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Descendants of runaway slaves are still struggling for equality in Brazil

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Down a rickety staircase into a basement workshop lined with pottery objects, Irinéia Nunes shows off a sculpture inspired by a dramatic episode for her people. 

A dozen clay figures cling to trunks or branches, one with a bird in its arms. On a sweltering tropical afternoon, the septuagenarian artisan describes how this depicts the floods of 2010, when 50 residents from her village of Muquém, in the hilly and verdant countryside of northeastern Brazil, climbed up a pair of jackfruit trees and stayed there overnight to survive the rising waters.

The ceramic work is an apt memorial to the centuries of resistance by traditional rural communities known as quilombos which are scattered throughout the vast country. Descended from settlements originally founded by escaped slaves during colonial times, they have long been a symbol of struggle against oppression and hold an important place in Afro-Brazilian heritage.

Now, for the first time, a census has recorded the number of citizens who belong to these socio-ethnic groups. Quilombolas, as they are called, numbered 1.3mn in 2022, according to the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics. At 0.7 per cent of the overall population, they are not far behind the 1.7mn indigenous Brazilians. “Before we didn’t have this identification of our ethnicity or culture,” says Dorinha Calvacanti, the head of a residents association in Muquém. “It was a very important milestone.”

The community of 800 quilombolas in the state of Alagoas traces its origins back to the largest and most famous quilombo, Palmares. During the 17th century, Palmares grew into an autonomous confederation of settlements over mountains and forest. At its peak, there were an estimated 20,000 inhabitants, including runaway slaves, native people and white Europeans. Its last ruler, Zumbi, repelled numerous attacks by Portuguese forces before the kingdom’s capital fell in 1694, and was killed a year later. Following the abolition of slavery in 1888, the warrior king became a hero of the 20th century Afro-Brazilian political movement. The date of his execution — November 20 — is celebrated as Brazil’s Black Consciousness Day. 

Signage of Muquém, Brazil
Life in Muquém has greatly improved since the floods. The village has been relocated uphill and new bungalows have been built © Michael Pooler/FT

Despite their belated recognition in today’s records, just under 3,600 self-declared quilombos continue to be afflicted by poverty, unemployment, discrimination and poor access to public services. Historically marginalised, few possess land titles. Even if the census data helps deliver better public policies, the long wait for inclusion is “a symptom of the structural and institutional racism of the Brazilian state”, argues professor Vagner Gomes Bijagó at the Federal University of Alagoas. “These challenges greatly impact the preservation of quilombola culture.” 

Life in Muquém has greatly improved since the floods — the village has relocated uphill and new bungalows with plastered walls and tiled roofs have been built along asphalted roads. There is a health clinic and school. “[In the past] the best you could do was be a cane cutter or domestic worker. But today we have nurses and teachers,” Calvacanti tells me.

But the dwindling of the population, as residents seek better opportunities elsewhere, is a constant worry. While Muquém’s men have often worked away in sugar mills and farms, the number of families has fallen from 225 to 180 since last year. “If we don’t have work, the younger people are going to leave and we will lose our identity,” she says.

Nunes, the potter, has gained a degree of fame — foreign visitors flock to buy her terracotta heads, figurines of kissing couples and bowls. “I never went to school,” she says. “I discovered this art, it was God who gave it to me [and] I’m proud”. Yet she fears that the community’s traditional practice of ceramics — a source of income alongside family agriculture — could eventually disappear.

In another corner of the village, 31-year-old Edilene arrives home from work in a nearby municipality. Motivated to make a better future for her family and neighbours, she hopes to finish university next year. “I don’t intend to leave here. You know why? I don’t want my son to grow up losing his essence and his Afro-Brazilian and quilombola roots.”

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