A new book examines the struggle by rural Black communities in Brazil for land rights, and it makes a case for land reparations based not only on a history of slavery and systemic racism, but also on land appropriation by contemporary Brazilian governments and private interests.
Brazil has a history of racialized and concentrated land ownership, wrote Merle Bowen, a professor of African American studies at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, in “For Land and Liberty: Black Struggles in Rural Brazil.”
She researched the lives of the residents of 12 quilombo communities – rural communities settled by those of African descent – in two Brazilian states with histories of resistance against state policies and interventions that deprived them of land and citizenship rights. Her work examines the consequences of a 1988 constitutional provision to provide land titles to quilombos that could prove they were settled by fugitive slaves.
Very few land titles have been granted to these rural Black residents, despite the constitutional provision, Bowen said. The consensus narrative in Brazil is that the quilombos were settled by fugitive slaves, but the actual origins of the communities are more complex. They were settled by a mix of groups that included fugitive slaves, freed slaves and free people who acquired land in a variety of ways – by squatting on abandoned plantation land or being given land when a plantation owner died or as a donation from churches after slavery ended, Bowen said.
“They transformed abandoned plantations into stable Black communities and productive farms to establish themselves as citizens,” she said.
They are claiming rights to land they cleared, settled and farmed for generations, and may even have legal title to already, but “the state has been able to manipulate laws so that even for the few communities that have documentation that land was given to them, the state always finds a way to delegitimize their claims,” Bowen said.
Further, those few communities that received titles to the lands they had settled were still limited in how they could use the land. For example, rural communities traditionally integrated their farming within surrounding forests, and they used farming techniques that included controlled burns to regenerate the vegetation, Bowen said. Many of these areas are rich in biodiversity and the Brazilian government wanted the land for parks. It required farmers to apply for licenses to plant in the forests, and then timed the granting of licenses to prevent timely seasonal planting, she said.
The government has slowly appropriated land from Black rural residents that they have legitimately occupied since the post-slavery period, Bowen said, and transferred it to agribusiness and large landowners for agriculture, ranching, and mining, as well as taken it for modernization projects.
Quilombo activists seek access to land and the ability to use their traditional, sustainable farming techniques. Farming is an important part of their livelihoods, and they deserve land reparations for the ongoing seizure of their territory, Bowen said.
Their struggle is not just about the right to land, as important as that is, but also the right to a livelihood and wage labor, she said. Farmers supplement their incomes through labor-intensive, poorly paid work for agribusiness or large landowners, fishing, selling shellfish, and, more recently, through ethnic tourism.
“They used to have diverse income streams based on multiple sources that are becoming smaller and smaller. The government keeps reducing the amount of land they can produce on, so many of the families now depend on cash-transfer programs, which have been cut,” Bowen said.
The quilombo movement has become part of a larger national campaign for racial and social justice that includes urban movements seeking affirmative action in federal employment and access to universities, she said.