In Brazil’s burning rainforest, Indigenous women lead the battle against ecocide, genocide

The Indigenous Women’s March

It only took three weeks or so for the world to take note that Brazil’s Amazonian rainforest is on fire, a fire whose smoke turned Sao Paola’s midday to midnight, a fire that from deep space portends an immediate threat to all living beings on the planet Earth. According to those watching the Amazon, the rainforest has suffered close to 73,000 fires this year alone. In the past week, around 10,000 fires have erupted. This represents a 70% increase in fires since January 2018. This sudden peak in rainforest fires is directly attributable to the policies of the Bolsonaro government. The Amazon is on fire, the Earth is on fire. Amazonian Indigenous peoples warned us that Bolsonaro, and the system of which he is a part, would do this to the forests and to the Earth. Few listened. In this struggle, Indigenous women lead the effort to liberate the Americas and the world. From the outset, they argued the struggle for Indigenous and environmental autonomy was and is a liberation struggle. Maybe now, maybe, more of us will listen. 

On August 13, 2019, Indigenous women converged on Brasilia for the first Indigenous Women’s March. Under the banner “Territory: our body, our spirits”, thousands of Indigenous women from hundreds of different Indigenous populations gathered and filled the streets for days. Sônia Guajajara, leader of the Articulação dos Povos Indígenas do Brasil (Brazil’s Indigenous People Articulation), APIB, explained, “We came to denounce the president’s hateful discourse, which has increased violence and destruction in our territories, which directly impacts us, women. We are counting on international solidarity to advance this movement for our future.” Her colleague, Célia Xacriabá added, ““For the first time in history, the indigenous women’s march convenes more than 100 different peoples in Brasilia with more than 2,000 women present. This is a movement that is not only symbolically important but also historically and politically significant. When they try to take away our rights, it’s not enough to only defend our territories. We also need to occupy spaces beyond our villages, such as institutional spaces and political representativity. We call on the international community to support us, to amplify our voices and our struggle against today’s legislative genocide, where our own government is authorizing the slaughter and ethnocide of indigenous peoples. This is also an opportunity to join our voices to denounce this government’s ecocide, where the killing of mother nature is our collective concern.”

At one level, as in the past, the real tragedy in Brazil is that there is no tragedy. There is only redundancy, murmurs of complicity, and, then, as in Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Chronicle of a Death Foretold, the inconceivable: “It was inconceivable that they would suddenly abandon their pastoral spirit to avenge a death for which we all could have been to blame.” However, today, as in the past, Indigenous women are organizing, refusing to accept that script that renders them abject and renders the world as empty and farcical. They are demanding that we, all of us, recognize we have the possibility of liberation. As Tamikua Faustino explained, “Deforestation is a killer. If we don’t stick together, in the near future we’ll be eliminated.” It’s time to reject those who would impose a death sentence on all living beings, to refuse the vampire thirst for the blood of all living creatures. It’s time to see the sun at midday, the moon at midnight. Eight years ago, in a different environment crisis in Brazil, Indigenous woman organizer Juma Xipaia declared, “We will not be silent. We will shout out loud and we will do it now.” Another world is possible. Shout out loud, do it now.

(Photo Credit: CIMI / Tiago Miotto)

Marielle Franco spoke for Afro-Brazilians, and for that she was killed

Marielle Franco was gunned down in her white Chevy after giving a speech at Rio’s House of Black Women on March 14th, in what appeared to be an assassination and an attempt to silence what Franco was best known for: speaking out against police brutality on Afro-Brazilians and marginalized people in the favelas in Rio de Janeiro. If those who fired the nine bullets at Franco thought they would silence a movement to address the rampant corruption and racism in Brazil, they were sorely wrong. The next day, tens of thousands of people rushed into the streets across Brazil to protest her murder. Many hoped that her tragic death would shine light on corruption of police officials, violence in the Maré slums between gangs and police and the “federal intervention” of the favelas by President Michel Temer, blaming rising crime as an excuse to put the army in charge of Rio’s state police forces and prisons. Franco was vehemently against the intervention, serving on a council commission to oversee the occupation.

Franco was a light of hope for marginalized people residing in Rio’s slums where violence and police intervention is frequent. A resident of the favelas herself, she worked for a scholarship to Rios Pontifical Catholic University, studying social sciences and graduated with a master’s degree in public administration. She became militant after a stray bullet during a shootout between police and gang members killed her friend in 2005.

A black single mother and a lesbian, Franco fought for single mothers, women, gay rights and favela residents. She addressed the rampant racial inequality and police brutality in Rio, an Afro-Brazilian elected to a government post which has been ruled by rich middle-aged elite white men, in a country where more than half the population is black or mixed race. One woman, an Afro-Brazilian nurse who attended a “Black Genocide” protest in downtown Rio after Franco’s death and who refused to give her name because of fear of police intervention, claimed, “Why am I afraid? Because I’m a black woman, and my life is worth nothing here.”

While Brazil touts being post-racial, believing a black/white divide is expressly imported from America and never happened in the country, critics claim the myth silences all conversations concerning discrimination and violence. Every day, 112 Black or mixed-race Brazilians are killed. Making up 54% of the national population, Black and mixed-race Brazilians account for 71% of all homicides. From 2005-2015, the proportion of Black and mixed-race Brazilians killed rose by 18% while the figure for whites dropped by 12%. Meanwhile, white politicians in power are attempting to divert the cause of Franco’s death away from discussing race. “Her bloodshed can’t be used as an opportune moment to talk about hate. When you talk about a black-white divide, you are contributing to this division,” announced white national senator from Rio Grande do Sul state, Ana Amélia. In 2017, 1,124 people were killed at the hands of the police; 80% of those killed were Black or mixed-race.

Franco denounced police killings of Black favela residences, with special criticism for Rio’s 41st Military Police Battalion, known as “the death brigade” for killing and shooting Black youth. Franco’s last tweet condemned the death of Matheus Melo, a young Black favela resident who was shot coming out of a church with his girlfriend, “How many more people need to die before this war ends?” He was only one of the latest victims in a conflict between drug traffickers, militias and police in Rio state.

Franco’s killers have not been caught. Federal prosecutors in Rio believe the evidence points to corrupt police officers. The bullets came from police ammunition stocks, and the location of her murder seems to have been meticulously chosen, since her killers followed her from the meeting and chose a “blind spot” where street cameras were not functioning. How many more people need to die before this war ends?

 

(Photo Credit 1: Whose Knowledge) (Photo Credit 2: The Guardian / Marcelo Sayao / EPA)

In Colombia, Fernando César Niebles Fernández died today

 

Fernando César Niebles Fernández died today … or was it Monday. It’s hard to tell. Anyway, he didn’t die. He was murdered.

This past Monday, January 27, a fire broke out in the Modelo prison, in Barranquilla, on the Caribbean coast of Colombia. By day’s end, ten prisoners were reported dead, over 40 injured, many seriously. Today, the death toll rose to 11.

The fire has been described as an inferno, but the real inferno, the real hell, is the prison itself. Designed to hold around 400 prisoners, at the time of the fire, Modelo held close to 1200. The cellblock where the fire broke out was designed to hold 196. At the time of the fire, it held 716 That’s 265 percent of capacity. Modelo was and is a death trap, pure and simple. Colombia prison system is at almost 200 percent capacity.

When the fire broke out, it was thought to be a conflict between different groups. And so the staff shot tear gas into the cells and that was that. As the fire intensified, the bars remained closed. The inferno was not the fire. The inferno was `protocol.’

And now? The stories of the families pour forth, with photos and videos and words, words, words. Mothers and fathers, like Rocío Cantillo Torres  and Atanasio Mutis, wait for their sons. Sisters, wives, daughters, friends, neighbors, strangers wait for news, wait for death. Modelo was and is inferno. The event of death is important, but the death itself was long foretold. Who could survive such conditions?

And today, it’s Mercedes María Suarez’s turn. She’s Fernando César Niebles Fernández’s mother. Her son lived with severe mental health issues, caused by a road accident four years ago. He needed help. Instead, he got prison. It’s a common enough story. She weeps for her son, and asks how the State could have done this, could have come to this pass.

The ordinariness of the story of Fernando César Niebles Fernández and Mercedes María Suarez doesn’t reduce the suffering, the personal and individual tragedy, but don’t let anyone tell you it’s a national or historical tragedy. It’s not. It’s happened too many times, in Colombia and Brazil, in January, and around the world. Stuff the prisons to beyond bursting and what do you think will happen? The deaths at Barranquilla, like the deaths earlier this month in Maranhão in Brazil, were no accident. They were public policy. As James Baldwin once argued, “It is not permissible that the authors of devastation should also be innocent. It is the innocence which constitutes the crime.”

There will be more fires, and some day the fire, the fire next time, will not be the fire of the criminally innocent: “God gave Noah the rainbow sign, No more fire, the fire next time!” But today, weep for Fernando César Niebles Fernández, weep with Mercedes María Suarez.

 

(Photo Credit: El Universal (Colombia))

Brazil’s chronicle of a death foretold


Yet again, women gather outside prison gates to find out if their loved ones are still alive. This time, it’s Pedrinhas Prison, in the state of Maranhão, in the northeast of Brazil.

On Tuesday, a local news outlet broadcast a video, delivered by Sindspem, a prison workers’ union, showing the decapitated bodies of three prisoners in Pedrinhas. Local, national, and international agencies yet again decried the situation in Brazil’s prison system, and in particular at Pedrinhas. In 2013, 60 or more prisoners were killed in Maranhão prisons. Maranhão is bad, and Pedrinhas is bad. But Pedrinhas is not the worst. The worst is that it’s typical.

Pedrinhas is designed to hold 1700 prisoners. It currently houses 2500. By Brazilian standards, that’s not so bad. The entire system is supposed to hold no more than 3,300 prisoners, and actually holds 6,200. Pedrinhas may be intolerably overcrowded, but, by Brazilian standards, it’s not so bad.

At the end of last year, a judicial report listed cases of torture, assassination, and sexual violence. Women visiting loved ones have been raped by gang leaders. As one judge put it, “The relatives of the powerless prisoners inside the jail are paying this price so that they won’t be murdered.” The relatives have paid the price all along, for their loved ones but also for `national development.’

Maranhão is a particular case. The Brazilian `economic miracle’ hasn’t quite reached the northeast state. Of Brazil’s 27 states, Maranhão has the second-worst Human Development Index. Its per capita income is Brazil’s lowest in Brazil. Where Brazil’s national illiteracy rate is just below 9 percent. Maranhão’s is over 20 percent. One family, the Sarneys, have ruled the state for almost fifty years. Not surprisingly, the Sarneys claim the press is being sensationalist, the report is the work of disgruntled employees, and the overcrowding is a result of slow courts.

In that last claim, the Sarneys are not altogether wrong. Where Maranhão is an outlier State, Pedrinhas is just one of the gang. Brazil boasts the world’s fourth largest prison population. In the past twenty years, the prison population has increased 380 percent, while the national population has only gone up by 30 percent. From 2000 to 2012, the number of prisoners awaiting trial skyrocketed from just below 81,000 to close to 200,000, an increase of 250% in 12 years. HIV prevalence among prisoners in Brazil is one of the highest in the world.

And for women? The incarceration of women has kept pace with the national trend, which is to say it’s risen quickly over the last twenty years. Women’s prisons are overcrowded. Women prisoners have high rates of HIV. Half of women prisoners are young (18 to 29 years old). Two-thirds are categorized as Black or Mixed race, and two-thirds of women prisoners are in for “drug trafficking”.

Sound familiar? It should.

And what’s the proposed solution to the twenty-year surge in incarceration that has criminally overcrowded prisons, by criminalizing and then militarizing urban poor and working-class populations? Privatization!

None of the Pedrinhas story is a surprise. It’s been Brazil’s public policy for twenty years. For Lucia Nader, executive director of Conectas, “The tragedy in Pedrinhas was foretold.” The real tragedy is that there is no tragedy. There is only redundancy, murmurs of complicity, and, then, as in Chronicle of a Death Foretold, the inconceivable: “It was inconceivable that they would suddenly abandon their pastoral spirit to avenge a death for which we all could have been to blame.”

 

(Photo Credit: Mercopress.com)

Women demand cities that value women

In this season of mass protests and demonstrations, much of the news media has decided that this global phenomenon is an expression of `middle-class rage’. It’s not. The waves of mass protests are a creative response to the form of urbanization that now covers the globe. Remember, already more than half the world population lives in urban zones, and, according to the United Nations, soon more than half the world population will live in urban slums. This means the urban local is global. That’s the lesson that protesters, and in particular women protesters, are once again bringing to the streets and beyond.

The march of protests is a global urban uprising. Ask the women, and their colleagues and friends, who, through policy brutality, have become icons of the protest movements.

When Ceyda Sungur, Gezi Park’s `woman in the red dress’, was interviewed, after the police pepper sprayed her in the face, she deflected personal attention: “A lot of people no different from me were out protecting the park, defending their rights, defending democracy. They also got gassed.”

How does protecting a park equal defending rights equal defending democracy? On one hand, in the specifics of the moment, the equation is part of the pro-democracy rhetoric. On the other, more pertinent hand, Ceyda Sungur is an urban planner. When Sungur says, “For me this is about freedom of speech and the power of the people”, she means the struggle for the park, rights, democracy, freedom, power, is an urban struggle, a struggle against authoritarian, anti-human, anti-woman urban development.

Then there’s Liv Nicolsky Lagerblad de Oliveira. She lives in Rio. One night, she was standing alone on a street corner where there had been demonstrations earlier. Hours earlier, the riot police had forcefully removed all the protesters, but they were still hungry. They descended upon Oliveira, alone, late at night, just standing, and pepper sprayed her full in the face at close range. Yet again, the riot police created a new icon, yet again a woman.

And yet again the message, this time Oliveira’s, was urban: “The city is being gentrified. The poor can no longer afford to live in some favelas and the elite is taking their place. The cost of life is increasing and the increase in bus fare was just the last straw.”

Around the world, thanks to `urban development’, the working poor can’t afford to live in the slums. Women know this story, because they’re the central, disallowed subjects.

Repeatedly, protestors argue the City has become the epicenter of debt-and-death. Worldwide women are protesting the designed hostility of `the new Jerusalem’ to women and girls. Women, like Ellen Woodsworth, the founder of Women Transforming Cities, are organizing with women to address the complete and systemic lack of gender equity lens that marks city planning and governance. Urban public lighting, transportation, access to medical care, access to police, affordable housing, green common spaces, toilets, living wages, decent working conditions, violence, crime, peace, well being, inequality, equality are all particular to women and are all feminist issues. For example, in Japan, the environmental recycling movement had to rethink everything when women challenged the assumptions of their mandated unpaid, unrecognized, `informal’ labor … in the name of a green economy. The women in Japan said, “No gender equity, no peace.” The women in Istanbul, Ankara, Dhaka, Rio, São Paolo, Vancouver, Cape Town, Barcelona, Buenos Aires, and beyond, are saying so as well.

The last green space in Istanbul is an urban women’s issue, and a feminist crisis. The rise in public transport fares and the pricing of slums out of the reach of the working poor in Rio de Janeiro is an urban women’s issue, and a feminist crisis. Thais Gomes, Brazilian `shantytown dweller’, understands that. It’s not “middle class rage”. It’s urban.

Around the world, women are saying “Hell no!” to the “gift” of global hyper-urbanization and “Hell yes!” to cities that respect all living beings as valuable, to city administrators and planners who see value in the social, to those who value women as humans, neighbors, partners.

 

(Photo Credit: Bianet)

Around the world, women say, “Hell no!”

Brazil’s Vinegar Revolution

Around the world, women are loudly, softly, even silently rejecting the `advances’ of repressive regimes, from Turkey and Greece to Senegal and Brazil, women are saying, “Hell no.” The State says vacate, and women say, “No, we’re staying.” The State says move on, and women say, “We’ll just stand still for a while.” The State says, “Come to our big event”, and the women say, “No, and here’s why.” The State says, “Ok, come on in,” and women respond, “You know what? After the way you’ve treated me, you can keep your so-called invitation.”

When the Greek state tried to close the ERT television station, workers, women like Maria Kodaxi, refused to move. Across Turkey, women refused to accept the violence of the State and, one by one and then in tens and hundreds, became “duran kadin”, standing women. In Greece and Turkey, the struggle continues.

As Turkey gave the world Gezi Park and #durankadin, Brazil this week gave the world … vinegar. Vinegar uprising. Vinegar revolt. The salad revolution. Police thought they’d quell and dispel a relatively small group of protesters with tear gas, batons, and violence. Instead of quell, they got rebel. Where there were tens, a million marched and more are on the move. And vinegar became the symbol of resistance and solidarity. It’s a good week for new symbols that match new forms of action.

Carla Dauden is one Brazilian woman engaged in protest, and she is not going to the World Cup. Dauden is a young filmmaker, a native of Sao Paolo, and the director, producer, narrator and face of “No, I’m not going to the World Cup.” Part of her reason is an ethical calculus: “Now tell me, in a county where illiteracy can reach 21%, that ranks 85th in the Human Development Index, where 13 million people are underfed every day and many people die waiting for medical treatment, does that country need more stadiums?” As of this writing, over 2.5 million people have watched and listened, and maybe heard, Carla Dauden explain why she is saying, “No”.

In Senegal, Bousso Dramé is not going to Paris. Bousso Dramé is, by any standards, an accomplished woman, whatever that means. The World Economic Forum thinks she’s a “global shaper”: “a proud African, committed Senegalese citizen and vibrant young woman.” Dramé works for the World Bank, has many advanced degrees, speaks many languages. She recently won a national spelling bee. Part of the prize was a round trip ticket from Dakar to Paris and back. When Dramé went to the French Embassy to apply for her visa, she was treated like dirt, “as less than nothing.” This abuse happened repeatedly, and was visited upon her by a number of embassy personnel. And so, when Dramé finally, finally was informed that she had finally been approved for a visa, she write an open letter to the French government saying, “No, thank you.”

Dramé said no not only in her own name, but in the name of Senegalese across Europe, of Africans across Europe: “If the price to pay … is to be treated like less than nothing, I prefer to reject this privilege altogether… I wanted to put forth a symbolic act for my Senegalese brothers and sisters who, every day, face being crushed in the embassies of Schengen zone.”

From Turkey to Greece to Brazil to Senegal and France, the particulars may change, but the dance is the same. And women across borders, in studios, parks and streets, videos, embassies, consulates, and open letters, are saying, “Hell no.”

 

(Photo Credit: Reuters)

Indigenous women liberate the Americas

Sheyla Juruna

Indigenous people are trying to liberate the Americas, and they are led by women. In Brazil yesterday, hundreds of indigenous leaders, fisherfolk and others from the Xingu River basin gathered to occupy the Belo Monte Dam construction site in a peaceful protest to stop its construction in the heart of the Brazilian Amazon. Belo Monte is one of those mega-dams that cost billions of dollars, displace whole communities, wipe out acres and acres of forest, all in the name of “necessary energy production.”

Ealier this week, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights tried to create a space for the indigenous communities, and their supporters, and the Brazilian government to enter into dialogue. The Juruna people sent their leader, Sheyla Juruna, who travelled days to get to Washington. The much wealthier, much more popular, and much better resourced Brazilian government sent … no one.

And so indigenous communities of the Xingu, and their supporters, took to the dam site, and they were, and are, led by women. Sheyla Juruna. Juma Xipaia. Roberta Amanajás. Antonia Melo. Some, like Juruna and Xiapaia, are indigenous leaders. Some, like Amanajás, are human rights advocates and activists. Some, like Melo, are leaders of movements, in this instance the Xingu Forever Alive Movement.

Cherokee feminist activist and author Andrea Smith once wrote, “The primary reason for the continuing genocide of Native peoples has less to do with ignorance and more to do with material conditions. Non-Indians continue to oppress Indians because Indians occupy land resources that the dominant society wants.”

The indigenous women leaders and communities of the Xingu River basin know, and live, this history today. They know the genocide takes many forms. Sometimes it’s flat out extermination campaigns. At other times, it’s removal, person by person, nation by nation, child by child.

In the United States, for example, a Federal law states that if Native American children are taken from their homes, they must be placed with their family members, relatives, their tribes or other Native Americans. And native children are taken from their homes, at a much higher rate than children of other races and communities. Some studies suggest the rate is twice as high. Furthermore, of the native children taken from their homes, a remarkably low percentage have experienced sexual or physical abuse. So, why are they taken? “For their own good” … of course.

A report this week highlighted the situation of these stolen children in South Dakota. Nearly 90 percent are placed in non-Native households or group settings. Those non-native group settings are private, and making good profit off of the “poor” native children.

Who cares? Well, the children care. Their families care. Their communities care. And while the caring of the children isn’t particularly gendered, the caring by the adults is. Women. Women like Janice Howe, a grandmother who refused to let the State get away with kidnapping, who fought for over a year and a half to get her grandkids back. Four children, including Antoinette, 6 years old, and Raushana, 5 years old. When they returned, 18 months later, they were each a full dress size smaller. Only now are the stories of their sojourn beginning to emerge.

There are native Grandmothers’ Groups, native foster home providers, native foster parents, tribal social workers, and they are everywhere on the reservation. There are also mothers who mourn and wait and, if they’re very “lucky”, may, just may some day meet their children. In the case of Dwayne Stenstrom, kidnapped by the State at the age of 8 years old, this reunion occurred decades later … six months before his mother died of cancer.

And no one ever receives an apology, ever receives an acknowledgment. This is what military occupation looks like.

As the Occupy Wall Street movement has spread, or effloresced, across the United States and Canada, indigenous people across both countries have criticized the term “occupation”. Some have suggested replacing it with “decolonize” or “(un)occupy”, others have noted the painful nationalism and racism of their supposed, or potential, allies in the current movement.

And others have said, instead, “Defend Mother Earth.” At the Belo Monte Dam site yesterday, Juma Xipaia explained, “We will not be silent. We will shout out loud and we will do it now.” The Mothers, Grandmothers, Daughters, Sisters, Aunts, Women are gathering, out loud, now, to Defend Mother Earth. Another occupation is possible. Shout out loud, do it now.

 

(Photo Credit: Amazon Watch)

Kavita Srivastava is not a saint, she’s a feminist

 

Kavita Srivastava addresses the press

Dom Hélder Pessoa Câmara was a Brazilian Archbishop, a liberation theologian, who famously said, “When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why are they poor, they call me a Communist.” Kavita Srivastava could take that a step further. She might say, “If I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why are the poor hungry, they call me a Maoist … and send the riot squads to my house.”

Today, October 3, 2011, the Indian government sent a truckload of Special Task Force police to the home of Kavita Srivastava, allegedly to find a woman who had aided the Naxalite movement. The implications, for Srivastava and for many others, were clear. This was meant as a threat, as intimidation, for her leading role in the Right to Food Campaign; for her leading role in questioning the draconian, and worse, conditions in Chhattisgarh, all in the name of rooting out the Maoists, the Naxalites, the `dangerous ones’; for her leading role in the pursuits of women’s rights, civil right, human rights, democracy. In fact, right now, Kavita Srivastava is locked in battle with the State around the very issue of how poverty itself is to be determined. Who’s poor? Ask that, and truckload of heavily armed men may visit your house early some morning.

Kavita Srivastava is the General Secretary of the People’s Union for Civil Liberties, a 35-year-old Ghandian-socialist (of sorts) organization. In that capacity, she witnessed, and documented, the trial of Binayak Sen, also charged with complicity with Maoists, in a highly publicized trial. Srivatasa wrote of the “sinister ways of the Chhattisgarh Police”. She described the climate of threat, violence, and vindictiveness the local police create. Even in a very public trial, the police assumed they could tamper with evidence and never be found out, or if found out, never be punished. Never is a long time, but it seems that in the long arc of the short term, the police may have been right.

Kavita Srivastava is a feminist researcher and activist who has researched the intricacies of so-called women-centered development program in Rajasthan; who has researched, and challenged, the impact of irrigation mega-projects, again in Rajasthan, on rural women and men, focused a laser beam on the ways in which such so-called development projects further marginalized women in particular; has researched gender politics, development, and women’s agency. Kavita Srivatasa has advised and counseled on ways to take the Right to Food to court … and beyond.

And that is why Kavita Srivastava is a dangerous woman, because of her simple and radical refusal. She refuses to accept hunger. She refuses to accept starvation. She refuses to accept anything less than justice, for women, for men, for all beings. No Naxalite was found in Kavita Srivastava’s home. No one, including the police, ever thought one would be found. But there was, and is, something there, something dangerous, more dangerous than the State can imagine or control. The question and practice of justice. Kavita Srivastava is not a saint, she’s a feminist.

 

(Video Credit: The Hindu / Rohit Jain Paras)