Quilombo Land Rights, Brazilian Constitutionalism, and Racial Capitalism

By: Karen Engle and Lucas Lixinski


PDF: Quilombo Land Rights


The 1988 Brazilian Constitution, the first in a wave of new democratic and multicultural constitutions in Latin America, contains a transitory provision guaranteeing collective land rights to quilombo communities. These communities are composed of quilombolas, primarily descendants of formerly enslaved Africans, many of whom had escaped slavery. A 2003 executive decree to implement the land title provision became the subject of a constitutional challenge lasting over fifteen years. When the Brazilian constitutional court eventually upheld the decree in 2018, it relied heavily on the work of US political theorist Nancy Fraser to justify quilombo land title as both recognition and redistribution. Although in many ways progressive, the court’s decision offers a vision that is less transformative than its reliance on Fraser might imply. Using theories of racial capitalism and drawing from the thought and activism of quilombolas and other Afro-Brazilians, particularly since the mid-1980s, this Article argues for a richer understanding of three concepts that circulate through the court’s decision: resistance, expropriation, and heritage.