Brazil’s slave descendants seek justice

Brazilian descendants of runaway slaves, known as quilombos, are hoping a new law will finally give them the right over their own land.

Quilombos are descendants of African slaves brought to Brazil
Quilombos are descendants of African slaves brought to Brazil

Last week, they marched on the capital, Brasilia, with other black groups demanding racial equality.


The march, called Zumbi+10 Against Racism and for Equality and Life, was the second modern mobilisation of the largest black population in the world after Nigeria.


According to the federal police, an estimated 7000 people participated in the march which was backed by the Roman Catholic Church, trade unions, the landless and several political parties, notably the governing Workers’ party.

At the end of the march, black leaders met the heads of both parliamentary chambers and President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva.


In 1995, a similar march commemorated the 300th anniversary of the killing of Zumbi, the iconic leader of Quilombo dos Palmeres, a community of 30,000 people quashed by the military.


Racial democracy


The proposed racial equality law is expected to bring together a host of measures for Afro-Brazilians, including combating illnesses that effect only the black population, introducing quotas in private and public education, and recognising the quilombos’ rights to their settlements.


Currently, only 119 of more than 1000 Afro-Brazilian communities have been given titles to their land.


Portrait of Zumbi, icon of Afro-Brazilian resistance to slavery

Portrait of Zumbi, icon of Afro-
Brazilian resistance to slavery

Aldo Rebelo, President of the House of Deputies, said he hoped the statute for racial equality would be voted on as soon as possible during November, the month of black consciousness.

“I have an absolute conviction that Brazil will only be a true, profound and enduring democracy when it is a political, social economic and also racial democracy.


“When all Brazilians, independent of their colour, their social condition, culture or religion have access to citizenship,” he told


Quilombos, who are descendants of three million African slaves brought to Brazil, formed their own communities in remote parts of Brazil, keeping their own distinct traditions and culture.

Segregated, many of these communities have not changed in centuries living on subsistence agriculture and self-medication from passed-down knowledge of preparing herbs. Language, religion and culture survive from their African roots.

Land rights


In the past decade, quilombos have been linking up with black non-governmental organisations and pressure groups to press for rights, winning their first land recognition in 1995 in Oriximina in the northern state of Para, covering 665,000 hectares of Amazonian forest.

Maria do Carmo de Oliveira de Jesus, 42, a quilombo mother of six, says the land victory led to other progressive moves, such as the setting up of a women’s rights group.

“There I go to search for my rights, I didn’t know I had them and I didn’t know them”

Maria do Carmo Oliveira de Jesus,
Quilombo mother of six

“There I go to search for my rights, I didn’t know I had them and I didn’t know them. Now I go certain that I will know much more,” she said.

More quilombos have started to integrate with the rest of Brazilian society, like the simply-named Quilombo in the state of Rio de Janeiro.


The first of only two in the state to win their land rights, the community has a shop to sell artists’ crafts and to teach visitors of their rich history.


Brazils‘ blacks in general suffer from extreme inequality – on average earning half of their white counterparts, and illiteracy rates of 33% compared to 7% for whites.


Blacks also have 87% more chance of being assassinated, according to IBGE, the Brazilian Institute for Geography and Statistics.

Race-poverty link


Half the country’s 180 million people are of African descent. The correlation between race and poverty is all too evident – 70% of those living below the poverty line, principally in favelas, or slums, are black.

Since it became the last country in the Americas to abolish slavery in 1888, Brazil has prided itself in evolving into a racial democracy, an idea the holds fast today. But black organisations are few and far between and debate about racism is rarely heard.


Blacks make up 70% of thoseliving below the poverty line

Blacks make up 70% of those
living below the poverty line

Only 6% of Brazilians consider themselves black, most opting to be described as mestizo, or mixed race.


In a 1991 census when asked to describe their colour, the government documented more than 300 different hues in the responses.

“I think it is a lie about racial democracy because the powerful still have an interest in this idea. It’s a kind of fantasy and a kind of camouflage,” says Joni Anderson, who set up a black model agency, Agencia Noir, in 1998.


Only one black woman has won the title of Miss Brazil in 50 years.

Black media


“Racism in Brazil is very subtle. Maybe people don’t call me ‘nigger’ but if I went to Jardims [a rich area of Sao Paulo] maybe the people would see me as a thief,” Anderson said.


“In the elections you don’t see black politicians. If you turn on the TV you will not see black people acting.” 


Helio Vargas is the director of programming for Record TV, which boasts one of the very few programmes to have a black presenter, Netinho, and feature black issues.

Many Quilombos have preservedtheir distinct customs and culture

Many Quilombos have preserved
their distinct customs and culture

“We have a lot of black people here; we try to do everything that we can to make things right in terms of discrimination,” Vargas said.


“Racism is everywhere so we have a very important mission. Everyone who works with communication should work to fight against racism.”


On November 20, Netinho launched Brazil‘s first black channel TV da gente, which featured Pele, football’s first black superstar, and Nelson Mandela on the transmission’s launch.

As for the Zumbi+10 march, which ended last week with performances by Afro-Brazilians in front of the National Congress, it took place during the national year for the promotion of racial equality in Brazil.

Source : Al Jazeera

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