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History shackles Afro-Brazilians

After paying a visit to one of Brazil’s many communities founded by escaped slaves – known as quilombos – UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay said Monday she was heartened by its inhabitants’ efforts to overcome longstanding deprivation, and hoped that the type of progressive programme that has benefited this particular quilombo would be replicated elsewhere in the country.

Brazil’s Racial Equality MinisterEdson Santos and Human Rights Chief Navi Pillay are welcomed by a dancer at the Afro-Brazilian Quilombo Jatimane - © OHCHR Photo/Rupert ColvilleThe High Commissioner travelled by helicopter with Brazil’s Racial Equality Minister Edson Santos to Quilombo Jatimane in the northern Brazilian state of Bahia to meet members of this small community of several hundred Afro-Brazilians, tucked away in a densely forested area some 100 kilometres from the city of Salvador, the state capital.

The people of Quilombo Jatimane, like the inhabitants of all of Brazil’s approximately 1,100 quilombos, are descendants of some of the 3.6 million African slaves imported over a 300-year period by the Portuguese to work in the sugarcane and tobacco plantations that initially constituted the primary source of income for Portugal’s vast new colonial acquisition.

Salvador, founded in 1549, was the original capital of Brazil, and the centre of the sugarcane plantations, and therefore of the slave trade. Escaped slaves usually fled deep into the forest in order to minimize the chances of being recaptured by their owners, and the remoteness of most quilombos has made assisting them more difficult, as has the fact that their inhabitants for the most part do not have officially recognized ownership of the land where they are situated.

Quilombo Jatimane is one of only four out of more than 200 quilombos in Bahia state where the inhabitants have been given formal land ownership, and therefore no longer depend on neighbouring farmers and land-owners to provide them with employment – a situation which, coupled with their isolation, has traditionally made them extremely vulnerable to exploitation.

“It’s vital that these long-neglected and marginalized communities are empowered to help themselves,” Pillay said, after visiting a community centre and brush-making enterprise located on the site of the old sugar plantation from which the slaves who set up Quilombo Jatimane had fled. The establishment of the brush factory, with help from the private Odebrecht Foundation , and the production of other palm-fibre products such as roofing materials, has been one of the key factors in providing employment and improving Jatimane’s economy.

Another improvement brought about with federal and state support and the NGO IDES, which works with the villagers, is that their palm-fibre products are no longer sold via the middlemen who used to pocket most of the profit. Instead, the Quilombo Jatimane has formed a cooperative, to which individual villagers sell their products and who in turn deal directly with retailers. Another innovation is that the quilombo women have been trained and encouraged to produce an impressive range of palm-fibre handcrafts which are also marketed by the community’s cooperative.

“I was very impressed by the determination of the people of Quilombo Jatimane to make the most of these new opportunities to improve the living conditions and prospects of the whole community – and also by their sheer energy and enthusiasm,” Pillay said shortly after receiving a warm welcome that included dances and speeches.

“Nevertheless,” she added, “I am aware that many other quilombos – as well as numerous indigenous communities -- still face great hardship, including discrimination, abject poverty and sheer lack of the means or opportunity to improve their prospects. So I really hope the authorities live up to their impressive commitment to bring about significant change for the hundreds of thousands of Afro-Brazilians who still live in the quilombos and take a similar approach to improving the situation of indigenous communities.”

After Salvador, the High Commissioner’s week-long mission to Brazil will take in Rio de Janeiro where she is to visit Santa Marta, one of the city’s impoverished favelas, followed by three days in the capital Brasília, where she will attend a Human Rights Defenders Conference, and sign a ground-breaking agreement that includes a framework for establishing three-way partnerships between Brazil, OHCHR, and other countries that request help in improving human rights protection.

10 November 2009