Understanding Quilombos

Written by Versão Portugues   
The development of slavery in Brazil is fundamental to understanding the Quilombos concept. It was the slaves' struggle for freedom that conferred a character of resistance to these communities.

The African descent population in the Americas today numbers over 140 million, one third of the continent's 450 million people. Slavery in the Americas saw 15 million slaves violently uprooted from their lands in Africa. Approximately 40% of all African slaves went to Brazil, to serve as a labour force in the colonial period.
Photo by Osmario Marques
In contrast to other countries in Latin America, slavery in Brazil was spread throughout the entire country and lasted without interruption for almost four centuries. Slaves were brought to Brazil to work on farms and plantations, in towns, mills and mines, contributing to economic and social development. They also contributed to many aspects of Brazilian social life, helping to weave Brazil's culture and national identity.

In the African language Iorubá, "quilombos" means "housing". The Brazilian concept of Quilombos has come to mean the communities that were constituted out of the struggle of rebel slaves during the centuries of slavery, as territories of housing, resistance and social organization. These communities represented the enjoyment of autonomy by rebel slaves, as a reaction to white domination. The slaves employed a number of resistance strategies against white domination, including destroying tools and plantations, murdering landowners and organising rebellions and mass escapes. This led, in some cases, to the establishment of the Quilombos communities. Despite this history, it is now hoped that the concept of Quilombos is not simply associated with the past experiences of rebel slaves; the African descent communities want to be seen in terms of their present reality.
Photo by Carlos Ruggi

The Quilombos adapted to the ecological and economic conditions of the regions were they settled, producing the food and materials they needed for survival in accordance with their traditions and the opportunities available to them. They practiced a community-based agriculture instead of the monoculture system and were also engaged in complementary activities to meet their needs. The largest and best-organised Quilombos communities had a complex relationship with society. They formed alliances with small landowners, peddlers and traders in order to barter their surplus production and obtain the goods they could not produce.

The Quilombos have experienced diverse forms of land management and ownership. Diverse forms of land usage led to different models of economic development, giving different Quilombos communities unique features. In Brazil we can identify the "lands of blacks" (terras de preto), which stem from the former communities of rebel slaves, lands where the slaves were fattened to be sold (eg. Marabaia Island), lands donated or abandoned by the former landlords, and lands bought by freed slaves.

The majority of the Quilombos' lands were occupied and managed collectively, based on a familiar structure of cultivation and exploitation of natural resources. Because of this, land rights are fundamental for the continuing survival of these peoples. The Quilombos' lands can be viewed as indivisible ethnic territories where the communities live, work and express their cultures and beliefs. Land and its natural resources are in fact the main source of livelihood, social and cultural cohesion, and spiritual welfare for many tribal peoples. Consequently, their rights must be safeguarded not just in relation to the land they exclusively occupy, but also the development of their traditional activities such as subsistence farming.

Can Brazil's Quilombos Survive?
Written by Anne Kogan   
Quilombo Country documentary reveals the modern-day challenges faced by Brazil's runaway slave communities
Hugo_Souza.jpgUnlike the United States, where slavery is too often relegated to the shadows of history, in Brazil the memory is still alive-especially in the Quilombos, the encampment communities that escaped or freed African slaves founded in the country's vast mountain ranges and deep jungles. Leonard Abrams' documentary, Quilombo Country, examines the legacy of slavery that haunts the people who live there, explores the vibrant culture of these communities and chronicles the challenges they face in modern-day Brazil.
Quilombo Country opens with the frenetic beat of Tambor da Criola, a music native to the state of Maranhão. As women dance and turn, making their skirts swirl around them, the men drum and sing about traveling a long and difficult path. An older man in the village explains that slaves created this dance as a way to enjoy themselves while living an existence almost wholly defined by cruelty and misery.
Narrated by Chuck D of Public Enemy fame, Quilombo Country is divided into three sections, each focused on one Quilombo community-Itipacura in the northeastern state of Maranhão; Marajó, an island at the mouth of the Amazon River, in the state of Belem; and Trombetas, in the Amazon. This parallels the path of slavery in Brazil, which began in the 1550s under the Portuguese occupation in the northeast state of Bahia, before moving westward to the Amazon, when settlers realized that the land was ideal for growing sugarcane.
Initially, the Portuguese enslaved indigenous Brazilians. But when the natives began dying from European diseases and the demand for workers exceeded available numbers, the Portuguese looked to Africa.
Over the next three centuries, Brazil brought approximately 3.6 million people to work on sugarcane plantations-37 percent of all Africans sold into slavery. In one moving scene, a resident of Marajó tells how his grandfather was sold for a bottle of cachaça (sugarcane alcohol) and a crate of bananas. And though Princess Isabel officially abolished slavery in 1888, the practice continued unchecked in many parts of the country.
In 2004, Brazil admitted that at least 25,000 people are still working under slave-like conditions, and in July the government raided a sugarcane plantation in the Amazon, liberating more than 1,000 workers-the largest anti-slavery raid in recent history.
To counter the brutality of slavery, Quilombos often acted as resistance groups, leading rebellions and plantation raids. Today, many residents view themselves as carrying on the fight against injustice by continuing to live in the Quilombos, maintaining their traditions and fighting for their land rights. One young woman tells Abrams, "We no longer fight with knives...but we are still fighting."
Struggles over land ownership have led to a host of other problems. Quilombo residents want their children to get an education, but cannot afford to send them to cities and refuse to leave their homes for fear of losing their land. Commercial farmers are taking land, often under fraudulent means, and companies often claim land in the rain forests without formal or legal opposition.
In addition, some residents have left the communities for city life. Abrams examines how the Quilombos are split between those who follow the old ways and those who wish to integrate into mainstream Brazilian society. Most Quilombo residents still live in mud houses, grow their own crops, hunt, fish and make their own instruments, but the loss of land and accompanying urban migration have put a strain on the communities. As residents come back to the Quilombos, they bring with them television and new music, which some older residents view as undermining their cultural identity.
The documentary features outstanding footage of festivals, parties and religious ceremonies. Tambor da Criola, Bumba Meu Boi and Carimbó are among the traditional music and dance forms practiced in the Quilombos during slavery. Macumba and pajé are religions from the area which, along with festivals like those of Santa Filomena and São Benedito (also known as Festivals of the Mast), demonstrate the syncretic relationship between African animism, Catholicism and native Brazilian spiritualism, often by honoring Catholic saints alongside African deities with locally created rituals. This amalgamation of beliefs, similar to that found in Haiti and Cuba, permeates many aspects of Afro-Brazilian life today, particularly Quilombo communities. As one Quilombo resident says, "There is nothing sacred sacred and there is nothing profane profane."
Unfortunately, narrator Chuck D's punchy delivery of the script and mediocre pronunciation of the Portuguese words are an unwelcome distraction. Quilombo Country would benefit from commentary that ties together the challenges facing the regions featured in the three sections of the documentary.
Notably absent are the perspectives of other Brazilians, elected officials or not, who could comment on the legal disputes and how the Quilombos are viewed from within the government. Similarly, it would be good to hear from some of the nearby urban residents, who have assimilated many of the communities' traditions, talk about whether they support Quilombo struggles for landownership.
Quilombo Country brings to light the concerns of a segment of Brazil society, which, though small, has greatly influenced Brazilian culture. The film makes it clear that the Quilombos" fight for land rights and legal recognition is integral to saving a living culture from extinction.