Understanding Brazil’s Present Day Quilombos: A Small Term for a Big Reality

October 23, 2014 Yale Gilder Lehrman Center Opinion 
Forced Labor, Academia

During a conference in March 2012 on race and racism in Brazil, a Brazilian sociologist—and expert on affirmative action—posed a significant question about black rural communities in Brazil: “Those communities, do they actually descend from runaway slaves? Are they really quilombos?” Her question shows the confusion that persists among scholars, and the general public, about the exact meaning of quilombo. While the word literally means maroon, or a community formed by runaway slaves, it has been employed in the last few years to refer to a series of black rural communities that have received land grants from the federal government since 1988. In that year Brazil passed a new constitution with an article in its transitory dispositions that granted land deeds to “descendants of quilombos.” In the ensuing years, a surprisingly high number of these descendants came to public light claiming official recognition, and the media in Brazil and abroad reported on their activities periodically.[1] Suddenly it seemed that rural areas were inhabited by massive numbers of runaway descendants.

The question that pops up, both for the above mentioned scholar and for everybody else, is: do all of the present-day quilombos descend from runaway slaves? If not, is it fair that numerous black communities throughout Brazil’s countryside claim this legal status? To respond to these questions some Brazilian anthropologists and historians have argued that during the last twenty years the meaning of quilombo has changed. Since the constitutional article was incorporated to the 1988 Constitution recognizing the ‘quilombo-descendants,’ hundreds of black rural groups across Brazil became politically active, appropriating the term and constructing with it a broad Afro-Brazilian identity in the countryside. The 1988 constitutional article sparked a process of political mobilization and identity-building with far-reaching consequences.

Instead of bending the concept, however, I think that the current political mobilizations of the ‘quilombo-descendants’ in Brazil make more sense if we understand them as part of the broader history of black peasants in Brazil. Take their experiences in the Northern regions of Pará or Maranhão, for example. Responding to a wave of encroachments upon their lands that started back in the 1960s, those communities used complex political strategies and networks of allies to demand governmental action during the ensuing decades. Their protests served as an example for other black rural groups, sparking a debate inside the mostly urban-based black movement of Brazil, and culminating in the passing of the famous Article 68 in 1988. Their trajectory renders the concept of quilombo-descendants a clearly insufficient one to account for an entire universe of black communities that, far from descending uniquely from maroons, originated as groups of plantation slaves, freedmen, and multiple other ancestors. The political struggles of black peasants in different parts of Brazil are what lies behind all public policies for black rural communities since 1988, not the other way around.

In reality, the term remanescentes de quilombos or maroon-descendants became enshrined in the constitution in 1988 as a way of circumventing political obstacles, more than as an accurate portrait of Brazil’s black peasants. Black activists like former Senator Benedita da Silva recall how “at the time of the Constituent Assembly for the constitution in 1988, there was general ignorance regarding the racial question.”[2] Despite the fact that the states of São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro had already created state agencies to promote racial equality, a number of Congressional representatives continued to believe that there was no racism in Brazil. But such ignorance could also be used by black activists to stake a claim in the Constitution. Constituent delegates were familiar with the history of Palmares, a huge network of settlements in seventeenth-century Alagoas (Northeastern Brazil) formed by runaway slaves, Indians, and rebellious whites, based on the Angolan cultural and political models and established in direct defiance of plantation slavery. This was a well-known episode in Brazilian colonial history, so for the constitutional delegates the existence of quilombos in present day Brazil must have looked like a residual phenomenon. What trouble could it cause, they must have thought, to include the demands of quilombo-descendants in the new constitution?

In fact, the idea had such a low profile among the general population that it could not collect the minimum of signatures to be introduced as a popular amendment to the constitution by the Subcommittee of Blacks, Indigenous Populations, and Minorities. Then, on August 20, 1987, black Congressman Carlos Alberto Caó followed a different strategy: he presented an article about the quilombo-descendants to the Sub-committee, who finally approved it.[3] The Article eventually became Article 68 of the Transitory Dispositions of the 1988 Constitution, stating that “definitive ownership will be recognized, and the respective title will be issued by the State, to those descendants [remanescentes] of the maroon communities occupying their lands.”[4] At this time, nobody could foresee that this apparently innocuous constitutional article would actually permit the deployment of important governmental programs during the following decades.

The small gap that Article 68 provided soon became a path toward official recognition for more and more rural Afro-Brazilians, most of whom had been immersed in conflicts over land and labor for decades. In Pará, where black Amazonians had been facing frequent aggressions from landowners and the deployment of massive infrastructural projects since the 1960s at least, Article 68 represented a grand opportunity. They seized it and, by the 1990s, hundreds of black communities were claiming the legal status of quilombo-descendants, regardless of the condition of their ancestors. In states like Maranhão, Bahia, Minas Gerais, Rio de Janeiro, São Paulo, or Rio Grande do Sul, other communities joined this wave of political action. In 2003, President Lula da Silva of the Wokers’ Party passed Decree 4,887, which recognized the complex nature of black rural communities in Brazil and facilitated the process of granting them land deeds. The quilombo-descendants were defined as ethno-racial groups with shared historical ties and a “presumed black ancestry related to the past of oppression that they have suffered.”[5] This definition was broad enough as to be used by pretty much any black community in Brazil. The apparently narrow article introduced in 1988 for quilombo-descendants had finally become what it was initially meant to be: a legal dispositive to protect black peasants against encroachments upon their ancestral lands.

Despite the misunderstandings that persist, the political attacks against the growing body of legislation for black rural communities, and the practical difficulties that still permeate the process of legal recognition, Afro-Brazilian peasants have finally obtained a type of reparation for slavery, as evinced by the wording of Decree 4,887/2003 and by the sheer reality of the communities that have received land deeds and other public policies thanks to Article 68. This political achievement is no trivial matter, as by late 2012 almost a million hectares, more than 200 communities, and perhaps as many as 70,000 Brazilians, had been legally recognized as descendants of quilombos.[6] Rural Afro-Brazilians have been more successful than their counterparts in the USA or in urban Brazil in obtaining reparations for slavery, even though quilombo laws are often not perceived as such. While it is clear that much remains to be done, these are no small steps in a nation that prized itself as being race-blind until not so long ago.


Oscar de la Torre
UNC Charlotte
Gilder-Lehrman Center Post-Doctoral Fellow – Fall 2014


[1] Cíntia Borsato, José Edward, “Eles querem desmiscigenar o Brasil,” Veja, April 4, 2007 (Brazil); Donna Bowater, “Brazil's quilombos, founded by escaped slaves, offer a window to the past”, Donna Bowater, “Brazil’s Quilombos, Founded by Escaped Slaves, Offer a Window to the Past,” Al Jazeera America, October 12, 2014; James Brooke, 'Brazil Seeks to Return Ancestral Lands to Descendants of Runaway Slaves', The New York Times, August 15, 1993; Folha de São Paulo, “Demarcações de áreas de quilombos são suspensas,” March 10, 2008 (Brazil); Flavio Gomes, “Quilombos no Baixo Tocantins,” O Liberal, May 5, 1997; Bernardo Gutiérrez, 'Negros con título de propiedad: Descendientes de esclavos negros huidos viven en una de las áreas más intactas y africanas de la Amazonia', Público, May 9, 2008 (Spain); Yana Marull, 'Tres millones de descendientes de esclavos viven aún en Brasil en remotas aldeas sin ningún servicio', El Periódico, July 14, 2009 (Spain); Folha de São Paulo, “São Paulo tem programação especial no Dia da Consciência Negra,” Folha de São Paulo, November 20, 2006 (Brazil).

[2]Da Silva, "The Black Movement," 181.

[3] Rebeca Campos Ferreira, “O Artigo 68 Do ADCT/CF-88: Identidade E Reconhecimento, Ação Afirmativa, Ou Direito Étnico?,” Revista Habitus 8 (2009): 10.

[4]Article 68 of the Transitory Dispositions (Ato das Disposições Transitórias): “Aos remanescentes das comunidades dos quilombos que estejam ocupando suas terras, é reconhecida a propriedade definitiva, devendo o Estado emitir-lhes títulos respectivos.” Available at http://www.cpisp.org.br/htm/leis/index.html Accessed May 11, 2011. Articles in the Transitory Dispositions are meant to disappear in a hypothetical future, once they have fulfilled its finality.

[5]Secretaria Especial de Políticas de Promoção da Igualdade Racial SEPPIR, Programa Brasil Quilombola (Brasília: SEPPIR, 2005), 40–42.

[6] Data the Brazilian Institute for Colonization and Agrarian Reform, or INCRA: http://www.incra.gov.br/index.php/estrutura-fundiaria/quilombolas/file/108-titulos-expedidos-as-comunidades-quilombolas . Accessed December 22, 2012.


Topics: Forced Labor, Academia

About the Author

Yale Gilder Lehrman Center

The Gilder Lehrman Center strives to make a vital contribution to the understanding of slavery and its role in the development of the modern world. While the Center's primary focus has been on scholarly research, it also seeks to bridge the divide between scholarship and public knowledge by opening channels of communication between the scholarly community and the wider public. In collaboration with secondary schools, museums, parks, historical societies, and other related institutions, the Center facilitates a locally rooted understanding of the global impact of slavery. Staff includes David W. Blight, David Brion Davis, David Spatz, Thomas Thurston and several visiting fellows.