Brazil's Census Offers Recognition At Last to Descendants Of Runaway Slaves

Interviewers plan to reach 190m people, including the long-ignored Kalunga, by motorbike, plane, canoe and donkey

By Tom Phillips in Engenho II, Kalunga territory
Guardian (UK) 
August 25, 2010

When Jorge Moreira de Oliveira's great-great-great-
great-great-grandfather arrived in Brazil in the 18th
century he was counted off the slave-ship, branded and
dispatched to a goldmine deep in the country's arid
mid-west. After years of scrambling for gold that was
shipped to Europe, he fled and became one of the
founding fathers of the Kalunga quilombo, a remote
mountain-top community of runaway slaves.

On Wednesday last week, more than 200 years later, it
was Moreira's turn to be counted - this time not by
slavemasters but by Cleber, a chubby census taker who
appeared at his home clutching a blue personal digital
assistant (PDA).

"I'm Kalunga. A Brazilian Kalunga," Moreira told his
visitor from the Brazilian Institute of Geography and
Statistics, who diligently noted down details about the
interviewee's eight children, monthly income and toilet

Such is Brazil's 2010 census - a gigantic logistical
operation that aims to count and analyse the lives of
more than 190 million people in one of the most
geographically and racially diverse nations on earth.

The scale of the mobilisation is staggering. With a
budget of around 1.677bn Brazilian reais (£600m) the
census, which began on 1 August, will peer into
approximately 58m homes in 5,565 municipalities across
8,514,876 sq km (3.3m sq miles). Between now and the
end of October around 190,000 census takers will
venture into illegal goldmines, sprawling slums, high-
security prisons, indigenous reserves and quilombola
communities such as Engenho II, travelling by
motorbike, donkey, canoe and plane.

But for people such as Moreira, the census is about
more than number-crunching. For the Kalunga,
descendants of slaves shipped to Brazil from places
such as Angola, Mozambique and Ivory Coast, it is a
chance, finally, to be counted, heard and helped by a
government that has long ignored them.

"The federal government has to know that we exist -
what we do, what we have," said Moreira, a 42-year-old
subsistence farmer, who attributes recent improvements
in his community, including the arrival of roads,
electricity and a school, to Brazil's last head-count,
in 2000. "Before, we were totally forgotten. Now
equality is coming through the census and the


"It is a question of identity," said Ivonete Carvalho,
the government's programme director for traditional
communities. "When you assert your identity you are
saying you want [government] action and access to
public policies. [The census] is a fantastic x-ray."

The Kalungas' fight for recognition is part of a wider
movement for racial equality in Brazil, a country with
deep roots in Africa but where Afro-Brazilian
politicians and business leaders remain few and far
between. According to Carvalho, only one of Brazil's 81
senators is black, despite the fact that Afro-
Brazilians represent at least 53% of the population.
The last census found that fewer than 40% of Afro-
Brazilians had access to sanitation compared with
nearly 63% of whites.

Just as descendents of Brazil's runaway slaves are
finding their voice - and telling the census takers
about it - so too are Brazil's officially black and
indigenous communities swelling as a growing number of
Brazilians label themselves "black" or "indigenous"
rather than "mulatto" when the census takers come

"People are no longer scared of identifying themselves
or insecure about saying: 'I'm black, and black is
beautiful,' " Brazil's minister for racial equality,
Elio Ferreira de Araujo, told the Guardian.

For the first time in Brazilian history, this year's
census will map out the different indigenous languages
spoken in Brazil and register the number of same-sex
relationships. It will also ask people their
"ethnicity" - a thorny issue in a country that has long
regarded itself as a racial melting pot and the rainbow
nation of the Americas.

Since president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva came to power
in 2003, increasing steps have been taken to bridge the
social chasm between Afro-Brazilians and their white
counterparts. A ministry for racial equality has been
created and university quotas introduced. The Brasil
Quilombola programme, which aims to provide basic
social services to thousands of slave descendants, has
been rolled out across the country.

Engenho II, a village that is home to around 4,500
"Brazilian Kalungas" and was officially recognised by
the government in 2009, has been one of the communities
to benefit from the cause's new visibility.


"It was pretty calamitous here before," said Cerilo dos
Santos Rosa, the territory's 56-year-old leader. "We
didn't have roads, or energy. We'd have to take our
produce to town on donkeys or on our backs."

The Kalungas also hope that their land will soon be
formally demarcated by the government, with plans to
offer compensation to landowners who leave the area,
around 320km from Brazil's capital, Brasilia.

Not everybody is enthusiastic about the government's
sudden engagement with quilombola communities. Some
claim the arrival of brick houses, cash-transfer
programmes and roads will irreparably damage their
culture and create divisions between them and other
communities. Others speculate that the government
simply wants access to the abundant mineral resources
buried under this sparsely populated savannah region.

Local people, however, are united in their praise for
Lula's attempts to create what he calls a Brasil para
todos - "Brazil for all".

"Lula has been a great example. He was the first
president to visit our community," said Rosa, a father
of 11 and grandfather of 29 who credits the president
with building 40 brick homes and 93 toilets in the

Government officials defend their attempts to offer
"contemporary" life to some of the country's poorest,
most isolated citizens.

"Cultural preservation has to be our objective . but
giving quality of life to families that live in such
remote places is also part of the mission," said
Ferreira, the racial equality minister. "We have to
value their culture but also the economic support that
will give them social benefits."

Carvalho, herself born into a quilombola community in
southern Brazil, said the government had finally
started paying "an historical debt" to those whose
forefathers were "wrenched from their motherland".

Brazil's excluded, she said, were increasingly willing
to stand up and be counted. "I'm here. I'm me. I'm not
ashamed of my history."

"The progress is slow but it is progress," said
Moreira, sat beside his shack's rickety wooden door,
bearing the chalked words: "God in first place."

"Before, the government didn't care if we existed or
not. Today things are different. Today we all have to
be registered. We have to appear. That's the only way
things will get better."


Census facts

 In 1872, when the first Brazilian census was
conducted on the orders of Emperor Dom Pedro II, the
population was divided into free people and slaves, who
represented 15% of the population.

 Just 1.8% of the 1872 population were considered
"rich" - 23,400 families. In 2000 that figure had risen
only slightly to about 2.4%.

 The following census, in 1890, found that 83% of
over-fives were illiterate. By 2000 this had fallen to

 Brazil's population has more than doubled in 50
years, from 71 million in 1960 to more than 190 million

 734,000 Brazilians identified themselves as
"indigenous" in the 2000 census.

 This year, more than 7,000 data centres will compile
information from about 225,000 PDAs.


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