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Brazil Journey Tuesday, 17 September, 2002, 17:25 GMT 18:25 UK
Slave descendants want their land back
Aracruz: An 87 year-old Tupiniquim Indian leader says he can't write and won't vote Canudos: Paulo meets island-dwelling Marciano, who follows a 19th Century messianic leader Salvador: Traditional street vendors want a president who will give them a monopoly on bean fritters Pernambuco: A community descended from escaped slaves fights for access to its own land Eldorado dos Carajas: Where land reform has brought soaring crime Serra Pelada: Small-scale gold diggers win a 10-year mining rights battle Brasil Novo: A remote jungle town longs for electricity and a surfaced road Santarem: Canvassing votes by river boat at the heart of the Amazon jungle Belém: The city where a councillor with one arm is spearheading the fight for disability rights Belém-Brasilia highway: Two days with a trucker on Brazil's damaged and bandit-ridden roads Brasilia: The scavengers who live off the capital's waste Sao Paulo: The city 'island' dwellers who will have to travel for four hours to vote

Report four: Conceicao das Crioulas

As Brazil gears up for presidential elections in October, BBC Brasil's Paulo Cabral travels through remote mountains, arid countryside and deep jungle to find out what 21st Century politics mean in the Brazil that normally goes unreported.

High in the mountains of Pernambuco State, with only a single, precarious access road, is the village of Conceicao das Crioulas.

Its isolation is not accidental. The community started life as a quilombo - a settlement formed by escaped black slaves out of the reach of the farmers.

Musicians in Conceicao das Crioulas
The quilombos were formed by escaped slaves
But in the past 20 years the "quilombolas" - those from the quilombos - have come out of their isolation to fight for the legal right of possession of land that was once occupied by their ancestors - a right that is now guaranteed by federal law.

"In the past this place wasn't involved in politics - candidates only came every four years seeking votes," says Aparecida Mendes, the president of the Quilombola Association.

"But, from the 1980s on, some people here began to look outside and see the strength of the quilombos and black movements across Brazil," she says.

Two years ago, the 4,000 inhabitants of the quilombo secured the legal ownership of the land they lived on, after long anthropological studies confirmed the origin of the village.

But rural worker Andrelino Antonio Mendes explains that the problem is still far from solved.

Environmental damage

The farmers that have been occupying lands in the area since the beginning of the 20th Century have not left yet, he says.

"The best lands are under these farmers' fences. The quilombolas can only plant on the hills," says Andrelino.

Conceicao das Crioulas
The community has secured the rights to the land it inhabits
"As well as the fact that the land is not good, this damages the environment," he adds, comparing the current farmers to the owners of sugar farms before slavery was banned in 1888.

The quilombo of Conceicao das Crioulas is said to have been founded in the 18th Century by six black women and one black man.

They may have fled a farmer or even another quilombo, but there is no documentation about where they came from and popular folklore sheds little light on it.

In 1808, the "crioulas" managed to buy the lands they were occupying, and the proof of this agreement was one of the most important issues when the current inhabitants sought the possession of the land.

Female leadership

Women still play a leading role in the running of the community.

"The men know that the quilombo was founded by six women and only one man and that the women are the real leaders," said craftswoman Valdeci Maria da Silva, laughing.

"No one gets upset about that. But today there are a lot of men working with us."

Presidential election
First round: 6 October
Run-off: 27 October
Key candidates

Key presidential candidates:

Jose Serra - ruling centrist coalition
Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva - Workers' Party
Ciro Gomes - centre-left Labour Front coalition
Anthony Garotinho - Socialist Party candidate

The main representative of the quilombo outside the village is Gilmaria Silva, a councillor in the city of Salgueiro, of which Conceicao das Crioulas is a district.

"She is the first black woman to become a councillor in Salgueiro," many inhabitants of Conceicao das Crioulas told me proudly.

Community members meet once a month to discuss their problems.

"There's still a lot to be done and achieved. Sometimes it gives us a sense of desperation, but we already have a very good group of people that are concerned and that take part in the life of the community," said the councillor, Gilmaria.

In this year's elections, the community's leaders are trying to convince the inhabitants to vote.

"We try to raise awareness to help the people choose their candidates well and not to miss the elections," says Aparecida Mendes.

"All the candidates are good, but there are those who are good to us and those who are good to the powerful," she said.


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See also:

20 Aug 02 | Americas
04 May 00 | Americas
19 Jul 02 | Americas
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