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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.

Charles Mann is the author of 1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created, which has a chapter on maroon societies adapted from reporting for this article. Susanna Hecht is the co-author of The Fate of the Forest. Photographer Tyrone Turner has documented youth issues in Brazil.
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