‘The whip is now a pen’ – Brazil and the fight to preserve settlements started by enslaved people

With high-profile land rights cases currently being debated in Brazil’s Supreme Court, one activist details her community’s efforts to stay on their ancestral land

14 March 2018 // Camila Nobrega

Every part of the Mumbuca community, from the mango trees of Zé Velho to the swamps of Vó Miúda, is named after ancestors. “Our history is connected to each piece of this territory,” explains Ana Mumbuca, who has taken her community’s name as her nom de guerre.

Mumbuca is situated in rural Mateiros, a city near the capital of Palmas in the central Brazilian state of Tocantins. The first cars were used here in the mid-eighties; there was no electricity until 2001.

Ana was 12 when representatives from the Tocantins Nature Institute (Instituto da Natureza do Tocantins), the government’s environmental protection body, visited. Since the adults were illiterate – the oral tradition of storytelling being their the basis for education and memory – it fell to Ana to read the documents out loud. The 40 families of Mumbucans, some 200 people, were being asked to leave. The Parque Estadual do Jalapão, a national park, was to replace their home. No further details were given.

Brazil was the last country in the Americas to abolish slavery. At the height of the trade, the only Portuguese speaking country in the Americas had imported the largest number of slaves from Africa – four million according to some estimates. At the end of the 18th Century, slaves escaped the farms of Bahia in the north-east and mixed with the indigenous people who had been living in Tocantins for centuries. Since then, the Mumbuca community has lived in the middle of the orange dunes and waterfalls of Jalapão. In remote locations such as these they have been able to preserve their cultural identity.

Thinking back to that day in 2001, Ana remembers her feelings of powerlessness, followed by her resolve to act. “In that moment, I decided to learn the legal language to fight for our rights. I figured out the whip from slavery times still resonated – only now in the form of a pen, which was making decisions without the participation of black people. The whip has assumed the form of political power in Brazil. The scars are no longer in our skin, but in the daily lives of the descendants of enslaved people,” she says.

Ana Mumbuca

Ana Mumbuca

Ana became the first member of her community to graduate, gaining a degree in social services and law from the Federal University of Tocantins. She joined a movement called the State Coordination of Quilombolas in Tocantins, and is a representative in the Fórum das Comunidades Quilombolas do Tocantins, comprised of 44 communities in the region. She is also a volunteer consultant for the local artisan association. Most of her work centres around women, with an emphasis on financial independence and alternative sources of income for them to stay in the territory. “Law studies allowed me to understand the language used by the political forces.”

A word that changes everything

A researcher who was staying in Mumbuca introduced Ana and the community to a word that would change their fight to stay in the only home they knew. According to Brazilian law, a quilombo is a hinterland settlements pioneered by people of African origin who escaped slavery.  Written into the 1988 constitution, quilombolas are considered to be cultural heritage; the law attests that these lands should be demarcated, and that their collective ownership belongs to their descendants. Quilombolas – the people from the quilombos – were granted inalienable community land rights.

Despite legal protection, it took almost ten years for the Mumbuca community to get the first certificate from the Palmares Cultural Foundation, which provides the official recognition of a quilombo. According to the Pro-Indio Commission, an indigenous rights organisation, only 200 quilombolas have had their land rights formalised out of some 3,000. The situation has been denounced by the Brazilian Public Prosecutor’s Office and international organisations such as the United Nations.

40% of all lawmakers are represented by big landowners, mostly connected to agribusiness

The bureaucracy in the Palmares Cultural Foundation is not the only challenge for Brazil’s historical black communities wishing to be recognised by law. The 2015 national elections ushered in the most conservative Congress the country has had since the end of dictatorship in 1985. 40% of all lawmakers are represented by big landowners (mostly connected to agribusiness) or their allies.

The effects of this changing political landscape were immediately felt. President Michel Temer, who assumed office in 2016 after the impeachment of Dilma Rousseff, cut the budget of the Ministry of Agrarian Development. Among other things, it is responsible for land reform, including the demarcation and titling of lands occupied by quilombolas. Policies aimed at improving the lives of peasant and indigenous populations have been suspended. For example, the budget for the National Indian Foundation was almost halved, forcing the closure of dozens of regional offices. According to a report from a local NGO called the Pastoral Land Commission, 65 people have been murdered as a result of land conflicts in rural areas by January 2018. The data will be part of a complete report to be launched in the coming months.

A breakthrough

The week of 8 February 2018 brought a major victory to the land rights cause. Brazil’s Supreme Court rejected a lawsuit filed in 2003 by the right wing DEM party, which would have drastically limited the ability of quilombolas to claims to their traditional lands. The decision was celebrated as an important step towards achieving justice and land reform for traditional people in Brazil.

Quilombola celebration at Brazil's Supreme Court, February 2018, Carlos Moura

Quilombola celebration at Brazil’s Supreme Court, February 2018, Carlos Moura

The rights of black people in general was also one of the central themes during Brazil’s famous carnival, held every year in February. Samba schools from Rio de Janeiro presented themes such as the history of slavery: the theme for the Paraíso do Tuiuti school was ‘My God, my God, is slavery truly over?’. Its float openly criticised the conditions of the country’s black population and the president. The Salgueiro school paid tribute to black women (putting a twist on the controversial blackface). The dancers of the winning school, Beija-Flor, came dressed as minority groups, victims of gun violence, and the corrupt, mostly white elite.

Publishing on her social networks before the Supreme Court’s ruling, Ana wrote: “The enslavers did not die, they are still alive. Just as I continue in resistance.”

Today, Ana Mumbuca divides her time between Palmas, where she continues to studies and work, and Mumbuca, 380 kilometers away and 12 hours by bus.  Of the seven members of the Mumbuca quilombo who have gone on to graduate from university, six are women, each one of them a driving force of resistance and transformation.

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