Academic journal article Social Justice

Brazil Recognizes the Right to Self-Determination for African Descendants: Is It a Path the United States Could Follow?

Academic journal article Social Justice

Brazil Recognizes the Right to Self-Determination for African Descendants: Is It a Path the United States Could Follow?

Article excerpt

Brazil and the United States had the largest slave populations in the hemisphere, and, as a result, comparable institutionalized racism and inequalities. At least until the recent "congressional coup" and move to impeach President Dilma Rousseff, Brazil had taken major steps to face its heritage of genocide. Under the Workers' Party governments (2003-2014), Brazil has adopted national quota systems and antipoverty programs aimed at reducing inequality and opening opportunities for education, health care, and housing. In addition, geography, history and culture led to very different migration patterns for African descendants in Brazil, where thousands of black fugitive slave communities (quilombos) arose, and still exist. They have now won rights to their historic lands, giving them autonomy and the right to self-determination. How can cities like Ferguson or Detroit learn from Brazil?

Keywords: racism, African Americans, Brazil, quilombos, self-determination Rights and Reintegrating Deported Migrants for National Development:


I wrote this article in the spring of 2014. With the recent "congressional coup" and move to impeach President Dilma Rousseff, acting President Temer has already eliminated many of the programs and antiracist structures put in place by Presidents Lula and Dilma. The "new" government has shut down the commissions, stopped some of the poverty programs, and increased the assault on African descendants. Of course, people who have won rights have long memories when they are taken away. Some of the lessons or models created under the Workers' Party governments continue to be relevant: for example, recognition of genocide, establishment of self-governing and sustainable communities for African descendants, affirmative action and quotas for education, government support for housing, and apprenticeships and health care.

BRAZIL'S NEW POLICIES AGAINST RACISM ARE MAKING THE RIGHT TO SELF-DETERMINATION and autonomy for communities of African descendants a sustainable alternative to integration. These communities are known as quilombos, established either as fugitive slave communities before the end of slavery (1550-1888), or post-liberation fugitive communities for African descendants unable or unwilling to settle in urban areas or to continue working as slaves on former plantations. Quilombos are historic communities, over a century old, dating anywhere from the 17th to the early 20th century.

Most quilombos are rural, isolated, and poor, although some have become surrounded by new or e panding cities. Historically they have been centers of resistance against exploitation and oppression. (1) Today they battle spreading urbanization and transnational corporate land takeovers, which regularly threaten their survival, in Brazil and throughout Latin America.

As of 2006, there were close to 3,000 quilombos on record in Brazil (INCRA 2012, 58). According to government data, however, it is estimated that there are up to 1.17 million quilombos throughout the country (Portal Brasil, December 5, 2013). In 1850, when the trans-Atlantic slave trade ended in Brazil, the government passed a law (601,Lei de Terras) that made it impossible for blacks to own land, assuring their continued vulnerability and resistance. Beginning in the 21st century, however, the government began to certify quilombos with the objective of supporting their autonomy and sustainability.

Recognizing quilombos has been the most recent step in Brazil's very long road toward justice and equality for African descendants. This initiative is unique in its implementation, although other Latin American countries have moved in the direction of returning or certifying lands for indigenous and African-descendant populations. Many countries in the hemisphere have large populations of African descendants; Colombia, for example, has over 10 million. Through occasional programs of agrarian reform, lands have been set aside or earmarked for indigenous and African-descendant communities, but, with the recent exception of Brazil and Venezuela, (2) these governments have not stopped corporations from seizing their lands for mining or agriculture. …

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