Felipe Milanez on Violence and Impunity in Brazil

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Danrley Furigá and other Ikpeng, one of the many indigenous people opposed to the Belo Monte dam and other proposed dams in the Xingu basin in Brazil’s Amazon. Photograph by Felipe Milanez

I’d never heard of Felipe Milanez before reading this article, which is surprising given his expertise and focus on violence in northeastern Brazil (I guess that’s a pretty poor reflection of my research skills).

Milanez’s interview had me excited for a variety of reasons, not least of all being his political ecology laden responses on the drivers of socio-environmental destruction in Brazil. Two points that had my mouth hanging open:

  1. In 2015 49 activists- 45 in the Amazon- were killed, making it the most violent year since 2004. Last year, 19 activists were killed in Pará (sorry Mum). All those responsible for these killings are free.
  2. “In the most violent region, southern Pará, where Zé Cláudio and Maria were killed, the main driver of blood today is the expansion of iron ore mining by Vale, the S11D project, and its infrastructure, such as the expansion of the Carajás railway”.

The numbers are striking, but Milanez’s second point grabbed my attention because it’s rare to come across such a stark accusation of Vale’s role in exacerbating violence in the Amazon. His advice to Dilma is sound, although he’s probably right, she wouldn’t pay any attention.

The Opposite of Poverty is Justice

 

Ultimately, you judge the character of a society, not by how they treat their rich and the powerful and the privileged, but by how they treat the poor, the condemned, the incarcerated. Because it’s in that nexus that we actually begin to understand truly profound things about who we are.

There are so many fascinating points and stories in this presentation that it was challenging to select one quote. I’ve watched Bryan Stevenson’s TED Talk on the inequalities that plague the U.S. criminal justice system multiple times and recently finished his book Just MercyWell worth your time.

(and available in 31 subtitle languages)

Belo Monte Operating License Delayed

 

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Federal courts in Altamira, Pará suspended the dam’s license and levied a fine against Norte Energia for failing to meet compensation requirements for indigenous groups in the region. 

 

The newest in a long line of controversies that have blossomed since Belo Monte’s inception… is anyone surprised?

Stories from the Mekong River Climate Crisis

troubled waters

A good friend passed on this fantastic interactive site published by the Guardian a few months ago and I’ve been meaning to share it. John Vidal, the Guardian’s environment editor, explores the ecological and cultural impacts of dam construction, illegal logging and urban development in climate change threatened communities located along Southeast Asia’s main waterway, the Mekong River. The written segments are decent, but the vivid beauty of the images and short video clips are what make this piece particularly striking.

 

At the crux of development issues

I’m sure some of you are wondering what exactly is going on with this solar energy installation.

What is the status of the modules donated by SunEdison? (I too am wondering this)

When is the installation going to take place?

Aren’t you leaving in 7 days?

These are all reasonable questions. Unfortunately, I only have an answer for the last one, which is yes I am leaving next week. As much as I can overanalyze, complain, and punch my pillow in frustration, there is no straightforward, one sentence response to questions #1 and #2. That is a hard lesson I’ve had to learn over the past few months of coordinating this project.

Around this time last year I was interviewing for a position with an organization that works on agricultural development projects in rural Tanzania. The second round interview was a weekend long evaluation with another 20 candidates that involved discussions, group activities and case study analyses. There was one case study we were presented with that sticks in my mind to this day because of its complexity. The exact details of this scenario may not be 100% correct, but I can remember the general outline. There was a project being developed in this particular community that aimed to diversify residents’ income sources and improve their access to competitive markets in the region. The basic idea was that a group of farmers would contribute a portion of their crops on a continual basis to be sold in the nearest market. An agreement was made among the community partners to deliver on this commitment, the incentives being financial profit but also a sense of communal responsibility. However, when the day arrived to accumulate harvests for the market, the two largest community producers failed to contribute their agreed share of produce. Without the contributions from these producers, the entire trip became economically unviable because transportation costs would end up outweighing the returns from selling the significantly smaller amount of produce. When we were presented with the case study, we were not provided with the reasoning behind why these community partners failed to deliver. Yet the trip to the market could not take place as a result, leaving the community partners who did fulfill their commitment with a significant loss. The question we had to respond to was the following: Do you give the two large producers a free pass since their reasoning may be profound (family or personal complications) and they are significant components to the success of the program, or do you set an example to ensure the program’s effectiveness and either penalize them or exclude their involvement? This opened up a whole sea of subsequent concerns, among them being:

If you do allow these two producers to remain in the program without penalty, this pardon could be used as leverage by others or even by them again in the future, consequently risking the integrity of the program;

If it was a smaller community producer whose contribution didn’t determine the viability of the trip, would the same questions be asked (or rather, are we giving the larger producers more flexibility because they are integral to the success of the program)?

How much consideration should be given to the reasoning behind this failure to deliver?

The bigger debate here is whether it is more important to maintain the integrity of the program at the expense of the personal, communal and cultural realities in this setting, or whether you adapt to these circumstances and sacrifice the efficiency or timeliness of the objective initially envisioned. I mention this case study because the question here is one I am currently asking myself every day. It greets me as I wake up in the morning and pesters me until I finally drift to sleep at night. And it should be a central consideration in any truly sustainable, participatory, development project.

Over the past few months, I have struggled to adjust my own expectations for this project to the economic, social and cultural realities of both Brazil and Cabelo Seco. In addition, I have had to adjust these expectations in the context of what is realistically possible within a project that sustains 11 other micro-projects, various national and international partnerships and most recently, has been preparing for an incredible opportunity to travel to New York. Through this constant process of adaptation and adjustment in my own expectations, I learned to recognize smaller, different victories that I originally didn’t appreciate. This was a challenging realization to accept in a world where success is often measured in numbers and tangible accomplishments. In a recent interview, I received the question “How many people do you coordinate in the solar energy workshops?” Although it often feels like I am coordinating 300 people, the answer is really 3. 12 people initially signed up, 6 people came to the first workshop and 4 people participated in the majority of the workshops last year. But right now the dedicated group that meets every week is composed of 3 young people. And in Marabá, in Cabelo Seco, that is an accomplishment.

It was really hard to understand and accept the inconsistency in attendance, the fact that the individuals who appeared most interested in solar energy didn’t make it past the first workshop, that we still haven’t brought the bici-radio into schools or that the modules will likely not arrive in the next 7 days. The thing is, the reason why Rios de Encontro has achieved what it has is because it moves at the pace of the community, not at the pace of an institution. For me, this meant letting go of my preconceived notions about what this project would be and accepting the possibility of a different outcome. The question of effectiveness really boils down to how well you can respond to the needs and challenges of the community. No matter how much you plan, strategize and hope, things can (and will) go differently. So when there is a crisis at home, which happens often, we adapt to the needs of that individual. When the employees of the mechanic garage laugh at me because I arrive at their shop for the third time trying to buy the bici-radio battery and still don’t have the correct payment papers, I have to accept that this is the reality of bureaucratic processes in Brazil. When I’m confined to blubbering incoherently in Portuguese about the importance of solar energy, desperately hoping that one of the young people will stop standing there in complete silence and articulate something, anything, that we have covered in the workshops, I take a second to remember all the authoritative figures in their schools, their homes and throughout afro-indigenous Brazilian history that have told them to shut up and keep their eyes lowered.

It’s quite clear today that development projects acting with a purely goal-oriented approach and little concern for local knowledge have largely failed to bring about truly sustainable changes. When I look at the way Rios de Encontro has kept together and transformed a group of young people into community leaders over the past 7 years, I recognize the significance of their careful, patient methodology. Yet it is still difficult to determine where you draw the line and find a balance between two extremes. At what point can you make decisions that will move an agenda forward without jeopardizing the ethical and culturally sensitive approach that makes the project truly successful? I don’t think there is one right answer to this complex challenge, but I hope this better clarifies my response to questions #1 and #2. I wish that I could say when the installation is going to take place, but my answer to that is almost as uncertain as my job prospects come May. Regardless, I’m going to keep my fingers crossed that the solar modules will at least arrive on my last day here. I’ll refrain from overanalyzing, complaining, and punching my pillow in frustration, but I refuse to lose hope.

Minha Casa Minha Dívida

“Quando o sonho se realiza” “When the dream comes true”, reads the title of the article. The dream that’s being referred to is one that many Brazilians desire: to have their own home. The article paints a disappointingly inaccurate picture of the Federal Government’s Programa de Aceleração do Crescimento Accelerated Growth Program (better known as PAC), focusing specifically on the Minha Casa Minha Vida My House My Life initiative. Launched in 2009, the nationwide infrastructure program calls for a R$504 billion (~USD$235 billion) investment in building and improving airports, highways, ports, housing, water and sewage systems, and energy projects. Minha Casa Minha Vida is one element of the program directed at building homes for low-mid income families. It essentially involves the construction of identical block house communities where eligible mid-low income families can register in a lottery to win a new home. The floor plans vary depending on the construction company, but the houses are typically around 500 sq. feet and have two bedrooms, a living room, kitchen and bathroom. They additionally come equipped with a water supply and sewage system.

Last week we had a friend drive us to Morada Nova, a district of Marabá on the other side of the Tocantins River. The trip was proposed to offer a visiting journalist a deeper context of the region and our project. We wanted to show her the Minha Casa Minha Vida communities because residents of Cabelo Seco are particularly vulnerable to its appeal. 30% of Cabelo Seco has already been awarded winning lottery tickets and now live in different parts of the city. Dan and Mano correlate the Minha Casa Minha Vida communities to concentration camps. Peering out my window at the reality before my eyes, the term kept coming to mind. We drove through a community called Tira Dentes, which literally means “Pull Teeth”. All the houses were identical, with the exception of the occasional graffiti writing on a wall announcing the sale of beer or ice within that household. There was no greenery. Worst of all, there was almost no one in the street. In the late afternoon when the sun sets here in Cabelo Seco, the most beautiful atmosphere permeates the streets. Children play in the plaza, neighbors chat in doorways and fruit venders push overflowing carts down the street. This strong sense of community is nonexistent in Tira Dentes. The families that make up these communities are compiled from all different parts of Marabá. People come willingly (the Minha Casa Minha Vida program is very well subscribed) and I can understand why it has such a strong appeal for low income residents. I just see it as such a shallow, band aid model of development. The government swoops in with plans to construct a million houses, eradicate the ugly and transform natural environments, and there is a complete failure with respect to social projects.

Here is a clear example:

In 2009, the Federal Government targeted one of the poorer sections of Cabelo Seco as an area ripe for PAC revitalization. It was not a Minha Casa Minha Vida project, but it embodied the same principle. The street of residences sits on the bank of the Itacaiúnas River, only two streets away from where I am currently living, but few people here still refer to it as Cabelo Seco. Instead it has been appropriately renamed “PAC”. Before revitalization, the area was filled with closely constructed wooden houses whose back halves projected out over the river, supported above the water by wooden stilts. These houses had the most incredible backyard. When the project began, families were moved out of their traditional, historical homes and given an allowance to find housing in another area of the city. I wish I could have seen the area before the new houses were built, but I know it would make me even more depressed about the current situation.

What should have taken 1 year to build was eventually completed 5 years later. There are maybe 12 colorful complexes in all, each containing 4 separate apartments. The article I was reading emphasizes what a profound success the revitalization was, quoting residents who were delighted with their new homes. Yet anyone who has dared to venture into PAC or knows people who live there can see this is a gross falsification. I use the word dared because the revitalization project has renewed and intensified a culture of drug related violence in the community. PAC serves as a meeting ground for drug traffickers, creating a variety of conditions for violent confrontations. There is even an area referred to as the “zona vermelha” “red zone” where the highest number of assassinations take place.

Deceiving photo of PAC revitalization project in Cabelo Seco

The draw of the illegal economy and the prevalence of violence have a direct relationship to the poor living conditions that are also a reality of the revitalization. Residents recognized the serious structural problems with the buildings only two weeks after moving into their new homes. Walls were cracked and heavy rains (remember, this is the Amazon) seeped into the infrastructure, leaving everything constantly damp. Inhabitants worried about the serious health risks and moreover, the safety of living in a structure that appeared on the brink of collapse. If you walk through the complex, many of the windows in the apartments are gone, replaced with black plastic coverings. And another thing: everything is concrete. There are no trees or grass even in the open communal areas. Yesterday we rode the bici-radio through the community and children were chasing kites on an asphalt road, dodging broken bottles, potholes and crumbled pavement. Confined in tight, deteriorating spaces and completely stripped of their traditional riverside culture and roots, it’s not surprising that desperate conditions have encouraged residents to engage in increasingly radical or violent responses. Furthermore, the poor quality of the construction materials used for these houses highlights the strong likelihood of corruption. It’s not like there weren’t adequate funds dedicated to the project. Over time, pieces of the budget were likely siphoned off until there only remained a small amount dedicated to the actual construction. The few times I have entered PAC have left me extremely saddened. Rather than improving quality of life or fulfilling the “Brazilian dream”, the revitalization of this area can be better understood as the transformation of an impoverished community into somewhat of a favela.

SunEdison confirms first donation of solar modules in the Amazon region

To say I am excited is a bit of an understatement, but I’m not sure how else to phrase it.

Earlier last week we received confirmation that the global solar energy company SunEdison will donate the 1 kWp of solar modules required for our installation. WOW. After two months of outreach and communication with different contacts within various companies, I’m pinching myself over the fact that our project is being recognized (and supported) by a leading solar company. The financial value of the donation is meaningful, but the symbolic significance is much greater. SunEdison is amongst the largest installers of solar systems globally and well on its way to developing a strong, key market in Brazil. Their support for our project is significant on many levels. If you follow this blog regularly, you should be aware of the fact that solar energy is on the brink of exploding in Brazil. This donation not only confirms the potential of solar energy in this region, but demonstrates international recognition of the necessity to preserve the Amazon. Throughout our communications, I was very transparent about the project’s opposition to the accelerating development projects of the region. I’m not sure how the approval process for donations works, but our unwavering commitment to this principle must have played an influential role. This is SunEdison’s first donation in the Amazon region. The notion that there exists a preoccupation with the future of the Amazon outside of its own borders will carry heavy weight within Cabelo Seco, the city of Marabá, and hopefully the rest of the country.

Furthermore, this international support comes at a time when government support for a much-needed transformation in Brazil’s energy sector is seriously lacking. Dilma’s administration has chosen to switch on expensive thermoelectric plants to avoid blackouts in the southern regions of the country, where reservoirs have dipped into critical condition. Somehow, the reelected President maintains that there will be no energy rationing of any type in the long or short term. Can anyone trust those words in a drought-ridden country where power supply is determined by water supply?

I’ve done a bit of research into SunEdison as a result of this donation because I wanted to investigate the social side of their work. I was quite impressed. It seems like an interesting theme could take root within their social innovation sector, the idea of producing solar energy while saving water. I came across a 1 MW project they designed on the Narmada Canal in Gujarat, India. This innovative installation involved a thick panel assembly that hangs over the man-made canal and is connected to free floating barrels that move up and down with the water level. The panels prevent water evaporation and algae growth by blocking sunlight from entering the water, consequently saving millions of liters of water annually for the people of Gujarat. With our solar energy project, SunEdison once again creates a connection between solar power generation and water conservation, as we insist on the replacement of hydroelectric dams with solar panels.

In addition to discovering this interesting parallel, I was further impressed when I read about the three core beliefs that structure SunEdison’s business model.

  1. Only through collaboration with people from local communities can we achieve success.
  2. One of the best ways to ensure the success of these projects is to encourage entrepreneurship.
  3. There are no quick fixes- everyone must be in it for the long haul.

Aside from my personal connection with #3, these core beliefs rang very true to the insights I have gained over the past few months. My experience working with different organizations and partners on our solar energy project has reinforced the importance of developing a cultural literacy within the community one works with. It is clear that SunEdison recognizes this as a prerequisite to successful, sustainable projects. The fact that they display deeper ethical intentions and a commitment to long-term sustainability as a global leader makes this donation all the more significant.

Below are some photos from our most recent recording of the solar energy jingle. We created a new one that will be launched in the streets this week!

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Back in the sun

Those of you who have spent long periods of time traveling can relate to the surreal state of mind that usually accompanies the first few days of returning home. It’s almost like your dreaming, except when you wake up the next morning it’s all still there.

This feeling greeted me, or rather slapped me in the face, when I returned home in December to freezing cold Connecticut. I stepped off the plane in a short-sleeved, MST t-shirt and flip flops, my hair a mess after a red eye flight, and went out for a very American breakfast with my lovely mother. After arriving in Marabá two nights ago, the feeling was back again. I never imagined I would see Cabelo Seco again after completing my independent study project here two years ago during a semester abroad. When I returned last September for a three-month collaboration with Rios de Encontro, I thought, okay this is it. And guess what… here I am again.

The past two months home in Connecticut marked the second out of a three-stage collaboration that this residency has become. As I stated previously, the solar panel installation became infeasible during the first phase of my residency for a mix of reasons including property insecurities, time constraints and slow bureaucratic approval processes. For this reason we completed the preliminary solar powered bici-radio project. We had some exciting coverage of this project thanks to Joilson Costa from the Energia Para a Vida campaign, who visited our project back in December, and Thiana Biondo from Global Voices. You can find the articles here and here. Anyway, we adapted our strategy to these challenges and now the plan is to have the system installed by the end of March. Over the past two months I had a mix of responsibilities, the most important of which was to see if I could secure the sponsorship of the components for this system. The future prospects of solar energy in Brazil and the ethical appeal of our project made for convincing incentives, but it was quite a task. These conversations are still in progress, so I won’t give away any details yet. We did take advantage of my geographic location by purchasing four heavy micro inverters for the system in the U.S., considering they cost a third of the price there compared to Brazil. And yes, I did find a TSA “Notice of Baggage Inspection” note in my luggage when I was unpacking.

In addition to moving the solar energy project forward, I have been working with the Creative Connections team to prepare for the International Young Performers Tour in April. You may recall from one of my first posts that Rios de Encontro was selected to travel to the U.S. to preform and give workshops in various schools throughout Fairfield and Westchester County. The group arrives on April 18th and will be traveling around doing exchanges with different schools for two weeks. They will also preform in Creative Connection’s annual fundraising Gala on April 26th. More updates on this coming soon…

Finally, there have been some significant movements on the Brazilian solar energy front that are worth mentioning. Power shortages loom in the distance as the country continues to suffer its worst drought in history. Reservoir levels are alarmingly low, the highly praised hydroelectric dams are producing nothing, and in response, fossil fuel utilities are being employed as a backup. I’m saddened by the Minister of Science’s ridiculous denial that climate change is real, but I’ve decide to overlook that disappointment for the moment as the government prepares a broad incentive program for solar PV. Discussions about tax reductions and incentives have been taking place since the end of last year, and it is projected that these federal tax exemptions could result in a 20% reduction in the cost of solar PV equipment in Brazil. Since the main barriers to the expansion of this industry are high taxes and lack of financing, these measures are a promising step in the right direction (Spatuzza 2015).

WEB (2)

Spatuzza, Alexandre. February 9th, 2015. “Brazil set for rooftop solar push as hydro-dams run dry”. Recharge News. Retrieved from http://www.rechargenews.com/solar/1391109/brazil-set-for-rooftop-solar-push-as-hydro-dams-run-dry