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Brazil’s descendants of slaves defend their land

March 2014

The poor triumph over the powerful in Brazil’s David and Goliath, as descendants of slaves win a landmark ruling over a mining giant.

A man canoes along the river with a large ship in the background

Slavery, land and power

Brazil’s quilombolas are descendants of slaves. They escaped from the early plantations and sought safety in the depths of the Amazon rainforest, where they formed communities.

Since 1988, they have had the right to apply for shared titles to the land they have lived on for generations. The title means that communities can protect themselves from exploitation by the powerful, and preserve their way of life.

‘You cannot be moved on’

Through Brazilian organisation, Pro-Indigenous Commission (CPI), we help quilombolas to win land rights and defend their territory.

In the north of Brazil, at least 25 communities have won land rights, with more in the process of doing so.

Domingos Printes, quilombola leader and activist says: ‘There are so many reasons why it is important for the community to have the collective ownership of the forest lands.  Perhaps most importantly it is to feel secure.  You cannot be moved on.’

Mining giant threat

However, large areas of land remain where the quilombolas have applied for the title, but the government have not yet processed it. 

In 2012 Domingos’ community was shocked to discover that a huge mining company, Mineracão Rio do Norte, had started researching into mining bauxite (one of the main ingredients in aluminium) in an as yet untitled area of quilombola land.
Back in 2012, Domingos told us: ‘We are worried that we won’t get the title and that instead the mining company will get permission to mine there.  We are worried because the company has money and power.’

Non-violent resistance

CPI and the quilombolas campaigned to prevent the mining giant desolating their lands before claiming the title.

They asked an independent regulatory body, the Public Ministry, to call Mineracão Rio do Norte to a meeting. 

Domingos explains: ‘Without Christian Aid support we couldn’t have forced the mining company to meet us. It was very, very important because it was the first time ever that the mining company sat down with the quilombola people to discuss their plans to extend their mining operation into this area. 

‘Before that, they just ignored our existence on the land, and our rights to it.’  

On the back of this meeting, the Public Ministry ordered an investigation into the mining company’s intentions.

And to raise awareness of the investigation and support for their rights, the quilombolas left their remote forest communities and took to the streets of Amazonian regional capital Belem in protest, holding banners with the slogan, ‘no title no mining’.

Mining suspended

In January this year, Mineracão Rio do Norte’s authorisation to do research with the intention to mine in areas of quilombola interest in Oriximiná was suspended. 

The mining company was ordered to stop its activities until prior consultation with the quilombolas is made, as determined by Convention 169 of the International Labour Organisation (ILO).

Domingos sums it up nicely: ‘For us this suspension is of utmost importance and is a direct result of our work here through the quilombola cooperative, along with CPI and other partners’.

This is a huge achievement and a landmark win.  But the work is not done, and we continue to support the quilombolas’ fight to get their land fully legally titled. 

Only then will these descendants of people who were deprived of everything, have their security and rights guaranteed under the law.

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