Brazilian Olympic Village Likely Built on Sacred Burial Ground of Runaway Slaves

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In the lead up to the 2016 Olympics, the media has prioritized news that makes for more sensationalist headlines, instead of the disheartening effects the games are having on Brazilians. For example, between 2009 and 2016, the games displaced more than 22,000 families. And even though the city and state government split the Olympic budget costs, many believe the games played a role in the country’s economic crisis – at the expense of ordinary people.

Now, as journalists move into the Olympic media village, claims that developers built 1,500 luxury apartments atop sacred grounds hasn’t received nearly the attention it deserves. According to The Guardian, a group of descendants of runway slaves – known as quilombos – believe the location of Barra Media Village is where their ancestors were buried. Camorim Quilombo leader Adilson Batista Almeida further accuses developers of destroying archaeological remains at what used to be a sugar mill. “One Sunday morning a chainsaw came and devastated everything including century-old trees,” Almeida said. “I regard the ground as sacred because it is where my ancestors were buried.”

Adilson Batista Almeida, the leader of Camorim Quilombo. Photograph: Mauro Pimentel/Vozerio
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Brazil became the last country in the Americas to abolish slavery, and it also received more than four million slaves. In 1988, the constitution adapted to allow them to claim their original lands – a measure that helps groups protect their cultural heritage. However, many communities wonder if they’ll ever obtain these titles, as the government moves at such a slow pace, according to the Huffington Post. In 2013 and 2012, the government only granted six quilombos. And opponents of the constitutional law have complicated matters by trying to get the ordinance overturned in court.

For more than a decade, quilombo members have unsuccessfully tried to acquire the title of the property. According to National Institute for Colonization and Agrarian Reform, the group never made a final decision on what area to claim. In 2013, four years after Brazil won the Olympic bid, Cyrela gained the rights to the land, and by tearing down a soccer field, an old slave owner’s house, and the sugar mill began erasing a dark part of Brazilian history, and it deprived a community of a recreational space.

Cyrela maintains that it acquired the land in a “regular and lawful manner,” but there was no archaeological survey done on the area. In 2000, an excavation found many human bones at the nearby church São Gonçalo de Amarante. “Generally, slaves were buried nearby the church, therefore the chance is high that there was a burial in the current condominium (media village)”, Historian Rogério Ribeiro de Oliveira said. “It is highly likely that (archaeological) remains were destroyed, not only from the period of the sugar mill but also before, during the pre-colonial period.”

Even if Cyrela didn’t build the village on top of a mass grave, it still subjected its workers to deplorable conditions. According to Rio on Watch, the Public Ministry of Labor for Rio rescued 11 workers building the media village and classified it as “labor analogous to slavery.” They didn’t have access to water, and mold and cockroaches surrounded them.

The quilombo group has resigned itself to the fact that the homes are there to stay, so it’s now fighting for a community center to be build on adjoining land, which Cyrela gifted to the government, to honor their roots. “Their blood that was spilled – I don’t want it to be in vain,” Almeida said. “We want to fight for our space, our rights and our traditions so that our ancestors can look and see that today we are living in a better place.”

To learn more about Brazil’s quilombo movement, check out the Huffington Post’s two-part feature about what may be the world’s largest slavery reparations program.