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Brazil was the last country in the Americas to outlaw slavery, and it imported more slaves into the country than the U.S. did. About 4 million Africans were enslaved in Brazil. Some ran away from the brutal treatment and created hidden communities all over the country, known as Quilombos. Their descendants, Quilombolas, were granted land rights in 1988. But as NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro reports, very few have actually gotten those rights.

LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO, BYLINE: So we're driving down a bumpy, pitted road into the heart of the Mata Atlantica. This is a tropical, coastal forest, which is endangered here in Brazil. We're in an area in between Sao Paolo and Rio de Janeiro. And the very remoteness of the community that we're visiting, that's buried in the heart of this forested area, tells you a lot about the origins of the Quilombo themselves.

LAURA DE JESUS BRAGA: (Foreign language spoken)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: We are with Laura de Jesus Braga, a 57-year-old leader of the community here. As we're driving, she explains to me that the reason land rights are so important to the Quilombo communities is because of what their ancestors suffered. I think that if we recover the land, the culture, everything they like to do, that's the way to show them - wherever they are - that we are fine. They had nothing, but we are fine, she says.

(SOUNDBITE OF LEAVES RUSTLING)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The lush forest canopy arches over us as we come to a clearing by a wide, shallow river. A large, wooden water wheel - partially reconstructed after the original was stolen in the '80s - is what remains of a slave coffee and sugar plantation.

JOSE VIERA: (Foreign language spoken)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Jose Viera is in his late 70s. He sits next to the water wheel every day, and talks to the tourists who occasionally stop by to take a dip in the river. His daughter sells snacks and drinks. In the oral tradition of the Afro-Brazilian, we sit down, and he tells me the history of his community.

VIERA: (Foreign language spoken)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: In fact, it's like this, he says: When the Portuguese came to Brazil, there were Indians already here. Then they brought people in from Africa to work. They didn't bring them as human beings, but work tools. Those were my people. This here was a place for them to work. They were beaten so badly, some formed a group and ran away into the forest - the Quilombo, their refuge.

Once the slaves were freed, they no longer had to hide, he says, so they grouped together to live off the land - fishing, hunting, whatever they could to survive. They settled, he says, but they did not own the land. Brazil has some of the most unequal land distribution in the world. Forty percent of Brazil's rural area is owned by 1.4 percent of landholders. There are some 3,000 communities that recognize themselves as Quilombo, but only a few hundred had actual titles to the places they inhabit, despite the constitution granting them land rights.

ROSANA SCHWARTZ: (Foreign language spoken)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Rosana Schwartz is a historian and sociologist at Mackenzie University who specializes in the Quilombo.

SCHWARTZ: (Foreign language spoken)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: They have creative communities where they pass on their traditional oral culture, their African ancestry. They reframe their own culture, and this is very important to Brazil, she says. It's why the country is so culturally rich and varied today.

SCHWARTZ: (Foreign language spoken)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: She says because they were initially hidden communities, the areas they settled in were remote, and they were taken over by the state eventually, she says; parks, beaches, areas that the cities appropriated when they were expanding. And that's exactly what happened at Fazenda Picinguaba, where we are today. The Quilombo communities here now lie smack in the middle of a national park.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHILDREN PLAYING)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Laura de Jesus Braga says when the park was created in the 1970s, dozens of families lived here, but they were all kicked off the land. Her house was even demolished.

BRAGA: (Foreign language spoken)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: She says they said the land was now state-owned. It was theirs, and we couldn't stay here anymore. I was five months pregnant, and I had five small children. They put me onto the street. We lost our culture. the youth went away. the families went away because they couldn't plant, fish or build. so everything was taken from us, she says.

But some people resisted, like me, she says. I stood and resisted, because I knew my rights. I knew I had an origin, an identity, so I stood. I didn't go away, she says.

Despite repeated attempts, the park authorities refused to speak to NPR about the situation of the Quilombo here, citing ongoing legal issues. The Quilombolas who live here only got electricity in 2010. Before that, the state refused to allow them any connection to services, saying it was a national park.

Laura de Jesus Braga says after an agreement, the park has now allowed them to make money by working at the park's snack shack and collecting money from the tourists at the parking lot. She was also allowed to rebuild her home right near the beach. A few other families have moved back into the area. But when she dies, she won't be able to pass on the house she built with her own money to her children, because she's still technically considered a squatter. She says she wants her community to have its claim to this land legally acknowledged.

BRAGA: (Foreign language spoken)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: When they made the park, they saw the wonderful Mata Atlantica Forest, she says. It's really beautiful, a clean beach, but it was preserved by those who have lived here. I like it here, and the land strengthens me to fight, to win, to conquer, she says. Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, NPR News.

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