The long-standing Afro-Brazilian, or Quilombola, village of Tambor, Amazonia received a nasty surprise last year. A federal judge sent notice, from his office 3,600 kilometers away in Brazil’s capital, to these descendants of fugitive slaves that their village wasn’t actually Quilombola, and therefore the entire village needed to be evicted.
This was in spite of the fact that the Quilombola families have lived and raised their families there for over 100 years. They had also applied for and secured official recognition and status as a protected Quilombola village, which gave them the legal right to the territory on which the village stands.
With the stroke of a pen, the judge paved way to erase the village from the face of the planet. According to Quilombola advocates, he may not have even read the very evidence he had presented to back his judgment, which contradicted his conclusions.
An isolated case of bureaucratic mismanagement, one might allow?
It appears not. Unfortunately, this is not the first time this kind of thing has happened. Hundreds of Quilombola communities across Brazil are facing similar threats to their existence. Since the passage of 1988 constitutional legislation giving legal ownership to 3,500 Quilombola communities to the land they historically occupied, only 6 percent had secured title by 2013.
Quilombola territory is often of great interest to agro-businesses, large landowners, and megaproject developers. Hence Quilombolas face many obstacles in the form of well-resourced legal challenges, a labyrinthine bureaucracy and a plethora of laws that are slowing down the process of reparation that the constitutional legislation was intended to resolve.
Cases abound. One of the oldest communities in the country recently had to fight eviction by the Brazilian Navy which wanted to expand their officers’ condos onto their land. In another instance, a community that had successfully secured legal title to its land found itself facing a $6 million tax bill or risk eviction.
In Brazil, the last nation in the Americas to abolish slavery, the Quilombola communities symbolize resistance and freedom for Afro-descendant Brazilians. Their cause was bolstered in 2003 when the Lula government (Workers’ Party, which currently remains in power) furthered expanded the 1988 constitutional law. They broadened the legal definition of Quilombolas to include a much larger section of the African-descendant communities whose ancestry could be traced to fugitive slave resistance and territory.
Despite obstacles and aggressive land grab attempts, the Quilombolas are mobilizing slowly but surely. There is now a national Quilombola network working to enforce communities’ rights and see them implemented. The Quilombola movement is getting more sophisticated in its tactics and unity, generating international press, building alliances with national and international NGOs, and leading advocacy efforts to advance their newly legislated rights. In Tambor, the village and its leaders are mobilizing the support of academics, activists, and lawyers to fight for its existence and rights.
The journey for many of the million-strong Quilombolas in Brazil may be long. But their resolve and cause is bolstered by the knowledge that despite immense challenges throughout their history, they outfoxed, resisted and ultimately defeated the injustice and horror of slavery. If they could accomplish that, then they could continue advancing along the path towards justice and reparation.