Maryellen Crisóstomo de Almeida, a journalist and member of the Baião quilombo, explains the process for land titling to her community. (Photo: Sarah Sax)
‘We are invisible’: Brazilian Cerrado quilombos fight for land and lives
by Sarah Sax and Maurício Angelo
Thousands of quilombos — communities formed by descendants of runaway slaves — exist in Brazil, but lack of resources, structural racism, and a lethargic bureaucracy prevents them from gaining official title and control over their traditional lands, despite guarantees under the 1988 Constitution.
The Brazilian government’s Quilombola Program has mapped more than 3,000 communities, but less than 200 have had their lands officially demarcated, and even fewer have been given full title.
In the Brazilian Cerrado, on the nation’s agricultural frontier, rapid deforestation by expanding agribusiness, depletion of water resources, and an unsympathetic government are further complicating the resolution of the long-time struggle over land rights.
The Baião quilombo, visited by Mongabay last year, is just one such community. Located in Tocantins state, its members say its demarcation rights have been long denied by the Brazilian government, while the adjacent Ipiranga farm has steadily expanded to encroach on traditional community lands.
A Mongabay team, Sarah Sax and Maurício Angelo, recently traveled to the Brazilian Cerrado to report on the impacts of booming agribusiness on the savanna environment and on the traditional people living there. This is the fifth story in a series telling what they found there.
ALMAS, Tocantins, Brazil — Fields and fences stretch away on either side of a monotonous gravel lane. Fifteen miles on, the road winds past the main entrance to the Ipiranga farm, a medium size operation growing corn and soy, and raising cattle. Farther on, the road gets rougher and wilder, with the fields next to it now marred by freshly burned tree stumps, torn from the ground and still smoldering. Then even the fences disappear as we find ourselves moving through a dry, natural Cerrado savanna forest at varying stages of growth.
There are no signs that we’ve entered the community of Baião. In fact, the only signs we’ve seen along the way were the ones for the Ipiranga farm — and this gets to the heart of the issue.
“We are invisible,” explains Maryellen Crisóstomo de Almeida, a journalist and member of the Baião quilombo, a traditional Afro-Brazilian community, now split down the middle by the farm. “Traditional communities are invisible in the face of large [agribusiness] funding projects, but we need visibility because we exist and there is a discourse that we do not exist in the Matopiba area.”
Matopiba is the agribusiness industry’s promotional name for the “kingdom of soy,” and the Brazilian agricultural frontier composed of the northern Cerrado biome states of Maranhão, Tocantins, Piauí, and Bahia.
Around 50 families live in Baião, all descended from runaway slaves who found freedom and established communities in Brazil’s remote tropical savanna. Slavery was abolished in Brazil in 1888, but the quilombo has only officially existed since 2010 when it received a certificate from the Fundação Palmares, a cultural institution that provides quilombos with certified recognition.
Unofficially though, the community has existed for generations; it has been there for at least a hundred years, says Siran Nunes de Souza, the community’s current leader, who claims the settlement can trace its land title at least as far back as 1921, and local land occupation back even further.
Traditional life on Brazil’s agricultural frontier
The community is structured like many other quilombos — extended families are clustered around agricultural plots, each one anywhere from a few hundred feet to a few miles from neighbors. The quilombo has an elected leader and the families help each other out with planting, tools, seeds and construction. They also share common social and religious rites, rituals and stories. It is this unique social structure and tradition, intertwined with their common history and connected to the land they live on, that gives residents specific rights under the Brazilian Constitution — especially the right to continue using the land and resources that have shaped their way of life on into the future.
But the rights of communities like Baião are rarely respected, and conditions there have only been worsened by the Matopiba Agricultural Plan, a federal government initiative designed to promote industrial agribusiness expansion in Brazil’s last agriculture frontier.
Under this plan, created without the consultation of traditional peoples living in the Cerrado, farmers, many coming from other regions, have been incentivized to continue clearing land in the Cerrado at a rapid pace. Native vegetation loss in the Cerrado from August 2018 to July 2019 was 648,400 hectares, an area twice as big as California’s Yosemite National Park. Only 20% of the vegetation that remains is intact enough to be conserved, making the Cerrado one of the most endangered natural biomes on the planet.
“Land delimitation for traditional communities is the channel for stopping deforestation,” says Crisóstomo de Almeida. “There is talk of recycling, planting trees again, but what the planet needs most urgently is to stop clearing forests; if we don’t stop deforestation and start delimiting land there is no solution.”
The owner of Ipiranga farm, Marcelo Carassa also owns other farms in the Matopiba region, and is listed as one of the tenants of the Estrondo estate. Agronegócio Estrondo, a consortium of farms in Bahia where Carassa has lands, is associated with some of the worst cases of land grabbing and violation of rights in Brazil.
When the farmers started coming in with more powerful industrial machines to clear the land about a decade ago, says former quilombo president Eliene Fernandes Crisóstomo, they blocked off road access to the community; the quilombo had to go to court to get the farm to open access again.
Since then, Ipiranga farm has continued to encroach on the lands the quilombo says are rightfully theirs. The farm even constructed an access road that splits the traditional community in two.
But for Fernandes Crisóstomo — as with many other quilombo residents — the more pressing threat is the change that the farm has wrought on their traditional livelihood. A mother of five children, Fernandes Crisóstomo is sceptical her grandchildren will experience the type of community she grew up in.
“Deforestation is increasingly restricting our lives,” she told Mongabay during an August 2019 interview. “Today, the waters are polluted; the fields we have today do not reap anything because the poison from the large [farm] comes here, as well as the insects that are resistant to poison.”
Many traditional crops — pumpkins, corn, cucumbers, rice — don’t grow anymore and many of the younger generation are increasingly moving to nearby cities to find work. “Now we have to buy things in the city. We can no longer live as we always have,“ Fernandes Crisóstomo says. The intrusions by the farm have “changed the way of life, and food of an entire generation.”
Ipiranga farm acknowledged Mongabay’s request for comment, but declined to respond further.
Quilombos in Brazil
While quilombos — like other traditional communities — have special rights guaranteed under the 1988 national constitution, this rarely translates into concrete outcomes like land deeds or titles.
Quilombos have to apply to the National Institute of Colonization and Agrarian Reform (INCRA) to get titles to their land, a costly process that can take years. Of the more than 1,700 quilombos in the process of gaining land titles through INCRA, only 181 have received titles; only two received titles in 2019. In Tocantins state, of the 45 communities certified as remnants of quilombos, not a single one has gained titles under INCRA.
“The [certification] process for the Baião community was not initiated due to [INCRA’s] insufficient human and financial resources,” an INCRA spokesperson in Tocantins wrote to Mongabay, noting that the institute in the state operated with a budget of just R$31,150 (US$6,100) to cover expenses and three staff members. INCRA also explained that “the identification and regularization of the lands occupied by the remaining quilombo communities is a legal assignment of the States, the Federal District and the Municipalities.”
The glacially slow traditional community certification process stands in stark contrast to the rapid development of agribusiness coupled with land speculation seen all across the Brazilian savanna and especially in Matopiba.
“In Tocantins, like in the rest of the Cerrado, the settlers who came in the 1970’s to use the land for agriculture were also the ones who created the institutions to legalize land possession,” explains Paulo Rogerio Gonçalves, from APA-TO, a Tocantins sustainable rural workers association. That being true, he concludes, it’s no wonder, that the farmers and land speculators have more rights — and easier access to titles — than do the quilombos.
Since the early 2000s, rapid expansion of monoculture farms and plantations using high precision industrial agribusiness technologies, and achieving intensive productivity, have transformed the Cerrado landscape. Between 2001 and 2017, soy in the Matopiba region expanded by 310% and accounted for 14% of all soy expansion in Brazil over that period. This expansion was initially concentrated in the high, flat plains of western Bahia, but in the last decade has spread to slightly more marginal, and less accessible lands in Tocantins, Piauí and Maranhão.
Around 850,000 hectares of Cerrado native vegetation in Matopiba were cleared directly for soy between 2005 and 2016, and more than three-quarters of the total amount of Cerrado vegetation that was directly cleared for soy between 2005 and 2016 was within the Matopiba region, according to Trase, an online platform that combines remote sensing and commodity data to map deforestation risk.
Since 2012, wells supplying water to the community have run dry, requiring that it be delivered by truck. Climate change-driven drought is another threat to agrarian quilombo communities. Image by Sarah Sax.
That rapid growth of Matopiba soy has come despite contradictory policies and mixed messages from the government, wrote Mauricio Voivodic, the head of WWF-Brazil, an environmental NGO, in December of last year: “The Brazilian federal government is giving ambiguous signals to producers: on the one hand, it offers subsidies for pasture recovery and agricultural intensification; on the other, it has [put forward] a Provisional Measure legalizing invasions of public lands that occurred until 2018, encouraging the agricultural frontier to continue expanding indefinitely and illegally over native vegetation, on untitled land.”
Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro is sending no such mixed messages in regards to quilombos, and other land occupied by traditional peoples,” having declared during his 2018 election campaign that, once elected president, not “a centimeter” of land would be demarcated for indigenous and quilombo communities. One of Bolsonaro’s first moves upon taking office was to attempt to stop land purchases and land reform that would have benefitted quilombo communities. Adding to the problems of these traditional communities, violence against, and assassinations of, quilombo members have increased over the past few years according to CONAQ, the organization representing the national quilombo land movement established in 1996.
Baião resident and journalist Crisóstomo de Almeida notes that, while the current conflicts and circumstances experienced under Bolsonaro are new, the fight is not. As we drove back towards Almas, with the crimson sun setting over nearby cattle pasture and distant Cerrado dry forest, she concluded: “Brazil was never designed to benefit quilombolas. But our story is a story of endurance, organization and survival. Knowing that quilombos exist is a first step.”