The hill leading up to Quilombo Sacopã, along the street with the same name, is lined with luxury homes. Quilombos are self-identifying communities descended from slaves that can prove their ancestors occupied the same lands during or just following abolition, thus with the right to acquire a land rights status akin to an indigenous reserve. And Sacopã is likely the quilombo occupying the most valuable land of any in Brazil today. The street is located in the neighborhood of Lagoa, one of the most expensive in Rio.
When I spoke with Celina Almeida Freitas on the phone, she described the quilombo’s gate to me. This turned out to be unnecessary since a banner reading “Not one less quilombo” sets it apart from the other gates on the street. From there, I see that the bottom half of the stairway leading up to residents’ homes has disappeared under the mud. I also see a man named Leandro helping with the clean-up effort, holding a tool that is my size. According to Freitas, he came to help out at the quilombo through friends of friends. Bráulio Nazaré, whom I already know, is sitting on the first available step. On the hillside, plastic covers the earth to prevent it from absorbing water and producing another mudslide in the event of more rain.
Freitas instructed me to ask Leandro for Luiz Pinto, her uncle and the leader of the quilombo. As I later found out, Pinto is also the former president of the Quilombola Association of the State of Rio de Janeiro. I learned that everyone is related—they’re uncles, cousins, and siblings. The quilombo is composed of a single family, originally the descendants of Eva and Manoel, who came to Rio in the early 20th century—over 106 years ago—from Nova Friburgo (a municipality in the state of Rio), where their parents and grandparents had been enslaved. Like every quilombo, Sacopã’s history is one of resistance.
The doors are all open. To get to the other stairway, you have to walk through one of the houses. These steps are much steeper than the other staircase—too steep for Nazaré, who is quadriplegic and has not been able to resume his physical therapy since April’s rains since he is unable to exit the quilombo.
I arrive at a covered terrace, where there is a banner reading “Black People: Keep Your Head Up.” In the middle of the gathering space, two trees pass through the floor and ceiling. The trees were not removed to make way for the terrace; instead, the terrace itself was adapted to nature. It was in this open space that community festivities and traditional feijoada meals would take place.
Pinto appears and sits at a table next to us. The smell of black beans cooking at the house next door pervades the air, accompanied by the sound of a pressure cooker. Pinto, like many of his ancestors, is a samba singer and composer. Freitas arrives with several bags of groceries and starts distributing them. “One person asked me to bring oranges, another asked for something else. Since we already went all the way down the hill, we might as well, right…?” she says with a laugh.
The quilombo was prohibited from hosting celebrations as a result of complaints by residents of the surrounding area in violation of Article 215 of the Brazilian Constitution, which guarantees quilombolas the right to practice their culture. Even after the prohibition, every once in awhile, festivities would still take place on important commemorative dates. As a result of recent heavy rains, however, the terrace was completely flooded with mud and sewage. Residents are currently looking for partnerships and funding opportunities in order to rebuild the space.
The sewage problem is nothing new. On the slope behind the quilombo, there is a condominium. In 2018, a pipe burst and the sewage slid down to the quilombo, infiltrating the community’s terrace. “The manager said that he would take action the following business day. It was a Friday! My uncle said that he could not wait—that he lived here with his children and grandchildren. He only resolved the problem when he said that we would take action ourselves, by calling a reporter,” recalls Freitas.
“We found that the condominium up there does have rain gutters but that the water, including sewage, drains straight down the hillside. We can smell the sewage,” Freitas says. The drainage causes sedimentation and causes the soil to swell. When the rains hit this time, the mud slid down the hill and infiltrated the houses.”
“The water would come in through the back door and out the front door like a river. In places where there was nowhere for it to go, the mud got stuck, accumulated, and damaged everything. It was horrible to see everything collapse like this,” says Márcia Arruda, sitting at the table with us. “You see the water taking over your house and there’s nothing that you can do about it. It doesn’t flow out—the more water you remove, the more comes in. Furniture, clothes, everything. Thank God no one was injured,” says Pinto.
“I was born here in 1961. The condo was built in 1986. Who is wrong? They are the ones who brought us problems, not least because of gravity. Things move downward, not upward,” says Arruda. “The satisfaction [of condominium residents] with the damages resulting from the rains is clearly evident to us. They’re thinking, ‘now they’ll leave.’ Yesterday, one of the residents came by to see how much we were affected by the rain.”
Residents of the quilombo cleaned up the mud on their own. The stairway is still blocked. “Public authorities have not shown up—we have to do everything by ourselves. But with only our own manpower, we aren’t able to rebuild everything. We need a retaining wall,” says Pinto. In addition to demanding that the condominium complete its water and sewerage piping, residents called a geologist from the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ) to produce a technical report on the situation—not only to put pressure on the condominium, but also to complement a letter they will hand over to the Public Prosecutor’s Office requesting action by the local government, ideally by municipal geotechnical agency GEO-Rio.
They run the risk that the Civil Defense could recommend the families’ removal from Sacopã. “They’re going to say that the area is condemned, that we have to leave. But this is our quilombo. And some houses have not been affected at all,” says Pinto. “We are very careful when dealing with the authorities. Our fear is that they may remove us arbitrarily, without considering that we are in the process of obtaining land titles as a quilombo community,” Freitas adds.
They started their land titling case through a special adverse possession process. “We’ve been here for over fifty years. In the first instance, we won the case with clear legal backing. In the second instance, we lost through a 3 to 0 vote and two months later, a bailiff showed up here with a demand for repossession. This aroused our suspicions. After winning in the first instance, losing in the second instance without any votes in our favor would be improbable. We later found out that the rapporteur for our case was expelled from the judiciary for selling sentences. When these guys get caught, they get compulsory retirement, grab their bathing suits, and head to the beach. If we were to do that, there would be just cause [for termination]—we would lose everything, and moreover, be criminalized,” laments Pinto.
Today, residents are in the third and final phase of the administrative process of quilombo titling through the Institute of Colonization and Agrarian Reform (INCRA). “It is a phase in which the federal government begins to look for the real landowners over the past centuries—if they exist,” Pinto explains. “In the nearly eighty years that I’ve been here, I have never seen any owners of this land. Some have claimed to be owners but have fallen flat on their faces before the judge.”
“Fake construction companies with fake papers have shown up here. Their neighborhood association, AMOFONTE, even supports these construction companies. When we show up at meetings, they stop talking and change the subject. We are not like other residents—we are their main targets,” says Arruda. “Some members of the association used to come to our events. Suddenly, they changed their minds once they realized how valuable the land is,” says Freitas. The quilombo is not the association’s only target: “They tried to remove the Pequena Cruzada school. They removed street vendors—a boy who used to pack and pile up chairs and another who was a fruit vendor,” she adds.
“We have also received about five public removal orders from the state and the City with deadlines: ‘You have fifteen days or we will come and remove you.’ It hasn’t been easy; our resistance is centuries-long,” says Pinto. “No one can imagine what we’re still going through in the 21st century. What they want is to see us removed—but we refuse to leave.”
“This isn’t our only problem. We are the ones who prune the area—which should be the responsibility of public authorities,” continues Pinto. Residents also lack water since the State Water and Sewerage Utility (CEDAE) closed the pump due to a hole caused by corrosion in the pipe that supplies the community. “Instead of replacing the pipe, they’ve installed pipe clamps, one after another. They’re going to have to do something because the people up there [in the condo] will run out of water. They have a very large reservoir but there are lots of families and a pool,” says Freitas.
The problems related to the condominium are not limited to the dumping of water and sewage. Cans, plastic bottles, food scraps, Portuguese stones, a hookah, and an iron have been found on the roofs of houses in the quilombo. “The condominium needs to do something—to make rules and guidelines for residents and short-term tenants explaining that people live down here,” Freitas complains.
“We have been waiting but nothing has happened so far. So, we decided to take action. We have to do what we can in order to go on with our lives. We’re not afraid because we don’t owe anyone anything,” Arruda says with determination.
I say goodbye to each of them with a hug. Before going, I see Arruda looking at the sky: “It’s very hot. I think it’s going to rain. That’s our fear.”