Brazilians triumph in 'David v Goliath' tax battle

By agency reporter
November 29, 2014

Thousands of poor Brazilians are celebrating victory in a David v Goliath-style battle to be exempted from huge tax demands for land on which they have lived and worked for more than 100 years.

Several Quilombola communities – the descendants of African slaves and one of the most socially excluded groups in Brazil – were hit by bills as high as £4 million after winning collective legal ownership to the land in recent years.

The Quilombola live simple lives, relying mainly on subsistence farming and the small amount they make from the sale of forest produce such as Brazil nuts, açaí berries and cassava flour.

The tax bills – levied ironically because the Quilombola left intact the trees on which their incomes depend, leading the authorities to deem the land ‘unproductive’ – meant they faced the prospect of losing all they had fought to secure, says the UK-based churches' global development agency Christian Aid

To fight the demands, Christian Aid’s partner organisation CPI (Pro-Indian Commission) in São Paulo secured pro-bono legal help from lawyers Bichara, Barata & Costa Advogados. As well as initiating a legal challenge, CPI and the lawyers lobbied the Brazilian government and parliament to withdraw the demands as unjust.

It was feared the struggle could take many years, but in October, Brazil’s Senate voted to exempt the Quilombola land from the tax, and this month the country’s President Dilma Roussef signed the reform into law.

Edilson da Conceição Cardoso da Costa, leader of the Arapapuzinho community, said this week: “For us this is more than just a victory, it marks our liberation. This debt made it impossible for us to do anything despite the rights we had under the Brazilian Constitution and ILO Convention No.169 [a legally binding international instrument of the International Labour Organisation which deals specifically with the rights of indigenous and tribal peoples.]

“All the hopes that we had built up during the struggle for our land were dashed. The victory over these unfair tax demands is like a door opening wide for these rights to reach our communities.

“We hope that this will be a landmark in the history of the Quilombola/Afro-Brazilian communities in Brazil. Many people died in the struggle for land. We will not give up the fight that our ancestors started, their blood won’t have been shed for nothing.”

Lucia M.M. de Andrade of CPI said: "The extent of this achievement is greater than just the amnesty of the Quilombola’s tax debts. It's another step towards official recognition of the collective way in which Quilombola own their land – something which went unnoticed when Brazil’s land tax law was passed.

“This meant that the Quilombola did not get the treatment they deserved. The latest change in the law corrects this distortion and solves a problem that has concerned us since 2011 when the Quilombola first requested our support.”

Mara Luz, Deputy Head of Christian Aid in Latin America, said: “We are overjoyed. The new law benefits thousands of families in the Amazon area of Brazil. They need no longer live in fear.

“Furthermore, now their tax debts have been cancelled, the Quilombola can get social and financial benefits from the Brazilian government. This will help them thrive.”

She added: “This story shows how the tax system, which sometimes seems so far removed from daily life, affects communities and generates inequality. But it is also evidence of how work at grassroots level, combined with pro bono legal work and political lobbying rooted in the community, can achieve dramatic change. CPI and the lawyers have achieved more than we ever dared to hope for.”


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