Journalism from the center of the world
Coluna SementeAr

Art by: Cacao Sousa

I seek permission from all visible and invisible beings for the opportunity to stand in the shade of this lush sumaúma tree. I extend thanks to the universal spirit, the beginning and end of all mystery, the creator of stars, our planet, and life itself, from the very first cell to the lianas and leaves. I extend thanks to my human and non-human ancestors, from my most ancient grandmothers to my mother and father. I extend thanks to the Indigenous peoples of this continent, with the utmost respect.

Though I was born in a bustling city and have lived in other cities throughout my life, in the end, men and women of wisdom, Indigenous and non-Indigenous alike, taught me to recognize an undeniable truth: cities are the downfall of the forest. Like any illusion that muddles figure and ground, once you have seen that downfall, it become impossible to unsee.

This is what seems to be happening with the dispute over oil exploration in the Equatorial Margin of the Amazon and the Brazilian northeast. Some of our leftist allies, longtime friends and collaborators, can’t seem to grasp what an enormous mistake it would be to move forward with this exploration against the wishes of Ibama, the people of the forest, and global interest in protecting these biomes. Clinging to technical arguments that downplay risks and exaggerate dreams of future profits, these friends have forgotten a great many things.

They forget the Brazilian people never reaped the promised benefits of pre-salt oil exploration. According to Law nº 12.858/2013, those massive reserves were supposed to usher in an educational revolution, but the 2016 coup paved the way for those profits to be seized by the oligopoly of multinational corporations that has dominated the oil market for close to a century.

The developmentalists seem to have forgotten that the time of oil has passed. Even if enormous reserves were found in the Brazilian Equatorial Margin, even if there were no spills or accidents, even if the currents all flowed away from the continent, even if the ocean were a bottomless pit of oil, even if forests, mangroves, and corals were not fragile, even if the Indigenous peoples and ribeirinho communities were not protesting and organizing against this act of violence, even if no life forms existed there and the ugliest dreams of the most predatory capitalists were to come true, marketable oil production would only happen in ten years. Those advocating for oil exploration in the Equatorial Margin are requesting a whole decade of our future for a return to the past.

How do we convince them to see Time, the Sun and Moon, the Winds and Tides?

How do we persuade our developmentalist friends, self-proclaimed progressives, that the planet can’t take any more extractive misfortune? How do we explain that no amount of money can justify accelerating our existing instability by degrading and destroying live organic matter—forests, corals, mangroves—to extract viscous, dead organic matter? Especially if its sole purpose is to produce fuel, plastics, and so many other objects that we compulsively discard, incinerate, and scatter the world over?

It’s not just a matter of transforming our energy matrix but of learning to live differently. How do we convince “commodity people” to forget the seductiveness of money and the insatiable acquisition of things, which cloud our vision and stop us from perceiving life? How do we remind them of the words of Davi Kopenawa Yanomami, who didactically elucidated the root of the problem: the disease of commodification is that it makes us treat objects as if they were people and people as if they were objects.

It’s disturbing to watch the arguments of leftist developmentalists converge with the opinions of rightwing market analysts in the mainstream media. If Ibama’s technical decision is disregarded, Lula’s government will cross an impassable line for those who aspire to reposition Brazil on the geopolitical stage. We will never be a global climate leader without a consistent attitude change based on a socioecological understanding of the climate crisis and its gravity.

We are living through an unprecedented escalation of instability, with runaway pollution and nearly a billion people on the brink of starvation. At the same time, we are buried in 1.5 billion cars and 16 billion cell phones. With so much virtual connection and real-life disconnection, people are increasingly removed from reality, immersed in the illusion of progress that occludes its true subject. Without humility in the face of this ongoing catastrophe, we all—even developmentalists—stand to lose everything.

Marina Silva, Brazil’s Minister of the Environment and Climate Change, has made it abundantly clear that she views oil exploration in the Brazilian Equatorial Margin in the same light as the Belo Monte dam: as a monumental mistake. If mainstream media still has to examine its role in the conspiracy that led to President Lula’s unlawful imprisonment in 2018, then the developmentalist left wing must also reflect on its complicity in the violent cooptation of the populace and rights violations that led to the construction of Belo Monte in 2016.

The Amazon’s greatest wealth is its cultural and biological diversity. On the one hand, there are genes, proteins, lipids, essential oils, and so much more. On the other, songs, dances, diets, and an extensive pharmacopeia. A recent study on the Indigenous people of the Amazon, North America, and New Guinea revealed that 75% of 12,495 potential medicinal plant uses are known only in one language. It’s estimated that by 2100, more than a third of the more than 7,000 human languages that exist today will become extinct. At the same time, we are in the midst of the planet’s sixth mass extinction, an annihilation that is occurring at least 100 times faster than the natural extinction rate.

To avert this disaster and transform the Amazon’s biocultural wealth into well-being for human and non-human animals, we must align our academic pursuit of knowledge with the diverse sciences of the people of the forest. Only through respectful, equitable partnerships with Indigenous peoples, ribeirinho communities, scientists, and government regulators, can we access and share benefits in lockstep with the Nagoya Protocol, which refers to the genetic resources under the Convention on Biological Diversity and related traditional knowledge.

We must acknowledge the academic sciences are incredibly diverse, encompassing multiple perspectives, contradictions, and conflicts of interest. While the environmental and anthropological sciences fight for the forest and its people, other scientists develop pesticides and explosives, working hand-in-hand with capitalism, which devastates everything.

To avoid repeating past mistakes, break free from a single mindset, and overcome biases as entrenched as they are arbitrary, we will have to summon the courage to dream much farther, much higher, and well beyond the horizon. Another world is still possible and necessary. Embracing SUMAÚMA, drenched in its morning dew, I take up this challenge.

Sidarta Ribeiro is a father, capoeira practitioner, and biologist. He holds a PhD in Animal Behavior from Rockefeller University and a Post-Doc in Neurophysiology from Duke University. A researcher with the Strategic Studies Center at the Oswaldo Cruz Foudation (Fiocruz), and a cofounder and educator at the Brain Institute at the Universidade Federal do Rio Grande do Norte, he has authored five books, including O Oráculo da Noite and Sonho Manifesto (Cia das Letras). For SUMAÚMA, he writes the monthly column Thought Seeding.

Fact check: Plínio Lopes
Spell check (Portuguese): Elvira Gago
Translation into Spanish: Meritxell Almarza
English translation: Julia Sanches
Page setup: Érica Saboya
Art by: Cacao Sousa

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