Sun, Mar 14, 2004 - Page 6 News List

Descendents of runaway Brazilian slaves get deed


President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva visited Brazil's largest community of runaway slave descendents on Friday and handed them what their ancestors had sought for three centuries: the title to their land.

Lula, the first Brazilian president to visit the Kalunga community, flew in a helicopter to the mountainous brushland in which the slave descendants have lived in isolation for 300 years, toiling on the land and practicing ceremonies traced back to Congo and Angola.

"Certainly today will be marked in the hearts of the Kalunga as a day of rescue for our rights as blacks," said Matilda Ribeiro, the center-left government's secretary of racial equality, who herself is black.

The Kalunga community is just 400km from the capital Brasilia. But it has been cut off from the outside world, with just dirt tracks and rivers accessing the region.

In receiving the land title, the 4,000-strong community will get exclusive access to the land, allowing encroaching farmers to be expelled.

Communities of runaway slave descendents, or Quilombos, are spread across Brazil and have become powerful symbols of the African roots and the discrimination suffered by Brazil's blacks.

"We negroes are the heroes of the resistance to slavery," chanted Henusa Mendonca, a singer from the community, as a small group performed a traditional dance for the president.

Brazil imported more African slaves than any other country, explaining why the country has the world's second-largest black population after Nigeria. About half of Brazil's 175 million people define themselves as black or pardo, a definition including nearly all dark shades of skin.

But they are at the bottom of all Brazil's social statistics and Quilombos are some of the poorest communities in the country.

"It is possible to turn the dreams of the poorest and most needy into reality, I came here to show all Brazil that it is possible," said Lula, who came to power pledging to fight Brazil's huge income gap.

The Kalunga people originally escaped from gold mines in Brazil's central highlands, settling in remote valleys to escape their slave masters.

Residents of Kalunga defended their community against former slave masters until abolition in 1888.

They have since tried on various occasions to have local authorities register the land they live on as theirs.

Lula also announced the extension of electricity to the Kalunga people, bringing light to the mud huts where they live, improved medical services and the opening of a school. The dirt track to the community will be turned into a proper road.

But having the land as their own was the most important for the locals.

"If the Kalunga people have land, we have dignity," said Manoel Edeltrudes Moreira, head of the Kalunga Association.

Long accustomed to hardship, the Kalunga were hopeful that their lives would improve with the attention of the president.

"With God's help, our lives will get better," said Dominga dos Santos Rosa as she beat the seeds of a local medicinal plant.

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