Yes, we know. Brazil’s far-right president Jair Bolsonaro has been defeated at the polls, and will leave power after another two months of brutalities. But he and Bolsonarism remain very much alive, supported by the votes of 58 million Brazilians, formed in the image of their messiah. And they are here among us, sharing the same Brazil. In the week after the election, we watched Bolsonaro’s followers perform Nazi salutes while singing the national anthem, carry out bizarre marching rituals dressed in the national soccer team shirt, and even solemnly chant the anthem to a tire. Why a tire? I have no idea. Bolsonarists are all around us; sometimes they even share our homes. And yet they believe it is legitimate to demand the illegitimate: the return of a military dictatorship. The question is: how are we going to live alongside them?
Because we’ll have to.
Before we contemplate this, it must be said that something extremely serious is affecting Bolsonarists. And I’m not trying to be humorous or ironic. It truly is serious. Their performances in the scenes we watched play out this week made us laugh like we haven’t for a long time in Brazil. But the facts behind the memes (a form which, by the way, should be elevated to the status of art, and have its own awards) are serious. That Bolsonarists feed on fake news is hardly a revelation. But the post-election period has revealed what falsifying reality, and believing in the falsification, does to a person’s life – and what a great mass of people doing the same can do to the life of a country. Much can be said about Bolsonarists – and it already has been. Nevertheless, it must be stated, in all seriousness, that they are sick.
Sick with a social disease that needs to be treated as such, and must be confronted by the incoming government. When faced with a fact that they couldn’t entirely falsify – the election victory of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, better known as Lula – Bolsonaro’s supporters lost all reason. It wasn’t just the scenes that became memes, like the guy who clung for miles to the front of a truck that had broken through one of the barricades formed by Bolsonarists demanding a coup, nor the criminal acts, like the singing of the national anthem while performing Nazi salutes, as was seen in the city of Sao Miguel d’Oeste in the southern state of Santa Catarina. It was the belief in more fake news, like cheering the arrest of Alexandre de Moraes, president of Brazil’s Supreme Electoral Court – an arrest that never happened. Or celebrating after hearing that Brazilian educator and philosopher Paulo Freire – long branded an enemy of Bolsonarism – had also been arrested (Freire died in 1997). Or spreading reports that Lula has terminal cancer, when in reality Brazil’s president-elect is doing just fine, thanks, and is preparing to star at Cop27 in Egypt.
In the coming days, weeks and months we will find out what will happen to this mass of people when reality continues to impose itself. And, in a few years, we will discover what became of the kids of those who detached themselves from reality. We care – as we should – about the children violated by the Bolsonaro government, which attacked their basic rights, slashing funds in social services while exceeding spending limits, first to benefit its supporters and allies, then to try and win the election. But perhaps we should also be concerned about the children living in the same house as adults unable to connect with reality. We can see what such people do outside their homes, but not what goes on behind closed doors. We have good reason to suspect there may be a great deal of suffering.
So what can we do? As a society, we need to remain firmly in the real world. We will respond to this divorce from reality with even more reality. And the most profound reality is life itself. The best way to fight the deadly project that Bolsonarism and its adherents represents will be to remain faithful to life. And I say this because we – those in Brazilian society who were not only horrified by, but who suffered at the hands of, this falsification, who for four years were held hostage by a criminal in power, who used the machinery of state against his own population – are also sick. Although I have no statistics to back this up, the signs are everywhere, like the fact so many people around me fell ill after the election, as though their bodies could finally collapse, now the polls had offered them a little support.
But while we can treat these physical illnesses with medicine, our sickness is much more persistent in our subjective mind. We are stuck with Bolsonarism and its daily routine of shocks and abuses. We are bound to the Bolsonarist horror like a hostage to their kidnapper, because we too were hostages. And because this was the way many of us found to survive the impossible.
It is time to break free.
And we can only truly break free if we do so subjectively. If our tattered democracy has survived, it is because of the resistance demonstrated by each our collectives and institutions which, despite their enormous failings, were able to impose some limits, especially in this election year. We were able to keep breathing by clinging to the small openings life gave us. Now it’s time to widen those openings into a horizon.
And as we continue onwards, we must stop worrying about what the Bolsonarists do every day – for, like the supporters of the sect of Trump have shown us, even after the storming of the Capitol, they may continue acting in this way if we can’t find a remedy, as a society, to the sickness of 58 million Brazilians. This in no way means ignoring the reality they represent, but it does mean acting not in relation to them, but rather in a profound relationship with life. We need to be. And not be in opposition to them, as we have been until now, but be in the stitching of the present, which can only be possible in the imagination of the present. For I am no longer talking about the future, but the present. The here and now. Doing what makes us feel good. Getting back to art, to dance and poetry, to the emancipatory education of Paulo Freire, to spirituality (religious or otherwise), to the joy of living together, and talking of that which brings us joy. Restarting debates that expand our minds, because the other expands our minds, instead of threatening us. We need to imagine our own lives and imagine a country, to liberate our subjugated subjectivity which has spent four years waking from a troubled sleep to discover what they did, what they said, what they’re conspiring, and what we need to do to defend ourselves.
Enough of living through the sick, because that makes us sick too. Now we have an extremely small window we need to widen with the sum of all of our strengths. More than the sum, because that which is added is still separate. We need to mix our strengths together.
That’s what I learned by living in the forest and observing the forest peoples, as a complete beginner. If the forest exists despite the attacks it suffers, it is because it lives with such fierceness. Where there is death, it is superimposed by life. That which is dried and scorched, returns ferociously to life at the first rain. What dies is immediately devoured to ensure the lives of those who live on. Flowers bloom in the most devastated spots, animals disperse seeds through the forest, fungi communicate in vast communities, trees carry on an endless conversation. We build our houses – usually an act of violence as it destroys the houses of others’ – and the forest spends its time sabotaging everything we build, attempting to devour us and reestablish itself. Food cannot be left out for more than a minute without a multiplicity of living beings immediately claiming it for their own, or creating a home in it. If it is left for days, it becomes an ecosystem, a mini-planet. On visits to São Paulo I’m always amazed how food can be left on a plate overnight without anything happening. I rest, but I know that silence is the voice of death. Life is always full of noise, full of smells and movement.
I often think of the butterflies that lost their colors so they could blend in with the wildfires of the arsonists, ceasing to be yellow, blue, green, pink, red, and becoming gray like the ashes of the burned forest. It is both immensely sad and at the same time a form of resistance. Rexistence with x, resist to exist. I have no doubt nature will reimagine itself after we disappear from this planet, a disappearance that transnational corporations and their shareholders, those acting legally and those outside the law, those who govern us, parts of our parliaments and parts of the judiciary have tried so hard to accelerate, to the point that the climate and structure of the planet has been altered.
Those who live want to live. Perhaps the inaction of a large part of society when confronted with what is being done to nature every day – in our name – is a hint that most human beings are half dead. It is time to leave the world of the dead and declare that we want to live. For this, we need to abandon a way of living that was determined by opposition to Bolsonarism, and resume our commitment to living through the smallest of acts. And one way of doing this is to pay attention to the life around us, the life that is happening all the time.
Commitment to life is not an act that begins and ends with the individual. It is an act in which one who understands themselves as an individual discovers they can only be so in relation to another. Commitment to life in the public sphere is to fight – together – so that the hungry can eat. Commitment to life in the public sphere is to fight – together – so that Bolsonaro and all the criminals of Bolsonarism are investigated, judged and punished, because it was (not only, but to a significant extent) the impunity of the criminals of Brazil’s 21-year military dictatorship that generated Bolsonaro and Bolsonarism. Commitment to life in the public sphere is to fight – together – to identify and hold accountable those who ordered the killing of Marielle Franco, and who killed Anderson Gomes alongside her. Commitment to life in the public sphere is to fight racism – all racism, including that committed daily against other species. Commitment to life is to conviver (to live alongside one another), this verb that has until now been forbidden. We fight when we dance, fool around, talk, party, kiss, and laugh until our stomachs hurt. We laugh with each other, not at each other. Making fun of – and not with – another is a perversion of Bolsonarism.
This is the shock of reality, of a life that imposes itself with fierceness, a life we’d forgotten, which can cure the sickness of the Bolsonarists besides the polls. This primal force that causes so many of us to have children when the planet is in a state of climatic collapse and while fascism spreads across the world not like a virus, but like only the human is capable of spreading and producing death.
Days before the elections, when my book Banzeiro òkòtó won the Vladimir Herzog Award for Amnesty and Human Rights, I made a short speech as I received the beautiful trophy, created by the much-missed Elifas Andreato, who died earlier this year. Some of it was filmed, my voice was speeded up to suit the internet, and the video went viral. I said, as I have written many times, that we needed to prevent the potential catastrophe of Bolsonaro’s re-election, but that even if we did, we would need to wake up the day after Lula’s victory on our feet and ready to fight. The most difficult part would come after the catastrophe had been averted. And this is what I believe. Not from faith, but from experience and investigation. But to fight, for me, is to fight like a forest. It is living fiercely, being enchanted by every scrap of life and forcing wide every opening life brings.
Lula’s victory, more than the reconstruction of Brazil, means the possibility of reconnecting with reality. For this, we need to resist any desire to mystify Lula himself, because then we’d be continuing in the same place. We don’t have a country to rebuild, because that would mean believing the fake news that Brazil has ever been somewhere we should return to. If that were true, neither Bolsonaro nor Bolsonarism would have been produced in the bowels of Brazil. We don’t have a country to rebuild, we have a country to imagine. Imagination. Imagine-action. We have to imagine a country without racism and without hunger. We have to imagine, most importantly of all, as this is the structural change that will determine all the others, a planet the center of which is life, not the markets. We have to imagine, to liberate the present from the absence of its future.
For this to be possible, the forest must remain a forest. According to scientists, the Amazon reaches the point of no return, the moment when the forest will no longer act as the forest, our great climate regulator, when it is between 20% and 25% deforested. We are very close to 20%. Obviously the destruction is not homogenous: there are parts of the forest that have already reached the point of no return and are emitting more carbon dioxide than they absorb, and there are others further from this point, such as the indigenous lands, the most protected areas. But the forest is interconnected, and everything that happens within it acts as part of a chain. And what happens in the forest acts as part of a chain on a multi-diverse, but intimately connected planet.
The defeat of Bolsonaro’s means a unique chance to stop the destruction of the Amazon and find ways to recover degraded areas before they are beyond saving. The most effective way to achieve this is to demarcate the indigenous lands that are yet to be protected. This is not some kind of favor: in 1988, the Brazilian Constitution determined that all native peoples’ lands should be demarcated within five years. Three decades later, this resolution remains unfulfilled. And furthermore, because all our lives depend on it – the population of every city in Brazil, the population of every city on the planet. Brazil’s new government also needs to officially recognize and grant legal ownership of quilombola (residents of communities originally founded by escaped enslaved peoples) lands, expand conservation units, and protect everything that went unprotected under the Bolsonaro government. But it also needs to go further, because even before Bolsonaro, Brazil’s protection system was a long, long way from what was needed. The Lula government needs to implement agrarian reform in the Amazon, recognizing and supporting communities of local sustainable agriculture workers. Those who live in the Amazon, or who have followed the massacres committed against settled family farmers, know that without agrarian reform protecting the forest will be impossible.
We have long known what needs to be done. There are plans and projects for all of it, including the immediate removal of the 20,000 miners (some of whom are indentured laborers) from the Yanomami Indigenous Land. It just needs to be done.
And this is the point. We know that Lula was elected with a broad band of alliances ranging from Marina Silva, his own Minister of the Environment between 2003 and 2008, and responsible for reducing the rate of deforestation in the Amazon, to well-known predators of the forest and other biomes, such as the Cerrado. It is evident that Lula would not have been elected without these alliances. Yet that which brought his slim victory, may ultimately prevent the protection of the Amazon. It will not be possible to reconcile the irreconcilable when the largest tropical forest on the planet stands on the brink. That which needs to be done must be done right now. The protection of the Amazon requires a radical commitment because our lives depend on it – including, although they do not realize it, the lives of those who destroy it.
The creation of a Ministry of Indigenous Peoples with an indigenous minister in charge will not be enough. This ministry must have real power. It is vital that the promise that the climate emergency will be a priority for, and will guide, every government department is actually fulfilled. There is nothing – nothing – more important than tackling the climate crisis, because the near future of our children (including those already born) depends on us doing so. The more the planet heats up, with the chain of effects that you can see just by opening the window, the more inequality of gender, race, class and species will be accentuated. While no one will escape, it is women, blacks and the poor who will be affected first, as the facts are already demonstrating. Billionaires build luxury bunkers underground in countries like New Zealand in an attempt to escape. Billionaires like Elon Musk, the new owner of Twitter, try to find another planet to colonize.
Lula’s campaign commitment can only be fulfilled by listening to Brazil’s native peoples and traditional populations (quilombolas, riverine communities and dozens of others). But being heard will not be enough. Such peoples must have an active role in power. As Brazil’s black and Afro-Brazilian activist movements have taught our society, without the division of power, the structure of society cannot change. The forest peoples, and peoples from other natural enclaves, must occupy positions at the highest level of government.
The official profile of the transition team, and the government that will take over in January, must comprise more women, more black Brazilians (the declared racial identity of the majority of the country’s population, it is important to remember), more indigenous and nature peoples. It must also be less binary and less cisgender. And yes, it must be more evangelical, and involve representatives of that group who respect the Secular State. The Brazilian left should have learnt by now that it is both imprudent and impossible to ignore the decisive and growing strength of evangelicals in the country. Ignoring this phenomenon only serves to strengthen the “market pastors”, who use fundamentalism for blackmail and profit, and will result in the loss of the support of worthy evangelical leaders who want to work for Brazil without imposing their religious views.
How can this happen with the band of alliances that led Lula to victory, and with a vice-president like [veteran center-right politician] Geraldo Alckmin? It can only happen through pressure from Brazilian society. Yours, mine, and everyone’s. Without this, it will be extremely difficult for Lula to move forward with his campaign commitments to protect the Amazon, and tackle the climate crisis. For in addition to the antagonistic voices within the government-in-formation, Brazil will have an even more toxic Congress than it does today, with a significant number of forces committed to predatory agribusiness in both the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate. If it desires to advance, Brazilian society must guarantee its support of proposals that protect the Amazon and other natural enclaves.
It will take a lot of pressure. The same energy that made Lula the candidate victorious needs to harnessed now if Lula the president is to fulfill his promises to the Amazon and to confront the climate crisis. The fight against class, gender and race inequalities depends on the fulfillment of these campaign commitments.
Make no mistake: we are at war. It is not a war between us and the Bolsonarists. It is a war between the minority that, in the words of the shaman Davi Kopenawa Yanomami, ate the planet, and the majority who are already living on a more hostile planet. Brazil has a crucial role to play in this war not because of its agribusiness, which destroys the Amazon and the Cerrado to produce soy to feed enslaved animals around the world, but because 60% of the largest tropical forest on the planet lies within its borders.
The presidents of the USA and the countries of Europe did not rush to congratulate Lula on his victory because of Brazil, but because of the Amazon. If the Amazon is destroyed, interest in our country disappears and we will be a pariah forever, regardless of who governs us, for having put all humanity at enormous risk. It is time to act according to our reality: Brazil today is the outskirts of the Amazon, not the other way around.
The choice is not whether to fight or not to fight. But there is a choice in how to fight. Let us fight like a forest, by clinging to life’s openings and turning them into a horizon, using joy as an instrument of resistance, and imagining the country in which we want to live. Occupying, as nature does, every empty space, finding the last breath of life on the dead earth and being reborn, sabotaging the agents of death day after day and choosing the affirmation of life. Let’s fight con-vivendo, or living alongside one another. In the words of the social movements of the forest, what we need now is not development, but involvement. Fighting like a forest is just that: being radically involved in life.
Translated by James Young