RIO DE JANEIRO — Jose Luiz Pinto's grandparents first came to Quilombo Sacopa more than 120 years ago as escaped slaves.
A hillside cave, then in virgin jungle but now in the heart of Rio de Janeiro, provided a good hiding place. They later built a house nearby.
That house has since sprouted into a community housing Pinto and about 30 relatives. It's also joined a key part of Brazilian history as one of the country's more than 1,100 recognized quilombos, or historic settlements founded by escaped slaves or their descendents.
For Pinto, a 65-year-old musician, living where his grandparents settled to escape an unjust, bloody institution is a point of pride.
"My grandparents died always fighting and resisting the injustice around them," Pinto said on a recent morning while walking through the quilombo. "That's what this community represents."
Increasingly, black leaders are drawing inspiration from that history and hailing the quilombos as symbols of a rising movement to give more political and economic power to Afro-Brazilians. At the same time, more settlements are winning federal recognition and seeking title to the land they're built on.
Pinto said winning such recognition in 2004 was crucial to ensuring his quilombo's future. Since his grandparents' days, the surrounding neighborhood has turned into one of Rio de Janeiro's most exclusive, and developers and neighbors have tried for decades to remove Pinto and his family.
Those efforts have since stopped, and Pinto is applying for title to the 4.4 acres his family live on. They also receive government aid for quilombos.
Since taking office in 2003, President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva has jump-started the quilombo movement and upset powerful landowners by streamlining the process for granting them official recognition and land rights.
Rolf Hachbart, head of the country's land reform agency, said helping quilombos is one way the government is paying a historic debt for slavery. More than half of the 63 settlements with land titles nationwide received them under Lula's government.
The Brazilian government estimates that as many as 2 million people live in recognized and unrecognized quilombos that total about 116,000 square miles of land.
Landowner groups and other critics have accused the communities of abusing the system to seize more land than they're entitled to. They've also assailed changes that allow communities to identify themselves as descended from escaped slaves, rather than await word from anthropologists.
"Having these quilombos self-declare has created a very messy system," said Leoncio de Souza Brito Filho, president of the land issues commission of Brazil's main agriculture industry group. "This is creating mistrust everywhere."
Quilombo leaders said their fight wasn't just about land. Many also keep alive the traditions of their communities' founders, including growing the same foods and practicing the same religions.
For 76-year-old Gregorio Capistano and about 40 farmers and fishermen on an island in the Bay of All Saints in northeastern Brazil, winning quilombo status in 2004 brought long-delayed self-determination.
The conditions on the island more than 40 years ago weren't much better than slavery, Capistano said. Every farmer had to give up to half of their crops to a local family that controlled the island, although it was mostly public land. Farmers who refused were beaten.
Now, Capistano and his neighbors get to keep what they produce and are applying for title to their farms.
"When I first came here, there was so much suffering," he said. "Everything we grew, they took. Now, we work for ourselves."