Sunday, May 13, 2018

Brasil's ex-slaves fight on

When Brazil abolished slavery 130 years ago today, 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.
For quilombolas like Pinto, freedom has been bittersweet. 
"They gave us our freedom 130 years ago, but no dignity," Pinto told the Thomson Reuters Foundation 
Quilombolas 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. This lack of formal title leaves them at risk of losing their homes to real estate development and deprives them of social benefits, such as subsidised housing, or access to credit lines to fund farming or other businesses.
South America's largest country, Brazil is rich in land ripe for development and low on deeds and formal records, leading to enormous tension and conflict over property rights. Rio, once the country's largest slave market with more than a million slaves, now boasts its priciest real estate costing on average $2,700 per square meter, according to FipeZap, an index that tracks property prices. In the Rodrigo de Freitas lagoon neighborhood, a square meter can cost as much as $5,000, making the 1.6 acre of land where Pinto and his 31 relatives live worth about $32 million.
"The favelas (slums), the poor people who lived here, they were all removed," said Pinto. "We have resisted - perhaps a unique victory against real estate speculation."
Government recognition as a quilombo is the first step to get legal rights to land, an arduous process that can last years. At the current rate, it would take 970 years to complete the process of giving land titles to all quilombolas.
"The slowness of the land titling process and racism are the major problems for quilombolas today in Brazil," said Layza Queiroz, a legal advisor at rights group Terra de Direitos. "The country is racist as people believe these people should not exist or should not exist according to their way of life."
The government's budget for providing land titles to quilombo residents has been reduced by 93 percent in the past five year. Quilombolas don't just face legal delays - those campaigning for their land rights have faced threats, violence and death. Last year, 14 quilombo residents were murdered across Brazil, almost the double from eight deaths in the previous year, according to a survey by the National Coordination of Rural Black Communities. Six of them were activists. Just last month, a prominent anti-palm oil campaigner, quilombola Nazildo dos Santos Brito, was shot dead in Para state, authorities said, raising concerns of increased violence tied to property disputes affecting slaves' descendants.
In Rio, Adilson Almeida is still reeling from the day in 2014 when bulldozers arrived in his Quilombo Camorim, an area once dominated by sugar plantations and mills where a slave owner's residence still stands. Camorim in the middle-class Jacarepagua neighborhood gained recognition as a quilombo in 2014 and residents started a claim to a seven-acre area, said Almeida. But they were too late - a construction firm said it had bought the land the quilombolas claim from private owners to build housing for international journalists covering the 2016 Rio Olympics.
"My ancestors worked at the mill during slavery ... it is land that has been ours for many years," said Almeida, the leader of Quilombola Camorim. A bomb exploded in his house in 2015 but vowed to keep fighting for the quilombo's land rights. "Being a quilombola is everything to me. It means seeking my ancestry, my identity, my roots," said Almeida

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