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By Fabio Teixeira
RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil, Thurs. July 23, 2020, (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – When the head of an influential government body tasked with preserving Brazil’s Black culture called the country’s anti-racism movement “scum,” it came as no surprise to many.
Sergio Camargo, a Black journalist appointed as president of the Fundaçao Cultural Palmares last year by Brazil’s right-wing President Jair Bolsonaro, has been contentious from the start as he has a history of denying racism even exists in his country.
Under his tenure, the government-funded institute responsible for protecting the cultural and economic rights of those descended from slaves has published articles criticizing Brazil’s most famous Black abolitionist leader.
But Brazil’s quilombolas, the descendants of African slaves, worry more about his power to block their efforts to secure the rights to land they have inhabited for generations – something Bolsonaro has repeatedly said he wants to prevent.
“(Camargo) has been put there to cause damage,” said Biko Rodrigues of CONAQ, the organisation that represents quilombos in most of Brazil. “We won’t talk to him.”
Palmares did not respond to a request for comment, or to a list of questions for Camargo.
In a statement on June 5, after the recording of Camargo’s comments on race was made public by the O Globo newspaper, it said all measures taken under his presidency accorded with “the institutional mission, legality and ethic”.
There are no reliable figures for the number of people living in Brazil’s 5,000 quilombos – rural settlements originally set up by former slaves – but they run into the millions. Many have no access to electricity or running water.
Quilombolas see acquiring the formal titles to the land they inhabit as key to securing their rights because without the deeds, they cannot access social benefits such as subsidized housing.
Brazil’s 1988 constitution enshrined their rights to the land, but the first step towards acquiring the deeds is for Palmares to recognize a community as a quilombo – something Rodrigues said they no longer trust it to do.
In recent years, Fundaçao Palmares issued about 100 certificates of recognition a year, he said. So far this year, Rodrigues said, they had received only about a dozen.
LEGACY OF SLAVERY
Although past presidents of Palmares have not been able to address high poverty rates among quilambolas, none has been openly hostile to their cause, and Camargo’s presidency has been troubled from the start.
A judge suspended his appointment in December after earlier comments he made on social media denigrating Brazil’s Black rights movement, but he won an appeal in February.
He had previously worked as a journalist and editor, and is the son of the Brazilian writer Oswaldo de Camargo.
Earlier this month he tweeted that his critics “do not tolerate a Black person having their own opinions. It is an insult to their enslaved minds”.
A top Brazilian court will rule on Aug. 5 on whether Camargo is fit to be president after public defenders – state lawyers who can sue the government over the protection of vulnerable communities – argued that he had no legitimacy.
The case comes as communities around the world seek to address historic racism and the legacy of slavery, which Brazil’s quilombolas say has never been properly addressed.
Bolsonaro was charged with racism before taking office, for saying in 2017 that Black people in quilombos were “not fit even to procreate”, though he was later exonerated.
When Brazil abolished slavery in 1888 – the last place in the Americas to do so – at least 4 million slaves had been brought into the country from Africa to work on sugar plantations and in other sectors of the flourishing economy.
Most of their descendants in quilombos are still living below the poverty line.
Estimates vary, but government data suggests only about 250 of quilombo settlements have title deeds to their land.
Muratubinha in the northern state of Para is one of four quilombos that will soon have power lines built over their after Palmares gave the green light to the project in June.
Community leader Raimundo Ramos da Silva said residents had not been consulted about the process, which he said was “disappointing”.
Carolina Bellinger, a lawyer for Comissão Pró-Índio de São Paulo, which helps quilombos in Para, said not including them in early discussions deprived them of the chance to ask for changes or compensation for those adversely affected.
“Fundaçao Palmares is very strategic. No quilombola community owns their land without going through them,” said Danilo Serejo, a leader from the Canelatiua quilombo in the northeastern state of Maranhao.
“On the campaign trail, (Bolsonaro) said that if he were elected, quilombolas wouldn’t be granted a single centimetre of land. Sergio Camargo is there to make sure of that.”
(Reporting by Fabio Teixeira @ffctt; Editing by Claire Cozens.)