Selma Dealdina is executive secretary of the National Coordination of Quilombola Rural Black Communities (CONAQ), an organization representing the estimated 5,000 Quilombolas originally settled in Brazil in the 18th and 19th centuries. These communities are now composed of the descendants of African slaves that escaped forced labor on Brazil’s plantations and mines to seek refuge in its forests. They comprise some of the Amazon’s foremost caretakers, yet, as a minority group, experience disproportionate struggles with access to healthcare, tenure and other human rights.
Born in the state of Espiritu Santo, Dealdina studied social work at Anhanguera University. She has worked with various groups and social movements over the past decades, is on the advisory board of Amnesty International Brazil, and in 2019 coordinated the publication of Mulheres Quilombolas: territórios de existências negras femininas, an keynote book on the state of Quilombola women in particular. Here, she gives a brief overview on the state of Quilombola communities and how the degradation of their forest home is impacting their survival.
What are some of the challenges facing the Quilombola communities in the Amazon today?
We are automatically impacted by all the devastation of the Amazon – the lack of rain, the excess number of fires. At this very moment, we are dealing with a severe problem of wildfires in the Chapada dos Veadeiros [in the state of Goias] that are getting closer and closer to peoples’ houses in the Kalungas [Quilombola communities].
At the same time, environmental licenses facilitated by the government are not being done with prior consultation with the communities, which they directly impact. In the past three years, we’ve seen the government of [Jair] Bolsonaro, and before that the [Michel] Temer government, give out these licenses. Now there is a marked increase in the release of licenses that cause nothing but harm to Quilombola communities and other Indigenous and traditional peoples. The excuse is that these are big projects, but the projects do not respect biodiversity, they pollute the rivers, and they destroy the forest and the environment.
According to the CONAQ website, the main area of struggle for your communities is land tenure rights. Why is the right to land important for Quilombola communities and the environment?
The communities of people who are living in these [environmentally precious] areas preserve and look after them so that the lungs of the world can breathe – and they receive no benefit in return. The people who degrade the environment, who steal land and kill, and who destroy the rivers, receive the benefit of being able to continue doing so. Those who preserve it are expelled from the places where they live, and their rights are not recognized.
So, to guarantee that the communities remain in their territories also means guaranteeing that their environment is cared for, is sustainable, and remains a place where people take in order to eat but not to degrade.
The International Platform for Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) has recognized the contributions of traditional and Indigenous peoples, including Quilombola communities, to the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity. What are the practices of Quilombola communities that align with this accolade?
We take care of that which gives life, that which helps us breathe. We plant and we harvest healthy food, without pesticides. We look after the water so it stays clean, is accessible to everyone and is not privatized. From the moment you privatize water, and people are denied access to it, you are essentially violating all the basic human, environmental, social and cultural rights.
Our communities take care of the land and don’t use it for capitalist ends, or with an eye to profit. No. Our idea is of preserving, planting, harvesting, cleaning, carrying out our sustainable way of life that is also a healthy way of life. Because our agriculture is survival agriculture, we plant coffee, maize, black pepper, mandioca, vegetables and trees that are good for the soil. We also go to various towns and municipalities and plant trees in public spaces.
I think the importance of community in this context is the idea of preserving what we have. Today, in Brazil, there are many Quilombola, Indigenous and traditional communities, who understand their role in this logic of respecting and looking after that which looks after us. It’s part of our culture, our identity and our ancestry.