Ex-slaves and indigenous peoples in Brazil band together to earn rights to their land and help protect it.

In Brazil thousands of maroon communities are emerging from the shadows, reaffirming their mixed culture and pressing for legal title to the land they have occupied since the era of slavery. The stakes are high: New laws are giving Brazil’s maroon communities, called quilombos (the word for “settlement” in the Angolan language of Kimbundu), a key role in determining the future of the great Amazon forest.

“These people are the reason the forest still exists,” says Leslye Ursini, an anthropologist at the Brazilian land-management agency INCRA. “Now they are being attacked by both environmentalists and bauxite miners.” Given that many quilombo inhabitants helped to generate the very Amazonian landscapes conservationists seek to preserve, pushing them off their territory will only worsen the plight of the forest, says Ursini. This view is expressed over and over by policymakers and quilombo residents across Brazil.

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