We Belong to the Land, by Antônio Bispo dos Santos

Translated by Carmela Zigoni1

I. When I provoke a debate about colonization, the quilombos2, their manners and their meanings, I do not want to position myself as a thinker. Instead, I am positioning myself as a translator. My elders formed me first through orality, but they put me in school to learn through written language so that I could translate the contracts3 we were forced to make.

I went to the school of written language at the age of nine but since I started to speak, I have also been trained by ‘craft masters’ in our community activities. When I went to school in the late 1960s, oral contracts were being broken in our community to be replaced by written contracts imposed by white colonialist society. I studied until the eighth grade, when the community assessed that I could already be a translator. In the 1940s there was a major campaign of land regularization by writing, i.e., official documents. This occurred in Piauí4 and also all over Brazil. The law said that the people who occupied the land would be called posseiros (squatters). That law put a name, objectified these people. We were not squatters, we were people … What did that mean to us?

From the moment that the law says that we are squatters, it plays an important role for colonialism. Colonialism names all the people they want to dominate. Sometimes we do the same thing without realizing it: when we have a dog, for example, we give him a name but not a last name. Colonialists provide a name but not a surname because the surname is what power means. The name objectifies, the surname empowers. So by calling us posseiros, they put us in a situation of subordination, forcing us to fulfill the contracts that the nomination imposed on us5. Our people’s contracts were made orally because our relationship with the land was through cultivation. The land didn’t belong to us, we belonged to the land. We did not say “that land is mine” but “we are of that land”. There was an understanding among us that the earth is alive, and since it can produce, it must rest too. We did not start owning our land because we wanted to but because it was a state imposition. If we could, our lands would be as they are – in relation to life6.

Animals at Caatinga Bioma, Saco Cortume Community, Piauí, Brazil

Quilombola7 power over land is power based on word, attitude, relationship – not in writing. When the state came to demarcate the land, my grandfather refused, saying, “How are we going to demarcate something that is already ours?” So, the white people arrived, bought the land and we lost the right over it. Even the elders who had demarcated their land at that time lost it because their heirs did not re-register the documents in their name. Most of the lands of traditional communities in Brazil are considered spoils, as no one has a deed to the land. However, if we register and obtain deeds today because it is imposed on us, there is something more serious involved. The process of obtaining a deed to the land requires an anthropological report – even though the law says that being a quilombola is a self-declaring identity – and an agronomic report. This process is the most sophisticated use of state intelligence to identify the profile of the people that resist state oppression and state strategies to organize and surveil resistance. Why would we need an anthropologist to diagnose us, understand our customs, our traditions, our culture? Because those who most threaten the system today are the traditional peoples and communities, because we are the owners of a knowledge transmitted spontaneously and orally, without charging anything for it. Because our people could not read, they did not know how the deeds worked, thus losing many possibilities to live on their land. So our people decided that one of us should be able to read and write to deal with this situation. I was trained for this and I do this work still today. That is why I say that I am not a thinker, but a translator of the thinking of my people. And for my people I am also a translator of colonialist thought. When we are discussing colonization, quilombos, colonialist ways of living and meanings, we are trying to understand what makes the colonialists think the way they do and how we should think so as not to behave like them. Our people were brought here from Africa. Unlike our Indigenous friends who were attacked in their territory and could speak their languages, cultivate their seeds, and dialogue with their environment, we were taken from our territories to be attacked on Indigenous territory. So, we needed and need nowadays – and have succeeded – to be very generous, because even though we were brought into Indigenous territory, we did not dispute the territory with them. We dispute with the colonialists the territory they took from the Indigenous people and it hurts us. But we need to do this. Otherwise, where are we going to live?

Mutirão

To the detriment and surprise of colonialists, and to our benefit and happiness, when we reach out in solidarity to Indigenous peoples, we find lifeways similar to ours. We find relationships with nature similar to ours. There was a great confluence in manner and thoughts. And it has strengthened us. We made a great cosmological alliance, even speaking different languages. By our lifeways, we understood each other. I was guided by our elders to try to understand why the colonialist people do such harmful and violent things to other people. I looked at the Bible, I looked at what they wrote. And I found in the Bible, in Genesis, a good explanation: “Jehovah God said to the man, why have you disobeyed me? The earth will be cursed because of you. You shall only eat by the sweat of your brow. The land will offer you thorns and weeds. And all your descendants will be perpetually cursed.” At this point, this god of the colonialist Bible – rather, monotheistic Euro-Christian – de-territorialized a people. When he cursed the land to colonialist people, he said that his people could not even touch the land. When he said that the land was offering weeds and thorns, he said that the people could not eat either the fruit or the leaves or anything that land offered. When he said that these people had to eat by the sweat of their brow, at that moment he created work as an action of synthesizing nature. At the same time, he also created a disease that I call cosmophobia – the fear of the cosmos, the fear of God. These monotheistic Euro-Christian people feel desperate. As quilombolas, we also had to learn to live with this god. And we even learned to accept it. Because if it’s god, it must be good. So besides having our goddesses and our gods, we also have this god. And that’s where Euro-Christian people started to lose. Because they only had one god and they still had to share with us. And we have several. As they only have one god, they only look in one direction. So their look is vertical, it’s linear, it does not turn. This is their thinking and doing. As we have many deities, we can look and see our deity in every corner. We see in a circular way, think and act in a circular way, and for us there is no end, we always find a way to start again. Our thinking is a thinking that allows us to better measure things, movements and spaces. The complexity of the world fits better in circular spaces than in rectangular spaces. And that allows us to live well with diversity and always allows us to think that the other – men and women – are important. We always understand the need for other people to exist. The Afro people invented capoeira8. Euro-Christians invented football. Imagine – there’s a football game in Mineirão9 and let’s say it has 40,000 people in the stands and 22 people in the field. Let’s say Cruzeiro and Atlético are playing today and Neymar came to watch the game. He left his position in Europe to watch the game. At one point, the team Neymar is rooting for is losing, and he asks to join the game. Is it allowed? How does Neymar, who is rooting for a team and wants to defend this team, join when he can’t get on the field? Let’s go to the other side. There is a capoeira circle, and now comes a European who has never seen capoeira. There are 50 people playing capoeira, and the one who has never seen capoeira asks to join. Is it allowed? The capoeira is spinning, the samba is spinning, the batuque, spinning in the umbanda and candomblé10 Everything for us is spinning. Everything for the colonizers is linear. It is a look limited to one direction only.

Capoeira

The quilombos are persecuted precisely because we offer a different possibility of living. It’s not simply because of the color of our skin. In the Church documents I evaluated, the permissions for peoples to be enslaved do not talk about the color of those peoples, they talk about their religiosity. Pope Nicholas V’s 1455 papal bull says that the pagans and the Saracens should be enslaved. The instructions did not refer to people as black, nor white, nor Indigenous. They referred to people as pagans, the people who have a cosmology. What people are these? These are the people who continue to eat from the fruits of the trees. These are the people who have not obeyed the guidance of the Euro-Christian god. These are the people who feel no obligation to work. They are the people who do not need to eat by the sweat of their brow, because nature already offers the food.

II.

Concepts that we think are very similar to those of ‘living well’ and ‘welfare’ are ‘living organically’ and ‘living synthetically’. To live well is to live organically and to have welfare is to live synthetically. We understand that there is organic knowledge and synthetic knowledge. While organic knowledge is knowledge that is developed by developing ‘being’, synthetic knowledge is what is developed by developing ‘having’. We operate through organic knowledge and colonialists operate through synthetic knowledge.

When the god of white people said that the earth was cursed because of Adam and Eve and that they would eat by the sweat of their brow, he said they could not enjoy nature as it presents itself. So they would need to synthesize everything and so they went out into the world synthesizing – including themselves. Much of white thinking is synthesized. The thought produced in the academy is a synthetic thought. It is a knowledge focused on the production of things. The thought operationalized by writing is a synthetic thought, disconnected from life. Our thinking, moved by orality, is an organic thinking.

‘Being’ [existence] has little value in synthetic knowledge, despite being the creator of the property. On the other hand, ‘having’ [owning] is the creature that devours its creator. People always act based on having. Even biology is becoming synthetic. Soon you will eat steak without the need of a cow.

Our assessment is that right now we are experiencing one of the greatest possibilities for an end to this Euro-Christian, monotheistic, colonialist and synthetic world. This world is coming to an end. No wonder we are experiencing this despair, this great confusion. But, incredible as it may seem, we are also experiencing a new confluence.

I work with the concepts of ‘confluence’ and ‘transfluence’. Confluence was a very easy concept to develop because I only needed to observe the movement of the waters by the rivers, by the land. Transfluence took a little longer because I had to watch the water move across the sky. It took me a long time to understand how a river that is in Brazil merges with a river that is in Africa. I realize that they do so through the rain, through the clouds. By the rivers of heaven. Thus, if it is possible for the fresh waters that are in Brazil to reach Africa from the sky, also from the sky the wisdom of our people can reach us in Brazil.

That is why, even though the colonialists have tried to destroy our language, our lifeways, they have not been able to take away our relationship with the cosmos. They did not and cannot take away our wisdom. That is why we have managed to adapt ourselves wisely without harming the true owners of this territory who are our Indigenous brothers and sisters. We have this ability because we are able to connect with our elders who were in Africa, through cosmology, despite the fact that we are forbidden to return there physically. This is what we call transfluence.

After Mutirão

III.

Both quilombolas and Indigenous peoples of Brazil became legal subjects only in the 1988 Constitution. Until that constitution, to be quilombola was to be criminal and to be Indigenous was to be wild. The 1988 Constitution said that we have the right to gain title to our lands by writing – which is an aggression, because by writing we would become landowners; but our elders taught us how to deal with this aggression.

I had an uncle named Antonio Maximus, who was the operator of a great martial art called Jucá11 He taught me that sometimes we need to turn enemy weapons into defense, so that we don’t turn our defense into weapons. Because if we turn our defense into a weapon, we will only know how to attack and those who only know how to attack, lose.

If cities, with all their weapons, do not live in peace, and we in the community live in peace without weapons, then it is clear that it is not weapons that solve the problems. That’s why my uncle Antonio said to turn weapons into defense. Mother Joan, also one of my great teachers, said that the vessel of giving is the same as receiving. So, if I point a revolver at you, this reveals that I am afraid of the revolver. I am offering to you a fear of the revolver, and thus this dispute will have no end.

Thus, to address land titling through writing does not mean we agree with it, rather it means that we adopt an enemy weapon and turn it into defense. For us, it is not land titles that determine if we are quilombolas, but rather the way we relate to the land. In this regard we and Indigenous peoples are conjoined. We conjoin in the territories because our territory is not just the land, it is all the elements.

Piauí is a state that practically does not exist for the rest of Brazil. When I say I’m from Piauí, people sometimes even ask me where Piauí is, as if it isn’t on the map. It’s not on the map that fits in those people’s minds. Then, it is said that in Piauí there are no Indigenous people, as it is also said that in Roraima there are no quilombos. But in Piauí today there are three different Indigenous groups fighting for their self-identification, self-recognition and the demarcation of their lands. And who are the partners of these peoples? The quilombolas. Their territories are continuous.

In Piauí there is a great alliance between quilombolas and Indigenous people, both in terms of the regularization of ownership of our territories and also of updating our cultural expressions based on an organic knowledge. Organic knowledge is the knowledge that updates, while synthetic knowledge is the one that recycles.

From left to right, Andressa (neighbor), Amanayara (granddaughter), Julio (neighbor) and Norberto Maximo (grandson)

IV.

We are not losers. I do not work within this logic of “victimology”. I have no right to be a victim. I am a winner; my people have won. My great-grandfather had three sugar mills; I was raised in abundance. I have no scars of slavery in my memory. I do not disagree with those who work with the image of the scar of slavery. However, I don’t work with this image of the victim, I work with the image of the winner. Even if they burn writing, they do not burn orality; even if they burn symbols, they do not burn meanings; even if they burn bodies, they do not burn ancestry. Because our images are also ancestral.

Many communities in every corner of Brazil are being attacked in the same way as were Palmares12, Canudos, Caldeirões, and Pau de Colher. Today, the Armed Forces are in Rocinha, a shantytown, practicing ethnocide. The government of Getúlio Vargas was one of the most ethnocidal governments we have ever had. He killed and burned the people of Caldeirões in the state of Ceará in 1936 and also the people of Pau de Colher along the border with the state of Bahia in 1942. But we still do not stop struggling13.

Our relationship with world images is based on the logic of the emancipation of peoples and traditional communities through counter-colonization. It is not through class struggle because class struggle is European and Christian monotheistic. I do not treat traditional peoples and communities as Marxist categories: as workers, unemployed or revolutionary. This language is not ours. This language is Euro-Christian-colonialist.

Some thinkers in Piauí wrote very well about the quilombos but they used the perspective of Marxism and it bothered me. I think of our walk from inside the slave ship. When the first slave ship departed the first quilombo was formed. The first quilombo was in there, with people reacting, throwing themselves into the sea, crashing and dying. Then the quilombo began. And Marx didn’t even exist at that time! What does Marx have to do with it? When Marx said something, Palmares had been established 200 years earlier. I think Marx has his role in Europe. As we say in the backcountry, “cada quem no seu cada qual” [i.e. each person takes care of their own].

The MST [Landless Movement], for example, is wonderful, one of the greatest inventions ever made, but it is a colonialist organization. You just have to go through most of the Brazilian states to see that the MST coordinator is usually a white and southern man. How? I do not believe that the other states could not produce their own leader. You get there in Piauí and the MST coordinator is drinking maté tea14! Well, in Piauí what we drink is cashew juice15! Of course, the contribution of the MST is important but from a political point of view, the MST is mono, linear, vertical. They wanted to be the only movement capable of representing the field. We do not want to be “the only one.”

From the beginning of colonization, from 1500 to 1888, the African people were regarded and treated as slaves, and what they thought and said did not enter Brazilian thought. From 1888 to 1988, our cultural expressions, capoeira, samba, continued to be considered crimes. This is colonialism. To colonize is to subdue, humiliate, destroy or enslave the trajectories of a people who have a cultural matrix, an original matrix different from yours.

And what is counter-colonizing? It is updating our trajectories from our matrices. And who can do that? Ourselves! The trajectory of the quilombola people can only be updated and revisited by those who think of circularity and through the polytheistic worldview. It is not Boaventura de Sousa Santos, although he is playing a good role in this process. To the extent, at least, that he says we have to dismantle what his people, the colonialist people, did. This is already of enormous generosity. At least he is not saying that you need to sophisticate and do more. But we are discussing counter-colonization. For us, quilombolas and Indigenous people, this is the agenda: counter-colonization. The day universities learn that they don’t know, the day universities agree to learn Indigenous languages – instead of teaching – the day universities agree to learn Indigenous architecture and learn what the caatinga16 plants are for, the day they are willing to learn from us as we learn one day from them, we will have a confluence. A confluence of knowledges. A process of balancing the diverse civilizations of this place. A counter- colonization.

Author: Antônio Bispo dos Santos

Original article in Portuguese by Antônio Bispo dos Santos
Translated into English by Carmela Zigoni

Suggested Citation:
Bispo dos Santos, A. 7 August 2020. “We Belong to the Land.” Translated to English by C. Zigoni. AGITATE! Bloghttp://agitatejournal.org/we-belong-to-the-land
  1. Translator’s Note: The following text, authored by Antonio Bispo, has been translated from the original Portuguese into English by Carmela Zigoni. The author and translator wish to remind readers that in this piece, there are some concepts and ideas that are not explained fully in a manner typical of Western academia. This is intentional. We wish to leave room for imagination, and we wish to remind readers that these ideas are what the author has called “local philosophy.” This is a philosophy that does not follow or conform to colonial norms. The text was originally published as SANTOS, Antônio Bispo. Somos da terra. PISEAGRAMA, Belo Horizonte, número 12, página 44 – 51, 2018.
  2. Translator’s note: the quilombos – also known in other countries as maroons – are communities of African descent who resisted the slavery of the colonialist period in Brazil, creating societies with alternative ways of life to hegemonic society. Currently, in Brazil, there are two thousand quilombola communities recognized by the State.
  3. Translator’s note: The author is marking an opposition between oral and written cultures, and the issue of written contracts as a form of domination. After slavery abolition, the land in Brazil was registered in favor of the white population and the afrodescendents were deprived of any real possibility of land acquisition. The practice of using the official norms – written laws, “the papers” – to expropriate their territories is still a contemporary practice, as is the case, for example, in normative processes to implement mining projects in their lands, with procedures that involve many actors such as scientists, technicians, politics, lawyers, a kind of “State language” that is not accessible to the local quilombolas. Also, in Brazil illiteracy in the countryside is still a current reality. So, the tension highlighted by the author here is among what is said, agreed, remembered, and therefore, worthless; and what is written, therefore, true.
  4. Translator’s note: Piauí is one of the 27 states of Brazil.
  5. Translator’s note: When the author mentions the “nomination” he is referring to the exogenous process of naming a population, i.e., the classifying it within an intelligible narrative for the constituted power, as opposed to self-nomination, or self-determination. So, if in the slavery period quilombolas were officially criminalized, after abolition they go through an institutional “limbo” and are named as “dispossessed”, starting to be appointed as land invaders or landless people. After the land laws promulged in the 1970s, they were recognized as unionized farmers, but this identity was not capable of reflecting their cultural specificities. They were recognized by the State as quilombolas in the 1988 Constitution.
  6. Translator’s note: In the original the word is ‘terra’, but even in Portuguese the word does not reach the complexity of the meaning that land has for the quilombola perspective found in the text, namely: land as territory, land as place of cultivation, land as nature that provides medicine , land as the reference of memory and ancestry, etc. So, land here is at the same time soil, homeland, earth, clay and much more.
  7. Translator’s note: the term quilombola refers to an individual resident of a quilombo.
  8. Translator’s note: Capoeira is an Afro-Brazilian practice that combines martial arts, dance and music, and is played in the center of a circle of people.
  9. Translator’s note: Mineirão is the name of one of the largest soccer stadiums in Brazil, located in the city of Belo Horizonte, state of Minas Gerais. The two main rival teams in that state are Atletico and Cruzeiro.
  10. Translator’s note: Samba and batuque are both musical and dance practices, and also originate in the Brazilian African diaspora. They are also practiced in a circle: the musicians in the center and the public interacting around them. Umbanda and the Candomblé are Afro-religious practices that follow the same circular logic at the organization of rituals.
  11. Translator’s note: Jucá is a local martial art with the use of handmade wooden clubs. As with Capoeira, this expression developed in the African diaspora and has some specific elements: it can be used as a defense against enemies but, more than a way of fighting, the Capoeira and Jucá are multifaceted practices involving music, dance, and local systems of learning (with masters and pupils) that happen in specific moments and have a public. In other words, they function as what Social Anthropology defines as rituals – specialized and separated, including a clientele, an apex, and produced social effects. Also, the circular form of the organization of space and practice in Jucá and Capoeira obeys a logic of horizontal participation, where the center and the border are connected not by a relation of power, but a relation of deference to knowledge and ancestry.
  12. Translator’s note: Palmares is the most famous quilombo in Brazil, and had a population of 20,000 when it was destroyed by the official forces at the end of the seventeenth century.
  13. Translator’s note: Palmares, Canudos, Caldeirões and Pau de Colher were alternative Afro-descendant communities created with social systems different from the hegemonic logic of the state and were harshly repressed by the military forces.
  14. Translator’s note: in the original text, chimarrão.
  15. Translator’s note: in the original text, cajuína.
  16. Translator’s note: Caatinga It is a Brazilian biome with semi-arid climate, low-leaf vegetation adapted to dry periods, and great biodiversity.