The route to freedom goes through the Quilombos

When Iaia Piedimonte of Gender Responsible Tourism (GRT) asked me to select a project from Brazil to present at the International Women’s Day Special at the ITB Berlin this year, I had no doubt which one it would be.

And I went back to Brazil.

The project Rota da Liberdade (Route to Freedom in English) is in the Quilombos of the Reconcavo Baiano (Bahian Bay). It’s a collaborative and participative Community-Based Tourism (CBT) project, located in the historical district of Santiago de Iguape, around 50km from Salvador, in Brazil’s north-eastern state of Bahia.

WHAT IT IS

The project began in 2005, and today the Rota da Liberdade is a women-led community association responsible for the local tourism offer.

It all started with a social project supported by the federal government, called Agente Cultura Viva (Live Culture Agent in English), which was directed at young adults and aimed to gather information about local history.

the project’s findings were discussed in the representative body of the fourteen Quilombos of the Cachoeira region, the Quilombo Council of the Iguape Basin and Valley. It seemed obvious that the region has great cultural potential, and after various discussions and meetings, the idea of creating a community-based tourism project was born.

Route to Freedom
Ethnic Community-Based Tourism

And through a process, which developed organically and at its own pace, the women became the leaders of the project.

The men were not sufficiently interested in the future activities that the project would generate; or were maybe just too busy working. However, the group doesn’t deny access to men, in fact, among the individuals that work directly in the association, there are two men. One of them is the highly respected and charismatic Ananias Viana, a local development agent and a recognised representantive of the Rota at the governmental level.

The women are at the heart of the organization and coordinate all the activities and services offered by the Ethnic Tourism Centre – Route to Freedom. For the women it was an opportunity to create something special for the region, and for themselves. And that’s exactly what they did.

Today the association offers three different tours that enable tourists to experience the traditional daily life of the Quilombos, and which can include an overnight stay in the Kaonge Quilombo.

Women welcoming tourists in their Quilombo

Depending on the time available to groups, tourists can visit all the communities which participate in the tourism project, or just one of them, walking for a few hours through an unspoiled trekking trail. It is a fullly immersive experience, not only in nature, but with an opportunity to learn about the history and culture of the community, witness their rituals, and visit some of their religious places.

Visitors are enchanted by the vivid and picturesque stories of Juvani Viana, who takes them for a journey in time. They feel the personal dilemma of a young girl divided by two worlds: the modern Salvador, where it was possible to get a formal education, and her cultural roots in an unknown and hidden Quilombo settlement, reachable only by boat.

Juveni chose her roots and became the first informal primary and secondary school teacher for the community’s children, giving classes under the big tree outside her house, using the charcoal from her kitchen, as a pen, and the dusty ground as her board. Juveni today is the Spiritual Leader of the Quilombo, where she runs the Umbanda Terreiro, which she inherited from her father, and which is the centre of the spiritual life of the community, where celebrations and rituals of the Afro-Brazilian religion are practiced.

Dona Juveni

I met her in person during my first visit to the Quilombo and I’ve listened to her stories of daily struggles, through which she is maintaining alive the pride and the value of her ancestor’s traditions. She is such a fascinating storyteller! Listening to her stories, in itself is worth the journey to the Kaonge.

There are also other learning opportunities waiting for visitors. They have the chance to understand the cassava flour production process, and how local palm oil (dende oil) and of the traditional syrup made of local medicinal herbs are manufactured. Tourists, if they wish, can also witness the local production of oysters, of which the Quilombos’ women are proudly the first producers of the State of Bahia.

WHY IT IS IMPORTANT

The Quilombolas are decedents of former salves, who escaped unimaginable conditions on the region’s sugar plantations and established new settlements, the Quilombos. According to Agencia Brasil, nowadays there are something like 5,000 quilombos communities, but less than 7% of these have been officially recognised by the government. The vast majority of them haven’t had their land identified and marked yet; it is a constant struggle for the recognition of their basic rights, including access to health services.

The Quilombos represent resistance, courage and freedom, and today they are still carrying on the battles that their ancestors faced since they were brought from Africa and decided to escape the slavery of the plantations.

A representation of a Brazilian Quilombo (Photo Mundo Estranho)

The fight for freedom is embedded in the history of the Brazilian Quilombos, and, in a similar way, the Route to Freedom project is a contemporary version of the same story, with the women of the Kaonge community at the centre.

It is important to add that this quilombo community was created directly by former slaves, rather than being assigned, and it has 500 years of continuous history. It is no surprise, then, that the women were able to their strength and self-awareness to create such a powerful communitarian project.

The Rota da Liberdade project, after a while, turned into an association which today directly employs twenty individuals, while, in a larger sense, is benefitting the wider communities. The women have been the real agents of local development, creating a solid network of centres responsible for the different productive areas. All of the community’s “production hubs” (nucléos produtivos) are run by women: the restaurant, the handicrafts centre, which is also responsible for the organization of the regional handicraft fair, and even the barber.

Furthermore, the Quilombo Kaonge, the most active of the six Quilombos communities who participate in the Route to Freedom project, also leads the traditional production of Oysters in the Bahia do Iguage, State of Bahia. Oyster production is managed by thirty-five local families – thirteen of which are from the Kaonge community alone – and is represented by thirty-three women, who are known as the Marisqueras. The Kaonge community also organises and hosts a famous annual Oysters Fair (Festival das Ostras), which last October, for its 10th anniversary, drew three thousand visitors.

Oysters Fair 2018

The women are at the centre of the local economy and are using tourism to strengthen the whole system, and this is where its strength and the power of its social innovation reside.

Tourism here is not just an isolated programme run by a group of women; instead, it is directly associated with local production, and what they have done is to create connections between different economic areas so that tourism is constantly supporting and boosting local production. This is only possible because they work collectively and their work is based on the principles and values of the Solidarity Economy, according to which the participation of all the segments of the society, is one of the core points.

The power of Solidarity Economy
“Do you know? We manage our own economy”

But the merit of these women goes beyond. They have used tourism not only as a tool for socio-economic development, which is crucial for the survival of these communities, but also as an instrument to conserve their ancestral culture and heritage and preserve the environment, and in doing so, are creating a truly sustainable project.

Moreover, they have also – and most importantly – turned tourism into an opportunity for the women to gain mental freedom, build self-esteem and maintain financial independence in a process of continuous growth and self-empowerment.

I have spoken with Jucilene Viana, one of the associates of the Rota Da Liberdade and daughter of Juveni, and asked her to send a message to women living in other communities around the world.

This is the transcription of the voice message she sent.

Here she is, almost singing every word of it, with a strength and beauty that only can come from the Heart. Enjoy it!

Hello women,

I am Jucileine Viana Quilombola do Kaonge – Cachoeira, Bahia

I am a farmer, teacher, artisan, oyster producer, local tourism leader,

general coordinator of Maria Felipa Quilombos communities’ women’s Association.

I want to tell you that our place is wherever we want.

That united and collectively we can conquer whatever we desire.

We are mothers, wives, queens of the home, we are everything,

we are of the world,

it is only a matter of wanting it and believing in it.

Work gives us autonomy, it makes us strong and empowered, we gain freedom and we are happy!

International Women’s Day
“Who is her?
She is a mother, grandmother, healer, doctor, teacher, cook, marisqueira, ….
she is a woman”

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