In the year that the celebration of Black Consciousness completes its 50th anniversary, black and quilombola leaders achieved a milestone in their history of political struggle in Brazil: for the first time in 26 editions, the United Nations Climate Conference had the significant presence of organizations of the black movement.
In the edition in which Brazil stopped negotiating the carbon market and charged for resources, one of the highlights of the event were civil society organizations: in addition to indigenous leaders, anti-racist organizations raised the debate on the ongoing genocide as a direct effect of the climate crisis. The groups also launched a manifesto in defense of the titling of quilombola territories.
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“The climate justice debate is necessarily a human rights debate,” explains historian and activist Douglas Belchior, who was a member of the Black Coalition for Rights entourage in Glasgow. “We want a preserved planet for the people who live on it. There are segments of the population that can exercise the fullness of their lives and other segments that cannot.”
According to Belchior, this was also the first time in the history of the movement in which leaders toured the parliaments of Paris, Madrid, Berlin and Munich to denounce environmental racism and violence against the black population in Brazil.
“In 2021, we continue to have to repeat the exercise that Abdias do Nascimento did: denounce the black genocide in Brazil. The world is unaware of it, but the genocide continues.”
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Demands for environmental justice are nothing new on the agenda of the black movement in Brazil. But the unprecedented participation of more than 200 entities covered by the delegation of the Black Coalition for Rights – currently the largest pact between black organizations in the country – represents a moment of updating the guidelines for confronting structural racism. This is what explains Dennis de Oliveira, professor at ECA/USP and researcher of social movements, when analyzing the “waves of flags” that stood out in the history of the anti-racist struggle.
“When you take the period of the Constituent Assembly (1987-1988) – when racism turned into an unbailable and imprescriptible crime – there was a certain mobilization of part of the black intelligentsia in the legal field due to this legal achievement.”
“Then, during the approval of the law that instituted the study of ethnic-racial relations, there was this same trend in the educational field, with the training of teachers and construction of teaching material. The same happens with the resurgence of police violence. All these processes they are an expression of what we call structural racism.”
For Dennis, the Covid-19 pandemic – most lethal among the black population – was what brought urgency to the demands for participation in the climate debate.
“In the post-pandemic scenario, the agenda for a dignified life is the big question. When it comes to the environmental issue, it is not just about the preservation of ecosystems, but the guarantee of a decent life for black communities that are having their living spaces destroyed by the greed of industrial production and the unrestrained and unsustainable extraction of natural resources ”, he explains. “For the black population – as well as for native peoples – it is not just a matter of defending the environment, but of their own physical existence.
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Activist Douglas Belchior, co-founder of Uneafro and one of the main leaders of the Black Coalition for Rights, sees these moments in history as a response to what he calls “refreshments of racial oppression.”
“The strategies of the genocide are updated, as well as ours [estratégias] to face him”, it says.
In addition to the effects of the pandemic, there are other reasons for the climate agenda to serve as a backdrop for denouncing the genocide of the black, quilombola and indigenous population in Brazil. On the eve of the climate summit, the Bolsonaro government rejected the use of the term ‘environmental racism’ used in a UN report to cite the situation of quilombola communities in Brazil.
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“When the government thinks about building hydroelectric plants, it is in areas with less favored populations, it is the Quilombola Communities and the indigenous lands, the fishermen”, explains Katia Penha, national coordinator of the Coordination of Quilombola Communities in Espírito Santo (CONAQ/ES). She was among the leaders representing more than 6300 quilombola communities at COP 26, where they spoke about the impacts of hydroelectric plants in the Amazon region.
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According to data from Conaq, there are more than 650,000 quilombola families in Brazil. And although they have been cited by the United Nations as victims of environmental racism, this was the first time that quilombola leaders attended the climate conference.
“Today, who is discussing the environmental agenda in Brazil? They are upper-middle-class or middle-class white people,” teases Selma Dealdino, executive secretary of Conaq. “We have several popular initiatives, of simple people who transform the space they live in, but who don’t attack, don’t violate, don’t violate nature. So it’s necessary to listen to what these people have to say.”
The 26-year-old climate activist Marcelo Rocha gives practical examples of environmental racism in urban areas by exposing his trajectory on the outskirts of Mauá (SP).
“The periphery makes me a climate activist from the moment I look around me and realize how immersed I am in inequality: Who are the people who suffer most from a flood? My mother, who after spending all day cleaning the someone’s house was forced to spend the night at a train station to wait for the river to go down. I’m talking about our daily lives.”
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Marcelo spoke to thousands of people through the Fridays for Future platform in Glasgow. Marcelo points out that the debate on the environment has become elitist, and fails to dialogue with the population’s most urgent demands.
“We are not in the same boat. The storm is the same, but our boat as a black and peripheral population is a raft. While the crowd is producing a climate solution to go to Mars, we are talking about eating today,” he says.
Diosmar Filho, doctoral candidate in Geography at UFF and coordinator of the project “Climate Change in the face of Recognition of Black Territories” explains the unprecedented character of the occupation of the black movement at COP 26: it is the greatest political presence of black Brazilian movements in instances of UN since 2001, at the conference in Durban, South Africa, where a greater participation in the environmental policy agenda at the UN was demanded. “It took 20 years post-Durban for us to achieve what we are experiencing now (at COP 26).
The researcher also warns that the lack of these groups in the main climate events may reinforce a new cycle of exploration of territories in developing countries, with a history marked by colonialism.
“There is no talk of where they are going to extract ore to make electric cars, planes powered by nitrogen, all that. As we have information, these ores are on the African continent, in Australia and in South America, in countries like Brazil , Bolivia, in the Amazon, in the international Amazon. To do this, a new cycle of exploration will be needed, which again violates peoples and territories.”