For the first time in its 132-year history, the current Brazilian census will include members of so-called “quilombo” communities, founded by formerly enslaved blacks who resisted the system of oppression.
On Ilha de Mare, an island with several quilombos off the coast of Salvador in northeastern Brazil, this chance to be counted is a step in a political transformation that local organizers have long fought for.
“For us, being part of the census is a strategy, a strategy for resistance and change,” said Marizelha Carlos Lopes, 52, a local activist and fisherman on the island, where 93 percent of people identify as black. “One of our goals is to avoid intentional invisibility.”
Her friend Eliete Paraguassu, 42, is building another front in the strategy. She is the first woman from the island to run for a seat in the state legislature of Bahia – one of a record number of black candidates running for state and federal offices in Brazil’s October elections.
Taken together, Brazil’s updated census and rising numbers of black candidates are part of a slow reckoning with centuries of slavery that only ended in 1888, making Brazil the last country in the world to abolish the practice.
Quilombos were founded over centuries by enslaved people escaping forced labor to establish isolated, self-sustaining communities in remote forests and mountain ranges, or on islands like Ilha de Mare.
Quilombo residents are now hoping that an accurate count of their numbers and more elected votes will open the door to improved social services and guarantees of rights for people and places that have long disappeared from official maps.
The National Quilombo Association CONAQ has identified nearly 6,000 Quilombo areas.
CONAQ chief Antonio Joao Mendes said government recognition of communities gained momentum under former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva two decades ago, as communities won more formal land rights and support for cultural programs.
According to Mendes, Lula’s presidential bid this year represents a stark contrast to incumbent President Jair Bolsonaro, who has dismantled many of those programs and slowed recognition of additional quilombos.
Bolsonaro was fined 50,000 Brazilian rices (US$10,000) in 2017 for insulting Quilombo residents by saying “they do nothing” and are “not even good for reproduction”. An appeals court dismissed the case because he was a federal legislature at the time.