On Wednesday night, Columbia Global Centers hosted a virtual panel as the first in a series of Amerfrican Dialogue and the fourth in a series of Brazil-Peru meetings on Black women, decoloniality, and activism in Latin America. Bwog Staffer Obutor Ogonor covers the event.
Wednesday’s panel featured three Brazillian organizers from Rio De Janiero: Emilia Maria de Souza, Marie de Fátima Amorim, and Carolina Pires Câmara, as well as a moderator, Ronilso Pacheco, and host Camila Daniel. Entitled “The Ancestral Territory Against Environmental Racism in Brazil,” the panelists spoke in Portuguese, and English interpreters gave their services through Zoom.
The event kicked off with Carolina Pires. As a Ph.D. student in social politics with experience as a public defender, Pires introduced the central issue, or what many of the panelists referred to as “the fight”: the removal of favelas in Rio De Janiero and the toll this process takes on the Black communities of the city.
Favelas, also referred to as shantytowns, are Brazillian slum areas located in urban centers. Historically, favelas hold a larger percentage of Black residents than compared to the general population and are seen as communities neglected by the government. Moderator Pacheco delves more into these historical aspects and how they affect communities today.
Pacheco details that throughout Brazillian history, there have been attempts to “cleanse” the city in order to make it more “developed,” often with European cities as models. The implications of these attempts, however, usually mean the removal of many favela communities through force. Pacheco cites police violence and efforts backed by large corporate conglomerates. As business and government interests converge on the lands favelas sit on, the wants of these communities are ignored.
With this, Pires and others in her field, spend much of their time speaking with community leaders of affected neighborhoods and building strong relationships along the way. In fact, both Pires and Pacheco labeled two other panelists, Emilia Maria de Souza and Marie de Fátima Amorim, as role models based on their resistance against their local governments in Rio De Janiero, as well as their involvement in communicating the lived experiences of these neighborhoods. With this introduction, the floor opened up to them.
Unfortunately, with the virtual nature of the panel, technical difficulties arose. As Panelist de Souza began outlining her personal experience with favela removal in her community of Horto, the English interpretation was drowned out by her voice. Working with the technical team through the chat, I learned how to mute the Portuguese audio of all the other panelists, but even with their help, de Souza’s words were lost on me. Even until the end of the event, the technical team could not figure out how to isolate her English interpreter’s audio. Looking at the nods and engaged faces of the other panelists, I knew I was missing out on a key insight on the issue. As Pires argued when she discussed her work, the “inner perspective,” or those with personal connections to the issue, should primarily drive the conversations, which then should be used as a foundation to work from an outer perspective. In de Souza’s voice, I could hear her personal stakes. She belongs to her neighborhood’s association as Vice-President, and visible in the background of her video was a younger family member. As touched on in the panel, many of these community leaders hold other titles: parents, grandparents, teachers, pastors—with their ways of life contingent on the stability of their community. Moderator Pacheco notes in conversation that “our lives are so connected with our territory,” making the destruction of these favelas that much more impactful. This was a sentiment echoed throughout the night, especially as Panelist Marie de Fátima Amorim unmuted herself and told her story.
Marie de Fátima Amorim, or as she is known in her community, Sister Fátima, introduced herself with the common signifiers. She’s 60 years old, living in the Estradinha community in Rio De Janeiro with 5 children. But, she added another. She is “struggling.” This frames the rest of the conversation. Sister Fátima started, as many of our speakers did, with an explanation of how her present materialized.
In 2009, Sister Fátima explained that there were media reports and rumors that the city government had a plan to remove the Black and poor residents of the area—a rumor the city government promptly denied. A year later, however, the city provided a different response. Citing the neighborhood as a “risk area” with unsafe infrastructure, city officials instructed Sister Fátima and her neighbors to sell their houses and stop any construction of new ones. She watched as personnel from the mayor’s office came in, hammers a-blazing, and knocked down the walls and windows of her community. As her neighbors watched other homes destroyed, many sold their houses and the area began to break down. However, Sister Fátima and the other panelists claim the government is lying. The community is not at “risk”, she says. With no pollution, It’s rich.
“I know the depth of every wall. I built the pillars….I know the community soil.”-Marie de Fátima Amorim
However, as explained in an anecdote, the powers-that-be don’t want the poor to live there. Overheard in a supermarket trip, Sister Fátima recounts a time where she passed a rich woman talking about what an eyesore the favela community is. Instead, the woman argued, there should be mansions there. This antagonism isn’t new, as Sister Fátima claims even mayor Eduardo Paes has called her a liar. But, Sister Fátima calls herself by another name: “Mother Hen.” She says she leads, hugs, and kisses her neighbors in the middle of the fight, with a devotion to truth.
As I prepared for this article, I used a service to transcribe speech to text. These services are almost famously inaccurate much of the time, and it’s interesting to see what it spits out while you listen to the authentic audio in real-time. Sister Fátima went into many details about her role in her community, and she often spoke about the gathering of neighborhood leaders for little snacks and discussion sessions. This is where planning for direction action often took place. She told us that those were her “meetings,” but as her speech went through the software, my text labeled those as her “meaning.” For me, this small technical idiosyncrasy speaks to the larger message of the panel, and what I personally derived from the conversation.
As community organizers rallying for their right to house themselves in the spaces they grew up in, their kids grew up in, and where they have created their most meaningful relationships, the fight isn’t just for houses. It is also a fight to protect memories, friendships, and ways of life. I am reminded of a quote I took from Sister Fátima: “You don’t remove a community. That’s where our heart is.” As the leaders of these communities meet with public defenders and weigh their options in fighting back, the future of their livelihoods hangs in the balance.
Favela Horizon via Pixbay, ArtTower