RIO DE JANEIRO (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – When the head of an influential government body assigned to preserve the culture of Black Brazil called the country’s anti-racism movement “foam”, it did not surprise many.
Sergio Camargo, a black journalist who was appointed president of the Fundaçao Cultural Palmares last year by Brazilian right-wing President Jair Bolsonaro, has been at odds early on because he has a history of denying racism even in his country.
Under his term of office, a government-funded agency responsible for protecting the cultural and economic rights of slave originators has published articles criticizing the most famous Black abolitionist leader in Brazil.
But the Brazilian quilombolas, descendants of African slaves, are more worried about their strength to obstruct their efforts to secure the rights to the land they have occupied for generations – something Bolsonaro repeatedly wants to prevent.
“(Camargo) has been put there to cause damage,” said Biko Rodrigues of CONAQ, the organization representing quilombos in much of Brazil. “We will not talk to him.”
Palmares did not respond to requests for comment, or a list of questions for Camargo.
In a statement on June 5, after the recording of Camargo’s comments about race was publicly announced by the O Globo newspaper, it was said that all actions taken under his presidency were in accordance with “institutional, legal and ethical mission”.
There are no reliable figures for the number of people living in 5,000 Brazilian quilombos – rural settlements originally built by former slaves – but the number is in the millions. Many do not have access to electricity or running water.
Quilombolas sees obtaining a formal certificate on the land they occupy as a key to securing their rights because without deeds, they cannot access social benefits such as subsidized housing.
The Brazilian constitution of 1988 enshrined their rights to the land, but the first step to obtaining the act was for Palmares to recognize a community as a quilombo – something that according to Rodrigues they no longer believed to do so.
In recent years, Fundaçao Palmares issues around 100 recognition certificates a year, he said. So far this year, Rodrigues said, they only received about a dozen.
LEGACY OF SLAVERY
Although the president of Palmares in the past was unable to overcome the high poverty rates among the quilambolas, no one openly opposed them, and the Camargo presidency had been troubled from the start.
A judge postponed his appointment in December after an earlier comment he made on social media downplayed the rights of the Brazilian black people, but he won an appeal in February.
He previously worked as a journalist and editor, and is the son of Brazilian writer Oswaldo de Camargo.
Earlier this month he tweeted that his critics “did not tolerate black people having their own opinions. This is an insult to the minds of those who are enslaved.
The Brazilian high court will decide on August 5 whether Camargo is fit to become president after public defenders – state lawyers who can sue the government for the protection of vulnerable people – argued that it has no legitimacy.
This case arises when communities around the world try to overcome historic racism and the legacy of slavery, which according to the Brazilian quilombas has never been handled properly.
Bolsonaro was charged with racism before taking office, for saying in 2017 that black people in quilombos were “not suitable even for breeding”, although he was later released.
When Brazil abolished slavery in 1888 – the last place in America to do so – at least 4 million slaves had been brought to the country from Africa to work in sugar plantations and in other sectors of the developing economy.
Most of their descendants in quilombo still live below the poverty line.
Estimates vary, but government data shows that only about 250 quilombo settlements have ownership rights to their land.
Muratubinha in the northern state of Para is one of four quilombos who will soon have power lines built after Palmares gave the green light to the project in June.
Community leader Raimundo Ramos da Silva said residents had not consulted about the process, which he said was “disappointing”.
Carolina Bellinger, a lawyer for Comissão Pró-Índio de São Paulo, who helped quilombos in Para, said not including them in the initial discussions left them with no opportunity to ask for changes or compensation for those affected badly.
“Fundaçao Palmares is very strategic. No quilombola community owns their land without going through them, “said Danilo Serejo, a leader of Canelatiua quilombo in the northeastern state of Maranhao.
“On the campaign path, (Bolsonaro) said that if he was elected, the quilombolas would not be given a centimeter of land. Sergio Camargo was there to confirm that. ”
Reporting by Fabio Teixeira @ffctt; Editing by Claire Cozens. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the Thomson Reuters charity branch, which covers the lives of people throughout the world who are struggling to live free or just. Visit http://news.trust.org