When I was 10 years old, I would cross the roads of the Recôncavo Baiano region of Eastern Brazil, traveling with my parents from the state of Bahia’s capital to a small farm where we used to spend weekends. Between January and March, the smell of burning in the sugar cane plantations indicated we were nearing our destination. As we would cross the beautiful Imperial Dom Pedro II Bridge, inaugurated by the Emperor himself, I would watch men, black with soot, cutting down or carrying large bundles of sugar cane. I had no idea who they were.
In January 2015 I returned to the region to visit my parents. Childhood memories came back as we traveled through the long stretch of land that skirts the Todos os Santos Bay, the second largest in the world. We crossed the imposing bridge and I gazed at the landscape contrasted between the green sugar cane to be harvested, and the grey soil where the burning had occurred. The men seemed to be the same ones I had observed in my childhood. I decided to meet them.
The Recôncavo is frozen in time. In many ways, it hasn’t changed much since thousands of slaves were brought from Africa to work in the lands of the new Portuguese colony. Many of the workers I met are their descendants. Some are quilombola—their ancestors were slaves who had escaped from the plantations and founded their own free settlements. Today, the working conditions of the sugar cane workers feel sadly similar to the exploitations of their ancestors.