UNESCO Valongo Wharf recognition prompts racism debate

UNESCO recognition of slave-era harbour as heritage site prompts debate about discrimination in present-day Brazil.

The issue of anti-black racism in modern Brazil has been reignited following the induction of Rio de Janeiro’s former harbour area, where millions of African slaves landed in Brazil, as a UNESCO world heritage site.

Valongo Wharf, where two million slaves landed between the 1760s and the 1830s, was added to the prestigious list by the UN’s cultural body earlier this month to preserve evidence of what it called one of the most brutal episodes in the history of humanity.

Brazil was the last country to officially abolish slavery in 1888.

READ MORE: Heartache and suffering – Slavery in Brazil

While historians have embraced the award, many believe discrimination continues, with black people considered second-class citizens, earning 40 percent less than their white colleagues.

President Michel Temer has also faced criticism for his all-white cabinet.

“The way I see it, black people in Brazil are still slaves,” said Antonio Rodrigues A Silva, a historian at the Memorial Museum.

Silva alluded to the fact that 50 percent of the black population lives in Brazilian slums, or favelas, and that some 75 percent are “extremely poor”.

“We are still slaves to a historical process that keeps growing in the cities,” Silva told Al Jazeera.

Mass grave discovery

In 1996, historian Mercedes Guimaraes was renovating her house, which now stands as a memorial museum and research centre, when she found a mass grave containing the burned bodies of thousands of slaves.

“People say there is no racism in Brazil, but there is,” said Guimaraes,“I discovered racism in Brazil while fighting for this history.”

The Memorial Museum has been integral to UNESCO recognising the region as a world heritage site.

Al Jazeera’s Daniel Schweimler, reporting from Rio, said many in Brazil have never celebrated their African roots or marked the country’s history of slavery.

“Afro-Brazilians are saying, ‘it’s about time the country did’,” he said. 

Schweimler said that many hope UNESCO’s recognition of the country’s slave history will help people understand the issues of race and tackle racism.

Historians are hoping Afro-descendants are able to draw strength from the award and look beyond their past. 

“It will give strength to us as Brazilians to recognise that a huge crime against humanity was committed here,” Guimaraes said. 

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Source: Al Jazeera