Brazilian quilombolas during a meeting in the capital of Brazil, Brasília.

A quilombola (Portuguese pronunciation: [kilõˈbɔlɐ]) is a resident of a quilombo in Brazil. They are the descendants of Afro-Brazilian slaves who escaped from slave plantations that existed in Brazil until abolition in 1888. The most famous quilombola was Zumbi and the most famous quilombo was Palmares.

Many quilombolas live in poverty.[1][2]


In the 16th century, slavery was becoming common across the Americas, particularly in Brazil. Slaves were shipped overseas from Africa via a massive Atlantic slave trade network. In Brazil, most worked at sugar plantations and mines, and were brutally tortured. However, some lucky slaves started to escape. According to legend, among them was Aqualtune, a former Angolan princess and general enslaved during a Congolese war. Shortly after reaching Brazil, the pregnant Aqualtune escaped with some of her soldiers and fled to the Serra da Bariga region. It is believed that here, Aqualtune founded a quilombo, or a colony of Quilombolas, called Palmares. Palmares was one of the largest quilombos in Brazil. In the 1630s, palmares was inherited by Aqualtune's son, Ganga Zumba, who ruled the city from a palace. The inhabitants used African style forges to make metal plows and scythes to harvest fields of corn, rice and manioc and created agricultural forests of palm and breadfruit. Palmares and other quilombos during the Quilombola's glory days were surrounded by palisades, camouflaged pits filled with deadly stakes, and paths lined with lacerating caltrops. Palmares was behind many raids of Portuguese ports and towns. Lisbon, seeing Palmares as a direct challenge to its colonial status, declared war on the Quilombolas. Twenty attacks on Palmares failed. But the constant attacks wore down Ganga Zumba, and in 1678 he agreed to stop accepting new slaves and move out of the mountains to safety. However, Ganga Zumba's nephew, Zumbi, saw this as betrayal and poisoned his uncle before tearing up the treaty with the Portuguese. Colonial forces continued the relentless attacks, and in the end Zumbi was unable to cope. In 1694, the Portuguese finally destroyed Palmares and killed hundreds of its citizens, ending the glory days of the Quilombolas. Zumbi and Palmares survived only as symbols of resistance.


Other quilombos had emerged during the age of Palmares and the Aqualtune Dynasty. The fleeing slaves had befriended and allied with Brazilian natives. They interbred, and today most of the Quilombola population is part African-Brazilian, part Indian. Quilombos were mainly located deep in the jungles, far from European influence, and after the fall of Palmares, all the quilombos either went into hiding or were wiped out by Europeans. Most of the Quilombolas remained hidden so successfully it was assumed they had been destroyed or died out. They dropped farming at the risk of being discovered and continued the agricultural forest practice. The Quilombolas adopted a lifestyle that was a cross of Portuguese and Indian culture, as well as their traditional African culture, to make a colourful cultural blend. Until the 1970s, the Quilombolas were a totally unknown race and assumed extinct. However, in the 70s, deforestation reached their lands. Loggers, assuming them to be squatters trying to steal property, forced them off their land at gunpoint and unwittingly stole their land. Nobody believed they were really surviving Quilombolas until the 80s. Enraged ranchers claimed they were squatters pretending to be Quilombolas to get land and make a quick buck. Eventually, they were accepted as Quilombolas, but ranchers still kept stealing their land. The most avid supporter of the Quilombolas was Chico Mendes, who argued for the preservation of the jungle and its native people, including the Quilombolas.

1988 Constitution: Article 68

The national black movement and the black rural communities in the northern regions of Pará and Maranhão gathered political momentum throughout the 1980s and succeeded in having quilombola land rights introduced into the 1988 Constitution in the form of Article 68. Regional and national organisations working to fight racial discrimination formed an alliance in 1986 that played an important role in the grassroots political action that resulted in Article 68. Black militants across Brazil demanded reparation and the recognition of the detrimental effects of slavery, including preventing black communities from accessing land.[3] The Black Movement explicitly decided to make land central to their political agenda during the constitutional debates. They capitalised on the perception that there were very few quilombos and that it would thus be mainly a symbolic gesture in order to get it into the Constitution.[4] It was assumed that any community would have to prove its direct descent from a runaway slave settlement.

Black federal representative Benedita da Silva was the main proponent in Congress of the inclusion of quilombo land rights in the new Constitution, which was drawn up after Brazil’s military dictatorship ended in 1986. Article 68 stated that “definitive ownership will be recognized, and the respective title will be issued by the State, to those descendants of the maroon communities occupying their lands.”[5] Quilombo members cannot be legally evicted, except by the federal government (which has challenged at least two certified quilombos: Rio dos Macacos whose claims overlapped a Navy base[6] and Alcântara where a space station has been built[7]).[8] The inclusion of quilombo communities in the Constitution was the first recognisable government action towards the reparation of historical injustice against slave descendants.

Redefinition - 2003

Throughout the second half of the 1990s and the early 2000s, hundreds of black peasant communities in Brazil began the legal process for official recognition.[9] Despite a government attempt in 1999 to restrict the application of Article 68, there was increasing black rural mobilisation and growing criticism of the categorisation of rural black communities solely as the result of colonial social relations. In 2003, the government of President Luiz Inácio “Lula” da Silva issued Presidential Decree 4887 that categorized quilombo descendants as “self-designated ethno-racial groups who have their own historical trajectory, specific territorial relations, and a presumed black ancestry related to the historical oppression they have suffered”.[10] Through the political pressure exerted by black peasants throughout Brazil, the government established explicitly that quilombos should be defined by their being communities formed by black peasants in general, part of the present agrarian structure and contemporary society, not only by their relation to the past as runaway-descendants.[11]

The number of recognised quilombos increased from 29 in 2003 to over 2600 in 2016, with many more communities applying that have yet to be recognized. They are situated across the whole of the country, in urban and rural locations, in forests and even on islands. There are those that consist of just a few extended families and others that number thousands. The land claimed by these communities totals about 4.4 million acres.

See also


  1. Colitt, Raymond (July 4, 2007). "Descendants of slaves still suffer in Brazil". Reuters. Retrieved July 23, 2010.
  2. Pyl, Bianca (May 3, 2010). "Incra não cumpre meta e titula 2 territórios quilombolas em 2009". Repórter Brasil (in Portuguese). Retrieved July 23, 2010.
  3. Dutra, ed., (2011) ‘Direitos Quilombolas: Um Estudio do Impacto de Cooperação Ecumenico’, Rio de Janeiro KOINONIA Presença Ecumênica e Serviço, p.20
  4. Benatti, José Heder, 2004. Posse Agroecológica e Manejo Florestal. Curitiba: Juruá Editora
  5. Full 1988 Constitution in English: https://www.constituteproject.org/constitution/Brazil_2014.pdf
  6. BAHIA (2015) Incra reconhece área da comunidade quilombola Rio dos Macacos, na BA http://g1.globo.com/bahia/noticia/2015/11/incra-reconhece-area-da-comunidade-quilombola-rio-dos-macacos-na-ba.html
  7. Soares (2009) Quilombo atrasa programa espacial http://www.sindct.org.br/?q=node/1517
  8. Planas (2014) Brazil's 'Quilombo' Movement May Be The World's Largest Slavery Reparations Program http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/07/10/brazil-quilombos_n_5572236.html
  9. Arruti, José Maurício. (2000) “Comunidades Remanescentes de Quilombos,” Tempo e Presença
  10. Original Text: “ Art. 2o Consideram-se remanescentes das comunidades dos quilombos, para os fins deste Decreto, os grupos étnico-raciais, segundo critérios de auto-atribuição, com trajetória histórica própria, dotados de relações territoriais específicas, com presunção de ancestralidade negra relacionada com a resistência à opressão histórica sofrida” http://www.planalto.gov.br/ccivil_03/decreto/2003/d4887.htm
  11. De La Torre, Oscar (2013) “Are They Really Quilombos?” Black Peasants, Politics, and the Meaning of Quilombo in Present-Day Brazil. University of North Carolina at Charlotte. OFO: Journal of Transatlantic Studies VOL. 3, Nos. 1 & 2, p.10

Further reading

Osorio & Baldi (2010) ‘Supreme Court of Brazil to rule over Quilombo communities’ rights to land – arguments for a protective approach’

Planas, R. (2014) Brazil’s ‘Quilombo’ Movement May Be The World’s Largest Slavery Reparations Program. Huffington Post

Redman, Paul & Renold, Jaye (2015) Freedom: Quilombo land title struggle in Brazil Film looks at two Quilombola communities, one with no land title and one benefitting from legal recognition, and examines the disparities between them plus further context.

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