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Son of slain Quilombola leader will still strive for community’s rights

Maria Bernadete Pacífico was the leader of Pitanga of Palmares quilombo, located in Bahia state. Image courtesy of CONAQ.

Maria Bernadete Pacífico was the leader of Pitanga of Palmares quilombo, located in Bahia state. Image courtesy of CONAQ.

  • Within six years of each other, Maria Bernadete Pacífico, 72, and Flávio Gabriel Pacífico, 36, mother and son, were killed in the Pitanga dos Palmares quilombo.
  • They were community leaders and defended their ancestral territory, home to about 300 families, many of them farmers.
  • The quilombo is within an Environmental Protection Area (APA), but it is grappling with deforestation and real estate speculation, and it is surrounded by industries, a prison and a landfill.
  • Jurandir Wellington Pacífico, the remaining son of Maria Bernadete who is in hiding with his family out of fear for his life, speaks to Mongabay about the threats the community faces and what has happened since his mother’s death.

SÃO PAULO — On Aug. 17, Maria Bernadete Pacífico, a 72-year-old Quilombola leader in Brazil, was brutally killed when two men wearing helmets entered her home and unloaded more than a dozen bullets in her direction.

A respected name in social movements across the country, she headed the Pitanga dos Palmares quilombo in Bahia state, an environmental protection area where the Quilombola community — Afro-Brazilian descendants of escaped slaves — reside. Bernadete and her son, Flávio Gabriel Pacífico, also killed six years ago, wanted their community, the land of their ancestors, to be titled. They both spoke of the death threats they received in the process.

The delay in Brazil’s land regularization process has contributed to the increase of conflicts in the Quilombola communities, which has resulted in the killings of at least 30 leaders in the last 10 years, according to the National Coordination for Articulation of Rural Black Quilombola Communities (CONAQ).

The federal Constitution guarantees the descendants of quilombos the right to own their lands. However, according to the 2022 Population Census, which identified this group for the first time in history, only about 4.3% of the Quilombola population (1,327,802 inhabitants) lives in territories already titled.

Jurandir Wellington Pacífico, Bernadete’s remaining second son, who used to draft the initiatives idealized by her mother for the quilombo, has now taken his whole family to a secret location. He tells Mongabay that out of fear for him and his family’s life, they will avoid leaving their hideout until the federal authorities respond to their security concerns and offer them a permanent solution.

Flávio Gabriel and Maria Bernadete Pacífico, leaders of the Quilombo Pitanga de Palmares, were killed in 2017 and 2023. Private and public economic interests have always surrounded the ancestral land. Image courtesy of Jurandir Pacífico.
Flávio Gabriel and Bernadete Pacífico, leaders of the Pitanga dos Palmares quilombo, were killed in 2017 and 2023. Private and public economic interests have always surrounded the ancestral land. Image courtesy of Jurandir Pacífico.

On Sept. 4th, the Public Security Secretariat of Bahia announced the arrest of three men suspected of involvement in the assassination of Bernadete Pacífico. One of them was found in Araçá town, about 100 kilometers (62 miles) from Bahia’s capital, Salvador, and confessed to the police that he was one of the murderers. The other two had no direct participation in the crime: One had the Quilombola leader’s cell phone and the other kept the weapons supposedly used in the crime. The police are still looking for at least a fourth person involved, who would also have fired shots at Bernadete. Motivations for the killer of the Quilombola leader have not yet been established or shared with the public.

Throughout her life as a religious leader and head of CONAQ, Bernadete denounced threats by land-grabbers seeking to invade their territory, illegal logging in their Atlantic forests and petrochemical pipelines passing through the community.

In this interview with Mongabay, Jurandir speaks about the situation for his community now, what has happened since his mother’s killing and why there’s a scramble for land in the region. This interview was translated and edited for clarity.


Mongabay: What was the role of Maria Bernadete Pacífico at Pitanga dos Palmares and in CONAQ?

Jurandir Pacífico: Mother Bernadete, as she was known, was the leader of the quilombo. She was responsible for creating the services that exist there today: electricity, a health post, a primary school and a child nursery. In 2005, she founded the Muzanzo Association, with initiatives such as the health fair and family agriculture projects. Our community’s seed network was also created by her, in addition to forest restoration work in degraded areas. Whenever an area was deforested, she came up with a reforestation project.

My mother encouraged the safeguarding of the Quilombola culture, expressed through music, capoeira, dance and crafts in clay and piaçava straw. As CONAQ national coordinator, she worked on the implementation of public policies and trained new leaders, like my brother, Flávio Gabriel Pacífico, known as Binho do Quilombo, who was killed in 2017.

Mongabay: Could you talk about Pitanga dos Palmares and why you think it is important to protect it from an environmental point of view?

Jurandir Pacífico: The quilombo is within the Joanes Ipitanga Environmental Protection Area (APA), in the town of Simões Filho, located in the metropolitan area of Salvador, Bahia’s capital. The quilombo has 854.2 hectares [2,110 acres]. A good portion of it is formed by the Atlantic Forest. The APA is also home to the Itamboatá Valley, sanctuary of this biome, and of the São Sebastião aquifer, which supplies the region and part of the capital.

Pitanga dos Palmares began to be populated by our ancestors in the 19th century and today it is home to almost 300 families. In 2005, it was certified by the Palmares Cultural Foundation [linked to the Ministry of Culture] as a remaining quilombo community, which is the first stage of the land titling process. But still today, we do not have the title, which is issued by INCRA [National Institute of Colonization and Agrarian Reform].

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Mongabay: What environmental issues did your mother deal with that you still face in the quilombo?

Jurandir Pacífico: For decades, the community has suffered a series of socioenvironmental attacks and new ones have emerged in recent years. We live 6 km [3.7 mi] from the Camaçari Petrochemical Complex, which opened in 1978 and placed 16 pipelines across our territory, some of them at ground level, to transport chemical products to the Port of Aratu. Fiocruz [a research institution linked to the Ministry of Health] attested that the blocking valve station installed in the quilombo has the potential to explode and cause pollution by toxic gases.

We face illegal logging, which my mother denounced for the last time on July 26 — three weeks before being killed — to Federal Supreme Court Minister Rosa Weber in a meeting with Quilombola leaders in Bahia.

Our state has the largest Quilombola population in the country. Real estate developers want to build condominiums for local industry workers. The expansion of the BA-093 highway, carried out in 2010 without public hearings, caused deforestation in the area. The Bahia Norte Concessionaire, authorized by the state government, installed a toll plaza close to the quilombo, which makes us pay when we enter and leave it.

But what has been seriously degrading the area is the garbage dump installed next to the community, with the approval of the city hall. It was a fight, together with Quilombo Dandá, so that the company Naturalle would not install the dump. Then the threats began.

That landfill cost my brother Flávio his life. In March 2017, the communities filed a representation with the state and federal public ministries, which opened an inquiry to investigate the case. On Sept. 3 [2017], during an event at the Federal University of Bahia, Flávio [his brother] made a complaint against the landfill. Thirteen days later, he was killed with 12 bullet wounds inside the quilombo.

To this day, the Bahia Police and the Federal Police have not identified the criminals, although I even delivered a photo of a suspect who hid his face at the toll booth, leaving the quilombo, and who was seen earlier at the execution site.

Mongabay: What happened next? Was the landfill installed?

Jurandir Pacífico: Yes, and it dumps hundreds of tons of domestic and hospital waste per month. The owner of Naturalle, Vitor Loureiro Souto, is the son of Paulo Souto, former governor of Bahia. In 2018, INEMA [Bahia’s environmental agency] denied the license for the landfill, arguing that its location would allow the contamination of the aquifer and of small watercourses that form the Joanes River Basin. The project also planned the deforestation of almost 12 hectares [29.6 acres] of Atlantic Forest in the medium stage of regeneration, which was helping to recover the riparian forests. But Naturalle filed a reconsideration request and got the environmental license in 2019.

Petrochemical pipelines, a prison [the Simões Filho Penal Colony, which was inaugurated 4 km (2.5 mi) away in 2007], a landfill — only a nuclear power plant is missing. I have never seen so many bad things together in just one area. But an agricultural school or a university doesn’t come. Embasa [Bahian Water and Sanitation Company S.A.] takes water from the APA source to the metropolitan region, but we are not entitled to drinking water. The fight against all these aberrations made us lose our leaders.

Maria Bernadete Pacífico [looking down] was the leader of Pitanga of Palmares quilombo, located in Bahia state. Here she is at the CONAQ National Women's Meeting. Image courtesy of CONAQ.
Maria Bernadete Pacífico [looking down] was the leader of Pitanga of Palmares quilombo, located in Bahia state. Here she is at the CONAQ National Women’s Meeting. Image courtesy of CONAQ.

Mongabay: Last week you went to a police station to give your statement. Do the police already have any leads on suspects?

Jurandir Pacífico: The investigation is under secrecy; I have not received information so far.

Mongabay: Did the Federal Supreme Court Minister Rosa Weber speak out against your mother’s killing?

Jurandir Pacífico: Yes. In the August meeting, the minister had already stated that our demands were an old claim of the Quilombola communities and informed us that she signed an ordinance for the formation of a study group on Quilombola issues, with emphasis on land titling. With the death of Bernadete, Weber declared that the local authorities must adopt measures for the urgent clarification and reparation of the crime.

Mongabay: Why aren’t the public authorities more present in defending the quilombo territory and community?

Jurandir Pacífico: This is a question that the country must answer. My immediate concern is the safety of my family. After my mother’s killing, we left the quilombo, along with my brother Flávio’s wife and children, and we are in a secret location. We have the military police escort, but I don’t know until when. Bernadete received constant threats and was under the protection program of the Secretariat of Justice and Human Rights (SJDH) of Bahia. This protection comprised seven cameras installed in the house, three of which were broken, and a daily 15-minute visit by a police patrol.

The minister of human rights, Silvio Almeida, is in communication with CONAQ to discuss our situation and that of the quilombo. The governor of Bahia, Jerônimo Rodrigues, with whom we have been trying to speak for more than two weeks, does not respond.

Mongabay: What do you want to say to the governor?

Jurandir Pacífico: We want the state to take responsibility for the crime and establish a set of public policies for the quilombo. We are going to ask for compensation for our family, as Mother Bernadete died under state protection.

Mongabay: Does the fact that Pitanga dos Palmares does not have a land tittle contribute to the vulnerability of the quilombo and its inhabitants?

Jurandir Pacífico: It’s all interconnected. In November 2017, shortly after Flávio’s killing — and 12 years after the titling process began — INCRA issued the Territory’s Technical Identification and Delimitation Report (RTID), one of the most important steps for the titling. Why isn’t the title ready yet?

My mother had two dreams: knowing who killed my brother and having the land tenure document in her hands. Because when the community has the title, we are, in quotation marks, more protected from threats.

Guapiaçu River Basin forest.
Atlantic Forest in the state of Rio de Janeiro. Image © Sarah Brown.

Mongabay: On Aug. 23, INCRA published in the Federal Official Gazette a notification for the “owners or occupants of identified rural properties in the quilombo.” Why are there only 44 names in the document and why aren’t yours or your mother’s names there?

Jurandir Pacífico: That was a question that INCRA was trying to address after my mother was killed. There is written in her book the names of the persons who should have been notified. I will have a meeting with INCRA [Sept. 4]. What I do know is that the title to the land is collective.

Mongabay: What do you believe will be the future of quilombo Pitanga dos Palmares without your mother? What do you intend to do going forward?

Jurandir Pacífico: Last Wednesday I resigned from my job because I fear for my life. Although I can’t expose myself now because I am also responsible for my nephews, Flávio’s children, I will take the leadership of the quilombo. The community will carry on my mother and brother’s legacy.


Banner image: Maria Bernadete Pacífico was the leader of Pitanga of Palmares quilombo, located in Bahia state. Image courtesy of CONAQ.

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Related listening from Mongabay’s podcast: We look at how the Shuar Indigenous community in Ecuador recently won a major victory to protect its ancestral territory of Tiwi Nunka Forest from cattle ranchers, loggers and miners. Listen here:

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