The dry grass crackled under Almir Vieira Pereira's shoes as he walked along the edges of the roça, a small patch of land he's been fighting to plant on for years. He grabbed a handful of soil and watched it puff into a smoky cloud as it settled back to the ground.
Brazil's northeastern backlands are known for their dryness. Perennial droughts have sent generations of northeasterners fleeing from impoverished farming towns like this one for the industrial cities of the South -- São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, Belo Horizonte. Barra do Parateca's soil had yet to recover from last year's lack of rain.
But dry or not, the ability to walk freely across this field marked a major victory for Pereira. He and a group of slave descendants from the roughly 1,500-person hamlet of Barra do Parateca have spent the last five years invading chunks of land across the area that they say are rightfully theirs under a well-known but haphazardly enforced article of the Brazilian Constitution. That law guarantees permanent, non-transferable land titles to Brazilians descended from the members of runaway slave settlements. Such communities of descendants are known in Brazil as "quilombos."
Brazil is the world's fifth-largest country and relatively underpopulated, but land ownership remains out of reach most of the nation's poor farmers, many of whose ancestors worked the fields for European overlords. The ability to plant one's own food marks the first step for people like Pereira in a long march out of poverty and toward independence.
"Our fight for land is all about producing food," Pereira, 39, said. "The great thinkers of the world, they're thinking about creating things, inventing things. We're still thinking about eating. If the government really wants racial reparations, they have to at least give us the possibility to think like equals."
Four years ago, anyone who looked across this 15-acre plot would have seen razed earth littered with broken ceramic tiles that had once served as the roof of a camp shelter. The cops had wiped out that settlement after the neighbors who owned the land, the Pereira Pinto family, failed to persuade Pereira and his fellow quilombo residents to vacate the premises.
Pereira and his group had had several run-ins with authorities before, but this time was different. Normally, they would be allowed to finish the harvest if they agreed to abandon the plot when they were done. This time, police destroyed the crops in front of a crowd of Barra residents.
"Everyone was crying and we couldn't do anything," Pereira's friend, Ducilene Magalhães, recalled. "We just watched."
These days, Pereira and Magalhães have arrived at an uneasy truce with the landowners. Though the owners are in the midst of pursuing legal action and have removed an irrigation system that once watered the field, they're also reluctantly allowing the quilombo members to harvest crops on a small patch of the property until the courts settle the dispute.
Although quilombos dotted the Brazilian landscape throughout the era of slavery, which lasted from the 1500s until 1889, they faded into history during the 20th century. Most of the legislators who approved the quilombo law, ratified in 1988 as part of the new Brazilian Constitution, viewed it as a symbolic gesture that would affect only a handful of families.
But in 2003, a decree by left-wing President Luiz Inácio "Lula" da Silva made it possible for virtually any black community to apply for quilombo status, if a majority of its residents so decided.
Since Lula's order, the number of certified quilombos has skyrocketed from fewer than three dozen to more than 2,400, with hundreds more in the process of applying for recognition. In total, more than 1 million Brazilians are demanding their constitutional right to land in what may become the largest slavery reparations program ever attempted.
In practice, however, the program remains a dead letter for many. Despite a constitutional guarantee and the lip service of almost 12 years of continuous Worker Party-led government, only 217 quilombos have received official land titles as of this year.
Impatient with the slow hand of Brazilian bureacracy, quilombos across the country like Barra do Parateca are invading the promised parcels of land, sometimes igniting violent conflicts with their wealthier neighbors in the process.
Few who walk the lone paved street of the town of Barra do Parateca would imagine that Brazil boasts the world's seventh-largest economy.
Lying off the banks of the São Francisco river, about 400 miles into the rain-starved interior of the state of Bahia, Barra do Parateca is reachable only by boat or by a bumpy ride along a dirt road. Braying donkeys wander freely, feeding on discarded cartons, plastic soda bottles and spoiled food that lies in piles on the ground because the town lacks regular trash collection.
The garbage embarrasses Pereira. An evangelical pastor, he's thrown himself into building Barra do Parateca's quilombo with the civic-minded, can-do attitude of a budding politician. (He did, in fact, run for local office recently and lost to a white man, which he said was a bitter experience for an Afro-Brazilian running in a majority-black district.) He wears pressed pants and button-down shirts, drinks soda instead of beer and wants future generations of Barra do Parateca's students to speak grammatically correct Portuguese, rather than the local dialects that often disregard subject-verb agreement.
But building a better Barra is a job that would try the patience of even the most progressive-minded idealist. While the boost in social spending during Brazil's past decade has helped alleviate the worst of the poverty, few people in town own land or any other productive enterprise that could lift Barra do Parateca into prosperity. Those who do have no intention of handing it over to people like Pereira.
Facing a life of toiling in someone else's field for a pittance or waiting to cash government social assistance checks, many residents instead choose to leave. In search of work, they head to cities like São Paulo, a metropolis of 20 million located 850 miles to the south.
Most of them wind up in "favelas," the violence-plagued slums that ring Brazil's cities. Others migrate to the interior of São Paulo state to pick oranges or cut sugar cane. In a town of roughly 1,500 residents, some 30 of Barra do Parateca's men left to work in São Paulo last year, all of them fathers, Pereira says. Another 15 told him of plans to leave this year.
Despite the hardship, Pereira doesn't want to leave the place where he was born. He wants Barra do Parateca to break out of its rut. And he sees land ownership, and the independence that comes with it, as the key.
By "land," he's quick to clarify, he means real land -- not the tiny patch that his neighbors begrudgingly let his quilombo use now. With land, Pereira says, he and his fellow quilombolas could produce their own food, with a little left over for sale in local markets.
"We don't want to keep depending on the government," Pereira said. "In Brazil, without land, you're no one."
Brazil is among the world's most violent countries, with a homicide rate of 25 per 100,000 residents as of 2012.
A government report released last year suggested the persistent killings stem from a "culture of violence" fed by murderous conflicts between the drug cartels and other criminal gangs that have thrived in the cities' favelas. In the northern city of Maceió, the homicide rate in 2011 stood at a whopping 111 per 100,000, according to the report.
But Brazil's overflowing favelas are a symptom of larger problems that originate in places like Barra do Parateca, where waves of impoverished farmers, many if not most of them descended from slaves, have fled the countryside over the past half century. In 1950, the Brazilian census placed the urban population at 31 percent. As of 2013, that figure has climbed to 85 percent.
Land is the one major factor that pushes Brazilians to leave the countryside and crowd into the packed cities. Like in Barra do Parateca, land is all but unobtainable with the wages most Brazilian farm workers make.
"The highly unequal distribution of land in Brazil is clearly an important reason that Brazil's cities have grown in such a rapid, unequal and violent way," Sean Mitchell, an anthropology professor at Rutgers University who studies quilombos, wrote in an email to HuffPost. While Mitchell thinks it would be "impossible to roll back the haphazard and violent growth of Brazil's cities through reforms in the countryside," he added that "land reform would significantly alleviate violence in the countryside."
Land seemed an impossible dream for Pereira until 2005, when he helped found a local organization dedicated to addressing racial inequality. While working with the group, he learned about the Brazilian Constitution's quilombo clause: that communities descended from runaway slaves were entitled to own the land they lived on. All he had to do to gain access to the land was form an official association, collect signatures from a majority of the town's residents and take them to the country's capital, Brasília, to apply.
Pereira searched Barra do Parateca's history for evidence of its origins as a quilombo. Very little has been written about the tiny town, but he managed to find an account by a priest, published in 1991, that described the area's origins as a "fazenda," or ranch, owned by a Portuguese family during the colonial period. According to the document, the family raised sugar cane and herded cattle using slave labor.
"Those were my ancestors," Pereira said. "It was from that moment that we began to identify, we began to understand our origins."
He gathered signatures from more than half the town's residents and took the day-long bus ride to Brasilia to drop off the paperwork. The town became a certified quilombo in January 2006, and along with its status came a new school and health clinic.
But quilombo certification only extends to the town itself. The coveted farmlands that surround Barra do Parateca remain the private property of assorted ranchers and farmers.
And eight years after certification, the government has yet to publish the legally required technical study documenting Barra do Parateca's land claim, let alone negotiate indemnization with all the current landowners or transfer a title to Pereira and his community.
Representatives from the Institute of Colonization and Land Reform, or INCRA, which carries out the titling process, say they're overburdened by the massive number of claims, which as of this year have reached 569 in the state of Bahia alone, according to federal government figures.
Although the constitution guarantees quilombos' property rights, INCRA can't simply take chunks of land and hand them to new owners. Instead, it must compensate the titleholders, who generally resist the agency's attempts to take over their property, leading to lengthy legal disputes.
"We can't expropriate land -- we also have to indemnify," Itamar Rangel at the INCRA's office in Salvador da Bahia told HuffPost. "Brazilian law defends the property rights of any citizen."
That lack of efficiency isn't unique to the state of Bahia. INCRA estimates the total amount of land currently claimed by quilombos in Brazil to be around 4.4 million acres -- an area roughly the size of New Jersey.
But the government has issued just 217 land titles as of this year, having granted only three last year and three in 2012. At this rate, the growing backlog that now stands at roughly 2,200 quilombos won't be getting cleared any time soon.
In 2007, frustrated with the pace of Brazilian bureaucracy, Barra do Parateca's quilombo association stopped waiting and started planting. They planted along the river banks. They planted on land just outside the town. They rode boats up the river and walked into the forest to plant in isolated fields, setting up campsites along the way. Today, when the quilombo residents are able to harvest those crops, it helps supplement their modestly stocked pantries and refrigerators.
The landowners usually fight back. As often as not, landowners find the clandestine fields and let cattle loose to feed on the crops before they're harvested.
About a dozen landowners from Barra do Parateca are battling the quilombo association's claims. Of all those fights, none is more tense than the one involving the Pinto family.
Hélio Pereira Pinto, 71, isn't the kind of person you'd imagine as one of the quilombo's biggest enemies. An aging man whose thick, sun-battered skin folds neatly along his cheeks, Pinto walks with a limp, the result of his father's inability to pay for a doctor when Pinto developed a benign tumor in his left knee at age 10.
Although the tumor splintered his tibia, forcing shards of bone through his skin, he spent his life working as a field hand, one of the most backbreaking and poorly paid jobs Brazil has to offer. He still has scars under his arm from the years he worked in the fields while supporting himself with a crutch. He remembers listening to radio broadcasts from Cuba's Communist government in the 1960s, hoping that a similar revolution would make its way to Brazil. But his experiences in recent years have tempered his revolutionary enthusiasm.
Pinto owns the piece of land where Pereira and his fellow quilombolas have arrived at their uneasy truce. His son João Batista Pinto -- a judge in the neighboring city of Guanambi who is entangled in a separate land dispute with the quilombo -- has repeatedly called the cops to kick them out.
After the police destroyed the quilombo association's illicit crops in 2010, someone set a bus belonging to Hélio Pinto on fire. The Pinto family suspects retribution, but no one has owned up to the deed. Four years later, the bus's charred remains still sit on the town's main road, now engulfed by a tree that has grown around it.
Land holds much the same meaning for Hélio Pinto, who is white, as it does for Pereira. The oldest of 18 children, Pinto was born less than two miles from Barra do Parateca, where his landless family lived on the property of a wealthier man named Antonio Bastos. Pinto's family worked as "agregados," meaning they were allowed to live on the land and use a chunk of it to grow their own food, in exchange for their labor. Some experts have described the relationship, common in the Brazilian countryside, as something better than slavery, but not quite freedom.
One day, for reasons unclear to Pinto, Bastos kicked the family out, along with his other agregados. Pinto's father found new work as an agregado on a ranch in what would become Barra do Parateca. This was in the early 1950s, and Barra wasn't yet a town -- just another tract of land owned by a wealthy ranching family. After decades of working the fields, Pinto scraped together enough money to buy the small patch of land that the quilombo association now disputes.
The fighting has grown so frustrating for João Batista Pinto, Hélio's son, that he doesn't even want his parcel of land anymore. As a lawyer in the neighboring city of Guanambi, he now has little use for it, and the bad blood created by the land conflicts makes him feel uncomfortable visiting the town of his birth. He would gladly give it up, he says, if only someone would pay him for it.
It's not the first time someone has tried to take over João Batista Pinto's small patch of land. In the 1970s, when Brazil was under military rule, the Bahian government unsuccessfully tried to relocate the town to accommodate a dam project. The INCRA expropriated a series of tracts in the area, including João Batista's. So the land, in theory, belongs to the government -- except that, as often happens with Brazil's slow-moving bureaucracy, INCRA never paid him for it.
"This case has been pending ever since then, until the present day," João Batista said. "Without payment, without indemnization. This happens all over the place in Brazil."
Still, Hélio Pinto has trouble understanding how Barra do Parateca could possibly be a quilombo. As one of the few residents who's lived in the town since its establishment, he knows that the original inhabitants were, like him, virtually all white. Now, he says, the peaceful community he once knew has been torn apart, and the land he labored for has been made worthless by the political aspirations of black people from neighboring towns.
"There was never any quilombo here. There were never any slaves," Pinto said. "Today most people here are black, there's no white people anymore. But the blacks are all migrants. None of them are really from here."
Many in the Brazilian media share the Pintos' suspicions about the authenticity of today's quilombos. Television coverage often tilts more toward his point of view than Pereira's.
One of the most famous cases occurred in 2007, when Brazil's largest television news broadcaster, O Globo, visited the quilombo of São Francisco do Paraguaçú in the northern part of the country. O Globo's reporters asked residents if they considered themselves quilombolas. Several people said no. One man said he'd never heard of the term until recent years. Another said he'd never heard the term at all.
In the final version of the story, the producers did not air the comments of the quilombo association's leaders or the interviewees who affirmed the existence of their quilombo. The story erroneously claimed that the area was not a historical site of slavery and that sugar had not been planted in the region when, in fact, the ruins of a colonial-era sugar mill lay just a short distance upriver.
The report sparked protests in the community and deepened a rift that pitted neighbor against neighbor, with some residents posting signs in front of their doors reading "I'm not a quilombola, no." The federal government re-evaluated the community's anthropological report, but it eventually chose to uphold the group's quilombo certification.
Despite the support of the government, episodes like this have undermined the public image of the fledgling social movement. Politicians who would go on to form Democráticos 25, a conservative, pro-market political party, hoped to take advantage of public doubts about quilombos' credibility. They filed a legal challenge in 2004, arguing that Lula da Silva's decree allowing virtually any group of black people to declare themselves a quilombo illegally skirted Congress' authority.
By 2010, the case had made its way to Brazil's highest court, which has yet to rule on it. A decision in Democráticos 25's favor could annul all the land titles issued under the law and strip thousands of communities of their quilombo status overnight.
Pereira doesn't dispute that Barra do Parateca was once a largely white community. He acknowledges that most of the town's black residents first arrived about four decades ago -- including his mother, who was born in a town on the other side of the river.
But he also takes a wider view of his community's history. According to the priest's 1991 account, before the town existed, the area of Barra do Parateca belonged to one large Portuguese landowner whose massive holdings stretched across the hinterland. That man's claim encompassed a number of neighboring majority-black towns, including the first certified quilombo in the state of Bahia, Rio das Rãs.
"Before the community, before the town, it was a fazenda," Pereira said. "So all of this black population here in the Parateca region -- Pau D'Arco, Barra do Parateca -- in reality, we're all the same people."
And anyway, all of this is beside the point, as far as Pereira is concerned. Fighting over these chunks of land for the last few years has made him rethink not just poverty, but race as well.
"Slavery was abolished," Pereira said. "But the black people around here -- my ancestors -- never had a single title. Abolition happened, but we're practically continuing as if we were slaves today. How come we don't get the right to reparations?"
Brazilians' disagreement over how to define a quilombo stems in part from the country's historic reluctance to define who is black. People either partially or wholly of African descent make up a majority of the population, but unlike in the United States, Brazil never saw widespread legal segregation, and racial mixing has been common since the colonial period.
That legacy has made it difficult for Brazilians to build political movements devoted to confronting racism. Many Brazilians view their country as a "racial democracy," where the lack of strict distinctions between "black" and "white" has fostered an ethnically harmonious society.
Yet Afro-Brazilian intellectuals and the country's social scientists have long dismissed that interpretation, pointing to research and statistics that they say reveal broad patterns of discrimination.
As of 2011, Brazilian black and mixed-race workers on average earned only 60 percent of the salaries of white workers, according to the country's national statistics agency. Some 70 percent of homicide victims are black, according to a 2013 study by the Institute of Applied Economic Research. Researchers at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro calculated last year that if the Brazilian population were divided along racial lines, whites would occupy the 65th position on the U.N. Human Development Index, while Afro-Brazilians would only reach 102nd place.
Given the expansiveness of Brazil's legal definition of "quilombos," it's hard to mount an argument that Barra do Parateca does not qualify. More than half of the Barra do Parateca community signed the petition to declare its ethnic quilombo identity, as required. A social scientist visited the town and verified the claim.
The lawsuits filed against the quilombo's land invasions would, theoretically, be trumped by a decision by INCRA to compensate the current landowners accordingly and seize the property on behalf of the quilombo.
But INCRA's officials, 500 miles away in a building with a leaky ceiling, have yet to finalize the paperwork, let alone issue a land title. They're responsible for the nearly 600 quilombo claims across Bahia, some of which face crises more serious than Barra do Parateca's.
Nevertheless, the lack of progress infuriates the already frustrated quilombo association. When asked who the quilombo movement's greatest enemy is, Pereira didn't mention the landowners. Instead, he began talking about the government, which catapulted the movement into existence in 1988, then let it founder, leaving quilombo residents to wonder whether the constitutional article will wither into a broken promise.
"The greatest enemy of the quilombo movement is the Brazilian state itself," Pereira said. "The slowness."
João Batista Pinto's anger at the quilombo association is no longer what it was four years ago, when he sent the cops to break up its occupation of his land. He's now resigned to put up with the irritation of the land dispute while the courts and INCRA slowly sort the mess out.
But like his father, he harbors resentment, and finds it laughable to think Barra do Parateca could be classified as a quilombo.
"It's an old concept," João Batista said. "To apply it to the contemporary world is difficult. They're trying to apply that article in order to gain social benefits, but they're doing it fraudulently."
Recalling the old problem of how to define who is black in Brazil, João Batista pointed out that his sister Heldina looks white, and then asked rhetorically if he himself looks black. With his dark bronze skin and coarse straight hair, he could belong to any number of Brazil's intermingling ethnic combinations. In the United States, no one would call him white. João Batista added that he and his family come from Barra do Parateca. Does that make them quilombolas?
"It's not enough just to demonstrate the presence of a black population, because if that were all you needed, Salvador da Bahia would be a quilombo," he said. "Bom Jesús da Lapa, Rio de Janeiro, all the other states. Brazil would be one giant quilombo."
In the meantime, Barra do Parateca waits, and Pereira enjoys his early morning walk around the roça while a friend hacks at weeds with a machete. The soil might be more moist if Hélio Pinto hadn't taken down the irrigation system he installed years ago. On the other hand, the cops haven't come this year to kick the quilombo out and destroy the small patch of plantings on the Pinto family's 15-acre plot.
In his mother's kitchen, Pereira sits down to eat a cut of gristly beef with a side of rice, black beans and farofa, a yucca flour that Brazilians sprinkle on their food to add flavor and make it more filling. For Pereira, few things reveal more about Brazil's race relations than his meals.
"This is the way I see it, the world is what you're thinking about," said Pereira. "If you're hungry, what are you going to think about? About food. So most of the world's poor only think about food. They go to school and they're thinking about snack time, about lunch, because those who are hungry only think about eating."
Pereira said he envies the United States, a country viewed by many Brazilians as more racist than their own, for electing a black president. Why, he asks, in his country, where people of color make up a majority of the population, does the idea of a black president seem beyond the realm of possibility? Like most quilombolas, Pereira isn't convinced that he lives in a racial democracy.
"They say it's not, but Brazil is a racist country -- in all the ways that you could imagine," Pereira said, pointing to the skin on his forearm. "In Brazil, poverty has a color."