‘Our culture is vanishing’

In the Amazon rainforest, remote communities descended from enslaved African people, are taking on the palm oil production that threatens their land. Miguel Pinheiro reports.

‘Our culture is vanishing’

In the Amazon rainforest, remote communities descended from enslaved African people, are taking on the palm oil production that threatens their land. Miguel Pinheiro reports.

In 1835, a rebellion broke loose in the then-state of Grão-Pará, in the lower Amazon Rainforest. The great majority of the population in the area were Africans, Afro-descendants and Indigenous people who were enslaved, formerly enslaved or employed as cheap labour and frustrated at their continued poverty and oppression from the Empire of Brazil.

It was named the Cabanagem Rebellion after the type of hut that the poorest people were living in, along the edge of the great rivers, and was one of several outbreaks of popular unrest in19th century Brazil. In the end, the government sent in the troops and by the time the uprising was completely crushed five years later, more than 30,000 people were estimated to have perished.

Some people found a way to flee to remote parts of the forest and joined Black communities carved in historical resistance, far away from the colonial centres. These settlements are called maroons, or quilombos (in Brazil) and thousands remain to this day, deep in the heart of the Amazon.

Young fishermen, at Moju (next to river Ubá)
"Assaults are taking place on indigenous [and other native cultures] in the tropical Americas – from fundamentalist missionaries, corporate agriculture, and destructive extractive industries to the ever-encroaching and seductive allure of Western globalization (...) resulting in further loss of cultural practices and knowledge, and a devaluation of the traditional medicine men and women or shamans." Mark J. Plotkin, Amazon Conservation Team
Photography ©MiguelPinheiro
As people lose their livelihoods, there has been an exodus of rural maroon communities

‘To be viable, maroon communities had to be inaccessible... for purposes of concealment and defence,’ writes anthropologist Richard Price. The word quilombo derives from a language spoken in the old Kingdom of Angola, and indicates a warrior-based settlement, or a military brotherhood.

An estimated 4.5 million people were enslaved and forcibly brought to Brazil between 1600 and 1850. Domestic slavery was not abolished there until 1888. Wherever slavery flourished, so did resistance and some people managed to escape. ‘The runaways were called Cabanos, and they wandered in the forest,’ says Dona Isabela, one of the elder women at a distant maroon in the margins of the river Tocatins, in the state of Pará. She tells me that it all happened in the time of her great-grandfather: ‘When they felt safe to enjoy their freedom, the Cabanos built this community, and called it Mola.’

The recognition of quilombo communities is part of a renewed vision of the Brazilian society that arrived with the 1988 Constitution. This recognized ‘the definitive property rights of remanescentes [remnants] of quilombos that have been occupying the same lands’. About 3,475 are recognized, according to the National Agency for Rural Maroons – CONAQ. The actual number may be more than 6,000 (many of them in the Amazon Basin), occupying at least 30 million hectares, an area approximately the size of Italy.


Secondary forest near Moju

Under threat

Whether it be for the plantation of sugar, the production of rubber or the exploitation of other resources from the forest, history tells us of a continuous process of colonization and exploitation of the Amazons peoples.

Isabela remembers her childhood: ‘We used to hunt deer, paca [a small rodent], armadillo, bush pig... And we fished. In those days there was abundance. But things have changed. After they built the dam [the Tucuruí hydroelectricity project] it is difficult to catch any fish’.

All they wanted was to acquire land, and to drive out the farmers

In more recent times violence has escalated as people defend their lands from palm oil production. In the Amazon, this industry is connected to deforestation near river sources. The resultant water scarcity is directly linked to the death of the surrounding forest, and to the decline in the number of fish and animals to hunt. As people lose their livelihoods, there has been an exodus of rural maroon communities.

Palm oil is the most frequently used vegetable oil in the world and plantations have spread rapidly throughout Asia, Africa and Latin America in recent decades. They are associated with the destruction of livelihoods, loss of biodiversity, and deforestation.

In Brazil, the expansion of palm oil has involved the appropriation of traditional lands. Lured by quantities of money they have never witnessed before in their lives, many sold their land in the hope of becoming rich.

According to research by risk consultancy Verisk Maplecroft, which recently analysed 170 commodities,
palm oil is most exposed to land grabs in Indonesia (Asia), Nigeria (Africa), and Colombia (South America), but cases of extreme violence have also been reported in Brazil.

Seu Elias lives on the outskirts of the city of Moju, in a maroon squeezed between the urban area and the big palm oil plantations. The area is a palm oil hotspot and Elias explains how a palm oil company* started to acquire land in the region. ‘The farmers had no formal education, most did not know how to read or write,’ says Elias, ‘Some had big family properties, and they were offered 2,000 Brazilian reals (approximately $400) for the entire land. They thought it was a lot of money. The farmers could keep their house and remained in the land working for the company.

History tells us of a continuous process of colonization and exploitation of the Amazon’s peoples

‘The farmer still inhabits the same area, but now he doesn’t own the land or the crops – only the house. And why does he get to keep the house? Because the palm oil company needs him to live there to work for them.’ So, with no place to go, and with a salary too low to acquire new land, the former land owner has no other choice than to remain an employee for the palm oil company.

Elias takes me outside, so we can’t be heard, and it becomes clearer why people would accept such a deal. He explains that several farmers that refused to sell their land were killed, allegedly by people connected to the palm oil industry. The companies deny any involvement. ‘They took over nearly the entire territory,’ he says. ‘We tried to defend our rights to the land, but they had more money, they had gunmen, they easily took over. And when we were finally able to get the land certificate as remnants of quilombo, it was already too late, only a small fraction of the land was still available. Nearby, there’s 15 more maroon communities like this one.’


Young fishermen, at Moju (next to river Ubá)

A unique role

More than 300 kilometres to the east of Mola is the Maroon of Cravo, at the margin of river Capim. There, Dona Antunina was responsible for guaranteeing the certification of three different lands in the region, thus preventing them from being claimed by other parties. ‘In 2008, the palm oil company arrived to our territory with the promise to engage with the communities and improve our local standards of health, education and water supply,’ says Antunina, ‘but to our great disappointment, all they wanted was to acquire land, and to drive out the farmers.’

After centuries of constant planting, tending, and harvesting, mixing together native Indigenous and African techniques, quilombo inhabitants helped to generate the very Amazonian landscapes conservationists seek to preserve. According to Dona Antunina, ‘No company has the right to buy certified maroon’s lands. The maroon certificate [in the Constitution] was God’s blessing to us. As it is the only safeguard we have to our right to the land.’

These unique communities are facing multiple threats – from furious ranchers and miners, to a cultural destruction being enacted by the Church in the shape of a spiritual purge. ‘In the past we used to have our female healers and our shamans. They started to be considered by the Church as a manifestation of the devil,’ says Antunina. ‘Our culture is vanishing.’

Studies have already shown that large areas of the Earth that are considered ‘wild’ – such as the Amazon, the African plains and the jungles of India – have been shaped largely by human societies over thousands of years. The key to biodiversity, is human biocultural diversity.

With these diverse and vibrant cultures in peril, it’s crucial that maroon communities’ role in protecting and stewarding the Earth’s biodiversity and its natural treasures continues unabated.

* Companies have not been named to protect the safety of the people we spoke to.

This article is part of our From The Front series, featuring fresh perspectives on conflict, peace and environmental protection around the world. The series is funded by the Polden-Puckham Charitable Foundation and you can find out more about it here.

Seu Carmo, (next to River Tocatins)