For the first time in its 132-year history, the Brazilian census now under way will count members of so-called “quilombo” communities founded by formerly enslaved Black people who resisted the system of oppression.
On Ilha de Mare, an island with several quilombos off the coast of Salvador, in northeast Brazil, this chance to be counted is one step in a political transformation for which local organisers have long been fighting.
“Being part of the census is a strategy for us, a strategy for resistance and change,” said 52-year-old Marizelha Carlos Lopes, a local activist and fisherwoman on the island, where 93 percent of people identify as Black. “One of our objectives is to escape an intentional invisibility.”
Her friend Eliete Paraguassu, 42, is mounting another front in the strategy. She is the first woman from the island campaigning for a spot in the Bahia state legislature – one of a record number of Black candidates running for state and federal office in Brazil in this October’s elections.
Together, Brazil’s updated census and the rising number of Black candidates are part of a slow reckoning with centuries of slavery that ended only in 1888, making Brazil the last country in the world to abolish the practice.
Quilombos were formed over centuries by enslaved people who escaped forced labour to create isolated, self-subsistence communities in remote forests and mountain ranges or on islands like Ilha de Mare.
Quilombo residents now hope that a proper count of their numbers and more elected voices will open the door to improved social services and guarantees of rights for people and places long left off official maps.
National quilombo association CONAQ has identified nearly 6,000 quilombo territories.
CONAQ head Antonio Joao Mendes said government recognition of the communities gained steam under former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva two decades ago, when the communities won more formal land rights and support for cultural programmes.
Lula’s presidential candidacy this year presents a stark contrast, Mendes said, with incumbent President Jair Bolsonaro, who has dismantled many of those programmes and slowed the recognition of additional quilombos.
Bolsonaro was fined 50,000 Brazilian reis ($10,000) in 2017 for insulting quilombo residents, saying “they do nothing” and are “not even good for procreating”. An appeals court threw out the case because he was a federal lawmaker at the time.