Mobilizing in times of social distancing: activism and protests in Brazil during the COVID-19 pandemic

By Mariana G. Lyra. 

“Shot to death or infected to death – are these the options for the favela???”

Source: Jotamarquesrj

Mobilization is the glue that puts together activists around a cause; they all care and prompt actions in hopes of change. Even though online activism has been growing a lot for the past couple of years, recent times saw waves of protests on the streets all over the globe.

The Arab spring, the 2013 June journeys, or the Confederations Cup riots in Brazil, the independentist movement in Catalunya, and the Hong Kong protests are just some of the examples. These movements have in common the combination of online and offline activism, displaying several tactics and actions when fighting for their causes, however making use, especially, of massive and constant protests on the street. These agglomerations are the main image media brought out of these protests, combined with the violent repression from the police and authorities.

Now, in 2020, with the coronavirus pandemic, the WHO orientation is so that people should avoid crowded places and maintain at least one meter of physical distance from others to reduce the chances of being infected or spreading COVID-19. This recommendation, however, has continuously been ignored by many in Brazil.

Since March, at the beginning of the pandemic, Brazilians have gathered in protests constantly, and with different motivations. Bolsonaro’s supporters have been organizing anti-lockdown car protests, claiming the need to keep the commerce open and against other restrictive measures like it happened in the USA and Spain. At the same time, acts against the national congress have been organized in Brasilia, the capital of Brazil, gathering thousands on the streets. The demonstrators have counted with the support of president Jair Bolsonaro, who, ignoring the medical orientation of isolation due to a suspicion of infection, went to the acts to take selfies and salute the protesters. 

Health professionals have also protested in the past 1st of May, workers’ day, in Brasilia as a tribute to the colleagues who have died on duty during the pandemic. The protesters wore masks, medical coats and held crosses on their hands.  

This past Sunday (31st of May), however, the blockades of protesters supporting and rejecting Bolsonaro’s government, gained new momentum. Brasilia had a pro-Bolsonaro demonstration, as it has lately been happening every Sunday, counting with a ride-horsing and handshaking from Bolsonaro himself.  São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, and Belo Horizonte have had protests against and supporting the current president of Brazil.

In São Paulo, the protest pro-democracy, and against Bolsonaro, the military dictatorship and fascism, was led by several associations of football fans.  It ended up having a violent confrontation between activists and the police.  Apparently, it all started when Bolsonaro supporters holding fascist flags from European groups got closer to the other protesters, arousing them.

Brazil is now the second country with most people infected by the coronavirus and has recently registered more than a thousand related deaths in a period of 24 hours. What could be the motives prompting citizens to risk their health amidst a pandemic?

It is hard to precise it, but some cues might be on triggers coming from multilevel context influence. First, it is relevant to note, as I also said in a previous post in this blog, that Bolsonaro’s measures and responses to the pandemic have been polemic and heavily criticized internationally, but also domestically.  As a consequence, the last poll on the public opinion about Bolsonaro’s government hit a rejection record. This news was celebrated by the opposition, which quickly put up an online campaign with the hashtag #somos70porcento (“we are 70%”), suggesting that most Brazilians are now against Bolsonaro.

Second, the police in Rio de Janeiro have shot and killed a minor during confrontations with drug dealers. Locals are claiming there was no confrontation and more children were killed during the police operation that day. The pandemic has not stopped the violence in marginalized areas. A recent analysis published by The New York Times shows the long history of police brutality in Rio. Moreover, poor and black people have been affected the most during the pandemic in Brazil. They have precarious access to health and sanitation, and are also severely impacted by the economic shrink that came as a consequence of the lockdown measures.  

Hence, last Sunday protests in Rio had also an antiracist connotation. This feature is fueled by the historical and current violence against black and poor people in Rio, and in line with a series of other protests around the world following the United States anti-racist protests that sparkled due to George Floyd’s death. Floyd was a black man brutally killed by a white police officer after gasping for breath. The event was recorded and then widely spread online. The United States is seeing a wave of protests against racism that is comparable to the ones that happened due to Martin Luther King’s murder.  

The timing could not be worse in terms of health risks for the activists. The urgency on the anti-racist protests in Brazil, however, has always been there. The number of infections and deaths due to coronavirus reflects the high social inequality present in Brazil. Black and poor Brazilians are dying five times more than ‘white’ ones. Also, the prompt motivations to resist and join struggles are usually encompassing risks, including death threats, especially in Latin America, where violence is common during protests and conflicts.

As for the pro-democracy protests, the timing and window of opportunity to push for more democracy and rights perhaps could not be better. With this new push, campaigners against Bolsonaro aim at impeaching him from duties. They are afraid that measures towards a military dictatorship are in course at the moment and are orchestrating countermoves. 

Protests are thus likely to continue as lives will remain being lost due to the pandemic and violence in Brazil. The urgency to refrain the virus spread does not seem bigger than the urgency demonstrated by the activists last Sunday on the streets.

Mariana G. Lyra is an environmental policy researcher and doctoral student at the University of Eastern Finland. Her main research interests are extractive industries, local conflicts, and social movements. In particular, she is interested in shedding light on the groups fighting for social and environmental justice.

The COVID-19 pandemic and socio-ecological crises: What is the future for community forestry?

By Violeta Gutiérrez Zamora

Community Forestry workers in the Southern Sierra of Oaxaca (2017). Photo: Violeta Gutiérrez Zamora

 

Mexico, like other countries in Latin America, is facing fast-rising numbers of COVID-19 cases and death tolls. Since March 31st, the federal government implemented several restrictions on economic activities considered as “non-essential,” among them the forestry sector. For rural communities that make a living out of their forest resources, the measures have meant a drastic decline for families and communities’ incomes. In an online press conference in mid-May, various actors involved with the forestry sector reported that the 70% decline in the domestic wood market and the plummet of ecotourism were already hitting community forest enterprises (CFEs). Although COVID-19 has not widely spread among rural communities, for many, the socio-economic consequences are already impacting their livelihoods.

In the Mexican environmental arena, CFEs have been a critical element to build up strategies for supporting people’s livelihoods, managing forest ecosystems sustainably, reducing, and avoiding deforestation. CFEs emerged in the 1980s after a wave of mobilizations against forestry concessions granted to private and state companies. With the suspension of concessions, several communities started to build their CFEs as a way to acquire more control and technical knowledge over the use of forest, and the economic benefits derived from timber production. Since then, they have settled wood and non-wood productive ventures like timber and charcoal production, wooden furniture manufacturing, sawmilling and water bottling plants, and ecotourism projects. The difference between private enterprises and CFEs resides in their core principles. While private enterprises raison d’etre is to turn and maximize profit, CFEs are drive by a sense of community responsibility. As such, one of the main objectives of CFEs is to invest their profits in the provision of public services that would otherwise be difficult for community members to obtain, such as employment, health care, education, and basic rural infrastructure.

The CFEs’ success, mistakes, and failures have a direct impact on the human populations that depend on them and, therefore, on the dynamics of forest ecosystems. The enormous responsibility that CFEs and the rural communities have in terms of biodiversity conservation and populations well-being is often unacknowledged and receives low remuneration. As I have argue elsewhere, CFEs and community forestry as a model confront critical limitations when neoliberal environmental policies aim to transform them, or at least treat them, as private enterprises to compete in the free-market. While the link between biodiversity loss and emerging infectious diseases such as COVID-19 is more evident, the critical role that CFEs have in biodiversity conservation needs further consideration and responsiveness from the state and the society in general. In this sense, the strategies of economic ‘reactivation’ promoted by the federal and state government need to rethink how to support CFEs and rural communities as a question of socio-ecological care and collective well-being rather than plain productivism.

Moreover, in the last four weeks, amidst the pandemic, other emergencies like forest fires have required prompt action from the communities the forest service at federal and state levels in Michoacán, Guerrero, Oaxaca, Chiapas, Quintana Roo, and Yucatán. CFEs and the forest service workers, trained to manage fires, have become another group of essential workers for avoiding the spread of wildfires frequently caused by human action.

During last years, forest fire seasons have become harsher, longer, and with higher intensity across the globe. According to fire data from MODIS shared by Global Forest Watch, forest fires alerts in Mexico in 2019 were the highest since 2001. This year forest fires alerts in the country seem to maintain a lower tendency than last year. However, in personal conversation with a community authority in the Southern Sierra of Oaxaca, he complaint that when calling for support for fighting forest fires, the response from the Oaxaca state government is often sluggish. Despite the austere conditions in which CFEs and the environmental sector are, several workers from the companies, and the forest service along with community members have been fiercely working to manage the current wildfires, demonstrating once more how essential their work is.

In the near future, the environmental sector may suffer a further reduction in their already low budget (about 1.2 billion EUR for 2020). The cuts have already impacted the support community forestry received from the federal environmental agencies. CFEs and other governmental and non-governmental actors involved also need to rethink and reformulate strategies to confront the environmental debts and future emergencies related to people’s health, the oncoming economic crisis, the risks of violence, and the various vulnerabilities that climate change creates for the forest. Any strategy for socio-ecological transformations requires that the needs of rural communities and the CFEs are heard and placed as a priority. More than ever, the pandemic and the socio-economic crisis lead us to reconsider new strategies for socio-ecological adaptation and transformation where people can recognize future contingencies but also reformulate in common other senses of our coexistence between us and with the forest. 

Violeta Gutiérrez Zamora is an environmental policy researcher and Ph.D. candidate at the Department of Geographical and Historical Studies of the University of Eastern Finland. In her research, she focuses on feminist political ecology, eco-governmentality, rural organizations and community forestry in Mexico.