Despatch from Sao Paulo | International

No country for quilombolas

TO GO WITH AFP STORY Quilombola kids bathe in the White River in Vão de Almas, Brazil, on May 20, 2009. Quilombolas are the members of a quilombo --communities formed by escaped slaves during the Portuguese colonialism-- and Vão de Almas (Space of Souls) is the most isolated quilombo of the Kalunga community, a territory of 2,530 km2 of mountains and rivers located 400 km north of the Brazilian capital, Brasilia. Like most areas of the descendants of slavery, the 400 families living on Vão de Almas pay onerously their historical isolation: no road, water, electricity, telephone or doctor. State schools are in permanent teaching staff deficit in this region. AFP PHOTO/Evaristo Sa - MORE PICTURES IN IMAGE FORUM  

In a northeastern corner of Brazil, the country’s past is colliding with its future, creating tension for hundreds of families who are descendants of former slaves, known as quilombolas. A recent agreement signed between Brazil and the U.S., allowing the Americans to use the Alcântara missile launch site in the state of Maranhão, threatens to expel hundreds of quilombolas from the land they have been living on since their ancestors escaped to freedom from slavery. They have set up their free communities, called quilombos, where Afro-Brazilian culture thrived in a rural environment.

On March 18, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro and his U.S. counterpart Donald Trump signed the pact in Washington, claiming that it will help Brazil’s space programme and the quilombos. But, going by the history of the region, the picture may be exactly opposite. When the Alcântara base was established in the 1980s, more than 300 families were removed from their coastal land and dispatched to inland areas, called agrovilas. “After watching their former neighbours settled in the agrovilas become impoverished and dependent on the meagre wages available at the launch centre, the hundreds of quilombo families still living in their coastal communities have long resisted any further expropriation of land,” says Sean T. Mitchell, associate professor of anthropology at Rutgers University, Newark.

According to the Rutgers academic, who has also written a book titled Constellations of Inequality: Space, Race, and Utopia in Brazil, the quilombo residents don’t need to be expelled from the area as the rocket launch base already has enough land. “The almost 9,000 hectares occupied by the launch centre has an extensive infrastructure already built. The Brazilian space programme can flourish on the land that it already possesses,” says Mr. Mitchell, adding that the right of the quilombo to be based at this location is guaranteed under the Brazilian Constitution.

Brutal history

The quilombos, most of which are now examples of sustainable agriculture or fishing, are also a reminder of the country’s brutal history. Of the 9.5 million people captured in Africa and brought to the Americas between the 16th and 19th century, almost 4 million were taken to Brazil to work in its tropical forests and fields. The last country to abolish slavery, in 1888, Brazil witnessed several rebellions by the slaves. In the 19th century, many slaves escaped to freedom and set up their own enclaves, far from the reach of slave owners. These quilombos, spread across the country, are now run by the descendants of former slaves, often with support from the government.

But in the new Brazil, where the Bolsonaro government itself has launched an attack on the environment, quilombos too are facing an existential threat from ranchers, miners and loggers. In a new documentary, Voices of Forest, shown at a film festival here last month, several quilombolas women talked about how they have been facing bullets and fires to protect their land from the constant threat of invasion.

“The struggle of the black people in Brazil is 486 years old. And the first step to our real freedom is the right to land,” said Nice Machado, a quilombola leader from Maranhão, at the screening of the documentary. “The land grab has driven us from our lands.”

Now, with the Brazilian government planning to further expand the launch centre and lease it out to the U.S., there are fears that more than 800 families would be robbed of their land and pushed into poverty. The scheme has set the alarm bells ringing in both Brazilian and U.S. Congress. Last month, Hank Johnson, a Democratic representative, criticised the U.S.-Brazil agreement on the floor of the U.S. Congress. “This agreement threatens to remove hundreds of Afro-Brazilian quilombola families from their lands, displacing even more marginalised communities.”

Alcântara witnessed a major tragedy in 2003, when its VLS-1 rocket exploded during a launch, killing 21 engineers and technicians. That accident almost grounded Brazil’s satellite launch programme. With his agreement with the U.S., Mr. Bolsonaro regime is claiming to revive the Space programme. “Under this accord, and with current pitiful levels of funding, Brazil’s space programme will never recover, and the Brazilian government will needlessly limit its sovereignty and undermine the rights of quilombo residents,” said Mr. Mitchell, of Rutgers University.

A new tragedy may be unfolding at Alcântara very soon.

Shobhan Saxena is a journalist based in Sao Paulo

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Printable version | May 7, 2021 12:46:40 PM |

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