How ‘Nature’ is Racialised: Environmental Justice And CO2lonialism In Brazil

Arzucan Askin

Racial thinking shapes the spaces in which we live and the way we perceive the environment. The concept of ‘race’ is inseparable from contemporary environmental issues and inherently linked to colonial legacies. In Brazil, racial discrimination is deeply intertwined with development and the protection of the Amazon rainforest. 

Asháninka men in their hut. For over a century, there has been encroachment onto Asháninka land from rubber tappers, loggers, colonisers, and oil companies.  (© PEDRO FRANÇA, MINISTÉRIO DA CULTURA)

Asháninka men in their hut. For over a century, there has been encroachment onto Asháninka land from rubber tappers, loggers, colonisers, and oil companies. (© PEDRO FRANÇA, MINISTÉRIO DA CULTURA)

The linkages between climate change, colonialism, and capitalism have led to the emergence of the concept of ‘CO2lonialism’ in recent scholarship (Forsyth and Young, 2007; Hazlewood, 2012). While most scholarship refers to the historical linkage of these three issues – namely, colonialism constituting the roots of capitalism, and capitalist industrialization and production causing climate change – there is another perspective to be taken on the rise of ‘CO2lonialism’, particularly in Brazil.

The country prides itself as being a ‘racial democracy’. The term, coined by Brazilian sociologist Gilberto Freyre in the first half of the 20th century, suggests that Brazil averted the emergence of strict racial categories due to the ‘gentle’ nature of Portuguese Imperialism, and as such evaded racism and racial discrimination. Furthermore, the theory foresees the emergence of a ‘post-racial meta-race’ due to the miscegenation of racial and ethnic groups (Freyre et al., 1947).  However, this theory stands in stark contrast to the country’s deeply racialized reality. Brazil’s current racial diversity is a product of its colonial past, with most of its population descending from three main groups: European settlers, sub-Saharan Africans and indigenous peoples (Telles et al., 1998).

The majority of mixed-race people, often referred to as ‘mulattos’ (a highly contestable term), descend from freed African slaves. Brazil not only imported more enslaved Africans than any other American nation, but was also the last country in the Southern hemisphere to abolish the practice, in 1888 (Klein et al., 2009). As is the case with any nation whose official history started with settler colonialism and the institution of slavery, the country’s federal economic policy, directed at alleviating poverty and reducing inequality, is inherently racialized. Afro-Brasileiros, black and brown Brazilians, make up 51 percent of the nation’s population and are significantly more exposed to poverty and targeted by discrimination, social exclusion, and exploitation than their lighter-skinned counterparts (Htun, 2004; Lovell et al., 1998). 80 percent of Brazil’s richest one percent are white, and only 13 percent of non-white black and mixed-race Brazilians between the ages of 18 and 24 are currently enrolled in college (De Oliveira, 2017). With 54.8 million people (26.5% of the population) below the poverty line and 15.2 million living in extreme poverty (earning less than $1.90 per day), vulnerability to forced labour and exploitation is high (World Bank, 2019).

As such, present-day manifestations of slavery still exist in Brazil today, not only a legacy of the country’s colonial past, but also explicitly linked to the exploitation of natural resources in the Amazon. Most of Brazil’s ‘escravos’, modern-day slaves, are found in the agricultural sector, tied to land owners through debt bondage or human trafficking (Chernela, 2014), particularly in ‘quilombos’, territories where escaped slaves hid in colonial times (Mulanga, 1996). Between 2003 and 2015, the official number of workers rescued from “conditions analogous to slavery” was 44,483 (Do Nascimento, 2015). Most of these forced labourers were recruited for soya plantations, farms, mines and mills in the Amazon (Bickel and Dros, 2003; Kröger 2012). The exploitation of these majority non-white Brazilians in the Amazon contributes directly to deforestation and thus climate change. It is impossible to separate racism from environmental destruction, particularly in the context of Brazil.

“Slavery, [...], represents the thin edge of a larger principle: the right of Brazil’s [white] elites to exploit humans and nature as ruthlessly as they will.” (Grandin, 2016)

Just recently Beto Mansur, congressman for the Movimento Democrático Brasileiro (MDB) was discovered to be keeping “46 workers at his soybean farms in Goiás State in conditions so deplorable that investigators say the laborers were treated like modern-day slaves” (Sardinha, 2015; Romero and Sreeharsha, 2016). Issues of race and racism in Brazil are currently explicitly fuelled by the newly-elected far-right nationalist President, Jair Bolsonaro, who has publicly expressed his contempt for Afro-descendant Brazilians and indigenous people. During his election campaign he proclaimed that “not a centimetre will be demarcated either as an indigenous reserve or as a ‘quilombola’ (The Intercept Brazil, 2017).

“The Indians do not speak our language [...], they do not have culture. […] How did they manage to get 13% of the national territory?”

- Jair Bolsonaro (Marques, 2015)

“Indigenous people have resisted for 518 years to overcome the colonial structure and we will continue to be resolute in our struggle for our right to exist as original peoples.”

- Sônia Guajajara, Brazil’s Association of Indigenous Peoples (Rosa-Aquino, 2018)

While officially 436 territories have been formally designated as autonomous lands of indigenous peoples (Fundação Nacional do Índio, 2018), the presence of rich mineral reserves in these indigenous territories rendered them highly vulnerable to social and resource exploitation  (Survivalist International, 2019). The current Brazilian government under Bolsonaro has undermined indigenous rights and regards native communities in the Amazon as impediments to economic development and profit, subjecting them to (illegal) logging, cattle farming, mining and forced displacement (Londoño, 2019). The exploitation of the Amazon paired with embedded institutionalised racism is detrimental to planetary health: recent scholarship agrees on the indispensable role and importance of indigenous peoples and biodiversity conservation: comprising less than 5% of the world's population, indigenous people protect 80% of global biodiversity (Toledo, 2001 and Raygorodetsky, 2018).

The protection of territorial and resource rights of indigenous peoples is directly linked to effective environmental governance and achieving the goals of climate change conventions.

The protection of territorial and resource rights of indigenous peoples is this directly linked to effective environmental governance and achieving the goals of climate change conventions. It is impossible to separate current environmental issues and environmental justice movements from questions of race and racial thinking. Racial thinking has shaped and continues to shape our experiences of nature and the environment directly and indirectly.

Most importantly, the concept of race is historically and politically intertwined with nature; contemporary environmental issues and concerns of social justice are both cause and effect of colonialism. The social environmental ramifications of this connection define our everyday realities and struggles. It is our responsibility to not only contextualize our understanding of nature critically, but also to challenge and confront institutionalized racism that continues to deprive people of their fundamental rights and harm the environment.


This article was first published as part of LSESU Amnesty International Society’s annual human rights journal “A Climate of Change.”


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