Inequality, environmental injustice, and racism in Brazil: beyond the question of colour

Tania Pacheco*

In order to work with machines, the worker must start his apprenticeship very early, so that he can adapt his own movements to the uniform and continuous movement of an automaton. (Marx 1987: 481)


Proponents of environmental justice, particularly those who are informed by a rigid Marxist analysis, tend to consider the concept of environmental racism as superfluous. For them, the notion of justice adequately encompasses the analysis, the condemnation, and the attempt to overcome conflicts between social injustice and the environment. In this perspective, emphasising the racial component of environmental injustice means underestimating its more important content: the model of development and its underlying paradigm of civilisation.

A significant proportion of the black movements in Brazil equally tend to regard the concept with distrust, seeing it as an attempt to play down the issue of racism. In this view, the qualifying adjective ‘environmental’ restricts the broader and institutionalised content of racism in Brazil.

This is the more so since these movements are currently focused on restoring self-esteem and pride in their traditions and cultures of origin, rather than demanding a recognition of their rights as citizens. This is especially so among the most marginalised black populations who have been the most influenced by the ‘whitening’ paradigm.

I would argue that both positions are mistaken, since racism is an issue that goes beyond colour. I will illustrate this by means of a practical example of the treatment given to indians, blacks, and people from the Northeast,1 in the municipality of Sorriso, Brazil’s biggest producer of soya. In Brazil, those who are on the economic margins of society are equally the targets of prejudice. While they are not labelled in an obviously racist fashion, they are treated as non-citizens, as disposable human beings, to the extent that capital can do without them or even consider them to be an impediment to development. This is the case of fishing communities, shellfish gatherers, riverine dwellers, ‘geraiszeiros’ (inhabitants of the Cerrado region of central Brazil), those who collect and break babac¸u nuts, and many other Brazilians besides. Although some are already organised in the struggle for true citizenship, others still accept this oppression and lack of respect, even from the public authorities.

Racism and prejudice are despicable attitudes and as such must be challenged. There is no question about this. But can these issues be confronted by struggling only for the right to equality with ‘whites’? Or by importing concepts and solutions from the USA? Can we eradicate racial prejudice in the context of today’s neo-liberal global casino? How can we build fraternal spirit, equity, and social and environmental justice if the prevailing economic model depends on the exploitation and oppression of the majority, rendering them almost invisible, for the benefit of a tiny minority?

Let us recall the differential treatment of the population of New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina, as even the New York Times noted. Social class just as much as race determined the chances that rich and poor had to protect themselves, to flee, to seek shelter, to be hosted by other municipalities, and eventually to return. It is true that the black population, who were of course the poorest, were the worst affected, experienced the greatest problems in being accepted as refugees, and faced the greatest hardships in obtaining loans to repair their homes. But it is also true that upper-class blacks experienced the devastation caused by the hurricane quite differently, being either unharmed or only slightly affected, at most suffering some financial loss.

This example illustrates the complex relationship between social class and prejudice, and between economic power and racism. And this is precisely what the concept of environmental racism shows us: the multiple facets and nuances in which prejudice is disguised, as well as its root causes. Thus, instead of trivialising racism, the concept opens it out, revealing its deeper aspect, in which a person’s ‘racial descent’ will necessarily encompass both the oppressed and the oppressor.

If we really want to end racism and prejudice in all their forms, we need to be much more ambitious. We need to struggle for an alternative concept of development, for a different kind of society, one that is egalitarian and just, in which full democracy and active citizenship are not the rights of a few, leaving the majority only the crumbs of such ‘benefits’. We need to rehabilitate the teachings of Marx. Contrary to those forces that would have him buried in the Valley of the Mummies, we need to revitalise what was and is the essence of his humanism. This calls for everyone who is committed to democracy and to social and environmental justice to look further afield. Without neglecting our own struggles and victories, we need to join forces to build a better world.

Inequality as a root cause

In 2006, Brazil moved from eighth to tenth on the scale of the world’s most unequal countries. Six of the other nine are in Africa, while Haiti, Colombia, and Bolivia now overtake us on this inhuman and immoral ranking. According to the Aurelio (a dictionary widely used in Brazil), inequality, a feminine noun, means ‘the quality or state of that which is unequal’. In mathematics, it means ‘the relation between the members of a set, which involves the signs “more than” or “less than”‘. Exclusion is also a feminine noun, signifying the act of excluding or being excluded. In the legal field, it corresponds to ‘the act by which someone is deprived of, or excluded from certain roles’.

In the case of Brazil, inequality and exclusion can be said to rhyme in the figurative sense. ‘More than’ and ‘less than’ are more than mere mathematical signs, because they determine the privation of something much more important than ‘certain roles’. They establish profound differences between an outrageous concentration of wealth, on the one hand, and deprivation, lack of respect for human dignity, and being condemned to live below the poverty line, on the other hand. For some, this results in a denial of their full citizenship; for others it means that even their basic rights are not guaranteed – in other words, non-citizenship.

Indeed, every year up to 2003 the Brazilian Institute for Geography and Statistics (IGBE) gave us an irrefutable example of exclusion. Each graph and table of the National Household Sample Survey (Pesquisa Nacional por Amostra Domiciliar, or PNAD) contained a little explanatory footnote about the data: ‘With the exception of the rural population of RondÔnia, Acre, Amazonas, Roraima, Pará, and Amapa´’.2 It was not until 2004/5 that these Brazilian citizens were included in the PNAD, in both the literal and figurative senses.

We could take the view (as did the official document) that these non-citizens correspond to only 1.9 per cent of the Brazilian population: a mere 3,562,595 people, if we accept the 2007 IGBE figure for the national population as 189,853,832. In relative terms, however, these people represent almost 24 per cent of the total population of the Brazil’s northern region; in other words, almost one quarter of the men and women, old and young, indians, blacks, white, and yellow-skinned who inhabit these six states. These states are extremely rich in terms of their biodiversity and social diversity, but unbelievably wretched in terms of the living conditions of most of their inhabitants and in terms of the regional poverty statistics.

In late 2006, the media presented maps of Brazil’s presidential elections in blue, indicating support for the Social Democrats (PSDB) in the South, Sa˜o Paulo, Roraima, and a part of the Central West region. It is no coincidence that the latter corresponded to Mato Grosso and Mato Grosso do Sul, into which, over the last 30 years, people from Parana´, Santa Catarina, and RioGrande do Sul (so-called ‘gau´chos’) have flooded in search of cheap land: land ready to be devastated, exploited, turned into pastures, and poisoned by monocultures. From the south up towards Amazônia the devastation of soya has been added to that of cattle-ranching. The Cerrado or savannah region of Central Brazil has surrendered to the predations of national and transnational capital, while the frontiers of the pampas now spread far and wide, as we shall see below.

The defeat of the ruling party in these regions was exhaustively analysed by both sides. According to those who supported Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (elected President of Brazil in 2002), in common with many other serious commentators and economists, voters were basically influenced by economic questions such as the drought-related losses and declining export earnings, as the US dollar continued to fall against the Real. The opposition supporters explained the results as being due to a better-educated electorate with higher disposable income, and therefore more concerned about the accusations of corruption and ethical standards.

The 100-year-old Estadão de São Paulo, the traditional newspaper owned by the Mesquita family, added another slant to the debate with its analysis of the ‘red side of the map’, in other words areas that supported the Lula government. The article, entitled ‘Rigour with political corruption varies with region and social status’, made the issues starkly clear in its subtitle, ‘North East voters more tolerant of financial misappropriation than voters in the South East’. The journalist Franklin Martins retorted:

Playing with numbers from an Ibope [National Opinion Poll] survey doesn’t prove anything. The article attempted to argue that NorthEasterners, the poor and blacks are less concerned with ethics than the population of ‘The marvellous South (Sul Maravilha)’.3

In reality the data used by the newspaper proved little. According to the Estadão (playing on the newspaper’s motto Estadão, o jornal que pensa ÂO, ‘the Big State, the newspaper that thinks BIG’), ‘In the Northeast, 10 per cent of voters said that they would vote for a politician accused of corruption – an indicator similar to the North/Central-West, which is 9 per cent. In the South and Southeast, these indicators are 6 per cent and 7 per cent respectively’. In fact, as Martins points out, these are very small variations in terms of the accepted margin of error for such studies, adding that ‘if anything can be read from these numbers it is that in terms of the importance given to ethical standards, there is a reasonably homogeneous level across the country, and not the contrary’. Martins continues:

But there is more. The Estadão also considers that the Ibope research shows a relation between skin colour and moral standards: those who declare themselves white are more demanding about ethics: 88 per cent would not vote for a corrupt [politician]; those who declare themselves pardo [brown-skinned/of mixed descent] are less demanding and 85 per cent would not vote for those charged with corruption; but those who declare themselves as pretos [black/of African descent] are the least rigid with ethics: only 82 per cent refused to vote for corrupt [politicians]. Martins concludes, ‘Like it or not, the idea this conveys is that, the darker the skin, the more relaxed people will be about ethical standards’.4

The explicit racism in the stance of the Sa˜o Paulo newspaper goes further than skin colour, however. It is worth remembering that the Northeasteners in question could quite easily have blue eyes and be descended from the Dutch, who invaded the region in the seventeenth century. Likewise, ‘the poor’ are not defined by skin colour. As if this weren’t enough, the Estadão seems to ignore the fact that in absolute terms Sa˜o Paulo has the country’s largest black population: 12.5 million of the total of 91 million who define themselves as pretos or pardos in the 2005 PNAD – in other words, 31 per cent of the state population. This is a significant proportion of the 28 million Brazilians who voted in a state that prides itself as being ‘the greatest electoral college in the country’.

What the newspaper in fact reflects is the majority opinion of the so-called ‘Brazilian elite’ for whom Northeasterners, the poor, and blacks are considered inferior races, human scum, labour to be used and chucked out through the back door as soon as the building is finished, or when the ‘semi-slave’ is too sick to work. Indians fail to get even a mention in this thinking. Historically they have served to have their lands razed or exploited in any other way deemed necessary.

Inequality, exclusion, racism – yet none of these is the central question. Rather, if we want to change this state of affairs we have to ask whether equality, solidarity, democracy, and full citizenship for all can be achieved under capitalism. Even if we take a jump on the map from the wretched North-Northeast to the ‘wonderful’ South-Southeast, the question still remains. For beneath the mask of modernity there is perhaps a more hideous and inhuman face, in the false refinement of the Jardins Paulistas [an exclusive area of Sa˜o Paulo] and Rio´o de Janeiro’s coastal boulevards such as the prestigious Viera Souto. This is the challenge that the rest of this article will address.

Social and environmental justice: an indissoluble equation

It is not by chance that the concept of environmental justice emerged among US blacks in the late 1970s in the wake of the civil-rights victories. As a result of the movement against a toxic-waste dump in Warren County, NC between 1978 and 1982, a strange coincidence was discovered. About 75 per cent of this type of waste, located mainly in the south-east of the USA, was dumped in black neighbourhoods, while blacks composed only 25 per cent of the region’s population. As Robert Bullard says, the movement for environmental justice thus emerged ‘in response to the environmental inequalities, threats to public health, unequal protection, differential difficulties and bad treatment received by the poor and people of colour’ (Bullard 2004: 57, my emphasis).

In Brazil it was, by contrast, the Southeast that made the less prosperous North the ‘sacrificial zone for the toxic waste of the nation’. Bullard argues that this was and is the product of issues that go beyond the legacy of slavery and the resistance of Southern whites to racial equality. It is the result of bad public policies, based on the false premise that environmental legislation reduces jobs and erodes local wealth. Bullard underlines that even in the USA environmental injustice affects not only blacks but ‘workers from Latin America, Afro-Americans, Afro-Caribbeans and Asians’. And he adds: ‘Racism is a powerful factor in the selective distribution of people in their physical environment; it influences land-use, housing patterns and the development of infra-structure’ (ibid.). This is readily illustrated in the case of Brazil, which has – albeit belatedly – taken the lead in the Latin American movement for environmental justice.

In reality, social and environmental injustices not only share the same origins but feed off each other. It is precisely this logic that creates degradation for some, while allowing outrageous wealth for others. Surrendering to a development model that is increasingly exclusionary makes the authorities opt for connivance, or at least to overlook these facts. They close their eyes to the flouting of labour and environmental laws, subsidise or reduce taxes to attract companies, even when this is harmful to the environment and to the workers themselves, and carry out veritable auctions of human and natural resources.

An example of this was the arrival in Piauí in 2001 of a US agribusiness company. The state government exempted it from paying taxes for 15 years so that it could establish itself in the southern municipality of Urucuí, planting soya and creating jobs there. That represents 200 million Reais (E754 million) annually that one of the poorest states in Brazil is forgoing. But the loss is more than financial: the cerrado (savannah) once covered 37 per cent of the state of Piauí, following the River Parnaíba and forming the frontier between Amazônia and the caatinga or scrub interior lands of the Northeast states. The company uses native woods as its only source of energy to dry the soya, thus contributing to the destruction of the cerrado.

As the Brazilian Environment Institute (Instituto Brasileiro de Meio Ambiente, or IBAMA) permitted the company to use only trees growing in a radius of 30 km around its plant, the company resolved the problem by outsourcing the supply of wood, thus extending its impact still further. According to the Águas de Piauí (Waters of Piauí) Foundation (, the deforestation is already only 800 km from Urucuí, nearly reaching the state capital, Teresina. To guarantee supplies of wood, eucalyptus monoculture is being introduced. There are also serious accusations that child labour and slavery are being used by the company’s ‘subsidiary’ ventures.

It is not just those in government who tolerate these immoral tactics. Faced with the increasing threat of unemployment, many workers end up accepting jobs that are dangerous for themselves or their families or for the surrounding communities. The condition of absolute poverty is like going back to the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, a time of despair and submission to the machine. Faced with the blackmail of capital, many workers give way in all senses of the word, yielding their women and children to the greed of the ‘market’. In the words of Marx, ‘… . capital is by nature a leveller, that demands as if as a natural right equal conditions of exploitation in all departments of production’ (1987: 453). He continues, ‘Before, the worker sold his own labour, which he owned as a free person. Now women and children are sold. He becomes a trafficker of slaves’ (ibid.: 451).

In this continuum of exploitation and misery, what is the difference between the unhealthy conditions and long working days of children producing charcoal today and those of the child miners in England 200 years ago? Or between the three-year-old children getting their bodies scratched and eyes perforated, working beside their mothers in the cutting of sisal, and the English children of the same age who ended up crippled or even died, crawling along the ground to clean the machines as they operated, since any stoppage meant a loss of profit? Just as in the past, the polluting industries, the huge energy-producing complexes, and the monocultures that are so destructive of soil and water quality demonstrate how capital is increasingly anxious to exploit this ‘vulnerability’. Regrettably Chapter 13 of Volume 1 of Capital is still shockingly relevant, despite having been written in 1866, more than 140 years ago!

It is almost impossible to separate social injustice from environmental exploitation, since they generally merge into each other. Unfortunately this is not how most people who are involved in social struggles in Brazil see things. Evenmany who are involved in the women’s and blackmovements tend to regard the environment as less important, if they do not ignore it altogether. Indians see things differently, because nature is the basis of their very survival, be it material, cultural, or spiritual. However, misery or greed have taken their toll even among them, as in the case of the Cinta Larga, with the exploitation of lumber companies, the imposition of monoculture, and the extraction of diamonds.

The changes that the political world has undergone over the last 20-odd years have been extremely harmful for our sense of humanity. The fall of the Berlin Wall, the destruction of ‘actually existing socialism’, and the redefinition of national frontiers, replaced by (largely virtual) financial frontiers, have led many to accept the notion of the death of politics and the irrelevance of utopia.

Contaminated by the universalising of cultural and ethical norms that stem from the logic of the market and consumerism, we have lost our direction5 and allowed ourselves to be overtaken by the need to have instead of to be. For most of the so-called middle classes, citizenship is now measured by purchasing power. Solidarity has gone out of fashion.

Meanwhile, in many academic centres, political theorists such as Marx, Engels, Gramsci, and Goldmann have been gradually mummified. New movements and struggles have been emerging, some of which are strong and just, but others increasingly atomised. Thanks to the mass media, our visions are becoming more narrowly focused, with an increasing tendency to disunity, dividing what should be collective struggles into ‘corporativist’ or interestgroup-based disputes. The so-called conservation movement is a clear example of this type of short-sightedness. The same could also be said of other social movements, which may be entirely justified but nevertheless choose not to incorporate their struggles within the overarching goal of building a new project for society, a model of civilisation that brings human beings and nature into a different type of relationship.

Interest-based struggles are obviously necessary, as each group has its own specific concerns, be they trade unionists, women, indians, blacks, river dwellers affected by dams, fishing communities, or women who break up babac¸u nuts for a living. But limiting oneself to the specifics becomes an obstacle to the larger collective struggle for an equitable society. If we allow ourselves to be divided, separated, and isolated, if we become self-centred, condemned to defeat, motivated by individual, ‘me first’ aspirations, we will be playing into the hands of the bigger enemy, the prevailing model of development.

The idea of ‘social’ is implicit in the term ‘environmental justice’, just as the term ‘environmental racism’ in no way diminishes the struggle against institutionalised racism or the impact of prejudice on our daily lives. On the contrary, if we want a world that is ethical, fair, and democratic we must denounce this scourge, this festering wound, as part of something that needs to be overcome.

For this to happen, it is essential to take on board that racism and prejudice are not restricted to blacks of African descent, be they pardos or mulattos (mixed descent). They are present in our dealings with our indigenous peoples and other communities on the basis of their livelihood or place of residence. They are present in the way the South and Southeast treat poor whites from Ceará, Paraíba, Maranhão: the ‘cabeças chatas’ (flatheads) to use the pejorative term, people who leave their homelands in search of work only to be confronted by even more misery. Treated as dispensable labour, they risk, as the prejudice-laden saying goes, ‘dying in the wrong lane and messing up the traffic flow’.

Sorriso [Smile]: a symbolic example of environmental racism and prejudice

FASE (Federação de Órgãos para Assistência Social e Educacional) is currently co-ordinating a national-level project called ‘The Impacts of Soya’. In an extremely lucky coincidence, a case study written for the project by the agronomist, Antônio João Castrillon Fernández,6 about the municipality of Sorriso, Brazil’s biggest exporter of soya, provides essential data on the characteristics and scope of prejudice and environmental racism in our midst. Setting out the origins of the municipality and the process of occupation of the region, although the subject of environmental racism was far from his concerns, the author gradually uncovers fragments of a significant mosaic. The following paragraphs, unless stated otherwise, are drawn from this study.

Sorriso in Mato Grosso was established in 1986, covering an area of 9,350 km2 in Mato Grosso on the Planalto do Parecis, a region originally inhabited by the Kayabi indians. Fierce conflicts between the Kayabi and land invaders took place at the end of the nineteenth century. With the arrival of rubber companies, the local residents recount that ‘veritable massacres of indian nations occurred’. A new wave of conflicts was repeated in the 1950s, when fazendeiros (ranchers) started to occupy the region. At this time the Kayabi were removed lock, stock, and barrel, the majority of them to the Xingu Park, and their lands were divided into glebas (tracts) and turned into cattle ranches. In the 1970s, when the colonisation  of Sorriso began, ‘The Kayabi people were weakened, divided and limited to the indian Lands of the Xingu, Kayabi and Apiaka-Kayabi. Colonisation was preceded by a long and conflictual process of displacement of the indigenous populations.’

Between 1950 and 1970 the lands that would form the municipality were illegally taken (griladas) and ‘titled by large landowners, with the help of SUDAM (Superintendencia de Desenvolvimento da Amazônia – Amazon Development Authority). It is not clear how, but about 150,000 hectares of the exact area where Sorriso would be located, between the rivers Teles Pires and Lira, belonged to a North American citizen – Edmund Zanini, known as ‘the American’. In 1970 he started selling the land, initially to private individuals and then later to a company, Colonizadora Sorriso, which – in the midst of conflicts, struggles, land grabs, and murders, in a dispute that continues to this day – launched incentives to attract settlers from the south of the country. They came principally from Parana´, followed by R?o Grande do Sul and Santa Catarina, drawn by the cheap land. They would all get the same nickname, gaúchos, a synonym for ‘hard-working people, capable of progressing.’

Meanwhile, before the soya monoculture took over and the gaúchos were still on their way, the Colonizadora Sorriso also sold plots to other workers, who were looking for a way into the cattle farming that was being established in the region. But it reserved the right to decide to whom and where it would sell these plots. If the Kayabi people suffered (and still suffer today), a clear example of environmental racism, the new characters in our story were the victims of outright racial prejudice when the company suggested to the settlers that they should not contract black workers who flocked there in search of work, thus giving another ethnic bias to agriculture.

Not all of them followed this advice, given that black workers cost less than their fellow southerners. As a result, while the gau´chos were received in well-maintained plots, an isolated neighbourhood, Bom Jesus, was established for the black population. Racism was rife. Fernández interviewed a local resident who recounts: ‘The late Claudino Fraˆncio, who was the owner of Colonizadora Feliz, made a neighbourhood just for blacks. He was a racist. If the blacks wanted a place to live, it had to be there. There are still four or five families there.’ This suggests that the majority had to migrate to find work elsewhere.

In 1991, just five years after its establishment, 69 per cent of the population of Sorriso originated from the southern states: Santa Catarina 16 per cent, R?´o Grande do Sul 21 per cent, and Parana´ 32 per cent. Of the remainder, 32 per cent were born in the state of Mato Grosso, of whom over half were children of these migrants.

It was into this scenario that, from the 1990s and with the closing of the gold-mining areas of the North and Northeast, especially in Maranha˜o, that Sorriso would receive a new invasion of migrant workers. This time it was the Maranhenses, popularly called ‘Northerners’ or ‘Northeasterners’. Considered inferior to the ‘white and competent gauchos’, it fell to them to substitute for the blacks in the ‘less noble’ jobs, such as clearing roots to prepare the land for soya. A leader of the Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra (Movement of Rural Landless Workers, or MST) recounts that, in one of the lower-class neighbourhoods set aside by the local council for a group from Parana´, the arrival of the ‘Northeasterners’ had the power to scare the residents and cause them to flee:

‘The people living here started to sell their houses, the people from Peixoto started arriving with a bit of money… and then the whites from here started to move, go to other neighbourhoods, Bela Vista, Carolina, and the people started retreating.’ The emphasis is mine: irrespective of their skin colour, people from the Northeast are seen and treated as ‘non-whites’, in a process that is above all ignorant and racist.

The prejudice is revealed in the very way that the gaúchos refer to the children of the nordestinos. In language that showed a less than perfect grasp of Portuguese and in marked contrast to what he claimed to be his own upbringing, one of them commented:

We, the southerner, from when we was small is always well wrapped up, well clothed, with shoe; and if you note the majority of these northeasterners here today, kids of seven, eight, ten years old they’s going about naked around outside the house, they’s not got shoe on, not taking a blind bit a notice of the situation. So there’s a very big cultural conflict as well. The town is living this dilemma. In the schools the teachers sees themselves in a right fix having to deal with these people. They go to school without shoes, underfed, they’s don’t have a proper upbringing as to know what norms to follows. If they run around free at home, they reckons it should be the same at school.

Another statement throws more light on the cultural roots of the prejudice: ‘It doesn’t matter if you are from Parana´, from Santa Catarina, or Gau´cho, for the most people here you are gaúcho; even if you aren’t, you are. It has become a label for people, and nobody feels diminished for being called gaúcho.’ The same respondent followed up with: ‘Today you see that people are without a doubt hostile to the Northeasterners (my emphasis); you can see that many of them left…’.

Fernández further cites the historian Guimarães Neto (2003), who comments, ‘These mechanisms of exclusion were above all focused on blacks or men and women who had moved from very poor areas in Brazil, like certain areas of the Northeast. In this way Northeasterners were stigmatised, being associated with all poor men, who were dangerous and drifters. The various barriers that were occupied by armed men, charged with local protection, began to function as ethnic barriers as well.’

Environmental racism: a challenge for us all

The Brazilian Network for Environmental Justice (for which the project ‘A Sustainable and Democratic Brazil’ functions as secretariat) affirms in its 2001 Declaration of Principles, ‘We understand environmental injustice to be the mechanism by which unequal societies, from the economic and social point of view, direct the greatest burden of environmental damage caused by development towards poor populations, discriminated groups, traditional ethnic communities, working class neighbourhoods, and marginalised and vulnerable populations.’

Four years later, in the invitation to the first Brazilian Seminar against Environmental Racism, we defined it thus: ‘We call Environmental Racism the social and environmental injustices that fall disproportionately on ethnic groups that have been made vulnerable’. We argued:

‘Environmental Racism is not represented purely by actions that have a racist objective, but also through actions that have a racial impact, regardless of the original objectives’.

The phrase ‘ethnic groups that have been made vulnerable’ is deliberate, for we are fighting racism at the same time as rejecting the very notion of ‘race’. We make the point that these ‘ethnic groups’ include not only black populations but also indigenous peoples, the original ‘owners’ of this land, who have been subjected to real genocide – as clearly exemplified by Sorriso.

Another example, which brings together quilombolas (people living in the settlements created by escaped or freed slaves in colonial times) and indigenous peoples in a ‘democratic’ way, is the ‘unbiased’ treatment conceded by a São Paulo-based company, the world’s largest supplier of bleached eucalyptus pulp, when it arrived in the state of Esp?´rito Santo in 1967, promising jobs and progress for all. When the company began to take possession of the lands and to plant eucalyptus, there were 2000 quilombola communities in the northern area of the state, totalling 10,000 families: today there are 35 communities and 1300 families.

More than 40 indian villages were destroyed, and the three that remain (Comboios, Pau Brasil, and Caieiras Velha) are surrounded by eucalyptus. The biggest of the cellulose factories was built on the site of Macacos, one of the most traditional villages.

As if this were not enough, the consequences include silted-up rivers, the lowering of the water table, and poisoning of the remaining land and waters.

The main pesticide used is based on Tordon 2.4D, the base product of ‘Agent Orange’, an illegal and highly carcinogenic defoliant used by US forces in the Vietnam War. The company that had promised to bring jobs and ‘progress and development’ to the region in fact brought a lack of options and misery. Surrounded by a crop almost as highly mechanised as soya, those who did manage to stay on their land were condemned to subsistence agriculture on contaminated soil. For some, the way out was to work for the company, lugging drums of toxic herbicide or making charcoal from contaminated waste. Others went to try their luck in the towns and surrounding favelas (slums). In exchange for the promise of a better future, not only was the natural environment destroyed, but also the means of survival, a culture, traditions, family ties and friendships, and the very right to practise their religions, whether indians or quilombolas.

In the words of the tupiniquins or indigenous people of northern Espírito Santo, ‘when we destroy the jungles, we are also expelling the gods that live in it’. Likewise, when we expel indigenous peoples or quilombolas (followers of the Cabula) from their lands, we force them to break with their traditions and so lose their identities. We are helping to turn them into people with low self-esteem, who will lose their beliefs and lose their capacity to educate their children as they themselves were educated and to pass on their dreams and utopias. We are weakening these groups and without any visible violence subliminally ‘annihilating’ them, making them invisible and condemned to disappear, whether by physical or by spiritual or emotional death. We are conducting what should be identified as a process of ‘cultural genocide.’

Domingo Dealdina, one of the young quilombola leaders from Espirito Santo, recounted:

The ritual of Cabula was the only reason for us to go into the forest; our areas were defined, and the forest preserved. We would go in to do the ritual with the forest and water; the jungle had an important significance. The ritual was practised until the 1970s. With the arrival of the eucalyptus, they destroyed the jungle, the game, everything was finished … our healthy air and our ritual as well. The streams are contaminated with the pesticides from the eucalyptus and the fish die. Many streams no longer exist. The water is the colour of rust; filtered through a white cloth, it looks like blood. (…) In São Jorge, three children on their way to school died from eating poisoned nuts, because the company vehicle left the sack of poison below the tree and when they went to collect it some must have leaked. One died instantly: stiff as a board. The others managed to reach the state capital and in the verdict (the company acted quickly; spoke to the doctors who attended the children) it said alcoholism.

One child was aged seven, one was nine and one was only three years old, all of them ‘died from cachaça [cane liquor]!’7

At the first Brazilian Seminar on Environmental Racism, indigenous leaders denounced cases ranging from the rape and resulting infections (including HIV) of the Cinta Larga women by gold diggers, to the activity of drug traffickers in a reservation in Mato Grosso, destroying families and turning young boys into drug addicts. Representatives of black movements presented cases such as that of a French company which for 30 years contaminated the population of Santo Amarro de Purificação in Bahia, by exposing them to lead silt; and the struggle and dubious victory of the quilombolas from Amapa´ concerning the residues from manganese extraction left by the ICOMI company in Serra do Navio. I say ‘dubious’ because unfortunately our victory resulted in this toxic waste being exported instead to China.

From all along the coastline came denunciations of carcinogenic production methods, and of huge tourist developments that had resulted in the expulsion of caic¸aras (traditional coastal dwellers), fishing communities, and shellfish collectors, as well as the destruction of mangrove swamps. There were also examples from the cities, from those who are trying to survive by collecting recyclable materials from the huge rubbish dumps, and from coastal communities engulfed by tourism or by rich people’s houses. While some find their workplaces and/or homes threatened by the handling of toxic materials, or by living near to sources of contamination, others have no option but to live on hillsides that are vulnerable to mudslides, also lacking drainage and hygiene facilities. In a less visible way, their daily existence is a subtle victory over death.

For the indigenous peoples in particular, the relationship between nature, religion, and traditional cultures was about defending the right to preserve forests, waters, medicinal plants, the spaces where they meet their gods and re-encounter their forefathers.

For followers of candomblé (an Afro-Brazilian religion), the issue went beyond indignation about their treatment by followers of other religions; it also involved the right to spaces for religious practices for those of African descent, in the forests that are still preserved in parks and reserves. Indeed this is the case of one of the struggles against a group of conservationist staff of IBAMA, which effectively controls the Parque Nacional da Tijuca, in Rio de Janeiro. Among other things, the park is well known for the statue of Christ The Redeemer, as well as three churches where celebrations and marriages take place. However, the park refuses to reserve a specific space for candomblé practices, treating its followers – most of whom live in the area surrounding the park – like criminals, barring their right to come and go and their free access to the paths in the forest where they believe that most of the orixa´s (spirits) live.

In this exchange of denunciations and outrage, we started to go beyond mapping the conflicts caused by environmental racism in Brazil, taking a first step towards assuming new challenges and new partnerships – illustrated by the first seminar against environmental racism in the state of Ceará in November 2006. Now we have to go further, moving forwards and winning over more companions in this journey and widening our alliances. For instance, the work done by the Relatores de Direitos Ambientais (a group working on environmental legislation) and the Platform of Human, Economic, Social and Cultural Rights can add to our mosaic.

To conclude

Brazil is more than an unequal country. It is a nation that is profoundly prejudiced. For me, the saying repeated by former president Fernando Henrique Cardoso remains unforgettable: ‘Every Brazilian has a bit of their foot in the kitchen’.8 Whenever I recall this attempt to project himself as unprejudiced, I see an image of ‘the Prince of Sociologists’ (his nickname) in a difficult balancing act: one leg (perhaps his left one?) stretched out, the foot crossing the Carrara marble that separates different domestic areas, allowing the tip of his Italian shoe just to reach the kitchen floor, the rest of his body held back, breathing the pure air of the drawing rooms of the Jardins Paulistas.

The Racial Atlas of Brazil launched by UNDP presents some appalling statistics. For instance, that 65 per cent of Brazil’s poor and 70 per cent of those living in extreme poverty are black. That 66 per cent more black infants than white die before the age of one year, and that (assuming it survives) a black child’s life expectancy is 5.3 years less than that of a white child. And at the time of giving birth, 30 per cent of black mothers will have access to a Caesarian delivery if it is necessary, while a white mother would have a 48 per cent chance (albeit that surgical intervention does not necessarily reflect the best option in childbirth).

This state of affairs lends itself to the kind of environmental racism described in this article and clearly needs to be addressed through effective public policies. It is regrettable, for example, that the federal body established to combat racial inequality and its impacts, the Secretaria Especial de Políticas de Promoc¸a˜o da Igualdade Racial (SEPPIR), focuses almost exclusively on those of African descent. For instance, in its 2005 report – chosen as the National Year of Racial Equality – Brazil’s indigenous people got about the same level of attention as Gypsies, despite the fact that Brazil’s 460,000 indigenous indians also need policies to promote racial equality.

I conclude with a personal statement. My father was black. The first experience of prejudice that I recall was when I was seven. At our school, the older pupils took care of the new children during their first days. I was delighted with my first charge until the day my father came to meet me. I proudly introduced them to each other, but the next day when I went to meet my friend in the playground, I heard the unforgettable phrase: ‘You are the daughter of a preto. I am no longer your friend.’

Weeks later, I experienced a different shock. At the home of an uncle whom I adored and who had a special affection for me, I heard a conversation between two of his sisters, my aunts: ‘As if it wasn’t enough to put up with that branca azeda (that embittered white woman), we now have to put up with this branquela (little white thing).’ The branca azeda was obviously my mother. The branquela was me.

One of the biggest challenges facing Brazil’s black movement is to fight against prejudices that are constantly rekindled in so many ways in our imagination, fuelled of course by the media. The resulting low self-esteem is what motivates many Brazilians to lighten their skins, for example. However, an equally important challenge is to assimilate the bigger fight that truly unites us and is the only one that will lead to victory: the struggle against a model of civilisation that is based on exploitation and consumerism, which encourages racism and inequality, and which impedes true democracy – plus imposing the ‘blackmail of work’, competitiveness, the death of solidarity, and the ‘rendering invisible’ of the majority of human beings on this planet, who are treated like pariahs who can be dispensed with.

Addressing injustice and environmental racism is a challenge for all of us, irrespective of our skin colour. The cultural roots that feed these are deeply entrenched in the dazzling lights and the treacherous ‘spirit of capitalism’. Clarity about these matters is fundamental for building democracy and true citizenship, hence the importance of uniting social movements, NGOs, and universities to discuss these questions.

The alternative to a model of development that subordinates and exploits us will not simply fall into our laps, or depend on some charismatic leader or enlightened despot. It is up to us to shape what Gramsci called the ‘cultural and moral reform’ of our society. If we want it to be equitable, just, without prejudice, and based on the notions of democracy and of full and universal citizenship, it is up to us to make this happen, starting from our own visions for the world and our own ethics. Only this understanding of an agenda of struggle will give us the cement that will serve to bind our unity and our victories.


A shorter version of this article was delivered as a lecture at the First Ceará State Seminar against Environmental Racism, held in Fortaleza in late 2006.


1. The Northeast of Brazil has historically been poor, and hence the source of migrants to the more prosperous South and Southeast of the country. For decades, Northeasterners have provided a never-ending stream of labour for the building industry and are frequently the butt of jokes (translator’s note).

2. The states making up Amazônia, although the legal definition includes some of the Northeastern state of Maranhao (translator’s note).

3. The South and Southeast States of Brazil are historically considered more developed and are generally ‘whiter’, due to the types of immigration. Sul Maravilha implies, therefore, that everything good, advanced, prosperous, and ‘smart’ came from R?´o southwards (translator’s note).

4. The article, published on 25 September 2006, is available at

5. In Portuguese the term ‘denorteado’ derives from the compass north. However, in the Southern Hemisphere the compass points to South, so the author is making a play on words (translator’s note).

6. Castrillon Fernández is an agronomist with a PhD in Rural Development from the Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul.

7. The full testimonies of Domingas Dealdina, Silvia Lucinda Nascimento (representating the Quilombo Dwellers’ Commission of Espirito Santo), and Manuel Messias da Silva, of the Network of Indigenous Peoples and Organisations from the Northeast, Minas Gerais and Espírito Santo (Apoinme) can be found in Herculano and Pacheco (2006).

8. The saying ‘Um pé na cozinha’ refers to the 50 per cent or more of Brazil’s population who are descendants of African slaves, who would have included kitchen staff (translator’s note).


Bullard, Robert (2004) ‘Enfrentando o racismo ambiental no século XXI’, in Henri Acselrad, Selene Herculano and José Augusto Pádua (eds.) Justiça e Cidadania, Rio de Janeiro: Relume Dumará´.

Guimarães Neto, R. B. (2003) ‘Vira mundo, vira mundo: trajetórias nômades’, Projeto História 27:49–69.

Herculano, Selene and Tania Pacheco (eds.) (2006) Environmental Racism, FASE: Rio de Janeiro.

Marx, Karl (1987, trans.) O Capital , XI edition, Sao Paulo: Bertrand Brasil.

The author

Tania Pacheco is a historian and also co-ordinates the Brazilian Network for Environmental Justice’s Working Group Against Environmental Racism. Contact details: <>
Translated from Portuguese by Frances Rubin.
Development in Practice, Volume 18, Number 6, November 2008.
Inequality, environmental injustice, and racism in Brazil

[Starting from an analysis of social and environmental injustice, the author argues that the  concept of environmental racism is integral to the hegemonic model of capitalist development. She reveals how the financial mega-conglomerates, helped by the media, exploit such prejudices, and highlights the relevance of environmental racism in the struggle to overcome inequalities, to value the importance of diversity, and to build full citizenship for all. Development in Practice, Volume 18, Number 6, November 2008]

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