because we are nature
🍃 This piece was originally written as the script for a talk delivered at Google, entitled “From Deforestation to Self-Awareness”, in 2019. I have been reading Ailton Krenak and Banzeiro Òkòtó, by Eliane Brum, who inspired me to revisit these thoughts with a heightened sense of urgency. My intent is to reach more people with the challenge to see ourselves as one and the same as nature, a unique opportunity to embrace the possibility to re-imagine a present that can hold all of us in this planet we call home. If you’d like, there is an accompanying soundtrack.
Deconstruction — Encounter — Connection
these are the moments I’ll share with you today
I grew up a very curious kid. Like many of us, I asked WHY about everything, maybe a survival mechanism that I never lost. The first big question that I remember asking was about religion. I first asked my parents: Why did I have to follow their religion? Specifically, why did I have to go there every week to learn the same doctrines over and over again — my parents didn’t have an answer other than they wanted me to. I was eager to learn whether my school friends wondered the same thing about religion.
By asking around, I found a friend whose mom followed a religion that worshiped Mother Earth, or the Great Goddess; which honored their grandeur and respected their realm. This was the first time that I learned to envision nature with a feminine identity. Later I learned that civilizations who hold such respect for nature were usually crushed by others, like the Jésuits. Jésuits claimed they had a noble cause, — to civilize the barbaric and indigenous people, when in truth they were operating genocides and ethnocides in the name of a white supremacist god. This happened in the country where I grew up.
I lived in Amazonia for four years of my childhood. I have memories of children playing with baby alligators, and wondrous birds casting mythical shadows onto the waters of the Amazon river. But I also remember images of forest fires in my school books and in the news. As with most curious people, I felt a special connection with forests — the haunt of their destruction caused me profound distress since I can remember.
Following the signs in Brazilian folklore, some of the most popular ones are so intriguing to me. Saci-pererê, a black, single legged, semi-naked kid, with a hole in one of his hands. Cuca, an European-like witch alligator with magical powers, Boitatá, a serpent in flames. Curupira, a forest spirit with fiery (sometimes literally) red hair and feet twisted backwards to mislead men chasing him. Mula-sem-cabeça, a headless mule with a pyre coming from her neck.
This is imagery that we are exposed to growing up in Brazil. Deformed bodies, beings catching on fire. Today I find them revealing. Joseph Campbell says in the Power of Myth:
“Mythology is not a lie, mythology is poetry, it is metaphorical. It has been well said that mythology is the penultimate truth- — penultimate because the ultimate cannot be put into words. It is beyond words. Beyond images, to what can be known but not told.”
How telling are these folkloric images of a country with people aching along with forests and wildlife being put on fire. Historically, man made fires were tools to cause intentional deforestation. Beyond using the woods for construction, European settlers used fires to clean up areas to build farms and commerce. Deforestation was our country’s original sin. Something that used to be deemed impossible to stop, as it was part of this country’s inception, and “development”.
In the turn of the millenium, the Amazon forest was inscribed as a World heritage place. The world heritage Amazon park is delineated within the Amazon state in Brazil. Making 6 million hectares of the planet’s richest biodiversity classified as a World Heritage, would allegedly make it all humanity’s duty to protect her.
Now, take a look at the actual size of the Amazonia, while keeping an eye on the green dot showing where the reserve is. You can see a thin vein that grows itself from the Atlantic ocean all the way across the continent until it stops at the Andes mountain ranges. All of this deep green is in fact, the Amazon forest, she is over 550M hectares wide, only 6M, 1% of her is part of the Amazon reserve, the rest is subject to critical damage today. Growing up, without realizing that it was virtually impossible to overcome the feeling of constant loss, I felt compelled to do something about it.
Over a decade ago, I had the privilege to work on externalizing this anguish caused by manmade Amazon deforestation. My attempts were to enact the feeling of awe facing nature’s inherent mystery and beauty…
… But also consume the heart shattering feeling of loss and decay when seeing nature being destroyed, victim animals coming back after a forest fire, looking for their family, trying to find their home among the ashes.
What will it take for us to care about the Amazon and the forests of our planet, to respect them, and to realize how destroying them means destroying a part of us?
“That’s here. That’s Home. That’s us.”
— Carl Sagan, Pale Blue Dot, 1994
Some people wonder what forests have to do with people. I think this is the true origin of the problem. The way we treat the environment around us reflects in profound and direct ways how we treat each other. Love for nature is a passion that I shared with my best friends in Brazil. We are immersed in a violent country. Sharing arts and moments in nature together were strategies to sublimate fear and tactics to escape psychological aggressions we faced every day. Together, we built a safety net that helped us rinse ourselves from pervasive and malicious commentary about our lives, homophobic and mysogenous jokes, news headlines of young people like us being murdered for appearing “effeminate” in the streets. None of that was different from the way multinational agroindustry companies aligned themselves with our government to murder those who kept and were partially responsible for maintaining our forests.
In August 19 of 2019, this striking Twitter post shows when day turned night in São Paulo. This was caused by a massive CO2 cloud coming from many directions in the country, covering the city’s skies and causing a major light shift. I was not there, but this was catardic to me. It made me look back at what I left behind soon after I moved to the US to work here.
This picture from NASA shows where deforestation have been happening. Rapid fires burning day and night, every second of our times. To paint you a better picture if you are in the United States, in 2018 California wildfires destroyed 700K hectares of forests, and through the end of August 2018, Cal Fire alone spent $432 million on operations. In 2018 alone, more than 847K hectares of the Amazon forest in Brazil, which accounts only 60% for the Amazon forest, was lost. And how much is Brazil putting in to stop it? 0 dollars. One of the main uses of the forest wiped out in Brazil is to raise cattle or food for cattle. No wonder deforestation areas coincide with territories adjacent to where pasture and crops.
This is the reality. Arguably, from the year 2000 until 2016 there was a slow down of deforestation. In 2016, the year our country had a coup-d’etat, we didn’t just lose our first female president, but the destruction of our country took off more violently, maliciously and perversely than ever before. Deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon rainforest rose more than 88% in June 2019 compared with the same month in 2018. A report published by Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research (INPE) on Thursday estimated that 13,235 square kilometers (8,224 square miles) of forest was lost between August 2020 and July 2021. That’s an increase of 22% from 2019. It also marks the greatest area lost to deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon since 2006, when a total area of 14,286 square kilometers was cleared.
Since Bolsonaro’s mis-government joined the ministers of agriculture with the minister of the environment, there are no budgets to regulate this insanity. So much for the “order and progress” imprinted in our flag.
Brazil has a prophetic name. Our country was named after a tree called Pau-Brasil. It was used to produce a red pigment to dye fabrics. In known history, this tree was the first tree to be extinguished from Brazilian forests. Curiously, red is the only primary color that is not present in this country’s flag.
Until very recently, I was in denial about how Brazil was paved on the corruption and violence installed by Europeans, and subsequently, the USian neo-colonialism, and how we refused to look at ourselves in the mirror. Now that I have a longer distance between the Amazon and myself, I see the mirror clearly. I have wide open eyes. And they hurt more than ever from seeing the smoke of our lives fading into the atmosphere. What used to be the wealth of our land is being destroyed in the name of profit, causing environmental disasters, taking even human lives along with her. That is the greatest irony. Many fail to realize that by taking our forests’ lives away, we are augmenting the chances of fading away alongside her.
But I know my people. You reading this piece, you are likely to be like me, someone living in an urban enough place to have access to a computer or mobile phone. You are my people — we represent humanities responsible for this. And I know we can overcome this tragedy.
Out of all the people I know, I know we can understand this, and together we can solve this climate emergency. By raising a mirror in front of us, we can say enough with fanatical cries that perpetuate ignorance. Only with wisdom can we dissolve violence. I urge you to reflect about simple habits that affect the way we live today. Small things we all do can have a profound impact on our future. As Brazil is the largest exporter of red meat for the USA and second (after the USA itself) to the world, reducing the consumption of red meat everywhere is critical to preserve the Amazon. Beyond the Amazonia, if you go back to that picture of NASA, you’ll see that many other areas of Brazil, like the Pantanal, and throughout Latin America, where meat is produced is also burning away. These are not mere coincidences. I was raised a vegetarian by my mom, and none of my best friends in Brazil eat red meat regularly anymore. Please be responsible towards your own future, think about your origins. This is my own origin, but it is also yours.