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For Some Brazilian Slave Descendants, Home at Last

By Stephen Buckley, The Washington Post, Sunday 28 January 2001; Page A23

RIO DAS RAS, Brazil—They say Chico Tome is 106 years old. He is three-quarters blind, lives in a room with chunks of wall crumbling around him and sleeps on a mattress that has been through way too many nights. The stench of urine in his hovel is suffocating.

Tome's mind is often foggy these days, but he knows this much: He and the 3,000 other descendants of slaves who live in this community, known as a quilombo, finally have a place to officially call home.

They can't come in here anymore, he said, referring to large landowners and others who for decades tried to push out the residents of Rio das Ras.

Last year the Brazilian government issued a title of ownership to the community, ensuring that people who live in the Rio das Ras quilombo would never be forced illegally from this land. It is a promise that 2 million other impatient quilombo residents are waiting to see fulfilled.

A constitutional overhaul 12 years ago included language that specifically addressed the land rights of Brazil's 724 quilombos. But only 33 of the centuries-old communities have received titles. And even in those with titles, residents say their poverty is so profound, their needs so vast, that their celebration is muted.

Having a title to land isn't worth much if you don't have conditions to live, said Moises Candido da Silva, one of the leaders of the Rio das Ras quilombo.

The government's stated commitment to help pull quilombos into modern life shows how far Latin America's largest and most populous country has come in confronting even the darkest seasons of its 500-year history. But the sometimes achingly slow pace has only fed the anger and suspicion of some historically disaffected groups -- not only slaves' descendants but indigenous peoples, landless rural workers and others -- who have seen little change in their lives since democracy returned to Brazil 15 years ago.

Those groups include people who live in these isolated communities that go back 450 years in Brazilian history, when they were created by runaway slaves originally brought from West Africa. The remote areas began as refuges for the runaways who fashioned self-sufficient communities with their own political hierarchy, language, economic system and religious rituals. The communities eventually existed all over the country, with an especially high number in such northeastern states as Bahia, where Rio das Ras is located.

Some quilombos survived for decades, resisting slave masters and colonial armies with weapons they bought and stole. Most famous among them was the Palmares quilombo here in the northeast, with 20,000 former slaves. That community won legendary status not only for its size and sophisticated organization, but also for its defiance of those who sought to destroy it. After repeated attempts throughout the 17th century, the Portuguese finally wiped out Palmares in 1695.

Quilombos stayed alive even after slavery officially ended in 1888, as social and economic isolation compelled millions of the freed Afro-Brazilians to remain. The communities continued to be a symbol of political resistance, especially for Afro-Brazilians, but for the most part they gradually collapsed for lack of government resources and attention.

Residents of quilombos find themselves at the nexus of two of Brazil's most vexing problems: skewed distribution of land and racial discrimination.

These sons and daughters of slaves were almost certainly doomed to decades of struggle in a country where laws and tradition have conspired to make large plots of land the almost exclusive province of the country's wealthiest, most politically influential classes.

And unlike most of their compatriots, whose skin tones generally reflect the mixing of Brazil's ethnic groups and races, these Brazilians are unmistakably black. That reality has robbed them of political and economic opportunity in a country where such rights historically have come much more easily to its lighter-hued citizens.

Quilombos' early residents lived by bartering, and even today most make less than $50 a month. Illiteracy topped 90 percent, as most communities did without formal schools. They also did without electricity, running water, telephone service and hospitals. They were invisible, said Ubiratan Castro de Araujo, a history professor at the Federal University of Bahia.

They were also legally helpless. Because quilombo residents did not officially own the land they lived on, they had no right to demand government services. Large landowners raided their property. And they had neither the education nor the know-how to vault the numerous legal obstacles that stood between them and official ownership.

Even after Brazil's constitution was revamped in 1988, nothing changed. By 1995, not one quilombo had received title to its land. The rights of quilombo residents became a priority for leaders of the Afro-Brazilian rights movement, and over the past five years the government gradually has begun to issue the titles.

We are still talking about very, very few quilombos who now have these titles, said Josina Maria da Cunha, head of Criola, an advocacy group for black Brazilian women. The government is telling people who already own the land, 'Hey, this is your land.' They're not giving these people anything.

And the slow issuing of titles has caused hundreds of young people to abandon the quilombos every day for big cities, seeking jobs, government services and a more exciting life.

We have to find a way to keep them there, because otherwise, who's going to pass on the history and the culture of these places? said Jonathas Nunes Barreto, the interim president of the Palmares Cultural Foundation, now an arm of the government responsible for providing titles to quilombos.

The Rio das Ras quilombo, 800 miles north of Rio de Janeiro, officially gained its title in July. Its 145,000 acres hold 150 years of Brazilian history and quilombo culture, and both are present in the daily life of the seven villages that make up the community.

This is a place where traditional healers work in tiny dark rooms with altars crowded with silk flowers, black porcelain Virgin Marys and piles of pastel rosary beads. They offer herbs, honey and animal fats as remedies for everything from strokes to rheumatism.

It is a place where people sprinkle their Portuguese with their own indecipherable patois whenever discretion, or mischief, calls for it and where people say that late at night they hear the groans and screams of murdered slaves whose blood was spilled in the soft, sandy soil in centuries past.

Residents are pleased that the land is now officially theirs, but they are far from exultant. A few of the villages have electricity, but the quilombo's advancement essentially stops there. They lack asphalt roads. Two hundred students sardine themselves into one village's one-room schoolhouses. Their clinic has little medicine and treats only the mildest ailments.

In October, an 18-year-old woman fell ill in the final days of her pregnancy. She went to the clinic, but it had nothing with which to treat her. She and her baby died at a hospital an hour away.

We realized that maybe if we had something better here for health care, she would have had a chance, said Simplicio Rodrigues, one of the quilombo's leaders.

Rodrigues has the sympathy of Barreto, who finds himself in the awkward position of both attacking the government and defending it. He said the government has in the past ignored the plight of those in quilombos and until the last few years did not know how many there were or how many residents lived in them.

They've had to live on a century's worth of promises, he said.

Nonetheless, he said, the government has recognized it must provide services if quilombos are to become viable communities and is creating a multi-ministry team to address their needs.

Araujo, the Bahia professor, said that despite the slowness of the process, the titles have allowed quilombos to take a small but crucial step toward progress.

It's an important moment, he said. They're not invisible anymore.