Reflections on a Violated Environment

The previous research I completed in Cabelo Seco and my senior thesis focused on the strong presence of structural violence in Brazil. My work in Cabelo Seco endeavored to understand if social experiences of violence affect an individual’s relationship to his or her natural environment. It was through this research that I first came into contact with the subject of structural violence. My senior thesis explored the extent to which structural violence of the state precipitates explicit forms of violence, in the case of land distribution in Brazil.

If you are unfamiliar with the term, I don’t blame you. Structural violence often occurs undetected because it is an expression of violence that is least recognizable. It refers to the inequalities that arise from state policies, actions, or inactions, that are displayed through economic or social exclusion, exploitation and persistent poverty. Instead of guns and weapons, the state uses international loans, structural adjustment policies, and other exclusionary models of development that promote the isolation of certain sectors of society. To give one example (the focus of my senior thesis), social and economic exclusion is taking place in Brazil with respect to land distribution. Brazil holds one of the highest levels of land distribution inequality in the world. A large amount of public land is frequently transferred illegally into the hands of large private landowners. The reluctance of the state to repossess this land and the consequent handling of confrontations between landowners and the landless demonstrate varied forms of structural violence.

I need to pause here for a second because the noise outside my room is destroying every possibility of forming intelligent thoughts. There is this absurd custom in Brazil where people are hired to drive around blasting music that promotes political candidates. Cars attach huge speakers to their roofs and play popular songs that have been dubbed with propaganda. These recordings fill the streets, with sayings like, “I stand for the people. The people are in charge of my campaign…blah blah blah”, a lot of bullshit. The cars are usually decorated with pictures of the candidate’s face. Sometimes there are flags. It can be one car driving around or a whole group, rolling slowly down the tight streets. Some jerk has his car parked right outside of my room, leaving me victim to a state deputy candidate’s fake promises. This past weekend there was a whole procession of people walking with the cars, waving flags and handing out flyers. Each car blasted the same music, but at a different interval in the song, so it just sounded like a lot of noise. Ridiculously annoying and such a waste of gas! Not to mention it is a complete invasion of personal space. The noise cannot be blocked out; you are forced to hear it. I wish a study could be conducted on the impact this type of advertisement actually has on swaying votes. Ah, finally he left.

Structural violence, or silent violence, is built into a structure of power rather than caused by a particular agent. Corruption, impunity and negligence can also be considered varied forms of this violence. The degree of illegal actions on the part of every level of Brazilian government and their exemption from accountability imply that social injustices can be permitted without repercussion. Therefore, the government continues to engage in oppressive actions that disenfranchise and disempower the poor.

Having spent time studying and writing about structural violence, I am very aware of its incredible presence here in Marabá. There have been profound developments since the last time I was here. Last year, we had a choice of many different bars and restaurants running along the boardwalk. The majority of these businesses are now boarded up and appear deserted. They lost all of their customers to one bar that has quadrupled in size, thanks to a revamping from the Secretary of Culture’s new project “Cultura Faz Bem” “Culture is good for you”. As if culture is a pill you can take. Nightlife now centers on the plaza where this bar is located. The most outrageous advancement that has taken place in the campaign to revitalize “culture” is a law recently passed by the Secretary of Culture. The law states that all cultural events must be approved by the government before they can take place. I only learned of this in a conversation so I’m trying to uncover the details of the legislation and when it was put into place. Nonetheless, the oppressive and authoritative nature of the law screams structural violence. It ensures that culture becomes something defined by the government.

If you didn’t know the deeper context, you would question my cynicism. The municipal government is promoting exciting cultural events for the people to enjoy and investing funds in improving bars- what’s wrong with that? The issue lies in the fact that the funding to make this possible is coming from Vale, the multinational that is gradually destroying Marabá. Funds are undoubtedly passed between Vale and the Secretary of State to make concerts (cultural events) possible. I find it hard to believe that corruption is not taking place here.Their partnership confirms the fact that an agenda is being promoted that benefits few at the expense of many. I am still trying to understand this complicated, interwoven relationship between Vale and the federal, state, and municipal government. Yet it is clear that they are carefully, deliberately, buying the support of the city and constraining the agency of its inhabitants. By organizing events every weekend, centering nightlife on their refurbished bars and buying all of the local newspapers, Vale is monopolizing the imagination. As mentioned in my last post, most of the people who recognize that it is taking place are too afraid to speak out.

Farmer, P., & Saussy, H. 2010. Partner to the poor: A Paul Farmer reader. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Gupta, Akhil. 2012. Red tape: Bureaucracy, structural violence, and poverty in India. Durham: Duke University Press.

Kingstone, Peter. 2012. “Economic Exclusion and the Shifting Patterns of Violence in Argentina and Brazil.” Pp. -143in Ascher, W. & Mirovitskaia, N. S eds. Economic development strategies and the evolution of violence in Latin America. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Building Creative Connections

Jornal Tocantins a (set 2014) copy

When I described Rios de Encontro to my father last year, he suggested I reach out to an organization called Creative Connections. It was founded about 21 years ago by an old neighbor of ours, Alan Steckler. Creative Connections works to facilitate art-based exchanges between U.S. students and students around the world. Their mission is to increase young people’s awareness and understanding of different cultures. I knew a collaboration between Creative Connections and the young leaders of Cabelo Seco could be really interesting. So I put Dan and Alan in touch and Dan sent in an application for Creative Connection’s International Young Performers’ Tour. The tour intends to bring international students to the United States to share their culture through performances and workshops. In the past, Creative Connections has hosted groups from Russia, Columbia, Ireland, Cambodia, and other places around the world.

In the beginning of September, Rios de Encontro received notice that they had been selected for the Young Performer’s Tour of 2015. Next spring, eight young performers from Cabelo Seco will be traveling to New York! This is a huge accomplishment for Rios de Encontro, Cabelo Seco, and the Amazon. Particularly important is the article and photograph that appeared in one of the local newspapers last week. Now this is not the first time Rios de Encontro has received coverage in the media. But all of the newspapers in Marabá are owned by local politicians and more recently, the multinational corporation Vale (which funds all local politicians and is currently purchasing every leaf in the city*). Therefore, it is significant when a headline reading “Cabelo Seco ganha prêmio mundial e vai a New York” “Cabelo Seco wins international award to go to New York” and a half page article is published about an organization that denounces the destruction of the Amazon. One quote by Mano about the growth of the organization’s young people reads, “Cada um tem uma forte personalidade e questiona todo. Os prêmios respaldam esta coragem e autonomia de pensamento” “Every one has a strong personality and questions everything. The awards affirm this courage and freedom of thought”. The courage to speak out against Vale stems from the strength these individuals have gained by being a part of the project. Rios de Encontro is the only voice that speaks out publicly against Vale’s growing empire. The majority of people who live in Marabá do not openly oppose the way Vale is slowly gaining complete control of their environment, their culture and their imagination, even if they disagree with it. Authoritative structures such as the local government, the education system and multinational corporations intensify mindsets of self-doubt and self-disrespect that can be traced back to colonial pasts. By buying newspapers, politicians, and public spaces, Vale is destroying all possibilities of independence. These mindsets radically weaken people’s ability to question or enact change. In voicing their opinion and then seeing it affirmed in the newspaper, the young coordinators of Rios de Encontro are finding the courage to break a silence they have inherited or developed as a form of self-protection.

*The Brazilian multinational corporation Vale is one of the principal economic actors in Marabá. Vale mainly works in the diversified metals and mining industry, however also participates in the development of hydroelectric dam projects. It is the biggest exporter of iron ore in the world. In coordination with the Municipal Government of Marabá, Vale is involved in various regional projects, including the construction of Marabá’s potential hydroelectric dam, airports, port improvements and the expansion of roadways.

** Just another note to point out that my name was mentioned in the newspaper article (top right column). So awesome!!!!

Cabelo Seco

I think it’s important to give a short introduction to Cabelo Seco and the city of Marabá. The Amazon is commonly misconstrued by outsiders as a region composed solely of dense rainforest, wild animals, and people with painted faces and little clothing. When I mentioned to people I would be working in northern Brazil, in the Amazon region, their eyes would widen. “Wow, are you afraid of snakes or jaguars?” or “Will you have access to running water?” were common responses. I don’t blame people for having this conception of the Amazon- it is popularly portrayed this way. There are, in fact, various regions of the Amazon that have dense, wet forests, an incredible variety of wildlife, and indigenous people living without electricity or running water. Their presence is increasingly threatened by deforestation. I had the fortune to visit many of these areas last year during my study abroad program (okay, I only saw the footprints of a jaguar). But for the next three months I am living in a city. Paved roads, noisy motorbikes and not so much jungle. Actually, I take that back. Cabelo Seco is a jungle, in a different sense.

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Marabá Pioneira with the Tocantins River (right) and Itacuinas River (left)

Cabelo Seco is located in a section of Marabá called Marabá Pioneira. The community sits on a piece of land that juts out into the confluence of two rivers, the Itaciunas River and the Tocantins River. For this reason it attained the name Cabelo Seco, meaning dry hair. The side of Cabelo Seco touching the Tocantins River has a long boardwalk that runs the length of Marabá Pioneira. It’s beautiful to walk along, but representative of the type of economic developments pushed down the throats of residents living in Cabelo Seco. The picture of the boardwalk below isn’t representative of the part that runs into the community of Cabelo Seco, where it looks more like a half built sidewalk than a boardwalk. None of these people were consulted by the municipal government when they lost their backyards to this new construction. Over the past year more construction has taken place on the Cabelo Seco end and it looks more like a boardwalk than crumbling sidewalk, but I doubt there has been any more consultation.

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Drying laundry

When I first came to Brazil last year, I noticed it is custom for people to sit outside of their doorways in chairs, chatting with friends and neighbors, commenting on whatever action is going on in the street. This utilization of common space creates such a pleasant, sociable atmosphere in Cabelo Seco. Barefoot children walk around kicking soccer balls and mothers balance babies on their hips while music pulsates from inside their houses. Mangy cats and dogs of all shape and size sniff at garbage on the ground. There is also so much color! Houses are painted yellow, light pink, orange or teal. Above the street, there are strings of small green and yellow flags hanging between houses from World Cup celebrations. I love how much character this neighborhood has. It’s hard to explain, but I think that’s why I feel comfortable among many strangers, speaking in a foreign language, in the second most violent city for young people in Brazil.

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