CESE promotes debate on tackling racism and strengthening agri-food systems in the Cerrado

An arena for collective identification: through the pathways of the struggles, in survival strategies or in the search for dignity and recognition.  This was the atmosphere that marked the “Seminar: Racism and Agri-food Systems in the Cerrado,” run by the Ecumenical Coordination of Service (Coordenadoria Ecumênica de Serviço: CESE), in partnership with the Ibirapitanga Institute, on the mornings of 29 and 30 March.

The seminar is the first stage of the project “Strengthening Cerrado organizations to tackle racism”, whose main focus is tackling structural racism by strengthening sustainable food systems in quilombola and traditional communities in the Cerrado.  The schedule includes joint activities with grassroots movements and will run until October.

The seminar promoted an arena for knowledge exchange and the sharing of experiences, uniting action to tackle racism and construct agri-food systems in the Cerrado. Every day a specific theme was chosen to guide discussions.  On 29 March, the debate revolved around one issue: “How is racism expressed in the Cerrado?”

Maryellen Crisóstomo, advisor to the State Coordination of Quilombola Communities of Tocantins (Coordenação Estadual das Comunidades Quilombolas do Tocantins: COEQTO) and the National Commission for the Coordination of Black Rural Quilombola Communities (Coordenação Nacional de Articulação de Quilombos: CONAQ), was invited to talk about “Racism and territorial conflicts in the Cerrado”.  Fran Paula, another invitee, talked about “Ethnic-racial and gender inequalities in Food Production in the Cerrado.”  Fran is a member of the Ancestry Working Group of the Brazilian Association of Agroecology (Associação Brasileira de Agroecologia: ABA) and the Women’s Working Group of the National Agroecology Coalition (Articulação Nacional de Agroecologia: ANA).

Using various examples, Maryellen drew attention to a theme very dear to the populations of the Cerrado: clashes with the public authorities.  She described how a landowner bought all the land surrounding the quilombo in which she lives and blocked access to the territory.  Her mother was asked, inside a judicial body, whether she was sure she wanted to open a case against “Doctor So-and-so”.

“The civil servant even added: ‘because lawsuits by the poor against the rich, madam knows, right?’ The State is not prepared to deal with lawsuits brought by black people, particularly in relation to land conflicts.  State bodies have this structural racism which reinforces most of the violations that we suffer in the countryside,” Maryellen explained.

In another example, Maryellen cited the efforts of the Tocantins State Government to prevent the regulation of quilombola territories.  “We have 38 quilombola territories in our state.  Not one of them is certified.  Because the state government does not recognize the federal legislation for territorial demarcation and, out of nowhere, decided that a state law is required for this.  But for this law to be endorsed, the state’s land institute needs to undertake an impact study – it’s been going on for 5 years.”

She explained that of all the states that form the MATOPIBA region – a large area made up of the state of Tocantins and parts of the states of Maranhão, Piauí and Bahia, where there was significant agricultural expansion in the second half of the 1980s – Tocantins is the only one whose potential expansion affects all the municipalities.  “Some quilombola territories have been waiting for demarcation since 2003.  Since 2016, not one land entitlement process has been opened by the National Institute of Colonization and Agrarian Reform (Instituto Nacional de Colonização e Reforma Agrária: INCRA).  But our governor is talking about land regulation.  In other words: they want to bypass our territories, because their priority is to promote agricultural expansion.”

Fran Paula put the concept of landracism at the centre of the debate. “Brazil has one of the greatest concentrations of land in the world, and this concentration is in the hands of people of a specific gender and race.” According to the 2017 Agricultural Census, published by the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics (Instituto Brasileiro de Geografia e Estatística: IBGE), only 7.8% Brazilian producers self-identify as black men or women, while 47.9% are white men.

She presented alarming data from the Centre-West: the average area covered by rural establishments in the region is 322 hectares, five times more than the national average.  Inequality is even worse when we look at the percentage of rural establishments run by women: less than 10% of the total – and covering areas smaller than 36 hectares.

Staying with the concept of land racism, Fran presented historical examples of episodes in which the Brazilian State itself has promoted the irregular occupation of traditional people’s territories.  “The ‘March to the West’ was a huge incentive to occupy ‘empty’ lands in the Brazilian Centre-West, which reflects the invisible existence of traditional peoples within these territories.  One poster said “New capital of Goiás.  Get four times richer buying plots in the new capital.  Sales guaranteed by the State.”

Fran also talked about how food production has become an anti-racist strategy and one that helps quilombola families remain in their territories. “Women report that, with food production taking place in the quilombola territories in the Baixada Cuiabana region, during a period of fierce conflicts, families did not need to move or leave the quilombo.  This protected their lives and guaranteed food sovereignty.”


Strengthening the bonds between the agroecology and anti-racist struggles within the Cerrado was the guiding agenda for the debates on 29 March, the second day of dialogue.  Here, the invitees were Leosmar Terena from the Collective of Indigenous Environmental Action for Nature, Agroecology and Sustainability (Coletivo Ambientalista Indígena de Ação para a Natureza, Agroecologia e Sustentabilidade: CAIANAS) and Emília Costa, member of the Quilombola Movement of Maranhão (Movimento Quilombola do Maranhão: MOQUIBOM) and the National Quilombo Coalition (Articulação Nacional de Quilombos: ANQ).

Both presented reports about their people’s experiences of resistance in their territories.  Leosmar talked about the relationship of respect the Terena people have with their ancestors, particularly in relation to their memories and teaching.  He said that, from the 1960s onwards, the State has made a number of attacks on his people and territories, in various ways – in health, in education, in modes of cultivation – seeking to convert their traditions and ways of life into others, aligned with the interests of agribusiness.

“We at CAIANAS are attempting to deconstruct many ideologies that have been rooted in our people.  We are seeking inclusion in schools for children so that from their early years they can have experience with land, understand its value and how their own food is produced.  At certain times, we have faced resistance from parents who have been captivated by this vision that the ‘farm is backward’, but the initiative has gained more adherents,” Leosmar reported.

He also talked about an idea that the organization intends to implement in the Terena territory: the Kayanas Training Centre. “The idea for this space is to put in place a system of traditional Terena education.  To talk about values, principles, cosmology, to teach agriculture, traditional medicine, spirituality, to produce ceramics, weaving, storytelling.  All with a focus on our people’s traditions,” he explained.

Emília talked about the importance of maintaining cultural traditions and her people’s forms of agriculture as a strategy of resistance to agribusiness.  “We plant according to the phases of the moon. We are not concerned about quantity.  We eat and sell what nature provides at different times of the year, and we combat narratives that what happens on the farm is backward.  We also produce healthy products.”

She challenged the audience saying: “Food is not only a product to sell, we have to feed ourselves.  If I have chickens, eggs, will I sell these, and when it’s time to eat, will I buy them from the chicken farm? Instead of eating my own cooked manioc, will I buy biscuits?” she said, moving the conversation on to children’s education.

“State education deconstructs our identity.  We have to dialogue with an education that strengthens us in our territories.  We have to take children fishing, to the farm and teach mathematics, geography, without losing this essence, this connection to the territory.  I don’t want to live in an ‘urban quilombo’. I want to live in a territory that has a relationship with my identity,” she asserted.


Over the two days, all the participants were encouraged to reflect together on six issues: “Is the anti-racist struggle present in the history of your people’s struggle?”; “Where are black people in the Cerrado?”; “How does racism structure territorial occupation in the Cerrado?”; “Where are indigenous and black women in food production in the Cerrado?”; “How have black and indigenous people fought and resisted in the Cerrado over time?”; and “What initiatives are currently underway that work on ethnic-racial issues linked to the theme of agri-food systems in the Cerrado?”

The participants were divided into groups and exchanged reports that had been previously shared with them. These narratives covered a range of aspects from their actual contexts, such as the protagonism of women in organizations, experiences and struggles in opposition to attempts to erase their action; large estates; threats to peoples; the non-implementation of public policies; agrarian reform; resistance; the poisoning of territories by large soya monoculture, and similar.

Some discussions highlighted the sense of identification between the participants, either in their struggles, or in their more general experiences.  Words such as those of Odete Ferronato, who said that in the Cerrado, “Cattle are more important than people”; or those of Neiriel Pires who was moved when she saw that discourse from Tocantins echoes with the same intensity in Bahia or Piauí; or those of Rosalva Gomes, who said that no structural change happens outside the collective; or the words of Marinalda Rodrigues, who praised the diversity of black women: “we are quilombolas, indigenous, coconut breakers and we are strong.”

The event was attended by a number of black women and representatives from traditional communities, quilombolas, riverside dwellers and those from pastoral communities in Bahia, Maranhão, Mato Grosso, Mato Grosso do Sul, Piauí and Tocantins, as well as members of grassroots movements and organizations, for example the Movement of Rural Women (Movimento de Mulheres Camponesas: MMC); Interstate Movement for Babassu Coconut Breakers (Movimento Interestadual das Quebradeiras de Coco Babaçu: MIQCB); Movement of People Affected by Dams(Movimento dos Atingidos por Barragens: MAB); Quilombola Movement of Maranhão (Movimento Quilombola do Maranhão: MOQUIBOM); Collective of Black Women from Cáceres in Mato Grosso do Sul, among others.


The debates that took place in the “Seminar: Racism and Agri-food Systems in the Cerrado,” were mediated by Rosana Fernandes and Olga Matos, both members of CESE’s Projects Advisory and Training Sector.

Rosana noted that this initial activity created a powerful and enriching space.  “The dialogue and contributions from everyone involved demonstrated how lively the struggle is for the defence of territories and of ancestral/traditional knowledge, with the involvement and force of women and the importance of young people and of agro-ecological production.  To confront racism and agribusiness is to guarantee the lives of the peoples and communities of the Cerrado!”

For her part, Olga pointed out that reflecting on the connection between racism and food systems in the Cerrado was shown to be an innovative proposal, which was very well received by the participating groups. “We witnessed the resistance of indigenous peoples and traditional communities in the defence of their territories, of biodiversity, of the waters of the Cerrado, in the face of voracious agri- and water-business, monoculture and mining.  We saw the force and protagonism of women facing up to capital, to patriarchy and to racism.  A struggle that is fought on a daily basis, with their feet fixed in the territory and fed by the strength of ancestry”.

The project “Strengthening Cerrado organizations to tackle racism” will run joint activities with these grassroots organizations until October.  These include two workshops to be held in April and June. Over this period, the project will also provide financial support for institutional strengthening projects from these organizations or for agri-food systems.