“The government is undermining all actions that empower our lives and our quilombos”, says Conaq coordinator

Antônio Crioulo, executive coordinator at Conaq, talks about dismantling being carried out by the Bolsonaro government and the importance of the quilombola communities for environmental conservation

O coordenador executivo da Coordenação Nacional de Articulação Das Comunidades Negras Rurais Quilombolas, Antônio Crioulo. (Foto: Roque de Sá/Agência Senado) O coordenador executivo da Coordenação Nacional de Articulação Das Comunidades Negras Rurais Quilombolas, Antônio Crioulo. (Foto: Roque de Sá/Agência Senado)

Quilombolas have their own culture and the constitutional right to preserve it. According to preliminary data from IBGE, there are 5,972 quilombos in Brazil, in 1,674 municipalities and 24 states. But only 4% of them are officially recognised. If it was up to President Jair Bolsonaro, there would be far fewer. During the campaign when he was running for office, he said that he would not give up “a single centimetre of land for demarcation for indigenous reservations or quilombolas”. He has kept this promise now he is in power. 

During the Covid-19 pandemic, quilombola communities had to turn to the legal system in order to receive protection. During this process, they managed to collate some initial figures about the communities, with the help of partners. “These partnerships are essential in fostering, strengthening and providing help and support during the process of raising awareness about the importance of the quilombos”, believes the Pernambuco anthropologist and quilombola, Antônio Crioulo, who is executive coordinator of Coordenação Nacional de Articulação das Comunidades Negras Rurais Quilombolas (Conaq).

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In 2022, Conaq created a commission to take charge of organising the first census of the quilombola population. Work started in August. On 10 August, quilombos all over Brazil are coming together at an event called Aquilombar, in Brasília, a political act to denounce the dismantling of public policies and the violence perpetrated against the quilombola population. 

Crioulo talked to Conectas about the dismantling process that has been taking place in recent years and about the importance of quilombola culture in Brazil today. 

Conectas – What is the objective of Aquilombar?

Antônio Crioulo – The objective is to raise awareness about the quilombola communities but also about our agendas of struggle which are: land regularisation; respect for our particular way of life and our knowledge and demarcating territory in this and in future government mandates. 

Conectas – In a general sense, how would you assess the actions of the Bolsonaro government regarding the quilombolas?

Antônio Crioulo – The first thing is to understand that this government came into power with the intention of undermining policies related to human rights and to the rights of traditional communities. During his campaign, Bolsonaro made it clear that this was what he wanted and said that he would not give a single centimetre of land to the quilombola communities. So, we knew that our demands would be ignored, at the very least, but he actually took it a step further. In addition to ignoring them, he also withdrew the entire framework for land regularisation. There is currently no framework whatsoever for regularisation in Brazil. What we have achieved has been through lawsuits. The government has undermined all actions that empower our way of life and our quilombos. 

Conectas – So, in almost four years of government no territory has been registered, correct?

Antônio Crioulo – We have had three ordinances (part of the registration process), but they were made under judicial orders, not as a government initiative. As I said, the first thing that Bolsonaro did was to remove frameworks and without a framework there is no land registration. For example, the budget for next year is under R$ 400 thousand. In Brazil, we currently have around 6 thousand quilombola communities. Frankly, with current costs as they are, it won´t even be possible to register a small percentage of them. 

Conectas – Why is land registration so important for the quilombolas?

Antônio Crioulo – The quilombola communities do not exist without their territories. For us, Mother Earth is our sense of existence. We also want to have land to take care of, to produce and to provide sustenance for our families. We know we have to preserve it so that future generations will be assured a place where they can continue to live. 

This approach is quite unlike capitalism which seeks to extract more and more from the earth, thus exhausting all possible resources. In this sense we have the opposite approach. In order to protect we have to have access to the land and this government has gone against this. They support access to weapons for farmers and they have overturned environmental conservation laws, which has led to big landowners moving into the little land we have.

Conectas – The former president of the Palmares Cultural Foundation (FCP), Sérgio Camargo, describes himself as a “right-wing black man who opposes victimism and political correctness”, and his term, from November 2019 to March 2022, was regarded as unsympathetic with the demands of the black movement. How did his term as president affect the quilombola communities?

Antônio Crioulo – The role of the Palmares Cultural Foundation is one of legal monitoring and the certification of quilombola lands. INCRA is responsible for regularisation sector. We had this person at FCP who also tried to undermine legal foundations in a number of ways, but this didn´t only happen at FCP. For example, INCRA, the office in charge of regularisation, was taken over by ´ruralists´ (big landowners and their representatives). We are not opposed to this, but our understanding of the importance of the territory and the ruralists´ understanding are different. There is no way forward and no chance for dialogue because the government is not willing to enter into discussions, on the contrary, we are seeing attacks and persecution of our leaders. 

Conectas – With so many political attacks, how has the pandemic affected the communities?

Antônio Crioulo – There have been different phases of the pandemic. In the beginning, nobody knew what to do and there was no vaccine. We turned to our prayers, to plants and to our traditional knowledge. Our beliefs were a great help, at least in consoling the pain of those who were dying. I cannot claim that we saved lives, but we really helped the families not to become even more despondent at a time when the government was ignoring us. We tried to set up blockades to stop people entering our communities and the government used the police to knock them down. We were trying to isolate while government authorities were working against our lives. This was how we felt in the beginning.

Conectas – And then?

Antônio Crioulo – Then there was the registration process for people to receive emergency assistance. This was a problem because the majority of the communities did not have access to internet and you needed a mobile phone with a chip to register. Our leaders did have this when they went into town, but each chip could only be used once. This was the next hardship we faced. 

Then came the issue of food insecurity. Not even people who could afford food were able to buy it because some communities were isolated and it was not safe to use the transport available to go into town and even if people managed to go, prices were very high. It became impossible to guarantee food for our people. If we had had registered land, we could have produced our own food, but we didn´t. 

Then there was the issue of the vaccine. Quilombolas issued an ADPF (claim of non-compliance with a fundamental precept) at the Supreme Federal Court (STF) [ADPF-742: Covid-19 in the quilombos] in order to guarantee the right to be vaccinated as a public priority because we live collectively. We gained access to the vaccine only by means of a judicial order. After this the death rate went down. 

Conectas – And who provided the communities with information about the impact of Covid-19?

Antônio Crioulo – We were responsible for finding information ourselves because there was no policy for this – there was no information anywhere. Thanks to the ADPF we now have a database that provides at least superficial data on quilombola people between 18 and 60 years of age. Through this process, a Conaq committee was able to set up a Quilombola Census, in conjunction with IBGE and the UN and this started to be carried out in August 2022. 

Conectas – Why is it important to gather this information?

Antônio Crioulo – This information is taken into account by the government when implementing public policies, so with this data we have muscle to fight alongside the government with quantitative data about the population. Although, sadly, we know that the Census will not be able to gather data on the whole of the quilombola population. Firstly, because of systemic racism which means many quilombola people do not identify as such, either because they are embarrassed or because of external pressure. Another point is that the quilombola population are moving around. People have had to leave the quilombos to work in the towns. We won´t be able to include these people.

Conectas – What quilombola views could help Brazilian society at this time?

Antônio Crioulo – We notice that many people today have lost the notion or are unaware of their role in society, of the reason for their time on Earth. If people were to reflect on this, they would understand that the quilombola communities are fulfilling part of their mission which is to care for planet Earth and ensure that the next generations will have a future, not just quilombolas. When we conserve a spring, the water is for everyone; when we preserve plants that produce oxygen, it is for everyone; when we protect land, preventing big businesses from coming in with monoculture, it is because we know we need to produce food for people, rather than unfettered production with no respect for the land. 


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