Finding Common Ground in the Amazon
A meeting of activists, military police, and other unusual collaborators in September pointed a new way forward for achieving sustainable development in Marabá, Pará, Brazil — a hub of resource extraction.
The Fórum Bem Viver (Good Life Forum), running from August 31st through September 5th and organized by the eco-cultural education nonprofit Rios de Encontro, was timely. President Michel Temer has appeared determined to trade the Amazon’s well-being for corporate expansion, bowing to the ruralista agro-industrial lobby, virtually his only source of support as his approval rating hovers at five percent. This has included issuing a decree to open the Renca Reserve — a tract of rainforest roughly the size of Denmark — to mining, a move one Brazilian senator called “the biggest attack on the Amazon of the last 50 years.” Resource-related violence has also skyrocketed across rural Brazil. Fifty-two people have been killed in the first seven months of this year in disputes related to land rights and other environmental conflicts.
Marabá: A microcosm of development challenges
Forum participants included an indigenous leader, military police, a federal judge, television actors, musicians, an anthropologist, journalists, scientists, a nurse and activists representing eight countries and 14 states in Brazil. Participants engaged in a series of sessions aimed at both embodying and brainstorming ideas for turning Marabá into an “example of sustainable development for the Amazon, the Americas, and the world.” That is a challenging task. Since the Portuguese colonized it in 1500, Marabá has been a haven for resource exploitation. It is one of the nearest municipalities to Carajás, the world’s largest iron-ore mine, and sits beside the Tocantins River. Plans exist for construction of a hydroelectric dam upstream of the city, whose storage reservoir would inundate the nearby town of São João do Araguaia, displacing 14,000 people.
Such extraction and construction, entailing the rapid in-migration of work seekers, has brought with it significant social challenges. In 2013, Marabá’s murder rate was more than four times the national average. Drug abuse is widely visible in public areas. “The city has turned into an ungovernable territory,” said Franklin Roosevelt, commander of the local military police. Several of the forum’s sessions took place in São João do Araguaia, the town facing inundation by the dam. One evening, youth from the Rios de Encontro project — who have performed on four continents — partnered with guest artists in a show in the town plaza.
Radical collaboration meets “Transformance”
In one act, six representatives of the military police of Salvador, Bahia, performed an Afro-Brazilian dance, symbolizing what was innovative about the forum and its implications for sustainable development. Put into the Amazonian context, the dances were radically collaborative. Further, they took root in “transformance,” or the practice of personal transformation — an important step in addressing conflict — through performance. “Military police in Brazil carry a perpetual association with ‘dictatorship,’” explained Rios de Encontro coordinator Dan Baron Cohen, a well-known British arts educator. “The common perception among people in Marabá is that military police beat and kill young people.” Some also see a racial element in the relationship. Much of Marabá’s population is Afro-indigenous. A 2017 study found that blacks are 23 percent more likely to be murdered than people of other ethnicities, even accounting for age, sex, level of education, marital status, and neighborhood of residence. Activists have condemned military police for murders related to environmental conflicts, claiming the institution enables killings by either carrying them out or treating murderers with impunity. In the 1996 Eldorado dos Carajás Massacre, military police killed 19 landless workers as they awaited transport to take them to negotiations regarding the legality of a land occupation. “So,” asks Baron Cohen, “when you put military police together with the youth of Cabelo Seco — Marabá’s first settlement — in a performance whose key motivation is protection of the Amazon, what does that mean?” Baron Cohen’s idea for doing so originates in his 30-year history of using performing arts to transform violent conflict into new social relations. Following studies at Oxford University and a five-year apprenticeship with the playwright Edward Bond, Baron Cohen was invited by the Irish Republican party Sinn Fein “to develop a culture of peace with justice.”“I went for two weeks and stayed for seven years,” he said.
Cohen subsequently spent time in South African townships, working alongside cultural activists to “develop an inclusive post-apartheid democratic country.” In 1998, Baron Cohen arrived in Brazil for a theater collaboration and eventually began working with the Landless Workers’ Movement. He and his partner Manoela Souza, an arts educator from Santa Catarina, Brazil, settled in Marabá in 2006.
Though Marabá remains a city known to few outside of Brazil, Baron Cohen and Souza believe a “pedagogy of transformance” is as urgent there as anywhere in the world. “The city sits on the globe’s largest deposit of iron and one of the largest supplies of drinking water, in the middle of the Amazon rainforest,” says Cohen. “What happens here is going to influence the future of the world.” He sees cultural literacy as essential to addressing a “tragic Amazonian complicity” with regard to environmental challenges. Dr. Jose Maria Quadros de Alencar, a retired Pará supreme court judge, attributes this to the city’s extractive history and resulting social-cultural fragmentation. Recent marketing campaigns by Vale, the principal corporation operating the Carajás mine, suggest that the socio-cultural effects of resource exploitation efforts experienced today are intentional. According to Baron Cohen, the company posted its logo throughout public spaces; funded the municipal cultural program, a theater, and federal university; and made ongoing visits to inspire ‘ecological responsibility’ in local schools. “It was an explicit demarcation of territory,” he says. In 2012, an annual ceremony convened by Berne Declaration and Greenpeace Switzerland distinguished Vale as the company exhibiting most “contempt for the environment and human rights” out of any in the world. All of this, says Baron Cohen, has culminated in locals’ resigned attitude toward environmental protection, despite many understanding the consequences of activities underway. “Thinking no but saying yes,” he says. “That is the popular reflex of the Amazon.” He and Souza give workshops in local schools in addition to running their own dance company. At the height of one of the group’s performances, “Life-Source on Fire,” 21-year-old Camylla Alves writhes on the ground, covered in mud, gasping for air. It is a reference to the aftermath of the 2015 Samarco Dam collapse in Minas Gerais, which unleashed a flood of toxic chemicals into downstream communities, killing 19 people. When her mobile phone rings, she abruptly returns to the present and begins to perceive the toxic legacies of her peoples’ exploited past. But her journey has enabled her to learn from this pain and transform herself into a symbol of Amazonian autonomy. Camylla has performed the piece on three continents. Prior to joining the project, she didn’t identify as Afro-indigenous or know that she lived in the Amazon. “Our aim is not to get the youth to think like us,” says Souza, “but rather to help them build the confidence to question, think for themselves, and speak out.”
A different vision
Participants’ reflections demonstrate potential for new forms of collaboration and transformance methods to reverberate beyond the youth of Marabá, or even the Amazon as a whole. “For me, it was all renewing,” said Alessandra Korap Munduruku, a leader of the Munduruku indigenous people in Itaituba, Pará. “We can use dance to bring our youth off the street and help them develop a different vision.” “Art transforms lives,” commented Elton Santana da Silva, captain of the military police of Salvador, Bahia. For 19 years, the Bahia military police theatre group has used art “as a channel of communication with communities [they] work in.” But he said the convergence altered his understanding of the power of performance. “The forum has shown me that performance is necessary for stimulating the youth and showing them they are capable of organizing politically. The potential impact of this empowerment is immeasurable.”
Looking back to look forward
Baron Cohen says that while he was coordinating construction of the national monument to the Other 500 Years in Bahia in April 2000, local military police destroyed the monument and he was forced into hiding for six months. He and Souza have since worked with the Bahia and Pará military police in a series of trainings on community security. Several workshops in, it is clear that most members of the Marabá police department are against the proposed dam, according to Franklin Roosevelt, head commander. Many cite fears of the spike in violence that accompanied construction of the Belo Monte dam in Altamira — now the most violent city in Brazil. “Traditionally, the left has been very unreceptive to working with the military police,” says Baron Cohen. “Yet at the same time, they are the ones who make the decision between life and death.” “For me, Mandela has always been an important reference — when I was arrested in the North of Ireland and still now. He taught that to transform your jailers, you must restore their humanity.”
This article was originally published on Mongabay.