are conflicts between the entities responsible for the application of the law (the case of the communities in São Paulo’s Vale do Ribeira region is significant) and also between the civil entities and associations that were created with the objective of leading the battle in the institutional field.”

On the other hand, she adds, it’s undeniable that significant progress has been made. “It is a fact that these groups have become more visible and that there are quite a few of them. In addition, the fact that they are recognized (in higher numbers) or have property deeds (very few) or have actual proof attesting to their ownership of the land (even fewer) means that they have access to various benefits.”

Likewise, these groups have strengthened their common history and new ways of organization, with the objective not only of “looking inwards” but also of “looking outwards;” this leads to rights that range from health care and education to financing for local development projects and cooperation with public entities, among others. Furthermore, the support networks were strengthened and have become sources of income based on family and/or group activities.

However, the different interpretations of agencies on how to conduct the processes affect the daily lives of these groups because of the persistence of the lack of definition and the constant revival of threats in regard to the land (even though the lands are recognized as having owners – which happens during the first phase of the process). “Sometimes, even when they already have the property deeds, the quilombola communities are unable to register their deeds at public notary’s offices and remain at the mercy of new conflicts with those who are against their rights.”

This means that many victories have been achieved since 1988, but not all of the achievements are consolidated. “This fact requires stronger mobilization on the part of all the parties involved and of those who sympathize with the quilombola cause.” Therefore, such recognition acts to provide this group with visibility and legitimacy to legally petition for their right to the land, but does not define this right. To this end, it is necessary to conclude the four stages to regularize the land, that is, identifying and establishing the boundaries, gaining official recognition, granting of the property deed and registration of the deed in the real estate title registry.

Maria Celina Pereira de Carvalho’s doctorate thesis “Bairros negros do Vale do Ribeira: do ‘escravo’ ao ‘quilombo‘” focused on the black communities in the Vale do Ribeira region. She believes that the isolation of the quilombolas (runaway slaves hiding in a quilombo) at the beginning of the XXI century is political rather than merely geographical. “There are projects to help them; the problem is that everything comes to them in a prepackaged way; nothing is discussed with the community to better meet its needs. It is necessary to consult each group and discuss with them what should be done.” Nonetheless, the struggle for the land has brought about a new mentality among the inhabitants of these communities. “In the past, some of the people didn’t even know they lived in quilombos and didn’t like to be referred to as negroes. Nowadays, this has changed quite considerably, there is a clear feeling of self-enhancement and heightened self-esteem.”

The mobilization of the region that she studied began in 1994, with the arrival of the Pastoral da Terra, which showed the inhabitants how the quilombolas could protect themselves from invaders and obtain their property deeds. Nowadays, many of these groups are politically organized. They also know that this is how they have to act in order to prevent their homes from being destroyed by water coming from the construction of dams. The women have played a very strong role in this respect.

Maria Celina first became interested in the matter in 1997, when she participated in a seminar on the threat to the quilombos as a result of the construction of dams in the Vale da Ribeira region. She contacted the communities and decided to study them for her doctorate thesis at Unicamp. Coincidentally, two years later, she started working at the Instituto de Terras de São Paulo, where she was put in charge of preparing the technical-scientific reports for the purpose of recognition and property deeds of the land.

MIGUEL BOYAYANShe focused on the communities of Galvão and São Pedro and came across the fascinating story of Bernardo Furkin, who, around 1830, set up the quilombo, with a group of fugitive slaves, close to the Bocó River. Little by little, Furkin was able to build up an efficient information network with his neighbors, which allowed for the defense of the community and for the arrival of new fugitives. At the same time, the inhabitants inter-married to form alliances.

Education specialist Ana Luiza de Souza, a native of the State of Minas Gerais, focused her master’s thesis on the History, education and daily life at the Mumbuca quilombo in the State of Minas Gerais. When she moved to the region of the Jequitinonha Valley, she began to show interest in the quilombolas of that region, when she became acquainted with those communities. She revealed an interesting aspect of Mumbuca: the founder, José Cláudio de Souza, had established a tradition that all the community members had to get an education. Souza had had some schooling and, after quitting his work in the gold mines, where he had allegedly earned a small fortune, he bought a relatively isolated area which became a quilombo. This happened in 1862. This unusual characteristic brought about the attention of the researcher, who recreated the community’s history, with special emphasis on education.

The area of the former quilombo is currently being disputed by a farmer who is using the property deed of the former ex-slave to claim his right to the adverse possession of that land. Ana Luiza says that Mumbuca went through a long era of prosperity, due to the coffee plantations there. This era lasted until the 60’s. The inhabitants of Mumbuca were respected in the neighboring towns as “educated, hard-working negroes.” The decline of the community began when the coffee exports protection policy established that all the former plantations be destroyed. The quilombolas then decided to plant manioc root, whose harvest yields are much smaller. Nowadays, while the quilombolas wait for a court decision on the ownership of the lands, they and a group of educators, including Ana Luiza, are battling to revive their traditions, such as the Festa do Rosário feast.

The relationship of the quilombos from the Vale do Ribeira region with social activists was also the subject of a master’s thesis written by sociologist Leandro Rosa from Unesp state university. Rosa, who is the cultural adviser for Genders and Ethnic Groups at the State Cultural Secretariat, focused on the changes undergone by the quilombolas as a result of the 1988 Constitution. He states that political awareness is increasing in the quilombos of the State of São Paulo and in those of other states. This political awareness is being exploited and increased by the actions of the Pastoral da Terra and other social activist entities, such as the communities impacted or threatened by the construction of dams; these communities are beginning to incorporate the lands protected by the Constitution to reinforce their discourse. “Therefore, we need to de-mystify certain issues. First of all, we need to define whether the quilombolas are politically aware as a rule or not.”

He believes that this “awareness” has always existed in these communities. “What is new are the new elements added to the struggle; as this is a serious land ownership issue, all aspects are becoming more visible.” In his paper, the researcher states that a quilombola community is, first and foremost, a social activist movement. “It is a historical movement and therefore the resistance mobilization is political and inherent to it. Of course the actions in the communities and in their surroundings have always been ignored by ‘official history,’ with the exception of situations of conflict and war (as exemplified by Palmares).” Therefore, nowadays, these actions are better qualified because there are more elements – the protection of the law and other issues such as the environment, quilombola women, agricultural reform issues, ethnic issues, etc.

Carmem Lúcia Rodrigues, a professor at the Forest Sciences Department at the University of São Paulo/Esalq, believes that there is no detailed prejudice that justifies the needs of specific communities, which is the general rule in the case of negro culture in Brazil. “In the case of the quilombolas, strangely enough, their communities have become a tourist attraction – as exemplified by the Mandira community near Cananéia.”

Prof. Rodrigues’s doctorate thesis was on “Limites do consenso: territórios polissêmicos na Mata Atlântica e a gestão ambiental participativa.” In her thesis she suggests that two different communities be observed in relation to their integration and development, namely the Mandira community in Cananéia – which has the support of a number of government projects and NGOs and has created a successful oyster farm – and the community of Cambury, located in the Serra do Mar forest preserve, in the Núcleo Picinguaba, in Ubatuba. She states that the latter community has had very little support from government officials, with the exception of basic sanitation equipment provided by the government.