“Life in a quilombo is a celebration”, says Nego Bispo, who grew up in the Quilombo do Saco-Curtume, in the Brazilian northeastern state of Piauí. In recent years, however, climate change has discouraged festive spirits in these communities.
A poet, writer, teacher and political activist, Bispo is among the loudest voices in the fight for rights of quilombolas—one of the traditional people in Brazil most vulnerable to climate change.
Centuries ago, quilombos emerged as rural communities where formerly enslaved people could live safely. While some of them originated in lands bought or inherited by those emancipated, most of them were built by enslaved men and women who managed to escape plantations.
Thousands of these communities resist to this day, both in rural and urban areas. Yet, less than 7% of them had been formally recognized until 2018.
Now, climate change is increasing pressure on these communities, who were already in abandonment from government authorities. Drought, their biggest environmental issue, is forcing locals to adapt in order to maintain their way of living.
“My grandmother used to say we had six months of rain and six months of drought. The outturn was rich and abundant. They had barns for the corn and barrels for the beans. Today, without an irrigation system, I wouldn’t be able to grow my goods”, says Edna Correia de Oliveira, president of the Quilombola Federation of the State of Minas Gerais and national coordinator of the Articulation of Quilombola Communities.
Even though the past decades have brought some constitutional rights, the quilombos still struggle to get formal recognition. Now, they’re trapped between historical inequalities and a global climate crisis that disproportionately affects traditional communities.
Quilombo: the African way of life
“In the quilombos, it doesn’t even feel like you’re in Brazil”, says José Claudionor dos Santos Pinto, a history teacher and writer in human sciences.
His parents, both quilombolas from the state of Minas Gerais, chose to raise their children in the city, which didn’t mean separation from their origins.
Jô, as his friends call him, grew up around the quilombo, visiting family and friends, and taking part in traditional festivities. An activist in the Black and quilombola movements, he volunteers to help communities produce the historical documents necessary for their certification as quilombos.
“When I say the quilombos don’t feel like Brazil, I don’t mean it in a sense that the places don’t look Brazilian, but in the sense of the harmony and communion people have with the earth. When you’re in a quilombo, it feels like you’re in Africa,” he said.
Quilombolas have a very strong relationship with their territory and its ecosystems. “It’s the earth that welcomed and sheltered you. Quilombolas understand that. And they are grateful to that land,” says Jô.
Unlike indigenous communities who, by the time the Portuguese colonizers arrived in 1500, had already accumulated centuries of intergenerational knowledge about the local environment, enslaved Africans suddenly found themselves in a foreign land, in every sense of the word.
A document published in June 2021 by Fundação Cultural Palmares, an entity of the Ministry of Culture, responsible for the promotion and preservation of Black Brazilian traditions, shows that 61% of certified Quilombola communities are located in the North-East of the country.
- Read more: 3 ways in which Brazil ignored climate pledges made at Biden’s Summit
The Northeast region is known for its semi-arid climate and vegetation. According to a 2016 report by the Development Program of the UN, all the states in this region have lower human development than the national average.
Deprived of freedom and access to territory, quilombolas who managed to escape enslavery had to uncover in the unfamiliar place a path to survival. It was (and still is) an arduous task. But throughout the centuries, they have managed to develop a respectful and mutually beneficial relationship with the land.
“When Africans were taken in their homelands and brought to a new continent, they tried to bring a little part of Africa to the new ground. They had to reinvent themselves and to reinvent the territory”, says Jô.
And now, due to climate change, they will have to do it again.
Drought in quilombos
Even in an online conversation, the atmosphere of sharing and harmony among the quilombolas was palpable. Throughout the hour-long Google Meet call, members of the Quilombola Federation joined and left at their own pace, adding comments and new perspectives to what others had to say.
“Climate change disproportionately affects traditional communities who have less access to technology. Agroecology techniques are helpful and solve some of the problems, but they don’t compare to the level of resources enjoyed by plantation owners”, says Matusalém Fernandes Ferreira da Silva, financial director of the Quilombola Federation.
Since hiding was essential for their survival, many of the first quilombolas chose to settle away from big rivers or other flashy water sources, Jô explains. Today, the hard-to-reach lands where many quilombos find themselves are going through a process of desertification, which according to Jô and Edna, makes the lack of access to water one of quilombolas’ major problems.
Accurate data about quilombolas and their territories, however, is hard to find. To this day, there is no consensus around the exact number of quilombos in Brazil. And according to news publised on CONAQ’s (National Articulation of Rural Quilombola Communities) official website, 2022 will be the first year the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics will cover quilombolas in their national demographic census.
Currently, the general feeling among the quilombolas is that there are not enough public policies to mitigate the effects of climate change for this population. Because of that, quilombolas are also suffering from the migration of those who can no longer survive off the land, explains teacher Jô Pinto.
- Read more: “The first reaction is despair, a sensation that everything was lost in the fire”, says Neiva Guedes on Pantanal fires this year
But climate change isn’t the only ecological threat they face. Jô, Edna, Nego Bispo and Matusalém, all from different quilombos, describe the presence of big enterprises being undertaken in quilombola lands. They range from mining companies and hydroelectric plants to deforestation for monocultures and photovoltaic or wind farms.
“We are experiencing a myriad of neo-liberal capitalist incursions to our lands—and those heaviest hit by them are people like us, who are the most weakened before the state”, adds Matusalém.
Years of invisibility
“After the abolition of slavery —which was only achieved through international pressure — Brazil turned its back on Black people, leaving quilombolas unbound from the notion of citizenship”, says Wesley Matheus, director of the Social Development Observatory of the state of Minas Gerais, and a governance and finance consultant for the World Bank.
He adds that the isolation from spheres of citizenship that quilombolas had to face over a century ago has echoed for generations —and that it still permeates their reality to this day.
While the Brazilian constitution of 1934 already recognized the rights of indigenous peoples to their lands, quilombolas were only granted the same constitutional right in 1988. And it wasn’t until 2003 that public policies regulating the process to access this right started to emerge.
According to CONAQ’s official website, even with the existence of such policies, Brazil has only around 150 territories with recognized quilombola ownership. A very low number, considering that there are around 2.850 certified quilombola communities, with over 1.500 open processes all over the country.
“It’s such a complex situation that it is sometimes hard for people themselves to understand which category they belong to —indigenous, quilombola, or other traditional groups— and what rights come with it”, says Wesley.
Wesley adds that there are obstacles in understanding the demands of rural Black groups, as the articulation of Black movements is generally stronger in urban areas. Besides, he says, there is a subrepresentation (and often no representation at all) of quilombolas in different spheres of government.
- Read more: Oil in the Amazon: Behind Ecuador’s plan to expand oil on indigenous lands
A long history of top-bottom policies – social, economical and environmental – embeded wiht a white colonial perspective, has resulted in a lack of viable solutions. “The state has been failing on its role of granting this population their specific rights and needs”, says Wesley.
“Tere aren’t enough climate and social policies for the general population”, history teacher Jô Pinto says, “and much less for quilombolas”.
Bolsonaro: a historical setback
“Quilombolas live under a lot of pressure, and a lot of fear. The threats and attacks carried out by farmers interested in their lands are constant. They feel too small and weak to stand up against the big guy”, says Jô.
Jô adds that the fear and isolation that have set the foundation for the emergence of the first quilombos never disappeared. Wesley, consultant for the World Bank, agrees. According to him, the decentralized nature of quilombos has, overtime, become an obstacle for their articulation in political fights.
In spite of the small progress acheived over the past decade, once Bolsonaro arrive in power, new setbacks were created. Since the beginning of his government in 2018, Brazil has seen the dismantling of programs and institutions related to traditional peoples.
A study published in April 2021 by the Brazilian Association of Investigative Journalism shows that, under the current government, the annual number of quilombola territories getting recognized got to its lowest ever figures.
According to the report, Bolsonaro’s anti-quilombola discourse has been put into practice through three main approaches: “lack of transparency on the implementation of policies, weakening of institutions and reduction of budgets to the lowest rates in recent history”.
Meanwhile, Fundação Palmares, the federal entity that should represent black people (quilombolas included), is today presided over by Sergio Camargo, who denies the existence of systemic racism. “Fundação Palmares no longer represents us”, say both Jô and Edna.
The poet Nego Bispo adds that the dismantling of quilombola rights isn’t exclusive to Bolsonaro’s government, as it also happens with local authorities.
“The governor of my state, Piauí, is affiliated to a leftist party and identifies himself as indigenous. Yet, in past years, he has authorized mining companies and photovoltaic and wind farms to develop inside of quilombola lands. What difference does it make between Bolsonaro and a guy like that?,” he said.
A chance for quilombolas
“Our elders didn’t fight for fear of repression. But as the younger generations are getting more opportunities for education, thoughts begin to change – and so do attitudes”, says Jô.
Invisibilized as they might be, the articulation and activism among quilombolas are not exactly new. The first national meeting of quilombola communities, the one which created CONAQ, took place in 1995.
Since then, regional and local coordinations and federations, such as the Quilombola Federation of the State of Minas Gerais, of which Edna and Matusalém are members, have been created around the country, to demand that the rights and public policies directed at quilombolas actually reach them. And, with them, a series of initiatives, raging from quilombola women’s meetings to the attendance at the UN Climate Change Conference, COP26, in Glasgow, UK.
Yet, the communication among quilombos is faulty. The presence of a quilombola delegation at the international event was not widely known in local communities, Edna, president of the Quilombola Federation, says.
“Why don’t we hear about it on social media? And how can we strengthen our fight when we are still the last ones to know about that which concerns us?” Edna asked.
She worries their presence in such a space may be scarce, and that the voices of their representatives may not get heard. Still, Edna recognizes the value and impact of occupying such a place.
And so does Matusalém, her fellow quilombola at the Federation, who adds that, for them, taking part in international events such as COP26 can be incredibly difficult.
“Economically, we as a community are in a fragile position. It intensifies the disadvantages we face in our fight as, unlike economically empowered groups, we can’t always be present to raise our demands”, he says.
Their presence in such international events is important not only for themselves, but for what they represent in fighting climate change. Wesley, the consultant for the World Bank, explains it is not merely about preserving the territories they occupy, but also about their accumulated knowledge of resilience and adaptation to a land other than their own.
“If we only see quilombolas as protectors of their territories”, he says, “we risk producing a double exclusion, as they don’t occupy large extensions of land”.
For quilombolas’ climate adaptation, hope lies in foreign countries. And for them, as for the rest of the planet, this might be the last chance.
Edna fears the quilombos are in the verge of disappearing. “Those of us who didn’t die of Covid, are now dying of hunger. This Brazil is killing us every single day,” she says.