Letter from the Ecumenical Mission: With drums, bells and maracas, in defence of rights

Letter from our Ecumenical Mission

… they shall turn their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into sickles (c.f. Isaiah 2:4)

 “Transforming the evil of the bullet into grace.” (Anacleta Pires – quilombola leader)

From 4 to 6 September 2023, with drums, bells and maracas, missionaries from various ecumenical organizations, churches and human rights movements were welcomed at the Caixeiras do Divino in São Luís, the capital of Maranhão, to hold the 5th Ecumenical Mission in defence of rights. 

Inspired by Solomon 103:6, which says “The Lord works righteousness and justice for all who are oppressed,” the mission was committed to active listening to the voices, expressed in songs and poems, that denounced the countless rights violations that occur in the territories of quilombola communities, indigenous peoples, people from African-origin religions, babassu coconut breakers, fishermen and women, black women, rural workers and against LGBTQIAPN+ communities.

Beyond the reports, each voice that echoed demonstrated the strength, resilience and vitality of these populations in asserting that “this land has owners and they are these: the indigenous and the descendants of African people”.  The sound of the drums and maracas echoed the spirituality that unites and creates the resistance of those who fight for their right to territory, education and respect for ancestral traditions.  Every child, young person, woman, man or older person who resists economic expansion projects tears down the veil that makes invisible or erases the impacts and violence caused by the colonialist project that forged Brazil as a nation, at the cost of indigenous and African blood.

In the Santa Rosa dos Pretos Quilombo, founded by seven female African ancestral leaders, kidnapped from their lands 347 years ago, we heard “I’m a daughter of Mother African and I grew up in a quilombo.  They kidnapped me from Africa to live through persecution.” The community has lived off rice and fishing for more than three centuries.  The spirit of collectivity, taught by their ancestors, has been fundamental to keeping the quilombo alive.  Today, in 2023, the community is fighting to keep its culture and history alive, because of four destructive forces and projects.

The first is the duplication of the BR 135 highway, whose function is to transport the soya produced by a monoculture plantation, a destroyer of biomes.  The second is the Carajás railway, built to transport the iron taken from the soil by the Vale do Rio Doce mining company.  The construction of this railway killed off the Igarapé Simauma stream, where they used to fish.  The third force is land-grabbing, where invaders declare a property that has never belonged to them as private.  The fourth destructive force is the Itapecuru Mirim – Vargem Grande transmission line, which wiped out the rice crops they shared as part of their collective diet.

The elders talk of a time of plenty, while today the developmentalist projects impact on and compromise the community’s sustainability.  The strong spirit of collectivity and partnership resists by preserving the civilizational values inherited from the peoples of Guinea Bissau.

In the Fanti-Ashanti House, we were received with great generosity and a lot of drumming by Mother Kabeca de Xangô. There we held our “Ubuntu – Embracing the Worship House”.  We heard stories of persecution and how religious racism affects the health of the elders and of the religious leaders of Maranhão’s worship houses.  As Christian leaders in mission, we are committed to the right to expression and to the religious freedoms of the people from African-origin worship houses.

To the song “a black embrace, a black smile, brings happiness,” we embraced all the people at the worship house with the affirmation that anti-racism in Brazil must be a pillar of inter-religious dialogue.

The Public Hearing, held on 5 September, added to these traditional peoples and communities by mobilizing support for their rights with the local public authorities, who should respond to the groups’ main demands.  Community representatives were all present. They demanded answers from the authorities regarding religious racism, the non-demarcation of quilombos, the lack of women’s policies, and the failure to hold free, prior and informed consultations, as laid down in Convention 169 of the ILO.  The significant political influence of state parliamentarians encouraging fundamentalist and anti-rights practices against the traditional peoples of African-origin worship houses was also denounced.  Unfortunately, the second part of the hearing, which representatives from the State Government and the justice system were expected to attend, could not be held, due to the absence of most of the representatives, who had been invited well in advance.

When the people spoke from the floor, reports sounded out about the State’s deliberate lack of commitment, particularly in implementing anti-racist policies that recognize various spiritualties and demarcate indigenous and quilombola territories.

We closed this ecumenical mission to the sound of drums, bells and maracas, in the certainty that organized people have already transformed the evil of the bullet by demonstrating that projects for good living are real and possible. At the same time, we went back to our homes with the feeling that the swords haven’t yet been turned into ploughshares, since the destructive forces continue to act in coordination and to benefit from privileges. That is why, as we say farewell to Maranhão, we are keeping this Ecumenical Mission alive and active, since we are committed to making the voices from every quilombo, indigenous territory and sacred worship house sound out in the political arenas in which we mobilize support.

With drums, bells and maracas, in defence of rights – For an anti-racist Brazil!

Sao Luís, 05 September 2023