Francimar Fernandes

This description of Francimar Fernandes's work was prepared when Francimar Fernandes was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2015 .


Francimar Fernandes has created a way to access Quilombola communities that are completely invisible even to the Quilombola movement, Francimar supports them recover their identity to access basic rights and self-organize to autonomously go after their rights and economic sustainability.

The New Idea

Descendants of black slaves, called “Quilombolas”, while achieving freedom, have initially established themselves in places of little economic value and that are difficult to access, where they live until today in a situation of exclusion. Even though Brazil’s Federal Constitution recognizes the State’s duties to this group and that there is a strong Quilombola movement in some regions of the country, many communities remain unidentified, are not knowledgeable about their rights, nor do they identify themselves as Quilombolas. Thus, Francimar created AACADE - Association of Support for Settlements and African Descent Communities in 2004 to identify ‘Quilombola’ communities that are invisible to the State. The organization supports them in rescuing their group identity, helps them gain access to basic rights and empowers them to become leading figures in their own lives - politically, socially and economically.

Francimar identifies Quilombola communities that were previously unknown by the State. She recovers their common history, strengthens their leadership and supports them to organize themselves internally by exchanging knowledge and practices with other Quilombola communities, so that they can start to actively and collectively seek their rights from the government. This local organization gave birth to CECNEQ, the State Coordination of Quilombola Communities, which currently includes representatives in national movements. Francimar’s work is intended to strengthen the autonomy of Quilombola communities. For the families’ long term financial sustainability, Francimar stimulates local entrepreneurship by partnering with experts to teach improved production techniques and support families in selling their products to the government or neighboring towns. The work of collectively building identity as a Quilombola community aims to recover cultural aspects through stories of both struggle and achievement. Today, these communities share their identity with pride. The collective self-esteem strengthened by this process breaks the shyness and sense of shame of their social and racial condition, and in turn transforms the communities’ external social relations. The now empowered Quilombolas become an integral part of their quest for rights until they get to the process of titling the property in which they live.

Francimar has expanded her work throughout Paraíba. She was able to map 39 geographically isolated and previously invisible communities and connect them both with one another and the government. Now, many of these communities are seeking access to public policies and basic rights autonomously. They are developing income-generation activities coordinated in the state network and then articulated throughout other states. Francimar is strengthening this work within all 39 communities, to create the possibility of community mapping to begin in the other states and territories of Brazil that continue to house unknown Quilombola communities.

The Problem

Despite the fact that slavery in Brazil ended in 1888, its legacy is still seen today. The descendants of black slaves, or Quilombolas, continue to live in situations of exclusion - social, economic, political and cultural. While seeking freedom, many groups of former slaves have established themselves in places with limited access and low economic value for security reasons. Some of these individuals remain isolated and unknown to this day. Recognition of specific rights for the Quilombola communities is a recent phenomena in Brazil. The identity was recognized by law for the first time in the 1988 Constitution, yet not until 2003 did they gain legal recognition of rights to land (through Decree 4887).

Since the creation of this legislation, 2,474 communites in Brazil have come forth to identify themselves as Quilombola. These communities are part of a strong Quilombola movement in Brazil, especially in Bahia and the southeastern part of the country. In these areas communities already have access to basic rights and now fight for facilitation into the complex process of land access. Still there are more communities yet to come forth. The estimated number of Quilombola collectives in Brazil is over 5,000, and in some states no one has identified as Quilombola. Despite the fact that the Brazilian Constitution recognizes the State’s obligation to these communities, many communities themselves do not know about this legislation. The state is making no effort to find or inform them. Therefore, numerous groups remain isolated and invisible to the public and lack basic rights such as electricity, water, and sanitation.

This was the case in Paraíba, a state historically influenced by coronelism (a system of power in which the landowner elites exert political control over the underprivileged population in exchange for favors). Paraiba’s Quilombola communities live in situations of social, economic and political isolation. Socially, communities are marginalized, distant from the rest of society, and far from their origins. Society and Quilombolas do not know each other, which sustains prejudice from the slavery period. For example, when thefts occur in surrounding villages, the Quilombola communities are blamed. Neither schools within the communities or nearby villages teach the history of the Quilombola people, adding to ignorance about their identity. Many do not even know the name "Quilombola". In order to find acceptance in a prejudice society, black people, for example, have to adapt their clothing and religion and in the process lose part of their identity while diminishing their self-esteem. This ignorance, alongside prejudice and feelings of inferiority brought from outside, makes the Quilombolas see themselves as lesser. They undervalue their culture and heritage, feeling that they in fact belong to marginal society. In this context of disempowerment, these communities rarely develop internal leadership capable of establishing a horizontal dialogue between community and other players.

All of these factors of exclusion have an economic impact on Quilombola families. Low productivity and difficult access to land-rights decreases the potential for income generation and trade ties with neighboring cities. Furthermore, communities have little knowledge about entrepreneurship, production and commercialization techniques. The situation of poverty sustains a subservient scenario for the descendants of slaves in the state of Paraíba.

Currently, the already tenuous status of Quilombola is under threat. Many powerful landowners, who do not want their land to go to the Quilombola, have strong representation in Congress. They are attempting to pass two laws that would limit Quilombolas’ rights: one would override Decree 4788, and the other would give Congress a role in allocating land for Quilombolas and indigenous populations.

The Strategy

Francimar’s work started with the identification of Quilombola communities in geographic regions of Paraíba. First she came in contact with a single community who then indicated another to her and so on. With some communities already mapped, Francimar convinced the government to conduct a census of the Quilombola communities of Paraíba in partnership with her. She found 39 geographically isolated communities who were unknown to the government.

Her strategy to break the cycle of social, economic and political isolation begins by resuscitating the Quilombola identity and empowering leadership. This phase is developed in collaboration with leaders from other communities who are more advanced in the program. Empathy that exists between communities facilitates this contact and trust. Francimar and ACAADE meet with the community and through conversation circles, encourage them to share their history, culture, customs, and most importantly the challenges they face. One of the workshops aims to interview the community elders about the history of the Quilombolas. Through this process the community begins to understand and value their identity as Quilombola. When the elders tell stories of their lives and resistance, the community finds a sense of pride and confidence. Knowledge of heritage is important for people to understand what role they can play in changing their own future. During this process, the main challenges are mapped out and leaders are identified.

Following this, AACADE explains existing public policies and how they affect the community’s daily life. To access such polices the community members must recognize themselves as Quilombola before the government. This is a delicate process for communities, who already feel they face prejudice without specifying that they are descendants of slaves. As the community begins to receive the benefits of public policies, facilitated through self-identification, the value of identification becomes tangible. For example, if a community says that one of their greatest difficulties is lack of electricity, AACADE connects them with the governmental program, Light for All. Consequentially, the community receives the public policy, sees the benefit of identifying themselves as Quilombolas and becomes more confident to access other rights through their identity. Francimar believes that a community that has survived so much social and racial discrimination, which always had a subsistence economy, is inherently entrepreneurial, and as such cannot be treated from a perspective of charity. Thus, the guiding elements of her methodology are: leadership, resilience, solidarity and autonomy.

From there, Francimar identifies community leaders, sets up a group to develop a work plan and assists in the internal organizing process. With every new community, a group of leaders from external communities that have already gone through the steps, guide the new group through the organizational process. The work plan includes visits to and meetings with other communities along with the government. There is also the creation of an association that acts as an instrument to manage activities in an autonomous and organized fashion. This local organizing methodology gave birth to the State Coordination of Quilombola Communities (CECNEQ), which works to strengthen dialogue between the groups and the State. Representatives from this coordination are now part of a national movement, so Paraíba’s Quilombolas are now organized at a local, state and national level. This is important because they identify the needs of local communities, such as access to water and housing, and bring these concerns to higher levels as ‘Quilombola problems’. This process creates a unified mission the Quilombola community, rather than a demand from one specific community which gains leverage with the state. Francimar’s role is currently one of support since the goal is for the Quilombolas to be empowered and occupy the political space themselves. These previously invisible communities have now met with the state governor.

Beyond political activity to ensure rights, in the community work plan there are also actions to ensure autonomy through economic sustainability. To reach sustainability, Francimar identifies the current and potential entrepreneurs from the community, and the economic activities that the community is either currently performing or would like to. Most of the entrepreneurs are women as, historically, they are the ones who work the land. Then AACADE offers workshops for them to improve their techniques in various fields such as handcraft production, planting, creation of new businesses and commercialization of products. Francimar does this with the help of partners, such as SEBRAE, SENAR, government technicians, and entrepreneurs from other communities. She also provides support in acquiring financial resources in the forms of grants or loans. Besides that, AACADE holds partnership with bank agencies to facilitate the process of opening a bank account. Some communities are included in the Food Acquisition Program (PAA), in which the government purchases food produced by small farmers and delivers it to underserved communities. This enables a more stable income for many families. These communities used to receive food from the government, but now they sell it to them. The Bonfim Community produces vegetables and fruit for schools in the program; a group of women from the Matias Community started a fruit mini-industry; Communities Pedra D'água and Cruz da Menina began activities of cutting and sewing. Production increase in the lives of families can be seen through two relationships: 1) an increase in income leads to greater food security and greater access to health, and 2) trade creates trust bonds with neighboring cities that once saw the Quilombolas as marginalized.

As the community develops entrepreneurial potential and the internal leaders become stronger, the community gradually integrates into the political environment by participating in meetings with the government, and seeking out full rights. First they demand rights that are most urgent and accessible through public policy. Then once there is a strong sense of community the issue becomes property rights. This is a slow and bureaucratic issue. In Brazil, only 125 of the 2,474 recognized Quilombola communities have legal ownership of their land. In Paraíba, thanks to the work of Francimar, 17 of 36 Quilombola communities are in the process of acquiring ownership.

At the end of the process, the community will reach political autonomy and economic stability. Social and cultural projects are added onto the sustainability projects. Using the potential of communities, AACADE strives to be a bridge between the people and the entities who want to work with them to address their needs. This is how the project “Street Photographers” came about. This initiative teaches photography to the Quilombola youth, showing them to value and share their lens with the world. Also founded was the “Justice in the Community” project, that provides legal training and advice to Quilombolas. The census supported by the state government was run by 40 young Quilombolas, who provided a large overview of the 39 Quilombola communities of 1,905 families. And finally, the publication of the Paraíba Quilombolas Book in 2013, which includes the first study about the local reality of Paraiba’s Quilombola.

Quilombola has rescued forgotten customs, stories of struggle and achievements. These communities now display their identities with pride, which has had positive impact on their external social relations. Francimar managed to take the ignored reality of Paraiba’s Quilombola communities to the Federal, State and Municipal Governments. Pictures of young Quilombolas from the Street Photographers project were shown in the Judiciary. Media professionals are starting to recognize the existence of Quilombola communities. The schools in the region have finally added lessons on Quilombola identity to their curriculum. Once invisible, now 39 Quilombola communities (around 14,000 people) have been identified by AACADE, and there are at least 6 more still to be distinguished. Of these communities, 17 are in the process of land demarcation and one has already completed it. Françimar’s methodology is not limited to the Quilombola communities and other groups suffering social exclusion can also benefit. Following AACADE’s lead, an organization focused on Gypsies in Paraiba has began to map communities.

The Person

Francimar was born to a poor black rural family in the conservative state of Paraíba. At an early age, she had to learn how to defend herself from unearned prejudice due to her ethnicity and social status. Francimar lost her father when she was young, and faced challenges as a woman raised by a single mother in the sexist context of Paraiba. Her difficult upbringing has merely increased her desire to change the environment in which she was born and taught her how to be sensitive when dealing with the women with which she works.

A lesson learned from her mother has helped guide her through life: every person is able to make changes and live with dignity. This idea has influenced her training and work when she rejects charity as an end in itself. On the contrary, Francimar has always beleived in the autonomy and entrepreneurial energy of people. Thus, she has always been engaged in social movements and sought an education to help her better understand social dynamics - Sociology. Her studies broadened her understanding of the political and economic relationship between Brazil and the world. During her studies, she conducted research on vulnerable populations in rural areas, where she learned commitment and the capabilities of group activities.

From an early age she helped her immediate family, and in her community she has always assumed leadership roles when it comes to initiatives that promote improvement to her village such as dialogue with the government, training rural workers and supporting literacy. Inspired by the struggle of Margarida Maria Alves, a union leader in Paraíba who was murdered by big landowners, Francimar involved herself in the organization of landless workers occupying a sugarcane plantation. This movement resulted in the formation of agrarian reform settlements for three hundred vulnerable families. In the same region, she later became a member of a technical assistance team hired by the federal government.

Francimar founded AACADE in an effort to address land rights for rural populations by aiding in the litigation process. However, as she familiarized herself with the state she realized that the Quilombola communities were among the most excluded people. They are not even mentioned in discussions of settlements legalization. Thus, Francimar changed AACADE’s focus to work with Quilombola communities, some of which lack recognition as “Quilombola Communities” even though a community of black families descending from the slavery period is identified as such by the legal system.