Competing claims complicate land ownership for Brazil's slave descendants

Vilmar de Souza Costa, head of Kalunga Quilombola Association, poses for a picture with a map of a hydroelectric power dam that puts 140 families at displacement risk, in Cavalcante, Goias state, in March 15, 2018. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Karla Mendes

Even though Brazil's constitution guarantees slaves' descendants rights to property, many of them still don't have legal title to their land

QUILOMBO KALUNGA, Brasil, June 20 - Every morning, Valdemir Francisco da Conceicao takes a short walk from his straw-roofed house with a bucket to take water from a river that flows through the lush mountains of Brazil's Goias state.

Vao de Almas, his remote village has no running water but da Conceicao doesn't mind - he enjoys his simple life as a farmer, planting cassava, corn and rice on his smallholding.

Da Conceicao is a quilombola, one of 16 million Brazilians descended from runaway slaves, who formed settlements known as quilombos after they fled harsh working conditions on their masters' farms and mines.

Vao de Almas' rural idyll is threatened by plans to build a hydroelectric power dam that backers say will generate electricity and jobs in the region, a vast area of wilderness some 220 miles (354 km) north of the capital Brasilia.

Da Conceicao is worried the dam will make it impossible for him to access water from the river and that any potential safety problems with the dam could threaten his children's safety.

"We wash, we take water to cook, we take a bath, we depend on the river for everything," the 37-year-old told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

The PCH Santa Monica dam project has dogged Vao de Almas village for two decades amid a complex web of competing claims over land in the quilombos, the settlements where slaves' descendants live.

The slaves' descendants' fight for a safe home is part of a struggle for land across Brazil. South America's largest country is rich in land for development but low on formal records to prove ownership, a situation that has led to tension and increasingly deadly conflict.


Even though Brazil abolished slavery 130 years ago and guaranteed quilombolas' rights to property in its 1988 constitution, many of them are still fighting for legal titles to their land. 

The government has recognised around 5,000 quilombos, the first step in a long-winded process to obtain land titles, which depends on surveys and investigations into the ancestry of communities.

Vao de Almas village is part of Kalunga, one of Brazil's largest quilombos, recognised by the government in 2009.

Nearly a decade later, land titles have been issued for only a fifth of its 261,000 hectares (645,000 acres) territory, according to INCRA, a government body tasked with managing and demarcating quilombo land.

While the borders of the quilombo are clearly demarcated, the problem is a lack of details and proof of who owns properties inside the territory.

Across Brasil, only about 250 quilombo communities have legal titles to their land, according to Fundacao Cultural Palmares, the government body in charge of recognizing quilombo territory and ancestry.


If a property inside a quilombo is private, INCRA launches an expropriation process, which involves paying the owners compensation if they can prove ownership of the land.

In Vao de Almas around 700 hectares of land inside a farm were sold to RIALMA, the company that wants to build the dam - and has no intention of giving up the territory it legally owns.

A spokesman said the company had applied for an environmental license for the dam, a key step to get permission to start construction.

The Vao de Almas villagers agreed to the project and even signed a document to give it the go-ahead, the spokesman said.

In the meantime, RIALMA keeps moving forward and has applied for an environmental license from Goias state government to start construction work.

"We can not stop investment or road construction. We can not stop anything (until we have expropriated the land)," said Antonio Oliveira Santos, general coordinator of regularization of quilombola territories at INCRA.

Apart from the complexities of providing land titles, INCRA is also short of money to pay compensation.

The government's budget for providing land titles to quilombo residents has been reduced by 93 percent in the past five years, according to rights group Justica Global.

Sesame plantations in community Vao de Almas in Quilombo Kalunga, in Goias state, in March 15, 2018. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Karla Mendes


In Engenho II, another remote village in Quilombo Kalunga, about 3 hours drive southwest from Vao de Almas, some 250 quilombola families say farmers regularly encroach on their land. 

Both the farmers and the quilombolas say they need to cultivate the land to make a living.

"Our territory is recognized but there are still many farmers who have not been paid yet," said quilombola leader Cirilo dos Santos Rosa. "They want to leave but they need the compensation."

His ex-wife and her uncles lost their harvests recently because a farmer destroyed their crops.

The farmers could not be reached for comment.

Despite their land title troubles, the quilombolas count themselves lucky because they control the famous 35 meter-high Santa Barbara waterfalls.

The waterfall, surrounded by a lake with deep-blue water, attracts tourism from around the world, and provides income for the community.

Tourists pay an entrance fee to visit the waterfall and the quilombolas also make some money by providing transport to Santa Barbara and accommodation.

"It's a true sanctuary. The waterfall is our mother because it embraces us and is giving us an opportunity to make a better living," said Dominga Natalia Moreira dos Santos Rosa, the quilombo village leader's daughter.

The income from Santa Barbara waterfall has helped them to make improvements in the village and pay for their leaders to go to meetings to fight for their land rights. 

"My dream is that one day we could really have this land in our names, which is something that we have been fighting for years. I grew up watching my parents fighting for land rights, which is a right that we have," said Moreira dos Santos Rosa.

Credit: Incra

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