Land rights of ex-slave communities in Brazil at risk, UN expert warns

Raquel Rolnik, Special Rapporteur on adequate housing

26 May 2010 – A possible court decision in favour of Brazil’s industrial and livestock sector against the land rights of centuries-old communities set up by former slaves could infringe the country’s international human rights obligations, a United Nations expert warned today.

Brazil’s Supreme Court will soon decide on the constitutionality of a decree regulating the granting of land titles to over 1,400 so-called Quilombo communities, an effort to compensate them for centuries of subjugation and human rights violations that has been challenged by the Democratic Party with support from the National Confederation of Industry, the National Confederation of Livestock Producers and the Brazilian Rural Society.

“If the decree were to be declared unconstitutional, this would undermine the right of the Quilombo communities to have access to land and natural resources,” UN Special Rapporteur on the right to adequate housing Raquel Rolnik said in a statement.

“This may contravene Brazil’s international obligations, particularly under the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights,” she added, stressing that the decree is part of a number of measures “aiming to compensate for the historical debt of the nation to communities affected by centuries of domination and violation of rights.”

Although recognized in domestic legislation, the property rights of the Quilombo communities have been secured slowly, leaving them extremely vulnerable to forced evictions and threats by land owners, mining companies and developers seeking to take possession of their lands and natural resources.

“The relationship with land and natural resources is at the centre of the lives of Quilombo communities,” said Ms. Rolnik, an independent, unpaid expert who reports to the Geneva-based UN Human Rights Council.

“The spiritual and material foundations of their cultural identities are sustained through their unique relationship to the lands they traditionally occupy. Thus land is more than a mere source of subsistence; it is the basis of the continuation of their life and cultural identity.”

The decree regulates procedures for granting titles to lands occupied by Quilombos in accordance with international human rights treaties ratified by Brazil, such as the International Covenant on Economic Social and Cultural Rights and the UN International Labour Organization (ILO) Convention on indigenous and tribal peoples.


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