March 24, 2023

El Salvador, Brazil — For the first time in its 132-year history, Brazil’s ongoing census includes a question that counts members of a “quilombo” community founded by runaway slaves.

On the island of Ilha de Mare, off the coast of Salvador in northeastern Brazil, an island of several quilombos, the counted chance is a step in a political transformation that local organizers have long fought for.

“Participating in the census is a strategy for us, a strategy of resistance and change,” said Marizelha Carlos Lopes, 52, a local activist and fisherman on the island, which 93 percent of the population thinks I am black. “One of our goals is to escape intentional stealth.”

Her friend Eliete Paraguassu, 42, is taking a different tack. She is the first woman on the island to run for a seat in the Bahia state legislature — one of the black candidates running for state and federal office in Brazil in October’s election.

Taken together, Brazil’s updated census and rising black candidates are part of a slow reckoning of centuries of slavery that didn’t end until 1888, making Brazil the last country in the world to abolish the practice.

For centuries, the Quilombos were made up of slaves fleeing forced labor who established isolated, self-sufficient communities in remote forests and mountains or on islands such as Ilha de Mare.

Quilombo residents now hope that getting their numbers right and more elected voices will open the door to improving social services and securing the rights of people and places that have long been far removed from official maps.

The national quilombo association CONAQ has identified nearly 6,000 quilombo territories. CONAQ chief Antonio Joao Mendez said the government’s recognition of the community gained momentum under former president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva 20 years ago , when the community won more formal land rights and support for cultural projects.

Mendez said Lula’s presidential candidacy this year stands in stark contrast to incumbent Jair Bolsonaro, who has scrapped many of those plans and slowed recognition of other quilombos.

Bolsonaro was fined 50,000 reais ($10,000) in 2017 for insulting quilombo residents, saying “they do nothing” and are “not even good for fertility”. An appeals court dismissed the case because he was a federal lawmaker at the time.

In Ilha de Mare, generations of quilombo residents have survived on artisanal fishermen and the hard work of fishermen.

Marizelha’s 26-year-old nephew Uine Lopes wakes up at 3 a.m. to fish in the crystal-clear waters around his Bananeiras community, proudly honoring their tradition with a tattoo of his grandfather’s left arm where he cast a net.

In one city, livelihoods are threatened by pollution

With no bridge to the mainland about a kilometer away, the inhabitants of car-free Ilha de Mare move around like their ancestors did: on foot, on horseback and in boats. It feels like an island of tranquility away from the hustle and bustle and violence of a big city, says Uine Lopes.

In the afternoon, women gather to scrape off the crabs and clams caught that day, while others weave traditional straw baskets. At night, neighbors often gather by the sea for dance or gymnastics classes.

However, fishing communities say their livelihoods are threatened by pollution from a nearby petrochemical port across the bay, where a propane-laden ship exploded in 2013.

An industry group tasked with cleaning up the spill said it was monitoring the bay to protect surrounding communities, but Marizelha Lopes recalled losing an entire fishing and tourism season due to pollution.

“There’s still no concrete research or public policy to keep us safe,” her nephew said. “We have no way out.”

The Port Authority did not respond to a request for comment.

Eliete Paraguassu, who collects shellfish like Marizelha, is getting into politics, frustrated by the lack of answers she calls “environmental racism” against her island community.

On the eve of the Oct. 2 vote, she traveled to a nearby city to rally support for her campaign for state legislature with stickers that read “My vote will be anti-racism” and “Justice for Marielle.”

The latter refers to Marielle Franco, a black city councillor in Rio de Janeiro who fought for racial justice and was shot and killed in 2018 in what some have called a political assassination.

Her legacy has been a rallying cry for black women like Baraguacu. Of the 513 lawmakers elected to the lower house of Congress in 2018, just under a quarter identified as Black — and only 12 of those were women.

In contrast, in the 2010 census, 50.7 percent of Brazilians identified two racial categories that the government statistical agency combined in its definition of “black” or black.

Alternating between fishing at Ilha de Mare and studying rural education at university, Uine Lopes is one of the few students determined to bring their research back to the island.

“We need to realize that voting for as many black people as possible who are committed to fighting have specific visions for indigenous communities, quilombolas, fishermen, riverside dwellers and many other communities that lack state support,” he said.

Marizelha did not attend school after fifth grade. But watching her nephew combine academic pursuits with service to the community inspired her.

“I’m more and more convinced that college is important,” she said. “But our resistance and fighting is what we equip and prepare for confrontation.”

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