Fugitive Autonomy and Stewardship of Land
Settlements formed by enslaved Africans who escaped from plantations


The slave trade devastated the lives of at least twelve million people forcibly taken from Africa to work on plantations in the Americas, from the 16th to the 19th century. An estimated 40% of enslaved African people were sent to Brazil until the country abolished slavery in 1888. Many enslaved people came from Angola, their labour forming the economic backbone of Brazil.1Jose Joao Reis and Flavio dos Santos Gomes, ‘Quilombo: Brazilian Maroons during Slavery | Cultural Survival’, Cultural Survival, 2010 <https://www.culturalsurvival.org/publications/cultural-survival-quarterly/quilombo-brazilian-maroons-during-slavery> [accessed 19 December 2022]. As many as twelve enslaved Africans arrived in Brazil for every one in North America, to work in gold mines and on sugar plantations. This was brutal work which is estimated to have killed between 30% and 50% of enslaved people within five years.2Charles C. Mann and Susanna Hecht, ‘Where Slaves Ruled’, National Geographic, April 2012 <https://www.nationalgeographic.com/magazine/article/maroon-people> [accessed 19 December 2022]. Many enslaved Africans escaped plantation and mining operations and fled to the Brazilian jungle, some joining Indigenous peoples, and forming hybrid settlements known as Quilombos or Mocambos.


These fugitive communities endured for decades, in some cases centuries, protected by Brazil’s dense forests and large rivers. Quilombo (meaning “settlement” in the Angolan language of Kimbundu) encapsulates a way of living that challenges Eurocentric models of social cohesion and order by acknowledging the importance of memory, embodied experience, and collectivity. People in these territories came together over a struggle against oppression, and their groups sometimes included Indigenous Brazilian peoples who lost their territories to colonial land grabs for mining and plantations. The practice of Quilombo not only resisted slavery, it also practiced careful stewardship of the rainforest. This practice redefined territory as a place of care and conviviality rather than fixed, private property.3Abdias Do Nascimento, “Quilombismo: An Afro-Brazilian Political Alternative.Journal of Black Studies Vol. 11, no. No. 2 (1980), pp. 141-78; “Quilombo: Brazilian Maroons during Slavery | Cultural Survival.” [accessed 19 December 2022].

Perhaps the best known example of Quilombo is Quilombo dos Palmares, which was founded in the mid 17th century and covered 10,000 square miles in Brazil’s north-eastern coastal mountains.4Paula Ramón, ‘Their Identity Was Forged through Resistance: Inside the Lives of Brazil’s Quilombos’, National Geographic, 14 March 2022 <https://www.nationalgeographic.com/history/article/their-identity-was-forged-through-resistance-inside-the-lives-of-brazils-quilombos> [accessed 19 December 2022]. It was initiated by Aqualtune, the daughter of the King of the Congo. Like many other Quilombo communities, Quilombo dos Palmares was formed and governed by women and included more than 20,000 people, making it the largest anti-colonial settlement in Latin America.5Juliana Streva, ‘Quilombo, Concepts and Repertoires of Living Together’, RePLITO, 2021 <https://replito.pubpub.org/pub/knowledge-archive-quilombo/release/1> [accessed 3 July 2023]. Although the site was destroyed by Portuguese forces in 1694 and is currently a memorial park, more than 5,000 Quilombo settlements have survived and still exist in Brazil.

In recent years, Quilombos have become recognised as cultural and political entities in Brazil, and some communities (Quilombo dos Palmares, Campina Grande, Quilombo do Jambu) have received formal recognition and support from the government. The Brazilian Constitution recognises the rights of Quilombo communities and their ancestral territories as territories of collective property. This constitutional development has helped secure Quilombo lands and cultural heritage. However, many Quilombos still face challenges, such as land disputes with non-Indigenous communities, environmental degradation, and limited access to basic services such as healthcare and education. Quilombos’ connected forms of woman-led leadership, land stewardship, autonomous organisation, and self-reliance have enabled them to resist external threats, protect their lands and resources, and become adaptive to changing conditions. In addition, Quilombo practices of sustainable land use have helped protect biodiversity and preserve ecosystems in Brazil, forming a critical contribution to climate breakdown. As the Black Brazilian historian Beatriz Nascimiento summarises, Quilombo constitutes “a complex politics of and for life”.6Christen Smith, Archie Davies, and Bethânia Gomes, “‘In Front of the World’: Translating Beatriz Nascimento”, Antipode, 53.1 (2021), pp. 279-316 <https://doi.org/10.1111/anti.12690> Nascimiento’s description points towards the important work that Quilombos have done in living within, against, and beyond imposed conditions of exploitation. Today, looking at Quilombos past and present, we can learn important lessons about the connection between colonial practices and climate breakdown, and how forms of care for community and land can confront and counteract the hostile environments that have been imposed upon them. When less than 5% of the world’s population comprises Indigenous people, and yet these people care for about 80% of the planet’s biodiversity,7Gleb Raygorodetsky, ‘Indigenous Peoples Defend Earth’s Biodiversity—but They’re in Danger’, National Geographic, 16 November 2018 <https://www.nationalgeographic.com/environment/article/can-indigenous-land-stewardship-protect-biodiversity-> [accessed 3 July 2023]. learning from practices of land stewardship and autonomous organisation as exemplified by Quilombo and Quilombo-Indigenous coalitions is paramount.


External links

Unified black movement—a Brazilian social and political organisation that advocates for the rights and empowerment of the Black population, aiming to combat racism and promote social equality 

Maroon communities called Palenques in Panama—similar to Quilombos, created by escaped slaves called Cimarrones 

Saamaka Maroons—located in rainforest in Suriname and French Guyana 

Maroon communities in Angola—rebelled against the forced transfer of enslaved individuals to Brazil 

Maroon communities in North Americaincluding the Great Dismal Swamp and the Bas du Fleuve region of Louisiana