PUBLISHED:October 04, 2010

Duke Law students issue final report on Brazil land-title process

Law students and recent graduates who spent the Spring 2010 semester studying the land rights of Afro-Brazilian communities have submitted their final report to community leaders and Brazilian government officials, institutions, and non-government organizations engaged in the issue.

Written under the supervision of Laurence R. Helfer, the Harry R. Chadwick, Sr. Professor of Law, the report contains insights gleaned from the students’ intense study and research, both at Duke Law and on the ground in Brazil. Along with Helfer, the students spent their 2010 Spring break in Brazil as part of the seminar. They met with members of quilombos -- Afro-Brazilians communities descended from slaves -- who are seeking to secure legal title to lands they have long occupied. The students also interviewed government officials, civil society groups, anthropologists, and legal scholars who work on land rights issues in Brazil.

The report outlines the difficulties Afro-Latino communities have had in obtaining land rights in Central and South America, where six countries recognize some form of collective rights. The problems are especially stark in Brazil. “Nowhere are the connections between Afro-Latinos, access to land, and socioeconomic development more apparent than in Brazil,” the report states. “Afro-Brazilians comprise 45 percent of the Brazilian population, yet constitute 69 percent of those living in extreme poverty. Land ownership remains sharply concentrated, with 3.5 percent of landowners controlling over half of the arable land.”

Brazil’s 1988 constitution included a provision allowing quilombos to apply for collective title to lands where they have long resided. But implementation has been problematic. Applications filed by many quilombos are enmeshed in a bureaucratic quagmire, the report found.

“Complex bureaucratic procedures and structures, negative treatment in the news media, and social exclusion of quilombos from Brazilian society render the quilombola titling laws and regulations difficult to implement,” the report states. “As a result, progress in granting titles has been slow. And even after gaining legal title, quilombos encounter considerable obstacles in pursuing funding for socioeconomic development projects. Collective land title, and the avenues for socioeconomic development that such title is thought to open, remain out of grasp for many Afro-Brazilians.”

Brazil trip gave rise to deeper understanding of complex land-titling issue
Kat Shea ’10, Noah Browne ’11, and Anne Dana ’11 proposed the ad hoc seminar to as a practical way to analyze the relationship between land rights and social justice issues. Challenged by Helfer, 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 claims situation through Global Imprints, a company that specializes in educational and legal service trips.

The students formed three working groups to research the evolution and current state of Brazilian law with respect to quilombo land titling procedures, governmental and non-governmental agencies and international financial organizations involved in the titling process and socioeconomic development for quilombos, and comparative research on Afro-Latino land rights countries in South and Central America.

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.

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 several dozen 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 days of sunrise-to-sundown meetings in the community’s church.

They learned the history of each community and their differences and discussed the land titling process in detail.

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.

The final report, in English and Portuguese, was sent to NGO leaders, government officials, and FGV faculty, Helfer said.

Writing the report was a learning experience, Browne said. “The most challenging part of the course from an intellectual standpoint was definitely writing and editing the report itself. It was not unlike putting a brief together using sections written by different people. I found that near the end of the semester, when we started to crystallize our ideas, we came up with some great insights, but giving a coherent voice to those insights was difficult.”

According to Helfer, the students’ research and the process of preparing the report gave the Duke Law participants a valuable mix of academic and practice experiences. “I hope that the students’ excitement about the Brazil course and trip will translate into other experiences that give students the opportunity to take what they learn in the classroom and translate it into practice.”

Read the final Brazil land rights report in English or in Portuguese.

Watch video of Duke Law students' March 2010 trip to Brazil. View photos.