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For the first time in its 132-year history, the Brazilian census now underway includes a question counting members of the “quilombo” communities founded by runaway slaves.

On Ilha de Mare, an island with several quilombos off the coast of Salvador, in northeast Brazil, this chance to be counted is one step in a political transformation for which local organizers have long been fighting.

“Being part of the census is a strategy for us, a strategy for resistance and change,” says 52-year-old Marizelha Carlos Lopes, a local activist and fisherwoman on the island, where 93% of people identify as Black. “One of our objectives is to escape an intentional invisibility.”

18 Aug 2022. Salvador, Brazil. Reuters/Amanda Perobelli

Marizelha holds siris after taking the meat off them at Quilombo Bananeiras, Ilha de Mare.

Her friend Eliete Paraguassu, 42, is mounting another front in the strategy. She is the first woman from the island campaigning for a spot in the Bahia state legislature – one of a record number of Black candidates running for state and federal office in Brazil in this October’s elections.

Together, Brazil’s updated census and the rising number of Black candidates are part of a slow reckoning with centuries of slavery that ended only in 1888, making Brazil the last country in the world to abolish the practice.

18 Aug 2022. Salvador, Brazil. Reuters/Amanda Perobelli

Marizelha takes the meat off a siri at her mother’s house at Quilombo Bananeiras, Ilha de Mare.

Quilombos were formed over centuries by enslaved people who escaped forced labor to create isolated, self-subsistence communities in remote forests and mountain ranges or on islands like Ilha de Mare.

Quilombo residents now hope that a proper count of their numbers and more elected voices will open the door to improved social services and guarantees of rights for people and places long left off official maps.

17 Aug 2022. Salvador, Brazil. Reuters/Amanda Perobelli

Census taker Aissa Freitas, 22, interviews Elisabete Encarnacao da Silva (L), 55 at Quilombo Praia Grande, Ilha de Mare.

National quilombo association CONAQ has identified nearly 6,000 quilombo territories. CONAQ head Antonio Joao Mendes said government recognition of the communities gained steam under former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva two decades ago, when the communities won more formal land rights and support for cultural programs.

Lula’s presidential candidacy this year presents a stark contrast, Mendes said, with incumbent President Jair Bolsonaro, who has dismantled many of those programs and slowed the recognition of additional quilombos.

18 Aug 2022. Salvador, Brazil. Reuters/Amanda Perobelli

Uine Lopes, 26, shows a tattoo of his grandfather fishing on his left forearm at Quilombo Bananeiras, Ilha de Mare.

Bolsonaro was fined 50,000 reais ($10,000) in 2017 for insulting quilombo residents, saying that “they do nothing” and are “not even good for procreating.” An appeals court threw out the case because he was a federal lawmaker at the time.

On Ilha de Mare, quilombo residents have for generations survived on the hard work of artisanal fishermen and fisherwomen.

24 Aug 2022. Salvador, Brazil. Reuters/Amanda Perobelli

Men ride horses in the sea at Quilombo Bananeiras, Ilha de Mare.

Marizelha’s 26-year-old nephew, Uine Lopes, who wakes at 3 a.m. to fish in the crystalline waters surrounding his community of Bananeiras, has proudly memorialized their tradition with a tattoo on his left arm of his grandfather casting a net.

ISLAND OF CALM

With no bridges to the mainland about a kilometer away, residents on the car-free Ilha de Mare get around like their ancestors: on foot, horseback and small boats. Uine Lopes says it feels like an island of calm away from the bustle and violence of the big city.

23 Aug 2022. Salvador, Brazil. Reuters/Amanda Perobelli

Helio dos Santos (L), 30, and Uine Lopes pull a fishing net into a boat near Ilha de Mare.

In the afternoons, women gather to scrape meat from crabs and clams caught that day, while others weave traditional straw baskets. In the evenings, neighbors often gather for dance or gymnastics classes by the seashore.

Yet the fishing communities say their livelihoods are threatened by pollution from a nearby petrochemical port across the bay, where a boat carrying propane gas exploded in 2013.

24 Aug 2022. Salvador, Brazil. Reuters/Amanda Perobelli

Joselia Farias Pedro, 57, collects shellfish near Ilha de Mare.

An industry group responsible for cleaning up the spill said it was monitoring the bay to protect surrounding communities, but Marizelha Lopes recalls losing an entire season of fishing and tourism due to contamination.

“There are still no specific studies or public policies that will guarantee our safety,” her nephew said. “We have no escape route.”

The port authority did not respond to requests for comment.

22 Aug 2022. Salvador, Brazil. Reuters/Amanda Perobelli

Paraguassu arranges her hair at her house at Quilombo Porto dos Cavalos, Ilha de Mare.

Frustrated by a lack of answers to what she calls “environmental racism” against her island community, Eliete Paraguassu, who like Marizelha collects shellfish, is making the leap into politics.

In the run-up to the Oct. 2 vote, she has traveled to nearby cities to drum up support for her candidacy to the state legislature, with stickers declaring “My vote will be antiracist” and “Justice for Marielle.”

21 Aug 2022. Salvador, Brazil. Reuters/Amanda Perobelli

A sticker showing Brazil’s former President and current presidential candidate Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, and one reading “Who ordered the killing of Marielle?” are seen in Paraguassu’s living room at Quilombo Porto dos Cavalos, Ilha de Mare.

The latter is a reference to Marielle Franco, a Black city councilwoman in Rio de Janeiro who fought for racial justice and was shot dead in 2018, in what some have called a political assassination.

Her legacy has been a rallying cry for Black women like Paraguassu. Of the 513 lawmakers elected to the lower house of Congress in 2018, just under a quarter identified as Black – and only 12 of those were women.

21 Aug 2022. Santo Amaro, Brazil. Reuters/Amanda Perobelli

Paraguassu hands out campaign leaflets during an activity at Quilombo Acupe, Santo Amaro.

By contrast, 50.7% of Brazilians in the 2010 census identified in the two racial categories that the government statistics agency combines in its definition of “negro,” or Black.

Alternating his time between fishing on Ilha de Mare and studying rural education at university, Uine Lopes is one of a handful of students determined to bring the fruits of their research back to the island.

24 Aug 2022. Salvador, Brazil. Reuters/Amanda Perobelli

Joselia Farias Pedro searches for siris near Ilha da Mare.

“We need to be aware, to vote for as many Black people as possible who are committed to the fight, who have specific visions for Indigenous communities, quilombolas, fishermen, riverside residents and so many other communities that experience a lack of state support,” he says.

Marizelha did not attend school past fifth grade. But watching her nephew combine academic pursuits with service to the community has inspired her.

“I am increasingly convinced that universities are important,” she said. “But our resistance and fight are what equips and prepares us for the confrontation.”

(Reporting by Jimin Kang and Amanda Perobelli; Photo editing and layout by Eve Watling; Text editing by Brad Haynes and Rosalba O’Brien)

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Slideshow

Helio dos Santos rows a boat as he prepares to fish in Ilha de Mare.

People walk towards boats at Quilombo Bananeiras in Ilha de Mare.23 Aug 2022. Salvador, Brazil. Reuters/Amanda Perobelli

People walk towards boats at Quilombo Bananeiras in Ilha de Mare.

General view of the Praia Grande, Ilha de Mare.17 Aug 2022. Salvador, Brazil. Reuters/Amanda Perobelli

General view of the Praia Grande, Ilha de Mare.

Marizelha poses for a photo at Quilombo Bananeiras, Ilha de Mare.22 Aug 2022. Salvador, Brazil. Reuters/Amanda Perobelli

Marizelha poses for a photo at Quilombo Bananeiras, Ilha de Mare.

Shellfish gatherer Noemia Farias Pedro, 48, washes recently collected shellfish near Ilha da Mare.24 Aug 2022. Salvador, Brazil. Reuters/Amanda Perobelli

Shellfish gatherer Noemia Farias Pedro, 48, washes recently collected shellfish near Ilha da Mare.

Joselia Farias Pedro holds a siri after catching it near Ilha da Mare.24 Aug 2022. Salvador, Brazil. Reuters/Amanda Perobelli

Joselia Farias Pedro holds a siri after catching it near Ilha da Mare.

Fish lay in a boat at Quilombo Bananeiras, in Ilha de Mare.23 Aug 2022. Salvador, Brazil. Reuters/Amanda Perobelli

Fish lay in a boat at Quilombo Bananeiras, in Ilha de Mare.

Noemia Farias Pedro carries a bucket of shellfish she collected back to Quilombo Maracana in Ilha da Mare.24 Aug 2022. Salvador, Brazil. Reuters/Amanda Perobelli

Noemia Farias Pedro carries a bucket of shellfish she collected back to Quilombo Maracana in Ilha da Mare.

Maria da Conceicao (C), 62, makes handcrafted baskets while Freitas interviews her at Quilombo Praia Grande, Ilha de Mare.17 Aug 2022. Salvador, Brazil. Reuters/Amanda Perobelli

Maria da Conceicao (C), 62, makes handcrafted baskets while Freitas interviews her at Quilombo Praia Grande, Ilha de Mare.

Children rehearse for a popular cultural demonstration that recalls the struggle for freedom and the end of slavery, held by Quilombo Acupe's fishermen at the Nego Fugido House.21 Aug 2022. Santo Amaro, Brazil. Reuters/Amanda Perobelli

Children rehearse for a popular cultural demonstration that recalls the struggle for freedom and the end of slavery, held by Quilombo Acupe’s fishermen at the Nego Fugido House.

Ionice dos Santos, 65, dances at the Nego Fugido House at Quilombo Acupe.21 Aug 2022. Santo Amaro, Brazil. Reuters/Amanda Perobelli

Ionice dos Santos, 65, dances at the Nego Fugido House at Quilombo Acupe.

Paraguassu laughs as she talks to a friend on a bus on their way back home after a campaign activity.21 Aug 2022. Santo Amaro, Brazil. Reuters/Amanda Perobelli

Paraguassu laughs as she talks to a friend on a bus on their way back home after a campaign activity.

Marizelha, her sister and others take part in an activity after a gym class at Quilombo Bananeiras.22 Aug 2022. Salvador, Brazil. Reuters/Amanda Perobelli

Marizelha, her sister and others take part in an activity after a gym class at Quilombo Bananeiras.

Patricia Santos, 35, poses for a picture as she heads to a campaign activity for her friend Eliete Paraguassu in Bahia.21 Aug 2022. Salvador, Brazil. Reuters/Amanda Perobelli

Patricia Santos, 35, poses for a picture as she heads to a campaign activity for her friend Eliete Paraguassu in Bahia.

Paraguassu and her friends stand as they wait for the rain to stop in front of a bar before a campaign activity at Quilombo Porto dos Cavalo, Ilha de Mare.21 Aug 2022. Salvador, Brazil. Reuters/Amanda Perobelli

Paraguassu and her friends stand as they wait for the rain to stop in front of a bar before a campaign activity at Quilombo Porto dos Cavalo, Ilha de Mare.

Marizelha laughs as she talks to a friend (not pictured) at Quilombo Bananeiras, Ilha de Mare.18 Aug 2022. Salvador, Brazil. Reuters/Amanda Perobelli

Marizelha laughs as she talks to a friend (not pictured) at Quilombo Bananeiras, Ilha de Mare.

Vilma do Nascimento Menezes Lopes, 70, carries jambo fruit after harvesting them from the tree at her backyard at Quilombo Bananeiras, Ilha de Mare.18 Aug 2022. Salvador, Brazil. Reuters/Amanda Perobelli

Vilma do Nascimento Menezes Lopes, 70, carries jambo fruit after harvesting them from the tree at her backyard at Quilombo Bananeiras, Ilha de Mare.

Paraguassu hangs clothes in her backyard at Quilombo Porto dos Cavalos, Ilha de Mare.22 Aug 2022. Salvador, Brazil. Reuters/Amanda Perobelli

Paraguassu hangs clothes in her backyard at Quilombo Porto dos Cavalos, Ilha de Mare.

Freitas walks on a pier with her son, Luiz Miguel, 2, at Quilombo Praia Grande, Ilha de Mare.17 Aug 2022. Salvador, Brazil. Reuters/Amanda Perobelli

Freitas walks on a pier with her son, Luiz Miguel, 2, at Quilombo Praia Grande, Ilha de Mare.

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