Brazil’s tourism industry and image barely needs promotion, blessed with imagery such as Rio de Janiero’s magnificent skyline, thousands of kilometres of golden beaches, and a colourful carnival like no other in the world. Those that have never been to Brazil find it difficult to think beyond these stereotypical brochure shots but underneath there is a wealth of history and regional differences to be discovered. The state of Bahia stands out both visually and socially from other parts of Brazil. Not only does it have some of the best beaches in Brazil, it is the soul of Afro-Brazilian arts, music and culture. Discovering the city of Salvador is a very different experience to the city of Rio and Sao Paolo. Venture further from Salvador it is worth making the effort to visit communities called Quilombolos and Mocambos, which tell a story of Brazil’s colonial past and current economic and socio-political struggles.
Much of Bahia’s population is descendent of the Atlantic slave trade, which was legal for approximately four centuries following the Portuguese discovery of Brazil in 1500. Sugar cane plantations and slavery came hand in hand, with horrifying treatment and conditions. Some slaves managed to escape these atrocities before slavery abolition in 1888. Those who escaped from the slave plantations established communities called Quilombos, where today descendants continue to live. Quilombos were mainly located deep in the jungles, far from European influence, many remaining so well hidden it was assumed they had been destroyed or died out until rediscovered in the 1970s and 1980s. The communities dropped farming practices at the risk of being discovered and continued the agricultural forest practice. The most avid supporter of the Quilombos was the assassinated environmentalist Chico Mendes, who argued for the preservation of the jungle and its native people including the Quilombolos. Finally, the 1988 Constitution of Brazil granted remaining Quilombo communities the collective ownership of the lands they have occupied since colonial times, thus recognizing their distinct identity at the same level of the indigenous peoples of Brazil.
Today there are 1700 Quilombos whose population and influences are a mixture of native indigenous and African descent, mainly located in the plantation region of Bahia, the mining zone of Minas Gerais, and the isolated district of Alagoas. Unfortunately many live in poverty and often have violent land disputes with ranchers, loggers and miners. Recently, there have been NGO and government initiatives supporting community-based tourism. Visiting a Quilombo community allows you to experience their preserved and revived craft traditions and food, the latter often reddish in colour from the commonly used ingredient of Dende Oil. You will hear personal stories of survival and their pride in maintaining and reviving their heritage. Brazil’s West African heritage, particularly Angolan, and is also reflected in its martial art Capoeira, which combines acrobatic, dance, and musical elements. Despite being created in the 16th century, it was only recently recognised by UNESCO as an “intangible cultural heritage” in 2014. Capoeira was developed on the slavery plantations as a hope of survival that could be used by any escaped slave that may be captured, disguising the martial art as a dance. The skill of unconventional capoeiristas was soon feared and the practice was even banned across Brazil in the late 1800s. Today its movements and music is a common sight to be enjoyed in the colourful squares of Salvador de Bahia and a reminder of Brazil’s creation.
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