Oscar de la Torre: The Backlash Against Reparations for Slavery in Brazil

The People of the River by Oscar de la TorreToday we welcome a guest post from Oscar de la Torre, author of The People of the River:  Nature and Identity in Black Amazonia, 1835–1945, just published by UNC Press.

In his history of the black peasants of Amazonia, Oscar de la Torre focuses on the experience of African-descended people navigating the transition from slavery to freedom. He draws on social and environmental history to connect them intimately to the natural landscape and to Indigenous peoples. Relying on this world as a repository for traditions, discourses, and strategies that they retrieved especially in moments of conflict, Afro-Brazilians fought for autonomous communities and developed a vibrant ethnic identity that supported their struggles over labor, land, and citizenship.

The People of the River is available now in both print and ebook editions.


The Backlash Against Reparations for Slavery in Brazil

After a long history of denial, during the last twenty-five years Brazil has finally recognized the existence of racism in the country. Thanks to the relentless pressure of black social movements and other organizations, the government has slowly adopted a series of programs to try to compensate black people for the legacies of five centuries of slavery and racial injustice. Two legislative initiatives in particular have become the flagship of Brazil’s anti-racist agenda: the affirmative action program adopted by public universities, and the official recognition of black rural communities or quilombos, as they are called in Brazil. Unfortunately, the 2007 recession and the impeachment of President Dilma Rousseff of the Workers’ Party in 2016 ushered in an intense conservative backlash against these programs. So far affirmative action has endured the legal and political attacks, but the policies for Brazil’s black rural communities came under heavy fire during 2017.

In order to understand those attacks, we need to go back in time to 1988. That year, the new Brazilian Constitution established that the communities descending from runaway slaves, known as in Brazil as quilombos, would receive official recognition and a collective title to their lands. While few people imagined that this constitutional article would have any significance, during the 1990s and 2000s a number of black towns all over the country claimed for their recognition, leading the Lula administration (Workers’ Party) to deploy the constitutional article. Thus, Decree 4887 from 2003 established that any community that designated itself as Afro-descendant could apply for the status of quilombo and receive a collective land deed, effectively creating a program of reparations for slavery for all Afro-Brazilians living in predominantly black villages, and even urban neighborhoods.

The following year the right-wing representatives of Brazilian agribusiness denounced Decree 4887 as anti-constitutional, and brought a case to the Supreme Court to strike it down. The Decree, they argued, had formal problems, sought to alienate lands already owned, and functioned on the basis of self-identification, an unreliable method. Finally, only communities occupying their lands when the 1988 Constitution was passed, they claimed, should be recognized as quilombos.

The Supreme Court began to debate the decree in 2015. In 2017, as the current conservative backlash came in full force, the Temer administration announced that it would stop granting land deeds to quilombo communities until the Supreme Court reached a decision about the constitutionality of the decree. Suddenly, one of the tangible proofs of Brazil’s struggle against racism, its program of reparations for slavery, was on the brink of disappearing.

The stakes were high. Until 2017 the government had recognized more than 2,000 communities, and issued titles to about 10% of them. It had also started implementing a comprehensive agenda for quilombo communities that included education, housing, food security, and other policies.  A number of communities are located in frontier areas currently under pressure of soy, livestock, or mining developers.  While the land deeds barely protected them from violence and abuse, if the Supreme Court annulled Decree 4886 then the communities would again be vulnerable to the encroachments of big mining and big agribusiness, and their prospects for economic advancement and political empowerment would be seriously damaged – or crushed altogether.

Afro-Brazilian activists celebrating the 2018 decision of Brazil's Supreme Court upholding Decree 4887. Photography by Carlos Moura
Afro-Brazilian activists celebrating the 2018 decision of Brazil’s Supreme Court upholding Decree 4887. Photography by Carlos Moura

In February 2018, the Supreme Court reached a decision. By ten votes to one, it upheld the constitutionality of Decree 4887. But while the recent conquests of the black communities seem to be safe, this battle was only the tip of the iceberg. At the local level they have to deal with reluctant governmental agencies and aggressive land grabs. During the last year, for example, fourteen quilombo inhabitants and activists were killed in the course of conflicts over land and natural resources, attesting to an increase in agrarian violence directed black peasants. Despite this recent victory against the conservative backlash, in other words, Brazil’s black rural communities are still facing a number of obstacles to turn the agenda of reparations for slavery into a reality. But it is only by doing so that Brazil, the top importer of enslaved persons from Africa in the era of trans-Atlantic slavery, may start to re-pay the debt with Afro-descendants that it has accumulated for five centuries.


Oscar de la Torre is assistant professor of history and Africana and Latin American studies at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.  Follow him on Twitter at @OscardelaTorre7, and learn more at his website.