In Brazil, children and adolescents have rights under the law, but not in everyday life, nor in the media. Along with the non-human people of the Amazon, they suffer the most from the destructive policies and plans of governments and national and transnational corporations, and are also victims of organized crime, the theft of public lands, the activities of loggers, and both illegal and legal mining. If the adults affected are rarely listened to, the children are ignored completely.
In Altamira, where SUMAÚMA is based, it is the children who have suffered the greatest impacts from the construction of the Belo Monte Hydroelectric Power Plant, on the Xingu River.
They were never listened to. Neither the government nor the company behind the plant asked what they thought about their houses being demolished and burned, their islands being drowned, their riverbanks disappearing, or whether they wanted to be tossed into the urban periferias (economically disadvantaged outer suburbs, often characterized by high crime rates and a lack of public services) in neighborhoods built from the most basic construction materials, in an architectural style that pays little respect to the life they were used to. No one asked what they thought about leaving the forest behind, or being parted from the river and creeks to live amidst aridity and concrete. Nor were they asked how they felt when they watched their parents become sick after their lives were suddenly torn from them, or without a river to fish in, go hungry, or be left without any kind of future, which often resulted in alcoholism and domestic violence. Nor did anyone ask if they wanted to live amongst the turmoil caused by sudden population growth and an increase in organized crime that made Altamira, in 2015, the year Belo Monte had its operational license granted, the most violent city in Brazil.
Nobody asked the children of Altamira, or the children of Xingu. When, in early 2020, shortly before the Covid-19 pandemic, adolescents began to commit suicide one after another, the cost of Belo Monte for the new generation became clear: nine young people aged between 11 and 19 took their lives between January and April of that year, while the number of suicide attempts in the same period was several times higher. At the time, members of Altamira’s youth organizations wrote an open letter to the authorities, that read “They say we’re the country’s future, but how can we be the future if we don’t have a present?”.
The effect of Belo Monte in a decade of accelerated destruction of both the landscape and people’s lives can be compared to a localized climate crisis. What happened in Altamira could represent the near future of new generations if the Amazon rainforest reaches a point of no return, and if global warming is not controlled.
A fundamental premise of SUMAÚMA’s journalistic mission is to listen to children and adolescents. Not just through reports with and about them, but through a process of mutual listening. They have their say on almost every topic raised. This video represents the start of our partnership with the Aldeias (Villages) organization, also based in Altamira, which seeks to build a bridge between the children of the city and the children of the forest, to allow the restoration of life and the imagining of futures.
An Amazon city, it should be said, is a ruin of the forest. Those who live in the periferias are, for the most part, forest peoples expelled by government projects, corporations and crime, then transformed into the urban poor, stripped of their identity and dependent on social welfare programs. Or they are poor migrants attracted by enormous infrastructure projects such as the Trans-Amazonian Highway in the 1970s, and Belo Monte this century. The bridge mentioned above is within children and adolescents, but it has been smashed. Aldeias was created to try and restore it, starting its work in the Santa Benedita neighborhood. SUMAÚMA also seeks to restore this bridge, through journalism. Our journalism considers childhoods, in the plural – not just a single idea of childhood, as if a single reality could ever be possible in a planet of such diverse experiences.
Under the coordination of Daniela Silva, an activist in black women’s, youth and forest defense movements, the video was filmed by fellow activists Joaka Barros and Soll, of the urban periferia cultural collective Reação de Rua (which means Street Reaction in English), who are young people from the periferia who recreate the broken bridges of everyday life through art. They asked children and one teenager from the periferia of Altamira what they want from Brazilian president-elect Lula. The children talk about improving their schools, streets, and houses, and complain about the high price of food, the shortage of squares and parks to play in – and plead for an end to the destruction of the forest.
As well as asking for the forest to be protected, they also want an Amazon with plenty of fruit, a sign both of what they have lost – or only knew about through the memories of their parents and grandparents – and of what they do not have. At least two are orphans, their parents killed in the spiral of urban violence that Belo Monte has brought to Altamira. Isolated in the periferia, some did not know they lived in the Amazon until recently, while at least one only visited the river that flows past the outskirts of the city at the age of nine, despite being born in Altamira, a town that sit on the banks of the Xingu. The unreliability and cost of urban transport turns poor families into exiles.
The children address Lula directly. For those who live in the Amazon, or in other enclaves of nature, such as the Cerrado and the Pantanal, and in the centers of urban resistance that are the favelas and other urban communities, such as the Complexo da Maré, in Rio de Janeiro, it is clear that, like the climate emergency, caring for children must form part of every government policy and department. If it does not, as the nine deaths in Altamira in less than four months have warned, there may be no future other than suicide.
This is SUMAÚMA’s contribution to the transition team of the new Lula government – which all those who have been violently affected by Belo Monte hope really will be new.
Translated by James Young