“This madness has to stop!” Indigenous Voices on the Destruction of the Amazon

Against Integration © Heloisa Bortz

By Teresa Millesi

Covid-19 has had a devastating impact on Indigenous groups in Latin America, especially in Brazil, where the president Jair Bolsonaro has downplayed its severity, with his ministers calling it an “opportunity” for illegal logging in the Amazon. Horrifying videos of hospital corridors lined with corpses and pictures of mass graves in Manaus, the capital of the Brazilian state of Amazonas, are a shocking indicator of the toll the pandemic has taken on Brazil and its people. Bolsonaro’s response has been equally shocking. He is reported to have cavalierly said, “So, what?” in response to the crisis. As a visiting doctoral student at the Rachel Carson Center in Munich, I have had the opportunity to listen to various members of Indigenous communities living in Manaus, who have shared their experiences of the pandemic and who are threatened not only by the virus but by the actions (and inactions) of Bolsonaro’s government.

As if Corona itself wasn’t enough, reports show that recent fires in the Amazon have been so intense that experts fear that we are fast approaching the point of no return, with the rainforest at risk of being turned into a savannah. The Amazon rainforest is crucial for oxygen production, making it a globally important resource for mitigating the effects of the climate crisis. Yet deforestation is increasing at an accelerated rate each year. International efforts to stop this development have been labelled as a kind of “neo-colonial intervention” by the Brazilian government, which will hurt the Brazilian economy, leaving global organizations and other state leaders evidently baffled. The irony is hard to grasp. Bolsonaro openly undermines Indigenous rights, fostering discrimination, and strives to repeal legislation protecting existing territories in order to commodify capitalism’s “last frontier.” At the same time, he calls out those who criticize his actions, labelling them “colonialists.” Bolsonaro repeatedly frames global concern about the Amazon as an issue of national sovereignty rather than acknowledging the social and environmental injustices that are at the heart of the matter [1]. The fact is, since Jair Bolsonaro’s presidency started in January 2019, the situation of Indigenous peoples in Brazil has deteriorated, with studies showing increasing discrimination and illegal logging activities in the Amazon, especially in Indigenous occupied territories. Local authorities in charge of protecting the forest are being undermined, budget cuts are being forced on environmental departments, and the possession of weapons is being legalized, leading to the increased and worrisome militarization of society.

Following these troubling developments, my research focuses on non-fiction films made by Indigenous filmmakers in Latin America, as well as other forms of media that aim to strengthen the communication between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples, raising awareness about the injustices they face.

Kay Sara, an Indigenous performer and activist who grew up in the Brazilian state of Amazonas, is one such powerful voice. Born in 1996 near the Colombian border, she moved to Manaus at the age of seven where she later worked as an actress. She sees her work as a core strategy for political intervention, promoting respectful and appropriate ways of representing Indigenous peoples, and fighting against the increasing destruction of the Amazon by mining companies and the agroindustry. “This madness has to stop,” she states, explaining how Indigenous peoples living in the Northwestern Amazon are not only exposed to discrimination in medical care but also to severe environmental injustice, as she pointed out in her opening speech at the Wiener Festwochen international theater festival. She addresses “us”—you, me, and the Western world’s attitude towards Indigenous peoples and the environment, pointing towards existing colonial patterns that lead to environmental destruction. “We know what is happening, we understand the consequences. Why are we not acting?” she asks.

One way of understanding this apparent complacency is to recognize that “problems” are not necessarily perceived as such, but rather need to be constructed by a society. We are influenced by the stories and narratives that our society produces—in films, in the news, and in other cultural products—and these narratives shape how we perceive the world. If the conversation about the Amazon is dominated by narratives of economic growth, activities designed to stop environmentally destructive activities will be primarily measured against their economic impact or benefit—in most cases to a limited few, resulting in further environmental injustice. Additionally, those most heavily impacted by these activities are often excluded from the discourse, thereby creating a deafening silence where there should in fact be public outrage and political intervention.

Narratives about a conflict, be they in film or in the news, do not simply transmit information; they are also “archives” of what can be said and seen concerning certain issues [2]. Listening to Indigenous voices can change how we think about conflicts and crises, reshaping dominate narratives and public responses to them.

Kay Sara was invited to hold the opening speech at the Viennese theatre festival Wiener Festwochen as she has been working on a Brazilian-European co-production of the Greek epos Antigone, herself playing the part of Antigone, who is not allowed to bury her dead brother because he has been declared an enemy of the state. The choir of this production would have been made up of survivors of a government-led massacre against landless people in Brazil, she tells us. The performance would have taken place on an occupied street in the Amazon rainforest—the forest that is currently in flames—as an act of resistance against state violence. She says “would have” because Corona has made this international co-production impossible. She tells us all this while being in the Amazon, reminding us that it is not a commodity, ready to be used, or a colonial frontier, an “empty” forest that justifies its occupation by external forces. It is home to people. She draws a terrifying picture of the current situation in the Amazonian region: The forest is going up in flames, many people have died due to Covid-19, leaving no time for proper funerals; people are buried in mass graves, while others lie in the streets, dead but not buried, just like Antigone’s brother, while white people “use” this chaotic situation to penetrate ever deeper into protected areas of the forest. And the president of this country? He shakes hands with his supporters and makes fun of the dead, she says.

Antigone in the Amazon © Joao Roberto Ripper

Kay Sara intertwines the narrative of Antigone—a classic drama within the European context—with the political situation facing Indigenous people in Brazil. She confronts the mostly Western audience with their complacency to these injustices, denouncing contemporary perceptions of Indigenous peoples as based on a colonizing logic that denies them political agency—“you like to hear us singing, but you do not want to listen to us speak,” she says. “The problem is not that you do not know that our forest is burning, and our people are dying. The problem is you have become used to knowing this.” An inconvenient truth? She confronts “us,” the Western world, with our lack of action. She conceptualizes the Western world as “a problem that needs to be overcome” [3] in order to “stop this madness.” “It is time for you to be silent. It is time to listen. You need us, the prisoners of your world, so you can understand yourselves,” she says. It is not her goal to save a “pristine” wilderness but to show that the current situation in the Amazon rainforest is the result of systemic discrimination and injustice.

Antigone in the Amazon © Armin Smailovic

The Western world imprisons non-Western worldviews and forms of living, turning them into not-yet modern, but “soon-to-be modernized” [4]. Kay Sara makes clear that this is not a promise but a threat. She counters the capitalist logic of Western societies with the view that “There is no profit in this world, there is only life.” She argues that the idea of controlling nature and the capitalist system are at the heart of the problem causing the current socio-ecological crisis. The mission to commodify the Amazon will only result in the destruction of life. It is time to unlearn this destructive human-nature relationship, to unlearn what we have become used to knowing. Kay Sara ends with an attempt to overthrow the racist dichotomies that frame Indigenous voices as relics of the past, thereby also trying to construct a sense of solidarity against the destructive tendency of capitalism she has been denouncing: “Let’s stop being like Creon. Let us be more like Antigone. Because when lawlessness becomes the law, resistance becomes an obligation. Let’s resist this together, let us be human.”

The author wishes to thank the Programa de Posgraduação de Antropologia Social of the Universidade Federal do Amazonas in Manaus, Brazil, whose collaboration in the seminar which led to this article made contact with Indigenous interlocutors possible.

[1] Malayna Raftopoulos and Joanna Morley, “Ecocide in the Amazon: the contested politics of environmental rights in Brazil,” The International Journal of Human Rights, 19 March 2020, doi: 10.1080/13642987.2020.1746648.

[2] Michel Foucault, Archäologie des Wissens (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1973).

[3] N. Maldonado-Torres, “The Decolonial Turn,” in New Approaches to Latin American Studies: Culture and Power, edited by Juan Poblete (New York/London: Routledge, 2018), 111–127.

[4] A. Quijano, “Coloniality of Power, Eurocentrism, and Latin America,” Nepantla: Views from the South 1, no. 3 (2000): 533–580.

One Comment on ““This madness has to stop!” Indigenous Voices on the Destruction of the Amazon

  1. Excellent and engaged piece. It should be mentioned that contact with indigenous interlocutors in the seminar was possible through the kind collaboration of the Programa de Posgraduação de Antropologia Social of the Universidade Federal do Amazonas in Manaus, Brazil.


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