The territory of the Barra da Aroeira Quilombola Community is located in the municipalities of Santa Tereza, Lagoa do Tocantins and Novo Acordo, approximately 100 km from Palmas, capital of the state of Tocantins. The community is made up of 120 families, some of whom are large, each with their own plots, where they grow rice, corn, manioc, beans, pumpkins, vegetables, fruit, raise chickens and pigs, and also extract souari, buriti, bacaba, baru, golden grass, and a great diversity of other products. Among the quilombolas of the community we find midwives, faith healers, herbal healers, buriti guitar players, and residents who celebrate the Kings’ (Reis) and the Holy Spirit’s (Divino) festivals every year, keeping their culture alive. But they live in a region where agribusiness is expanding rapidly and aggressively, and the community has been the target of all sorts of violence.

Dona Isabel harvesting golden grass in the quilombola territory.
Dona Isabel harvesting golden grass in the quilombola territory. Credit: APA-TO.

The community preserves its history. Isabel Rodrigues, a leader in the Barra da Aroeira community, tells the story of the community’s patriarch, Félix Rodrigues, who fought in the Paraguay War (1860s) and received this land as payment:

I don’t know how many years he was there, I only know that he helped to win the war… then Emperor Pedro sent for him to see what he wanted in exchange for his service… he said that he only wanted a piece of land for him and his family to live on, to live quietly, with no big farmer having the right to take his land. So Pedro II told him to come and choose a place in Alto Goiás, and he chose this piece of land, twelve leagues square, with water limits that would never run out. The first deed that old man Félix brought with him was burned in a house fire, then Manoel Maroto and old Jacó went out and fetched another deed. This deed was the one that Dr. Hermano took away there in Porto and then it disappeared [at the time he was the Notary Public in Porto Nacional].[1]

Isabel Rodrigues.
Isabel Rodrigues. Credit: APA-TO.
Ever since, the community has been fighting to defend its territory. In 2006 it received the official self-definition certificate as a “quilombo remnant community” from the federal Palmares Cultural Foundation, and the regularization process of its territory was initiated in the National Institute for Colonization and Agrarian Reform (Incra) of Tocantins. The first stage of the process of territorial regularization, the anthropological report, was concluded in 2008, and in 2011 the Technical Report of Identification and Delimitation (RTID) was concluded and published.
A leader of the Barra da Aroeira community.
A leader of the Barra da Aroeira community. Credit: APA-TO.

APA-TO, COEQTO, AJAQUITEBE and Associações. Caderno Saberes e Fazeres Quilombolas: Planos de Gestão Territorial. 2020.

The RTID identifies a territory of approximately 62 thousand hectares, with about 280 rural private property registries overlapping on the traditional land. It is no coincidence that the regularization process was and continues to be contested by a group of large landowners, among them powerful politicians in the state of Tocantins. In 2015, after four years of analysis of the challenges, Incra’s Tocantins regional secretariat (SR26, CDR), after considering analyses by its own technical department and Regional Attorney’s Office, unanimously rejected the outsiders’ challenges.

However, alleging that the regularization of the territory would cause serious economic, social, and political hardships for the region and for the entire state of Tocantins, Incra Tocantins referred the case for further analysis by Incra headquarters in Brasília, where it was shelved. It is obvious that the state land agency gave in to political pressure from the invading ranchers. The Federal Prosecutor’s Office in Tocantins took the matter to court and on July 15, 2019, the Federal Regional Court published its ruling which ordered Incra to conclude the regularization of the quilombola territory.[2] That demarcation procedure remains paralyzed in the land agency to this day.

Among the invading ranchers is the former deputy mayor of Novo Acordo, Leto Moura Leitão (PR Party) – also accused of ordering the murder of the town’s mayor, Elson Lino Aguiar (MDB Party) – who holds 1,900 hectares registered in his name or with partners inside the quilombola territory. Another invading rancher is Antônio Jorge Godinho, state president of the PSL Party in Tocantins. According to his declaration of assets filed at the Electoral Court[3], he owns the Terra Preta and São Carlos farms, in the Caracol subdivision, in Santa Tereza do Tocantins, totaling more than 1,900 hectares inside the quilombola territory.[4]

During the 15 years that regularization proceedings for the Barra da Aroeira quilombola community’s territory have been dragging on at Incra, the territory’s invaders have been moving fast. According to a survey by the MapBiomas platform, satellites from the National Institute for Space Research (Inpe) identified, from January to December 2019, the deforestation of just over 602 hectares in their territory, making Barra da Aroeira the most deforested quilombola territory in Brazil that year.[5]

Agribusiness is surrounding and invading this quilombola territory. Deforestation is intense, especially in the northern part of the territory. Fire has also been used as a weapon against the quilombola residents, as Maria de Fátima Rodrigues, president of the community association, described the situation in 2020: “Last year we built a shed to bring the community together, to have discussions and organize our activities together. But it caught fire and burned everything inside. Nobody was arrested, and to this day we don’t know who set the fire.”[6]


Federal Public Prosecutor’s Office (MPF). Justiça determina demarcação das terras do Quilombo Barra de Aroeira, no Tocantins.

Antonio Jorge, 177 PSL. Estadão Política, 2018.

Caio de Freitas Paes. Quilombo mais desmatado em 2019 disputa território com políticos do PSL e do PR. De Olho nos Ruralistas, June 11, 2020.

 Paes, 2020.

 Paes, 2020.

Deforestation by invaders inside the quilombola territory.
Deforestation by invaders inside the quilombola territory. Credit: APA-TO.
Deforestation by invaders inside the quilombola territory.
Deforestation by invaders inside the quilombola territory. Credit: APA-TO.

Currently, the community continues to hold the core area – where most families live – and a few other isolated locations inside the territory – such as Baixa Boa, Felicíssimo, and others – all of which are subject to intense conflict with invaders. The community has a Real Right of Use Title, over an area of 1,000 hectares near the core site.

Preparing piassava leaves to make the roof of the community's "Straw Hat" center.
Preparing piassava leaves to make the roof of the community's "Straw Hat" center. Credit: APA-TO.
The "Straw Hat" community center.
The "Straw Hat" community center. Credit: APA-TO.
Yet the families’ do not feel safe anywhere in the territory. Maria de Fátima tells us that:
Maria de Fátima Rodrigues.
Maria de Fátima Rodrigues. Credit: APA-TO.

They keep invading all the time, more and more. We stay inside these 1,000 hectares. We have a 20-year use certificate, but it’s almost expired. It was issued in 2006, and we want the definitive deed… Today I can say that I am very worried, they are clearing an area near the Aroeira headwaters, which is the stream that we always use, where we go to pick baru nuts, mangaba fruit, and they destroyed all those trees that we always used for food, and today we just don’t have them anymore. They are going to start planting and we know that they use a lot of poison; we don’t want that to happen. Another big problem we face is the lack of clean water. We used to use river water, today we can’t use it, it’s polluted. The fish are gone, and the tendency is for us to lose more, like we have beekeepers here in the community and probably in about six months or a year there won’t be any more, because with this poison so close, the bees could be gone too.[7]

And Isabel goes on:

This deforestation of the Cerrado, inside our territory, has had a lot of impacts on the community. The first step was the fruit we used for food, for income generation, everything has disappeared, the souari, the mangaba, the puçá, and several others. With the trees cut down, everything is destroyed. After the deforestation, all the filth left over goes into the streams. The streams only bring pollution. It came to a point where people got sick because of the clear cutting, besides destroying more than 10,000 souari trees, which was all we had and that at harvest time meant that we’d generate income. And then comes the water polluted with poisons they spray on the soybeans, all that stuff, and it all gets into the water with huge impacts on us who live next to the fields that were cut down. We have no more fruit, the land has been ravaged, and it’s also making us sick. Right in our house, a lot of people fell ill, with itching and diarrhea. All because of this.[8]

Even after living in their territory since about 1870, the Barra da Aroeira Quilombola Community has not yet succeeded in guaranteeing its territorial rights. Most of the territory has been invaded, many areas have been cleared, soybean plantations are poisoning the rivers and the people, and the process of territorial regularization is at a standstill. But the families are still organized. Recently they drew up a Territorial Management Plan, a social cartography where they are recording part of their history and structuring the “Program for the Production and Monitoring of Agricultural Production Systems and the Management of Natural Assets”.[9]

Barra de Aroeira Quilombola Community’s Management Plan
Barra de Aroeira Quilombola Community’s Management Plan
Barra de Aroeira Quilombola Community’s Management Plan At a recent public debate where they participated, community leaders showed the strength of their political organizing. Maria de Fátima emphasized: “With all the suffering we go through, we don’t get discouraged, we are firm in the fight. There is no fight without victory, nor victory without a fight.” And Isabel completed:

A single pole is easy to break, and three or four are more difficult. So we hope that these little poles we’re gathering will be strong enough for this bundle of poles not to break, and bad things happen. We want the union to make us strong.[10].

The quilombolas of Barra da Aroeira are still protected by their ancestors in the fight for their rights and against institutional racism.

APA-TO, COEQTO, AJAQUITEBE and Associações, 2020.

Diana Aguiar, Eduardo Barcelos, Marcela Vecchione, Maurício Correia e Paulo Rogerio Gonçalves. Desmatamento no Cerrado e resistências nos territórios. In: Diana Aguiar e Helena Rodrigues (Orgs.). Saberes dos Povos do Cerrado e Biodiversidade. Rio de Janeiro: Campanha em Defesa do Cerrado e ActionAid Brasil, 2020.

APA-TO, COEQTO, AJAQUITEBE e Associações, 2020.

Aguiar et al, 2020.

Paulo Rogerio Gonçalves is a technical advisor to the Alternatives for Small Farming Association in Tocantins – APA-TO