Threatened Rights and Resistance: For a Politically Engaged Anthropology

From the Series: Bolsonaro and the Unmaking of Brazil

Photo by Fernando Piva/ADUNICAMP. "Amerindian Scholars from Unicamp (State University of Campinas) against budget cuts in education." Student rally against Bolsonaro (Campinas-SP, May 2019).

After two years of political and economic instability in Brazil, the election of a racist, homophobic, and ubuesque president threatens social programs designed to reduce inequality that were put in place by previous governments. The progressive reformist movement of the Workers’ Party (in power between 2003 and 2016), even if slow and sometimes disorganized, instituted dialogue between government and civil society as a governance practice, a move that was contested and opposed by the country’s economic elites. Millions of citizens, the poorest ones in particular, began to foresee a better future for themselves. The scene changed with Bolsonaro’s election. The current conjuncture, even if uncertain, brings retrograde agendas to the order of the day. Anthropology is challenged to become more politically engaged.


Brazilian democracy suffered a huge blow in 2016 with the impeachment of Dilma Rousseff. Since then, the political scene has been marked by spasms of unchecked hatred motivated by caste interests. A sensation that the political sphere was liquefied, alongside the rise of neofascist groups to command the country, left large parts of the population without a North Star. Such paralysis made it possible for the new government to implement measures that changed the course previously adopted by the country. The new policies began with the withdrawal of labor rights, the blockage to the budget of higher education, and the reform of the public retirement program. Budget cuts paralyzed the implementation of basic education, health, and science and technology programs. At the symbolic level, the presidential campaign was marked by a rhetoric of brutality, inducing retrograde groups—including public figures—to act violently against minority collectives. Populations at the peripheries, women, LGBT activists, and minorities in general, are the preferred targets of the violence perpetrated by the neo-conservatives in power and their supporters.

It is against this dismal background that new forms of resistance are being organized, within a political arena characterized by the emergence of digital social networks and the weakening of traditional political parties. New collectives now try to safeguard chunks of the “citizen constitution,” as the 1988 Constitution of Brazil is known in the country—the constitution that marks the exit from over two decades of military dictatorship in Brazil. Without embarking on false optimism, there is evidence that segments of the civil society will defend the advances achieved during the first decade of the twenty-first century, such as the affirmative action programs that changed the racial demography of tertiary education and produced an unprecedented number of Black doctors in Brazil. In a little less than thirty years, new political agents emerged, fighting for the defense of diffuse legal assets, in synchrony with international political agendas such as the UN 2030 Agenda, which called for the eradication of misery, the promotion of sustainable agriculture, the abolishment of hunger, and the right to healthy food as well as to health, education, gender equality, etc. Meanwhile, the defense of the environment and of sustainable development leads appropriately to the protagonism of traditional populations, who materialize their struggle through their fight for recognition and control of their land.

If mainstream politics is contaminated, it is precisely from the margins that optimistic news arrives. In the field of quilombola (marrons) studies, new forms of political consciousness are in development. The two quilombola communities I have been working with in the state of Rio Grande do Norte—in Sibaúma (village of Tibau do Sul) and Boa Vista dos Negros (rural community of Parelhas)—are cases in point. Both communities were, more than a decade ago, the subjects of anthropological reports characterizing their historical, economic, and sociocultural bases as is required for legal recognition and formal control over their lands. The communities have still not received their land titles; yet, a marked change could be felt since the 2000’s in how the individuals perceived themselves and their communities vis-à-vis larger political circumstances. Most members of the community moved from a perception that they were not “citizens” (in the full meaning of the term) of the country, to a new condition where their historical and political consciousness underwent radical awakening. The native version of the past and of the conflicts that are described in such anthropological reports make these documents valuable because, in most cases, they represent the only documented and ethnographic record of these communities. These technical reports thus serve to support territorial requests but are also used by maroons for their own identity and political claims.

The presence of the Brazilian state, which had been silent if not absent for centuries, became something else during the Workers’ Party term. It went beyond delivering food, constructing houses and cisterns, subsidizing electricity. The close support from agents of the government—particularly the public prosecutor’s office and, in moments of conflict, the federal police—helped to secure the processes and the claimed rights. And, beyond that, it promoted bonds of solidarity between communities and academia, which resulted in solid collaborations in research and concrete action projects (extensão) and, more and more, in the acceptance of members of the quilombola communities into university. The new generations of leaders are better equipped than ever before to confront institutionalized racism and bureaucratic hindrances, and they are conscious about maintaining independence from local politics. Community leaders who participated in PT governments for the development of projects now have better access to information and assume responsibilities in the state governments of the northeast to defend the promotion of racial equality. Universities are wanted for help with education, museum, and tourism projects. Festive occasions are highly political moments where anthropologists, students, and black movement activists are invited. And, since 2018, social networks are used to circulate information and support to report rights violations, etc.

Henceforth, anthropology either is necessarily engaged or is destined to disappear: in the current political context, with the resurgence of attacks on traditional communities and universities, anthropology must show solidarity with the causes of traditional populations. These new political subjects are leaving their mark on local contexts, in institutional relations, and in scientific research, and, finally, in the emergence of a more technical field of research in anthropology. The offspring of these transformations are challenging the dominant view of a country that believed it was a “racial democracy,” and that was taken aback when confronted with its own racism. The wound is now open, the path is trodden, there is no way back. This is the path the quilombolas show us: the one of resistance.