In 1835, a rebellion broke out in the Lower Amazon region, in what was then the state of Grão-Pará, Brazil. The vast majority of the population was composed of Afro-Brazilians, caboclos (of mixed Indigenous and white ancestry), and Indigenous people. Relied on as a source of slave or cheap labor, they lived in the floodplains and on the banks of the Guamá, Moju and Tocantins rivers in precarious huts, or cabanas, thus becoming known as Cabanagem. When the revolt was crushed by Brazil’s imperial troops, it’s estimated that more than 30,000 people died. Some, however, found a way to flee to remote places in the forest, where they established new settlements: quilombos or mocambos, a challenge to the authorities of the time in yet another historical record of resistance by Afro-Brazilian communities.
Nearly two centuries later, some of these communities thrive in the heart of the world’s largest rainforest. “Then the cabanos, who were the fugitives, walked in the forest. That was in my great-grandfather’s time,” says Isabela Trindade Correia, on the banks of the Tocantins River. “There are old bricks in every corner, that’s where they used to hide. In the woods! Until they were free. That is where they built their quilombo.
Isabela is one of the oldest residents of the Quilombo do Mola, in the southeast of today’s Pará state. The journey to her home is a long one. The first sight of the Amazon comes from the airplane window, minutes before landing in Belém, the Pará state capital. Seen from above, the liquid body of the Guamá River looks like a brown snake, admirable and docile, the forest around it crisscrossed by a few rare roads. Several hours of driving along one of them takes me to the edge of the Tocantins River, where a wide, flat, metallic boat provides a means of crossing the water.
After an hour of floating on this raft over the river dotted with green islands and wandering birds, I arrive in the town of Cametá, a prominent place during the Cabanagem exodus. The story goes that the quilombos that emerged in this region, founded by workers fleeing from the sugarcane plantations, inflicted severe defeats on the authorities at the time.
From Cametá, I go down a dirt road that at a certain point turns into a sand road. It’s an epic battle just to keep the car from getting stuck in an unusual place, far from anyone. Finally, the Quilombo Tomázia shows up on the horizon. On the last stretch, with cameras and microphones already in my backpack, I’m taken by the Quilombolas on the back of a motorcycle, crossing the sandy forest and the improvised wooden bridges at high adrenaline, until I finally reach the Quilombo do Mola.
“To be viable, [Quilombola] communities had to be inaccessible,” wrote Richard Price, a U.S. anthropologist who studies communities of self-liberated slaves throughout the Americas. The more successful communities, he added, “learned quickly to turn the harshness of their immediate surroundings to their own advantage for purposes of concealment and defense.” In the Amazon, these groups developed independent rural-based and extractive lifestyles, as Isabela recalls: “We hunted deer, paca, armadillo, bush pig. And we used to fish for traíra, jundiá … Back then, it was plentiful. Now, the fish are hard to find, my friend. After the dam, it is difficult.”
The disappearance of hunting and fishing after the completion of the Tucuruí hydroelectric plant in 1984 led to the exodus of many of the former inhabitants of the Quilombo do Mola, and the dismantling of the extractivist community. A paradise lost, “an Amazon rich and poor at the same time,” in the words of journalist Lúcio Flávio Pinto.
With the end of slavery in Brazil in 1888, these communities didn’t disappear, but “we no longer find them in police documentation and newspaper reports,” wrote historian Flávio Gomes. “The various quilombos continued to reproduce, migrating, disappearing, emerging and dissolving in the tangle of peasant forms.”
During the 20th century, the Brazilian authorities had no social, historical or ethnic criteria to distinguish these groups. When the Constitution of 1988 recognized the definitive property of “the remnants of quilombo communities that are occupying their lands” (Article 68), the question remained of how to differentiate an arbitrary rural community from a quilombo community with historical, territorial and cultural ties to the “escaped blacks.”
In Mola, Isabela is one of the last voices of the community, where she saw the disappearance of the samba-de-cacete, the traditional rhythm of the region: “I remember the beatings of the batucada that they played, the drums that they sat on, and there were songs. The men would sing and the women would answer, and they would do their move.” It’s been a while since she’s heard the drums. Isabela says. “It was beautiful, the samba-de-cacete.”
About 300 kilometers (190 miles) east of the Quilombo do Mola is the Quilombo do Cravo, on the banks of the Capim River. A similar message echoes there: “Our culture is disappearing,” says Antunina Santana.
It’s a hot and humid Amazonian afternoon in the Quilombo do Cravo, in Concórdia do Pará municipality. Antunina is one of the leaders of the community and responsible for the certification of three remaining quilombo lands. “We always lived from agriculture, from planting manioc, beans, sweet potatoes, rice … We used to harvest a lot of rice!” she recalls. “And we also survived by hunting and fishing.”
Then, in 2008, oil palm cultivation arrived in the region. “It was a company that was coming to bring benefits to all the communities in regard to health, education, water supply,” Antunina says. The reality, however, hid a different strategy: “To our greatest disappointment, it was nothing of the sort. It was a land purchase and expulsion of farmers to the city.”
Lured by never-seen-before amounts of money, many Quilombolas sold their land in hopes of becoming wealthy. But dark days were just around the corner, as Antunina explains: “Selling family farming land at little cost and going away to the city, and then having no way to support yourself, in essence means an expulsion. The way the land was sold, people today have nowhere to live, much less the land to work.”
Palm oil, also called dendê oil locally, is the most widely used vegetable oil in the world, and one of the most controversial commodities to produce. It’s the raw material for a multitude of processed retail products, from frozen pizzas to cookies, detergents to cosmetics, candles and much more.
About two hours by car from the Quilombo do Cravo is Moju, one of the municipalities with the largest area of oil palm plantations in Brazil. Elias Nascimento lives on the outskirts of Moju, in a quilombo squeezed between the urban area and large oil palm plantations. He tells me about the negotiations with the palm oil company when it started acquiring land in the region.
“The farmers had no formal education, most couldn’t read or write,” Elias says. “Some offered the locals 2,000 reais [about $400 today] for the whole land. And they thought it was a lot of money!” The agreements allowed the farmers to keep their homes, on the condition that they worked for the company during the oil palm harvest.
Whether it was the planting of sugarcane, the production of rubber or the gathering of fruits and herbs from the forest, history is rife with examples of the continuous process of colonization and exploitation of the Amazonian peoples. Palm oil has been no different. “The farmer continues to live there,” Elias says, “but he has to understand that the land is not his. And neither is the plantation. It is only the house. And why is it only the house? Because the company also needs the farmer to live there, to work for the company. In my opinion, it’s like modern slavery.”
“Nowadays they have taken over everything,” Elias says. “We drive around in cars and there’s no end to it. The people tried to defend their land, but they had more money, they had their thugs, they took over.” It was only with the involvement of researchers from outside the community that the population became aware of their status as remaining quilombo people, which led to the titling of the current territory, he says.
“But by then, it was already late,” Elias adds. “We only got a piece of land. And within that piece there are 15 communities just like this one.”
In the Quilombo do Cravo, a similar process occurred. Thanks to her awareness about the community’s past, and her knowledge of crop management, Antunina felt motivated to lead some of the actions for recognition of the Quilombolas’ territory in Concórdia do Pará. “No company can buy land within these areas that are certified. So it was a blessing from God that we received. It is such a great guarantee for us of land ownership.”
It is in this enclave of interests that cultural biodiversity — the dynamic relationship between human and social elements and the environment — takes on a crucial dimension in the contact with traditional communities. In various parts of the Amazon Basin, Indigenous cultures have long coexisted with African traditions, yielding a unique richness.
However, these traditional communities have been increasingly targeted by Catholic and evangelical missionaries, who fight among themselves to win over the largest number of devotees and take advantage of the isolation of these settlements. “In the past we had a diversity of cultures, which we gradually lost,” Antunina says, showing a clear discomfort in front of the camera. “Especially the healers and the shamans, who are considered to be things of the devil. The Church doesn’t accept it.”
Intolerance is present on a daily basis in other religious manifestations of African origin in Brazil, such as the destruction of the terreiros, the sites of rituals sacred to the Umbanda and Candomblé Afro-Brazilian religions. However, in the heart of the Amazon, this erasure, staged by the Church, takes on the shape of a spiritual purge, and is a flagrant attack on human rights. Missionaries who work in the Amazon operate through a very deep process of humiliation of traditional practices, mischaracterizing the identities of these populations.
Elias had to fight against an evangelical mission trying to enter into the Quilombo of Moju. Not swayed by several offers and the promise of the arrival of modern audio equipment for the community, Elias shut the doors of the community. “This culture of worshipping our saints was left by our grandfathers. We want to continue this culture that our ancestors left us,” Elias says inside the community’s brick chapel with wooden benches and sky-blue walls, in a corner of which rests a crown celebrating the Feast of the Divine Holy Spirit.
Recognizing the role that Quilombola communities have to play in protecting and managing the Amazon’s biodiversity is critical to the survival of a plural and vibrant landscape. The key to the forest’s biodiversity is the human biocultural diversity that makes up that very forest. Or, as historian Alberto Costa e Silva said in a recent interview, “Brazil does not repeat Africa, Brazil reinvents Africa.
“We need to see black people not only as someone who suffers, but as someone who suffers and builds, who is a creator, who is inventive, who is intelligent, and who was an essential agent of change in this country.”
Banner image by Miguel Pinheiro.
This story was reported by Mongabay’s Brazil team and first published here on our Brazil site on May 2, 2022.
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