Students study indigenous land claims in Brazil

April 20, 2010Duke Law News

Ten Duke Law students, led by Professor Laurence Helfer, spent their spring break in Brazil, doing field research into the land rights of Afro-Brazilian communities. An integral part of their semester-long ad hoc seminar, the trip allowed students to work with communities of quilombolas, Afro-Brazilians descended from slaves, who are seeking legal title to lands they have long occupied.

With their trip underwritten, in part, by donations from Duke Law alumni and friends, and by Duke’s Center for Comparative and International Law, the students met with representatives from three quilombola communities, collaborated with counterparts at Fundação Gertulio Vargas Direito Rio (FGV), one of Brazil’s leading law schools, and interviewed officials from the Brazilian government and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) involved in the challenging legal and political issues surrounding quilombola land rights.

Kat Shea ’10, Noah Browne ’11, and Anne Dana ’11 proposed the ad hoc seminar underlying the trip. Challenged by Helfer, the Harry R. Chadwick, Sr. Professor of Law and an expert in international human rights law, to identify a concrete legal issue that could combine with a service trip abroad, the students were made aware of the quilombola land-claim situation through Global Imprints, a company that specializes in the organization of educational and legal service trips.

With Helfer’s guidance, the students clarified pedagogical goals and developed a rigorous curriculum that included a comparative look at the plight of similarly situated Afro-Latin groups in other Central and South American countries.

“We thought it would be helpful to understand the issue of land rights in Brazil a comparative context,” said Browne. “Several students narrowed the list of comparable groups down to three countries — Nicaragua, Ecuador, and Colombia. There are many differences in how these countries handle similar problems involving land title.”

The students learned that Brazil’s 1988 constitution included a provision allowing rural quilombola communities to gain official title to lands where they live. While it was intended to help these communities improve their social and economic development, implementation had been problematic, leaving many quilombos enmeshed in a bureaucratic quagmire.

“We identified communities who were going through this incredibly complex legal process that takes years and years, with very few resources,” said Jacy Gaige ’12. “We went to Brazil to hear, from their perspective, what they thought this title would gain for them, and to identify the big hurdles in the process.”

The fact finding and interviews in Brazil began on March 7 when the group was briefed by Brazilian law students and NGOs that work on land rights issues. They then traveled to the quilombola community of Alto da Serra, comprised of 30-60 families who occupy rural lands in the state of Rio de Janeiro. The students met with members of the Alto da Serra, and leaders from two other quilombola communities for two sunrise-to-sundown meetings in the community’s church.

They heard the history of the communities, learned about differences between quilombola groups, and talked in detail about the land titling process.

Talking to members of the quilombo left the students with a deeper understanding of the practical problems posed by the titling process, Browne said. “The value of talking to individual people to understand how the law affects them never ceases to surprise me. I think in all legal systems there’s a gap between the law on the books and the law as its implemented. In this case, I don’t think any of us had an idea of the size of that chasm until we went and talked to people.”

Surveying the community’s land gave the students a visceral sense of the importance of land that can’t be found in a classroom, observed Shea. “At one point during a tour of their land, they all started taking off their shoes and walking into a river. We thought they were cooling off, until they said, ‘Take off your shoes, this is where we cross.’

“Understanding what this land means to these communities was something we couldn’t do until we were there,” she said.

Browne echoed the sentiment. “We assumed, going down there, that getting land title was simply a prerequisite for socioeconomic development. I still think that’s largely true, but we didn’t quite understand, despite the fact that it sounds so simplistic and commonsensical, that having land is so fundamental to one’s own sense of peace and security.”

As they learned about the quilombolo challenges in realizing their rights, the students also learned about challenges on the governmental side of the equation from an exchange with an official responsible for processing land title requests, said Helfer.

“It was quite an eye-opening experience for the students,” he said. “They initially thought that this federal land-titling agency would be quite hostile to the communities. In fact, they found that agency officials are quite sympathetic, but that they are simply overwhelmed with applications. They don’t have sufficient resources for the anthropologists who need to write the relevant reports, to process the applications, to compensate the private landowners who have valid competing titles to parts of the land.”

After presenting their preliminary findings to the quilombolas, the Duke Law students worked with them to identify useful legal research and other projects to be completed during the remainder of the academic term. “The students are currently working on a report that summarizes their research and findings, and we’ll be sending it to the quilombo communities, to NGO leaders, government officials, and FGV faculty,” said Helfer.

“One of the reasons I supported this initiative is that there is a very strong demand among Duke Law students for experiential learning opportunities relating to international and comparative law,” Helfer said. “The Brazil fact finding trip is one way of satisfying that demand in the short term. I’m hopeful that the students’ excitement about the trip will translate into other sustainable experiences in the future — the kinds of experiences that give students the opportunity to take what they learn in the classroom and translate it into practice.”
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