Olympic Housing Built on Slave Burial Ground Angers Descendants

The revelation that housing for media covering the Olympics is built on land inhabited by the descendants of slaves is a reminder of Brazil's history as the largest importer of enslaved Africans in the western hemisphere.

By Chris Arsenault and Jo Griffin

RIO DE JANEIRO, Aug 8 – Looking out at the new concrete buildings housing international journalists covering the 2016 Olympics, Adilson Almeida cannot hide his anger: he says they were built on a burial ground of his ancestors – Brazil’s former slaves.

A local leader of the Quilombo do Camorim, a community of 20 extended families who trace their origins back to slaves who escaped from a sugar plantation in western Rio de Janeiro, Almeida says the Olympics have taken a “painful” toll on residents.

“The original house of the slave master was standing until last year but it was demolished for the Olympic media village,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

“The community was never consulted or invited (to be involved in Olympic construction projects),” said Almeida, president of the Camorim Cultural Association (ACUCA).

The community has been pushing for formal “quilombo” status from Brazil’s government, which would grant historic land rights to local residents and a collective legal status to the territory.

About 20,000 people live on land included in the quilombo concession area, said Almeida, whose family has lived in the area for about 400 years.

STRUGGLE FOR STATUS

Camorim’s application for recognition has been winding its way through Brazil’s bureaucracy for more than a decade.

The delay meant they lacked formal rights to the land when developers arrived ahead of the Olympics, which opened on Friday, Almeida said.

Residents had wanted to use the area where the slave master’s house stood to build a visitor centre, explaining the community’s past to other Brazilians and foreign tourists.

The revelation that housing for media covering the Olympics is built on land inhabited by the descendants of slaves is a reminder of Brazil’s history as the largest importer of enslaved Africans in the western hemisphere. It abolished slavery in 1888, the last country in the region to do so.

A century later, the 1988 constitution granted a legal status for the areas where slaves had remained, guaranteeing they were held collectively and could not be easily sold off. There are an estimated 3,500 quilombros in Brazil.

The Camorim claim is just one of more than 1,500 applications for quilombo status being examined by Brazilian regulators, according to the Instituto Socioambiental, a Brazilian advocacy group.

Some fear the decade-long push for land rights will grind to a halt as austerity measures sparked by Brazil’s recession cut resources for examining claims of quilombo status.

‘PARALYZED PROCESS’

Brazil’s bureaucracy is also in the midst of a reorganisation following the suspension of President Dilma Rousseff in May over alleged budget accounting irregularities.

The interim administration led by Michel Temer has rearranged the ministries responsible for assessing quilombo land claims.

“Confusion has paralyzed the process,” said Candido Cunha, an official at the National Institute of Colonization and Land Reform (INCRA), one of the federal government agencies responsible for granting Quilombo status.

Currently INCRA doesn’t have the right resources to grant formal land titles to the quilombros in a timely fashion, Cunha told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

It is unclear exactly when INCRA will make a final decision on granting formal Quilombo status to Camorim, Almeida said.

His more immediate worry is the impact of the Olympics on the community’s burial ground. “We would find bones there,” he said.

“People should find out what already existed in a place, not impose things without looking at the history.”

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