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)

The group, mostly women, entered the morgue

There is nothing to say about last week’s fire in Comayagua, Honduras. Nothing. A prison at 200 percent capacity is a tinderbox. A prison in Honduras, like prisons all over the world, are not only `congested’. They are filled with people awaiting trial. This detail somehow `complicates’ the situation, adds some sort of `irony’.

Because if they were convicted of crimes, well then … there would be no presumption of innocence.

There is nothing to say about last week’s fire in Comayagua, Honduras. It was a catastrophe long foretold. It was simply another sign of the chaos that is Honduras.

And you know … Honduras … it’s a banana republic, after all. Notorious for its prisons and violence.

There is nothing to say about this week’s fire in a factory in Bhalwani village, in Solapur, Maharashtra, India. Nothing. On Monday, a fireworks factory `suffered’ a fire. Five women workers, at least, were burnt alive, at least nine women workers were injured, and 40 women workers were trapped inside the burning complex. Trapped.

The reports will say the fires were accidental. The one in Honduras, the one in India. The reports will say the death of those burnt alive is `tragic’. But the relatives and friends, and the survivors of the flames, the ones who walked out somehow, they know better. They know the work of mourning, they know the architecture of being-trapped.

They know that the burning factories and the burning prisons are part of the everyday of the global economy. These buildings in flames and the human bodies within them are not some ritual drama nor are they resistant pockets of primitive capitalism. They are the Shining Globe that has replaced the Brave New World. Shining India. Shining Free Trade Zones, such as the DR-CAFTA, Dominican Republic – Central America Free Trade Agreement. Smoke and ashes from sea to shining sea.

And every time the fire explodes, it is described as somehow exceptional. A throwback. It’s not. It’s the globe itself, today, now, here.

The women who come for their loved ones, they already know all this. They were struggling for their loved ones before the fire, and they will continue after the world’s attention has drifted elsewhere.

That is why the women stormed the morgue in Comayagua on Monday, the same day of the fire in Bhalwani.  That is why their demand for justice is total. Every corner of the prison, every corner of the nation-State that runs the prison, every corner of the Empire-State that runs the world economies on violence, must be swept clean.

But first … begin by honoring the dead, by reclaiming their bodies, by cleaning them of the ash and the gash, and returning them to the earth.

In the landscape of smoke and ashes, women must storm the morgues to reclaim their loved ones. There is nothing to say. Nothing.

 

(Photo Credit: NPR / Esteban Felix / AP)

Ultimate responsibility for the ordinary

On May 22, 2009, a fire broke out in the Armadale Juvenile Correctional Centre, in Alexandria, St. Ann Parish, Jamaica. Seven girls were burned to death. Five died the night of the fire: Ann-Marie Samuels, Nerrissa King, and Rachael King, all 16 years old; and Kaychell Nelson and Shauna-Lee Kerr, both 15. Later, two more died from the fire: Georgina Saunders, 16, Stephanie Smith, 17.

There were 23 girls in a small space. Sixteen managed to crawl through the fire, to the narrow windows, and out.

Armadale was shut down. An inquiry was launched. The Armadale Enquiry Commission met for over nine months. Its report roundly condemns the government. The fire was set by a spark from a tear gas canister, tossed in the room by a guard. The straw bedding ignited.

On March 2, 2010, Prime Minister Bruce Golding reported to Parliament. The Jamaican press reports that the government “accepts `ultimate responsibility’ for Armadale.” Advocates on all sides debate the government response.

In his remarks, the Prime Minister, not surprisingly, frames the story as tragedy. He opens with tragedy: “The report of the Commission of Enquiry into the tragedy that occurred at the Armadale Juvenile Correctional Centre on May 22, 2009 is being tabled in the House today.”

He closes with tragedy: “The awful tragedy that occurred at Armadale should not have been allowed to happen. We must ensure that no such tragedy ever again occurs. Some wards of our juvenile correctional institutions have turned out to be exceptionally good and successful adults. We must strive to ensure that they are not the exception but become the norm.”

He articulates `ultimate responsibility’ as a function of tragedy: “While public officers must be held accountable for the discharge of their duties, the government must accept ultimate responsibility for the circumstances that led to the Armadale tragedy and for the inadequate facilities provided to care for children who are placed in juvenile correctional or remand facilities. Resource constraints do impose a heavy burden on public officers who work in these facilities but it cannot explain or excuse negligence or inertia.”

What exactly is the tragedy here, and how is ultimate responsibility to be understood?

Almost one hundred years ago, there was another fire, women killed, tragedy invoked.

March 25, 1911: “Near closing time on Saturday afternoon, March 25, 1911, a fire broke out on the top floors of the Asch Building in the Triangle Waist Company. Within minutes, the quiet spring afternoon erupted into madness, a terrifying moment in time, disrupting forever the lives of young workers. By the time the fire was over, 146 of the 500 employees had died. The survivors were left to live and relive those agonizing moments. The victims and their families, the people passing by who witnessed the desperate leaps from ninth floor windows, and the City of New York would never be the same.”

What happened that Saturday, in New York City? When the fire struck, the workers, almost all women, almost all recent immigrants, ran to the fire exits and found them locked, rushed to the windows only to find that the ladders and the water hoses didn’t reach that high. The young women then decided … to die by the flame or to leap and die in the fall. Who had decided to build such tall buildings? Who had decided to lock the doors?

The Triangle fire had been replayed as tragedy, as destiny, as horror story, as political catalyst. Now it would be examined once more, as a question of justice: Was it right to hold anyone personally responsible? And if it was right, was it possible?”

There is no distance in time or miles between the 1911 Triangle Waist Factory, New York, fire, and the 2009 Armadale Juvenile Correctional Centre, St Ann Parish, one. What, then, is the tragedy; is it possible to hold anyone responsible?

If women are locked in, sooner or later the fires will kill them. If women are forced into overcrowded spaces, sooner or later the fires will kill them. How can planned death be accidental? How can a horrible event that is not destined but rather designed by human beings and perfectly obvious in its detail, how exactly can that event be called a tragedy?

The nobility of the tragic that was so quickly, so easily painted across the face of these two events is a means of obscuring their ordinariness. And it is the ordinariness of the deaths at Armadale and at Triangle that haunts. These are stories of the ways in which death sentences are imposed on women workers, on women prisoners, on women.

Someone was meant to die at Armadale, and that someone was meant to be a young woman, a girl. Which girl, how many girls, remained open. But someone was meant to die there, in a fire. And someone did. And she was a young woman, a girl. And absolutely no one can claim ultimate responsibility for that until they have transformed the everyday world of ordinary women and girls in which women are the fastest growing prison population, and women are the majority of sweatshop workers.

 

(Photo Credit: Armadale: Children on Fire // UNICEF Jamaica / YouTube)