A cross in the center of Santo Antônio dos Pretos, at the edge of the Amazon.
A cross in the center of Santo Antônio dos Pretos, at the edge of the Amazon.

Where Slaves Ruled

Escaped slaves in Brazil created thousands of hidden societies, or quilombos, in the heart of the country. Today these communities are winning rights to their land—and helping protect it.

This story appears in the April 2012 issue of National Geographic magazine.

Imagine flying, impossibly, over the Earth in the 17th century—during the time described in American history books as the colonial period, when Europeans swarmed into the New World to dominate an almost empty wilderness. Instead, you would see tens of millions of native people already living in the Americas, joined by an extraordinary flow not of European colonists but of African slaves. Up until the early 19th century, almost four times as many Africans as Europeans came to the Americas. Looking down from above, you wouldn’t know that the tiny numbers of Europeans were supposed to be the stars of the story. Rather, your attention would focus on the two majority populations: Africans and Indians.

You’d have a lot to watch. By the tens of thousands, African slaves escaped the harsh conditions of the European plantations and mining operations and headed for the interior, into lands controlled by Indians. Up and down the Americas, ex-slaves and indigenous peoples fashioned hybrid settlements known as maroon communities, after the Spanish cimarrón, or runaway.

Largely conducted out of sight of Europeans, the complex interplay between black and red is a hidden drama that historians and archaeologists have only recently begun to unravel. Nowhere is the presence of this lost chapter more in evidence than in Brazil, where thousands of maroon communities are emerging from the shadows, reaffirming their mixed culture and pressing for legal title to the land they have occupied since the era of slavery. The stakes are high: New laws are giving Brazil’s maroon communities, called quilombos (the word for “settlement” in the Angolan language of Kimbundu), a key role in determining the future of the great Amazon forest.

Macaws screech overhead as the little boat motors upstream, water hyacinth rocking in its wake. The vessel is traveling through the lower Amazon Basin, riding from the mouth of the great river along a tributary to the hamlet of Baixo Bujaru. The village in the northern state of Pará has changed surprisingly little since the 18th century, when it was established by slaves who had escaped from their Portuguese masters. Little more than a school and a community building surrounded by airy wooden houses, it has no electricity, running water, or medical care and is accessible only by boat. Multiple hands pull in the boat as it approaches the main dock. Waiting are almost a hundred people who have come to meet the visiting medical team: a doctor, dentist, nurse, nurse-practitioner—and two beauticians. “Is it true that in other countries you don’t get a facial and your dreads done with your Pap smear?” the pilot asks. “Brazil is a civilized nation!”

During centuries of slavery roughly five million African captives were brought to Brazil. Almost as soon as they were put to work, the slaves began slipping out of their masters’ control, creating fugitive worlds in the country’s interior. Protected by a labyrinth of rivers and impenetrable forest, these illicit settlements endured for decades, even centuries.

Brazil abolished slavery in 1888, the last nation in the hemisphere to do so. But the end of slavery did not mean an end to discrimination. Tucked into remote pockets, Brazil’s maroon people, known as Quilombolas, continued to conceal themselves, staying so far from official sight that by the middle of the past century most policymakers believed they no longer existed. In the 1960s Brazil’s military rulers decided to open up the Amazon Basin—it was, they argued, the nation’s destiny. Land speculators poured in, feeding a classic real estate bubble. Hoping for quick money, they put huge areas to the ax, planted grass for ranches, and looked for the next buyer. Any people found on the property were deemed to be squatters and driven out, often at gunpoint. Countless quilombos were erased. But many managed to survive, Baixo Bujaru among them.

In the waiting crowd in Baixo Bujaru was Bettina dos Santos, the pilot’s mother, born about 70 years ago in a house 45 minutes upriver. In those days there was no school. Nor were there any legal protections when the generals sliced Baixo Bujaru into ranches and sold them to politically connected investors. Armed men cut down maroon forests and placed cattle on the denuded results. With the local church, dos Santos says, she helped organize protests. “But we couldn’t stop it—they had too many guns.”

In the 1980s geologists discovered valuable bauxite (aluminum ore) and kaolin (a fine clay used to coat paper) in the next watershed over, also occupied by Quilombolas. Once more the state freely distributed their land, licensing it to mining companies. “So again we let them know we were here,” she says. This time they were successful. In March 2008 Baixo Bujaru and its neighbors gained title to their land.

By U.S. standards, dos Santos’s living room is bare: a small table with family photos, a bookcase against one wall. Yet the woman who grew up with no access to medical care is now visited by a boatload of doctors and beauticians every few months. Dos Santos could not attend school and risked her life to protest deforestation. Now her daughter is studying for her Ph.D.; her son works for a farmers association. Smiling proudly from photographs, they are living testaments to the way Quilombolas have moved from invisibility to citizenship.

The Atlantic slave trade was a massive enterprise with tentacles that reached everywhere in the Americas, from Boston to Buenos Aires. But its center was the Portuguese colony of Brazil: For every African who landed in British North America, 12 arrived in Brazil, most of them destined for gold mines and sugar plantations, brutal work that killed a third to a half of them within five years. Sugar harvesting required hacking down hard, sticky, bamboo-like cane stalks in the baking sun; sugar processing involved boiling away the juice in smoking cauldrons. Little wonder the slaves quickly made for the exits, creating the most renowned quilombo of all: Palmares, which at its height in the mid-17th century held sway over 10,000 square miles in the north coastal mountains.

The founder of this maroon nation was said to be Aqualtune, an Angolan princess and general enslaved in a Congolese war in about 1605. Soon after arriving in Brazil, the pregnant Aqualtune escaped with some of her soldiers and fled to the Serra da Barriga, a series of abrupt basaltic extrusions that dominate the coastal plain like a line of watchtowers. On one high crest was a pool of water sheltered by trees, with an indigenous community living around it. Here, according to legend, Aqualtune built Palmares.

Today Palmares is a national park in the state of Alagoas reached only by a rutted, muddy, unmarked road that can easily rip out a car’s oil pan. A plaque by the high-crest pond recounts Aqualtune’s story—to the distress of historians, because nobody knows how much of it is true. What researchers do know is that the quilombo’s dozen villages became a haven for as many as 30,000 Africans and Indians, as well as a few renegade Europeans. It had roughly as many inhabitants at the time as all of British North America. By the 1630s, Aqualtune’s son, Ganga Zumba, ruled Palmares from a palace with rich decorations, lavish feasts, and cringing minions.

Ganga Zumba’s subjects used African-style forges to make metal plows and scythes for use in Indian-style mixed fields of corn, rice, and manioc and agricultural forests of palm and breadfruit. Around the settlements were protective palisades, pits filled with deadly stakes, and paths lined with lacerating caltrops. If attackers struck an outlying village, its people fled to the high outcrops, where fertile soils and artesian water made it possible to outlast any siege.

Lisbon saw Palmares as a direct challenge to its colonial state. Not only did maroon troops raid Portuguese settlements; they also blocked further European expansion into the interior. Enraged and fearful, Portugal launched more than 20 attacks on Palmares, always unsuccessfully. But the constant strife wearied Ganga Zumba, who agreed in 1678 to stop accepting new fugitives and move out of the mountains. Rejecting what he viewed as a betrayal, Ganga Zumba’s nephew Zumbi poisoned his uncle and tore up the treaty. In reprisal, colonial forces assaulted the Serra da Barriga year after year. The Portuguese finally destroyed Palmares after a terrible siege in 1694, killing hundreds of its residents. The quilombo was never rebuilt, but Zumbi and Palmares remained a symbol of resistance.

At first glance, the surviving quilombos look like other poor Brazilian villages. But most retain cultural elements of their residents’ African homeland, mixed with European and native traditions. Brazil has a host of hybrid spiritual regimes—candomblé, umbanda, macumba, terecô—in which Afro-Brazilians dance, drum, and practice the dancing martial art of capoeira. In their isolation, quilombos built pageants and festivals atop these spiritual traditions, tying communities together with the supple bonds of shared memory. Across Brazil’s north and northeast quilombos celebrate Bumba-Meu-Boi, a festival that satirically retells the tale of slaves escaping their fate with the help of Brazil’s original inhabitants. The struggle for freedom is revisited even more overtly in the ritual dance of Lambe-Sujos, in which “runaway slaves,” many covered head to foot in shimmering black oil, suck on baby pacifiers, symbolizing the cruel circular plugs strapped into the mouths of recalcitrant slaves. Clinging together in a spirit of resistance, the Quilombolas are celebrating their history even as they preserve it.

The quest to save the rain forest has had unintended consequences for quilombos. The 1970s surge in Amazonian deforestation set off a worldwide furor. Chico Mendes, a kind of Brazilian Martin Luther King, led a campaign to recognize both the importance of the Amazon forest and the rights of its “traditional peoples,” including quilombo residents. Meanwhile, the military dictatorship unraveled in a welter of inflation and scandal. Brazil enacted a new, democratic constitution in October 1988. Two months later Mendes was killed by a rancher-hired assassin. But it was too late to stop his cause: The new constitution protected the rights of traditional peoples. Along the way, it declared that quilombo communities were “the legitimate owners of the lands they occupy, for which the State shall issue the respective title deeds.”

“Nobody understood the implications at the time,” says Alberto Lorenço Pereira, undersecretary for sustainable development in the Brazilian ministry of long-term planning, which formulates land policy. The framers of the constitution, he says, pictured “a few remnant quilombos somewhere in the forest” whose elderly members would be rewarded with their fields. Now it is widely believed there may be 5,000 or more maroon communities in Brazil, many of them in the Amazon Basin, occupying at least 30 million hectares—115,000 square miles, an area the size of Italy. Conflict was inevitable, Pereira says. “A lot of other people want that land.”

Irate ranchers, miners, planters, land speculators, and plantation owners charged that many quilombo territories were not ancient legacies of slavery but modern land grabs—squatters trying to make a quick buck by pretending to be something they weren’t. “There was an explosion of resentment,” says Manuel Almeida, head of the Terras Quilombos de Jambuaçu, an association of 15 maroon communities in the lower Amazon. “People in the state senate questioned our legitimacy and tried to help the oil palm farmers and mining companies” that wanted quilombo land, he says. Between 1988 and 2003, just 51 land titles were granted to quilombo communities. Jambuaçu got its titles in the fall of 2008, but only after a long, bitter fight with ranchers and miners.

Brazil has had trouble deciding exactly what a quilombo is. Initially the definition—a community of descendants of escaped slaves—seemed unproblematic. But how should the law treat places like Frechal, in Brazil’s eastern forest, where slaves who helped rid their master of debt were given land as a reward but still were persecuted by postcolonial planters? What about Acará, in the lower Amazon state of Pará, where an owner is said to have given his plantation to a slave he loved—but didn’t provide her with the title? Or the lands in Tocantins, the state southeast of Pará, that in the 1860s were given by the government to slave militias as a reward for serving in a war against Paraguay? Strictly speaking, not one of these settlements was created by runaways. Yet all of them were autonomous communities founded by Africans, joined by Indians, with hybrid cultures, lengthy histories of bad treatment, and no recognizable legal titles to their land. Should they be pushed out of their homes?

To resolve the disputes, then President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva ruled in November 2003 that a quilombo was any community that identified itself as a quilombo and had “African ancestry related to a history of resistance to historical oppression.” Following Lula’s decree, quilombos came out of the shadows in such numbers that they overwhelmed the agencies evaluating their claims. Some 1,700 quilombos have been officially recognized, and the number is growing as previously invisible communities come forward.

As the list of claimants grew, business interests and environmentalists realized with alarm that these small Afro-Indian settlements stood to acquire huge swaths of the Amazon. Worse yet, from their perspective, since many quilombos were built on fertile land with river access, some of the maroon land was the most valuable property in the river basin.

To an outside visitor the farm owned by Maria do Rosário Costa Cabral and her family in the state of Amapá looks like an untouched tropical landscape: tall trees and luxuriant vines, muddy soil covered with rotting vegetation. Yet almost every species in it was selected and tended by Costa Cabral and her siblings. Over the years they planted lime, coconut, cupuaçu (a relative of cacao), and açaí (a palm fruit popular for its allegedly high antioxidants). At the river’s edge they carefully encouraged shrubs and planted fruit trees that lure fish into the forest in high water. Yet it all looks wild, at least to outsiders.

The farm is near Mazagão Velho, a town founded in 1770 by Portuguese colonists from Morocco who had been ordered by Lisbon to resettle in Amapá, where their presence was supposed to thwart potential incursions by colonists in French Guiana to the north. To ease the transition, the colonists were awarded several hundred slaves. The new town was designed as a European-style city with graceful squares and gridded streets. Quickly the colonists made the unhappy discovery that Mazagão Velho was incredibly humid. Within a decade of arrival, the colonists—malarial, living in wretched shacks they were too poor to repair—begged the crown to relocate them. Ultimately, almost all the colonists slipped away. Through no act of their own, their slaves found themselves alone.

They were free as long as they pretended they weren’t. The Portuguese wanted to be able to report to the King that a settlement was guarding Brazil’s northern flank, and Mazagão Velho filled the bill. As the years went by, the descendants of the colony’s Africans spread out into the countryside. Living along the rivers like the region’s indigenous peoples, the masterless slaves survived the same way their Indian neighbors did: The river supplied fish and shrimp, small-scale gardens yielded manioc, trees provided everything else. Two centuries of constant planting, tending, and harvesting structured the forest. Mixing together native and African techniques, they created landscapes lush enough to be mistaken for untouched wilderness.

Costa Cabral is a strong, watchful woman of 62, born in a poor quilombo called Ipanema. Her father spent his days searching the forest for rubber trees, native to the Amazon, and tapping the saplike latex beneath their bark. If he found an especially productive group of trees, he knew that wealthier, more powerful people eventually would learn its location, kick out rubber-tappers like him, and take over. Unable to obtain legal title to land, Costa Cabral and her family lived hand to mouth selling shrimp, palm fruits, and tree oils. They set up farms and were repeatedly pushed off them. So in 1991 Costa Cabral and her siblings jumped at the opportunity to buy 25 acres on the banks of Igarapé Espinhel, a subtributary of the great river.

To non-Amazonians, the property wouldn’t look like much. Located in the maze of small tributaries that flow into the Amazon’s estuary, it is flooded twice a day by tides. Even when the surface is exposed, it is thick with mud so gooey it rips boots from feet with alacrity. Just before Costa Cabral bought the land, it had been ravaged by the heart of palm craze of the late 1980s, when every fashionable restaurant in New York and Los Angeles featured heart of palm salad. Pirate barges hunted palms across the lower Amazon with the implacability of paid assassins.

Costa Cabral and her family set out to work the land with techniques they had learned from their father. They planted fast-growing timber trees for sawmills upriver. For the market, they put in fruit trees. With woven shrimp traps—identical to those in West Africa—they caught shrimp in cages that drifted in the creek.

Cultivated forests like Costa Cabral’s are found throughout the Amazon River Basin. Yet careful stewardship of the environment has not always worked in Quilombolas’ favor. Often environmental organizations assume that all human actions inevitably degrade the forest. Two hundred miles west of Mazagão Velho, Quilombolas on the Trombetas River managed forests so beautifully that in 1979 Brazil established a 1,500-square-mile biological reserve on the east side of the river. The legislation creating the reserve prohibited “any alteration of the environment, including hunting and fishing in the area,” infuriating the people whose families had been living there for a century and a half. Ten years later, a half dozen quilombos were engulfed by a new national forest of almost equal size on the west side of the river. The national forest opened itself to a gigantic bauxite mine while forbidding its long-term inhabitants to cut down trees.

“These people are the reason the forest still exists,” says Leslye Ursini, an anthropologist at the Brazilian land-management agency INCRA. “Now they are being attacked by both environmentalists and bauxite miners.” Given that many quilombo inhabitants helped to generate the very Amazonian landscapes conservationists seek to preserve, pushing them off their territory will only worsen the plight of the forest, says Ursini. This view is expressed over and over by policymakers and quilombo residents across Brazil.

A year after buying her property, Costa Cabral had an unpleasant surprise: Her title, like so many in Amazonia, was a mess. “We went into the INCRA office to see if the title had gone through,” she says. The family discovered that “the property was officially owned by somebody else, and the title was tied up with back taxes.” Because the state had a lien on the property, she would have to pay the back taxes to own it. It was like paying for the land all over again. For more than a decade she continued selling açaí, shrimp, and medicinal plants in Macapá, Amapá’s capital, slowly accumulating enough cash to pay off the taxes. She obtained her ownership papers in 2002. One day Costa Cabral stumbled across a survey party on her farm, planting stakes and tying ribbons around trees. “They were saying, ‘What a great açaí place—let’s divide it up and sell it,’” she recalls. The buyers would then use the courts to boot out the current occupants—a common practice in rural Brazil.

“I had a fit,” she says. “I said, ‘I planted this land.’” She showed her documents to an INCRA inspector. “They looked it up and said to the surveyors, ‘Wait a minute; you can’t steal this land.’”

In 2009 President Lula signed Provisional Law 458, a remarkably ambitious attempt to straighten out land tenure in Amazonia—a root cause of the violence and ecological destruction of the past 40 years. It grants title to quilombos whose members already occupy the land and have less than 200 acres apiece. The law has been challenged in court on behalf of industrial and environmental groups, both of which argue vehemently that it rewards squatters for taking land illegally. But as implementation gets under way in most states, the hope is that it can bring a centuries-long struggle to a victorious close. Pulling these thousands of settlements out of the shadows will allow the state to invest in schools and clinics, something it can’t legally do while their existence is contested.

We spoke to Costa Cabral soon after the law was signed. She had not heard the news. But as we told her about it, she nodded vigorously. “It’s about time,” she said.

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