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  • A Brazilian military police soldier patrols at the security fence outside the 2016 Rio Olympics Park in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, July 21, 2016.

    A Brazilian military police soldier patrols at the security fence outside the 2016 Rio Olympics Park in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, July 21, 2016. | Photo: Reuters

Published 21 July 2016

The site sits atop a burial ground for the descendants of runaway slaves. 

In an Olympics season mired in myriad controversies, add one more to the mix: the games' media village is built on the mass graves of African slaves.

A community of descendants of runaway slaves – known reverentially in Brazil as quilombos – say that Barra Media Village 3, located near the Olympic Park in Rio de Janeiro, was built atop a burial ground where their ancestors are buried.

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Adilson Batista Almeida, the leader of Camorim Quilombo, has accused developers of erasing the country’s cultural identity, both by destroying archaeological remains at the site, and depriving the community from having a space to celebrate their Afro-Brazilian heritage.

“One Sunday morning a chainsaw came and devastated everything including century-old trees,” Almeida told The Guardian. “I regard the ground as sacred because it is where my ancestors were buried.”

The media village is a condominium that will be sold to private buyers after the Olympics. Acquired in 2013 by the real estate developer Cyrela, the company in their construction of the building destroyed hundreds of trees, a community football pitch, the remains of the old slave owner’s house and a slavery-era sugar mill.

Under Brazil’s modern constitution, quilombos are entitled to claim the lands they historically occupied. The Camorim Quilombos did claim the site of the media village, but the process was never finalized.

The Rio de Janeiro city government denies any such claim.

“The Media Village of Rio 2016 is a private enterprise, built on private property and following the urban parameters determined for the site,” a spokesman told The Guardian.

A local historian who is a professor at the Pontifical Catholic University of Rio de Janeiro, Rogério Ribeiro de Oliveira, criticised the developer for not conducting an archaeological study of the site.

“Generally, slaves were buried nearby the church, therefore the chance is high that there was a burial in the current condominium”, Oliveira said in The Guardian. “It is highly likely that (archaeological) remains were destroyed, not only from the period of the sugar mill but also before, during the pre-colonial period.”

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While there was strong resistance from quilombos while the site was under construction, they are now campaigning instead for a community center to be built on nearby, undeveloped land, donated by Cyrela to the municipal government.

The center, Almeida said, would be in honor of the community’s slave ancestors. “Their blood that was spilled – I don’t want it to be in vain. We want to fight for our space, our rights and our traditions so that our ancestors can look and see that today we are living in a better place.”

The dispute has special significance in Brazil, which is home to more African-descendants than any country other than Nigeria.

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