We cruise the clear waters of the Bay of All Saints towards Praia Grande on Ilha de Maré. This island in the state of Bahia, in northeastern Brazil, is home to a fishing community “quilombola”, or a rural settlement founded by descendants of slaves. Before arriving, we are greeted by two large chimneys spitting thick black smoke. Selma Jesús de Souza, a powerful 60-year-old woman, awaits us on the shore.
Selma respectfully greets the members of her community whom we pass during our walk. Rather than a leader, she describes herself as a “social advisor” to her community. She is also an educator and a master’s student at the Federal University of Bahia’s School of Nursing. She was the first quilombola woman to study there.
In Brazil, the term “quilombo” refers to rural communities in the hinterland whose members are descended from African slaves. The term is also associated with a centuries-old history of collective resistance to the oppressive legacy of slavery. The Brazilian state granted the quilombos their own legal status in 1988 in an effort to secure ownership of the lands on which these communities live, but progress has been slow and conflicts over land rights persist.
According to official data from a 2019 report by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR)people of African descent represent 56.8% of the approximately 213 million inhabitants of Brazil.
Selma shows us the site where her community makes sound-absorbing panels from wild cane fibre, which is also used to build walls. Initiated in 2009 with the support of the ASBL SOMMAR, this community action project brings social, environmental and quality of life improvements in its village and territory.
The idea for these ecological panels came from an academic study by Professor Célia Grahem of the Federal University of Maringá in the state of Paraná. While visiting Ilha Maré, Grahem realized the potential of using wild cane waste discarded by artisans on the island. The panels provide sound insulation and improve sound quality in theatres, auditoriums and restaurants. Improving room acoustics has a positive impact on the health of education professionals.
The moment we set foot on the island, the main economic activities of its inhabitants become immediately apparent – one is fishing and shellfishing; the other the production of wild cane baskets for a variety of uses. Fishermen’s livelihoods are however threatened by petrochemical companies in the port of Aratu, located to the east and 25 minutes by boat from Praia Grande.
Sitting on the sofa in the office under posters highlighting messages of resistance, Selma explains that social and community groups have faced neglect and violations of fundamental rights guaranteed by the Constitution in recent years, for example, to be able to live in dignified and just conditions. Selma and other quilombola women like her help create economic incentives and encourage new generations to keep their economy alive by taking care of the environment. Faced with adversity, they have a very important tool: creativity. Women are at the forefront of all activities that benefit the community.
This project of ecological panels is one example among many others. It was the women who organized the construction of the workshop where the panels are made. With limited space and few machines available, they produce 22 panels a day. This is far from their ideal target, but the best they can hope for without additional investment support.
We move through the thick vegetation and intense heat of the island, passing through several neighborhoods of Praia Grande. For many years, local schools have had vegetable gardens for self-consumption. Several groups of women are gathering in their neighborhoods to work towards a better future for the next generation. The ‘Yabás’ project currently under development will, for example, provide training and tools for the empowerment of citizens. The project – which takes its name from the Yoruba expression meaning “queen mother” – is aimed at children and adolescents in Ilha de Maré.
Selma also participates in projects with women, adolescents and children focused on community health and well-being. “Local women are responsible for leading and implementing all social activities,” Selma proudly says. Not too long ago, she started a handbag-making course to provide other women in the community with a way to earn extra income to supplement traditional work like shellfish harvesting, which requires effort and has long-term health consequences.
As a direct consequence of the pollution, explains Selma, certain fruits such as bananas and mangoes are no longer found in the territory. These fruits were once produced on the island and transported to the mainland to be sold in markets. As we walk along the dry seaside roads, Selma explains to us that the infertility of the soil is linked to the pollution generated by the port of Aratu and its chemical activities. Gas emissions accompanied by a very strong odor are also common.
Speaking on the phone, another leader of Ilha de Maré – who did not want to be identified because of the threats she received for her activism – explains that the number of people with cancer has increased in recent years and resulted in a series of deaths. She attributes the increase in cancer cases and deaths to the pollutant emissions from chemical and petrochemical companies in the Bay of All Saints.
Through their daily actions, these women weave a web of resilient resistance. It’s a bit like “the work of ants”, explains Selma, which involves a major effort to juggle the different initiatives.