(IPS) – More than a century after the abolition of slavery, Brazil still has small remnant "quilombos", free settlements created by fugitive African slaves in the 17th and 18th centuries.
Escaped slaves sought refuge in dense jungles or remote mountain regions, where they set up settlements across colonial Latin America, under different names, such as quilombo or ‘palenque.’ "Today also they are trying to resist, creating ties of historical and cultural identification," Givânia Silva, under-secretary for traditional community policy at the government’s Special Secretariat for Racial Equality Promotion Policy (SEPPIR), told Tierramérica.
A government development plan seeks to improve their living conditions, which are among the worst in Brazil.
Coordinated by SEPPIR, the proposal for the "Quilombolas" (quilombo inhabitants) includes granting land titles — a process that got underway during the Fernando Henrique Cardoso administration (1995-2003) –, improving roads, and providing sanitation, water, education and health services.
The Quilombolas Development Programme, with participation from seven ministries, according to what the programme’s press secretary Isabel Clavelín told Tierramérica, is included in the framework of another created by the Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva government in 2004 "to recover the identity and improve the living conditions of these communities," according to its mission document.
Initially it is to benefit 525 communities in 22 of Brazil’s 26 states, with plans to expand through 2010. The focus will be on guaranteeing access to land.
"Development for a rural community without land is fiction," says Silva. "If they don’t have formal title to their land and their property is seized or occupied, what kind of development can we talk about?"
According to the Secretariat, in Brazil quilombos are commonly associated with school history lessons, as something of the past that disappeared when slavery ended in Brazil in 1888.
But these communities continue to exist throughout the country, with the highest concentration in Bahía (northeast), Mato Grosso (west), Goiás (central), Minas Gerais (southeast) and Pará (north). They can also be found in cities like Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo.
"Many of these urban communities weren’t always urban. The cities grew and encompassed them, not the reverse," said Silva.
"The current legislation recognises quilombos based on Convention 169 of the International Labour Organisation, which establishes the self-determination of peoples," added Silva, who comes from a Quilombola community, Conceição das Crioulas, in the north-eastern state of Pernambuco.
A survey by the governmental Palmares Foundation found 1,170 remnant quilombo communities. But SEPPIR estimates the total could surpass 3,000.
This would represent about 1.7 million people, in a country of 189 million inhabitants. According to the 2002 census, 48 percent of Brazilians are black or of mixed race.
Afro-descendants "make up 70 percent of the country’s poorest population. It is fair and urgent that the same State that repressed them now takes effective action to return their conditions of dignity and promote their permanence," said Silva.
Historically located far from urban centres and in inaccessible areas, the quilombos survived through farming and small businesses and attempted to recuperate African social organisation. The most famous was the Palmares quilombo, a fortified citadel that lasted a century and whose population reached 15,000.
According to Silva, isolation made their physical survival possible, as well as the survival of their cultural identity. But it also worsened their living conditions, according to a study by the Ministry of Social Development titled "Quilombola Call for Nutrition – 2006".
The study shows that among Quilombolas, the proportion of malnourished children up to age five is 76 percent higher than among the national child population, and 44.5 percent higher than among the rural child population as a whole.
In addition, 91 percent of these families have incomes of less than 190 dollars a month.
The United Nations Development Programme, which runs two support projects for the descendants of Quilombolas, noted that just 3.2 percent of the children live in homes with access to sanitation.
The regularisation of lands, through collective property titles, is one of the more complicated issues.
The National Institute of Colonisation and Agrarian Reform (INCRA) says the communities must first file a declaration issued by the Palmares Foundation in which they are identified as surviving quilombos.
The process involves experts ranging from anthropologists to land surveyors. After INCRA recognises the land boundaries, it can issue an expropriation or payment in cases of land in dispute.
There are currently 585 applications for land regularisation under way in INCRA, and 31 titles were issued between 2003 and 2006.
"I hope that these initiatives serve to compensate the historic injustice committed against the black population in Brazil," said Silva.
Photos from the State Goverment of Sao Paolo