The traditional aspect of COP26 was different! There was no need to be in the United Kingdom to be convinced that, finally, Brazilian representation occupied the spaces of the Conference of the Parties, which took place in the city of Glasgow, Scotland. After many hurdles and obstacles between the final agenda and the pandemic, the conference is in dispute due to the explosion of very expensive themes for the climate agenda that could no longer wait. On the one hand, there are ongoing negotiations, whose prospects are not optimistic. On the other hand, in terms of Brazil, something unprecedented happened. The black movement was present in force – in voice and in strength!
In contrast to the many procedural bureaucracies to finally achieve accreditation at the most decisive conference of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), a delegation of approximately 20 members of the black movement – including young people, collectives, organizations, activists and national leaders – arrived at COP26 with allegations, proposals and the key message that echoed around the Brazil Climate Action Hub: without racial justice, there can be no climate justice.
Brazil Climate Action Hub
Launched in December 2019, the initiative by Brazilian civil society had its origins at COP25, which was held in Madrid. Like other countries, Brazil once again inaugurated its own space – totally separate from the federal government – for international debates to address the challenges and solutions for the climate agenda in the Brazilian context. Represented by activists, leaders, parliamentarians, subnational governments, business sectors, civil society and a research center (among others), the Brazil HUB built a pluralistic and robust agenda at COP26. Among the various initiatives, we can highlight the debates – and clashes – proposed by the black movement, mainly represented by member organizations of the Black Coalition for Rights (UneAfro, PerifaConnection, Alma Preta and CONAQ). There were also black representatives from Fridays for Future Brasil, Perifa Sustentável, MUVUCA and Engajamundo.
Young black women protecting the environment
The COP is organized by thematic days and the last Friday was dedicated to the youth agenda in an international dimension. The third panel at the Brazil HUB involved four stories of young black women, all under 25 years old. Faced with the problem that the climate agenda has always been dominated by the Global North and leaders that represent the elite and whiteness, were Elenita Sales (NOSSAS), Vitória Pinheiro (Palmares Foundation), Mahryan Sampaio (Perifa Sustentável) and Camile Cristina (Engajamundo). Coming from different regions of Brazil, it was the political concerns about the invisibility of the themes that crossed their trajectories that drove their actions in the climate agenda.
“My activism started very much with my story, about how I socially experience this life and the context that I come from. As a young transvestite, I became involved at a very early age in race and gender issues, and this is what motivated me to study public policies in college when I left high school. I was always trying to understand how can we generate social transformations if we are not having an impact on the political sphere?” asks Vitória. She explained that her trajectory unfolded into climate and environmental activism precisely when she understood that all these struggles take place at different intersections. “It makes no sense for us to be addressing other issues, which are socially and economically relevant, if they are not centered on an experience based on territories. And why is it important for us to talk about territory? Because all the struggles take place in these spaces. And, as a community, it is in these places that we manage to bring about change.”
The component of the territory and the legitimacy that it brings to the dispute in the narratives regarding the environmental agenda was persistently repeated in the speeches of young people. In other words: the intrinsic relationship between the direct impact of climate change on socially vulnerable communities (favelas, the peripheries, quilombos and villages, for example) and the empirical property that the black bodies and voices undeniably have in order to make the connections based on science, everyday experience and socioeconomic data that provide the evidence of the environmental racism in a country like Brazil.
“What was given to our ancestors so that we could get to here? What was guaranteed when abolition happened? Nothing. It was the margins of society, of spaces, of the environment, of our territories. So, when we call it environmental racism, it is because this is the name and there is no other word for it. It’s literally racism. When we do not have the slightest right to exist in a dignified space, this is racism,” says Elenita Sales.
Going further, one of the criticisms pointed out by Elenita was the distance between the main themes debated at the COP and the reality of the black and peripheral population. For her, the space needs to be decolonized – from the official language of the UN to the perspective of the approach of the discussions that lead to the priority of the climate agenda. The journey involved in finally participating in an international conference involves many excluding steps: the accreditation, the visa (in the case of some countries), the language barrier of English as a standard language, the very high costs in the city that hosts the event, in addition to the lack of funds to adapt people to the environment. Added to this, the themes being debated often have a Eurocentric perspective and a whiteness bias.
“In Brazil, we have 14.76 million unemployed according to data from the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics (IBGE). And yet the COP is talking about green jobs and decarbonizing the economy, while people in Brazil are going hungry,” states Elenita.
The Brazilian black movement at COP26
Among the main highlights of the Brazil Climate Action Hub, we followed the launch of the statement letter that denounces the invisibility of environmental insecurity in urban and rural territories, as well as the infringement of environmental laws and codes by the federal government, which have resulted in the increase in deforestation in the biomes of Brazil. The panel for the launch was mediated by Douglas Belchior, from the Black Coalition for Rights, and included Amanda Costa (Perifa Sustentável), Katia Penha (CONAQ), Hannah Balieiro (Manpiguari) and Diosmar Filho (UFBA). The document was a crucial instrument designed to pressure the federal government and represents the main charges and demands of the black movement at COP26.
“The climate crisis is also humanitarian and has a direct impact on the lives of the black population, quilombolas and the indigenous peoples. In Brazil, the majority of the population is black and today represents 56% of the population (IBGE, 2020). Denying environmental racism is denying that the Brazilian State is racist, it is denying the reality of life in the peripheries of the large cities, the increase in hunger, it is denying the infringement of the constitutional rights against communities, quilombola territories and indigenous lands, it is denying the history of urbanization of the country and its profound territorial inequalities.” (Excerpt from the statement letter)
In addition to the denunciations of environmental and territorial infringements included in the document, Katia Penha, the national representative of CONAQ, made a strong metaphor to the genocide of the black quilombola population at COP26. For her, while the space insists on maintaining a dialogue, negotiating and outlining the decarbonization goals without quilombola voices being heard, it will be a catalyst for deaths and the denial of the rights of this group – which currently represents approximately 16 million Brazilians, according to the Palmares Foundation (2021).
“Today, in Brazil, we have 6,300 quilombola communities. Talking about the climate without talking about the quilombola is killing each one of us. They want to have the carbon market on our lands without consulting us. Eucalyptus is currently in the spotlight, which takes the water from the soil and kills the rivers. Is this balance? The quilombola communities are going where? This profit will not stay with us, because it will stay with the minority,” points out the leader.
Coincidence or not, both these debates took place exactly 6 years after the tragedy of Mariana, which is one of the main illustrations of environmental injustice in Brazil. An example, still living in the memory, so that we never forget the socioenvironmental abyss that exists between the direct impacts on the main victims affected by the tragedy and the sluggish path to repair these territories, stories and lives that are gone – and also those that remain.
“We are experiencing an unprecedented movement, because we have political responsibility. What we did at COP26 was historic! We organized a block of the Brazilian black movement in our own name. We placed our political agenda into the debate and talked to the most powerful people and owners of the world about what we understand as a necessity to save the planet. The model of life that we defend comes from the quilombos, villages and native peoples, and in cities in the role of the African matrices. Defending our backyard, the experience and the political preparation of those who live there is to save the planet,” said Douglas Belchior, who is a historian, co-founder of Uneafro Brasil and a member of the Black Coalition for Rights
The panel “Land, territories and the fight against racism in the race against the climate crisis” held at the international conference, could not have ended more symbolically. Without ceremony or formality, representatives from the Brazilian black movement recited a passage from “Insônia”, (Sleeplessness), by the poet and writer José Carlos Limeira from Bahia, out loud:
“Al least tell the story
I do not forget you my people
If Palmares lives no more
We will make Palmares again”
Andréia Coutinho Louback is a journalist from PUC-Rio, with a master’s degree in Ethnic Racial Relations from CEFET/RJ and a specialist in climate justice. She is currently a fellow of the professional development program at Fulbright called the Humphrey Fellowship (2021-22) at the University of California, Davis. She worked as a communication coordinator at the Institute for Climate and Society and also at the Climate and Socioenvironmental Justice project of the Alana Institute. Her main areas of work and passion are: climate and socioenvironmental justice, inclusive urbanization and racial inequalities. During COP26, in Glasgow, Andréia produced exclusive articles for Le Monde Diplomatique Brasil, funded by the Irish Consulate. Instagram: andreiacoutinho.l