Three members of Grassroots International’s team, Lydia, Jovanna, and Chung-Wha, recently returned from Brazil in July 2018 where they met with partners and Quilombola movements to learn and deepen relationships.
Brazil is a large country with diverse people who face different challenges. However, a common theme is the concentration of land in the hands of large landowners and the impacts of agribusiness and resource extraction on rural and Indigenous populations.
Lydia, Jovanna, and Chung-Wha visited two Quilombola communities to learn about the challenges they are facing in the demarcation and reclamation of their land in the face of land grabs and the ways they are resisting. Quilombolas are rural Afro-descendent people who historically resisted slavery and oppression and established Quilombos (communities of Quilombolas). The rights of Quilombolas were first recognized in the 1988 constitution when social movements successfully won recognition of rights of many segments of the population who up until then had been excluded. Despite the official recognition, Quilombolas have struggled to establish and implement their rights to land that they have lived on for hundreds of years. Furthermore, many Quilombolas are constantly fighting for access to social programs, healthcare, and basic sanitation.
In the northern part of the state of Minas Gerais, the Grassroots team traveled with our partner Rede Social to meet with the community of Brejo dos Crioulos. Rede Social works with social movements in Brazil, including Quilombola movements, to provide legal support and advocacy. There they had the opportunity to attend a meeting where members of the Quilombo spoke of their struggle to get their land demarcated. Aside from fighting for rights to the land, some Quilombola spoke of the lack of schools in their community. Children have to travel to other communities to attend school, and students who want to attend high school have no choice but to move to the city. Despite these challenges facing the Quilombo they continue to organize and struggle for their rights. It meant a lot to them to learn that people from other parts of the world cared deeply about their struggle.
Next, the Grassroots team traveled to the town of Virgem da Lapa. The Quilombolas have lived in the plateau mountains that surround the town for over a hundred years, yet they are still in the process of getting the legal title to their land. In addition to this struggle, Suzano, a large paper company is planting eucalyptus trees directly on the plateaus of their land. Not only is the company taking over Quilombola land, but the eucalyptus trees have dried up many of the natural springs. Some communities no longer have access to water, and can no longer plant their own produce.
In response to this encroachment on their land, some Quilombos have begun resisting the paper company and taking back their land. They are taking direct action by cutting down eucalyptus trees and revitalizing the area to bring the springs back through agroforestry. One community has successfully restored a spring on their land, yet they have not been granted the legal rights to the land. “In the face of these immense challenges, the Quilombos surrounding Virgem da Lapa are committed winning back their land and defending and restoring the environment,” commented Lydia. “People in the town recognize the important role that the Quilombos are playing in defending and protecting the water, which is a resource that everyone depends on.”
After hearing about the Quilombola’s fight to reclaim their land in Minas Gerais, the Grassroots team traveled to the state of Maranhão, which is a part of the Cerrado biome. The Cerrado is a rich savanna filled with biological diversity. The threats facing the population and natural environment of this region are severe, particularly with the MATOPIBA project and land grabbing backed by international funds such as TIAA. In Maranhão they had a meeting with a new network of movements called Webs (in Portuguese “Teias”). The Web is a new network that brings together Quilombola, Indigenous Peoples, peasants, fishers, and other rural traditional communities who face similar threats of access to land and land grabbing. At the meeting there were representatives from many groups that make up the Web including the Quilombola Movement of Maranhão/ Movimento Quilombola do Maranhão (MOQUIBOM), the Interstate Movement of Babaçu Nut Harvesters/ Movimento Interestadual das Quebradeiras de Coco de Babaçu (MIQCB), and the Pastoral Land Commission/ Comissão Pastoral da Terra (CPT).
The Web has a statewide gathering twice a year hosted by different communities. The meeting represents a chance for people to share experiences, have discussions, and form calls to action. During these gatherings, participants set up tents and hammocks, share food, and exchange culture with one another. Lydia explains how these meetings help people “share the richness of their cultures, come together around common challenges, and develop their own solutions to these common problems.”
“The Web network has resulted in real concrete victories for the Quilombolas,” said Lydia. “In 2015 MOQUIBOM occupied the building of the INCRA (INCRA is the government agency responsible for agrarian reform), calling for then-President Rousseff to sign a decree to regularize Quilombola land tenure. Indigenous People and peasants who are part of the Web mobilized and joined the occupation. Two days later Rousseff signed the decree.” Inspired by the collective strength of this new network, Lydia comments that, “Through coming together and building community and power, this diverse Web is finding new strength and developing new strategies to protect and defend their territories.”
Feminism is also a critical component of the Quilombola culture and the other groups at the meeting. The majority of leaders within MOQUIBOM are women. One Quilombola woman stated, “We can’t fight for free land if women are invisible.” She explained how the drum – the tambour – is the symbol of MOQUIBOM, that all of their gatherings start with the tambour. First, a few people start warming up playing the tambour, then men join in and start singing, and then the women join and complete the ritual. “Without women, there is no tambour. Without the tambour, there is no resistance.”
About the Author: Leonie Rauls began interning at Grassroots International after graduating from Amherst College in May 2018. She has a degree in Political Science and Spanish, and wrote her senior honors thesis on Conditional Cash Transfers, a poverty alleviation program in Latin America. She hopes to continue conducting social policy research to help create a more just and equitable society.