PARACATU, Brazil (Reuters) - Moacir de Mello’s small farm is squeezed on one side by bulldozers belonging to a Canadian mining firm and on the other by a rancher trying to make him leave. “We’re locked up like a pig in a sty,” his wife says.
President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva pledged to grant land titles to descendants of slaves. But, as the squeeze on Mello and his wife shows, Lula’s efforts face deeply entrenched racism, red tape, and big business interests.
Brazil brought an estimated 4 million slaves from Africa to work its fields and mines, more than any other country. After abolition in 1888, many slaves settled in Paracatu in the central state of Minas Gerais, where they had been digging gold for white owners.
“My great-great grandfather bought his freedom and this land with the sweat of a slave,” said Candida Pereira de Mello of the land she occupies with her husband.
Today, many slave descendants, known as Quilombolas, are just as excluded from economic and political life in this colonial town as their ancestors were under slavery.
Blacks make up 70 percent of the town’s population, compared with 48 percent in Brazil, but it never had a black mayor or even a black representative in the town assembly. Blacks hold the worst-paying jobs, if any at all.
Since taking office in 2003, Lula’s government has improved health, education and the power supply in several communities of Quilombolas. But state and federal governments have granted only 23 land titles of more than 400 requests.
“Not enough personnel and too many law suits hold up the process,” said Maria Bernadete Lopes, the official in Brasilia in charge of protecting black heritage nationally.
Eliane Guimaraes, 35, said her family and others were forced to leave their ancestral lands for the town decades ago by white settlers with incorrect land titles.
“Slavery may be over but the racism that sustained it continues the same,” she said, sifting through a pile of rubbish with her 2-year-old son on her breast.
“I’ve gotten jobs by phone and when they see I‘m black, they say the post is taken,” said Guimares, who struggles to feed five children making $150 a month recycling trash.
In recent years, Kinross Gold Corp. subsidiary RPM has bought up more than 100 properties to expand its gold mine and build a new dam.
Quilombolas said the mine is encroaching on them and said roads they rely on have been cut.
“We’re running out of space to live,” said Cristina Coutrin dos Reis, head of Sao Domingos, one of three Quilombola communities surrounding Paracatu.
RPM dried up a waterfall that was used for recreation and drinking water, she said. RPM said it is unaware of the claim but installed a well as an alternate water supply.
On the other side of the mine, Ana Lopes de Moraes said two of her sons were shot by company guards several years ago and died of their injuries.
“I’ve lived on a mountain of gold all my life but it’s brought more sadness than happiness,” said Moraes, 70.
RPM said it did not know Moraes but said security guards in 1998 and 2000 returned fire against clandestine prospectors. The company also said it negotiated land directly with the owners, with deeds registered in the registry office in Paracatu.
Another factor that may work against the Quilombolas is that the registry is owned by the sister of a lawyer who represents RPM.
As many as 2,000 Quilombolas in the three communities are fighting for their land in claims that could hold up part of RPM’s $470 million (233 million pounds) expansion plan and even force the city mayor to move off a disputed plot.
“The question is not if but how much land they will get,” said federal prosecutor Jose Sergio Pinto. But he said the already drawn-out process could end up in court for years.
Anthropologists are determining the extent of the ancestral land, Pinto said. “If anybody is on Quilombola land, we either buy or expropriate that area,” Pinto said.
RPM said it would respect ownership rights if Quilombolas were granted property deeds.
In a city where RPM created numerous jobs, Quilombolas are accused of stifling progress and stirring racial tension.
“Many people despise us but we didn’t start this conflict, it began when we were brought from Africa against our will,” says Dario Alegria, head of a local black advocacy group.
Some of the ruling white class side with Alegria.
“The blacks built this country, shaped our history, culture and food, they have a right to that land,” said Graca Caetano Jales, Paracatu’s secretary of culture.
“We need to find a solution for them because things cannot always end in impunity in Brazil.”