Social psychologist Alessandro de Oliveira dos Santos works with people and communities pushed to the brink by economic, social, and environmental forces beyond their control. He taught the graduate seminar Environmental Racism and Struggles for Recognition among People of the Amazon Forest in spring 2018. In this interview with Susanna Sharpe, he answers some questions about his work, beginning with a description of its main focus.
Since 2005, I have been working with black and indigenous populations in the Amazon forest, especially people affected by borders, tourism, mining, and hydroelectric plants. I study the psychosocial factors of self-organization in communities, factors that lead groups to identify their problems and build their own strategies for political action. This includes the various ways in which traditional communities organize themselves through local associations in order to address injustices and threats to their way of life.
I use the framework of human rights to understand the vulnerable context of black and indigenous populations living in traditional communities inside the forest, and to analyze the relationship between the state, social movements, and struggles for rights. Human rights analysis is key to identifying the role of local public policies and services in either the inclusion or exclusion of vulnerable populations. I also investigate negligence and/or violations of the rights of these populations and their struggles for recognition and rights.
Discuss your work on environmental racism
Race-ethnicity has been an effective indicator in assessing the distribution of natural resources, the direction of environmental public policy, and the management of regular and toxic waste. The term environmental racism emerged in the 1970s in the United States during the mobilization of the black population in North Carolina against a toxic waste dump. This term can be expanded to all policies that result in the unequal distribution of access to natural resources and exposure to different forms of environmental risk among minority ethnic-racial populations. This is a productive concept for the engagement of minorities toward environmental justice, because the opposite of environmental racism is environmental justice.
Working for environmental justice entails a set of principles capable of questioning and pushing the economy toward ecological adaptation; a way for society to seek greater social equality; and a way to ensure that no ethnic-racial group suffers disproportionately the negative environmental impacts of capital operations, policies, and public programs, or suffers with the lack of positive programs and resources. From this perspective, environmental racism not only refers to explicit discrimination, but also to actions that have a negative effect on certain ethnic-racial groups, independent of the intent.
Environmental racism gives us a consistent vocabulary to understand the socio-environmental conflicts that exist in tension for the forest people (indigenous people, rural black communities, riparian communities) in the face of large capital investments. These are people who, despite the little space they occupy, have managed to create sustainable agriculture and agroforestry, and whose survival is threatened by polluting industries, major energy complexes, and destructive monoculture. I have used the notion of environmental racism as an advocacy tool capable of mobilizing communities and influencing institutional political actors in the formulation of public policies that enforce and guarantee the rights of peoples living in the forest.
What are the issues of most concern to people affected by environmental racism?
Since the colonial period, the Amazon has been seen as a source of resources. In order to better sell and exploit it, the region has been presented as inhabited by nonwhites who survive by natural resource extraction. This desire to reduce forest peoples to extractivism reveals more about the aspirations of the international pharmaceutical and biotechnology industry than about the ability of forest peoples to develop without market incentives or public assistance. Both natural resources and negative impacts on the environment in the region have been distributed according to the race-ethnicity of the local population, establishing an inexorable link between access to environmental heritage, ecological problems, and racial-ethnic inequalities.
Today, the issues of most concern to indigenous and black traditional communities I work with in the Amazon involve the threat of the occupation of their land, the imposing of public policies without dialogue, proposals for reform of regulatory frameworks that protect their rights, and major infrastructure projects. For example, large infrastructure projects for hydroelectric power generation have promoted displacement of traditional populations and have changed the cycles of flood, full, ebb, and dry of the rivers. This has led traditional populations to organize in resistance to such projects in the face of a political policy that has transformed the Amazonian rivers into energy-production machines. Besides that, mining on both an industrial and a small scale has been responsible for the degradation of huge areas within the forest, compromising the way of life of traditional populations.
How can academics support communities dealing with these issues?
The Amazon is the largest source of renewable biomass and the most important freshwater basin on the planet. It possesses agroforestry and biotechnological resources of incalculable value. It is a region rich in biodiversity and social diversity. The management of territory and natural resources is the main means of maintaining and reproducing material and symbolic forest peoples. The denial of this constitutes an affront to forest people’s ability to survive and a profound disregard of their status as possessors of knowledge and rights.
The challenge is to encourage the participation of these people in the construction of political and social guaranties that protect against the threats linked to economic exploitation of the region. This process cannot be accomplished without a dialogue that respects the culture and traditions of the people. It is here that academics have an important role. Academics must recognize and value communities as spaces for the exercise and experience of knowledge sharing. It is in this way that the work of academics can be of use in the face of environmental racism: promoting communication between local leaders, government organizations, and civil society; providing a constructive space for everyone involved; enabling the exchange of experiences; showing the benefits to districts and communities of actions that identify, and subsequently combat, environmental racism; protecting people of the Amazon forest.
What projects will you be working on in the coming year?
An issue that is always present for researchers in traditional communities concerns the devolution of data and research results to these communities. My intention next year is to publish a handbook about a strategy I have been using in the Amazon to develop research with traditional communities. The handbook is titled “Work with Local Agents of Research.” Local agents are community members who act as mediators of knowledge between the community and academic institutions. They contribute to the planning of research based on their knowledge of the needs of communities themselves, while disseminating the researchers’ results and recommendations for empowering agents themselves and their communities.
The local agents strategy allows for an exchange relationship among researchers and communities throughout the whole research process, bringing scientific knowledge and communitarian knowledge into closer proximity. Even if the academic collaboration with the community ends, or is interrupted due to a lack of funding or other issues, the local agent will remain in the community, ready and able to employ everything he or she learned. Mediation by local agents facilitates the access of everyone (community and researchers) to different universes of meaning, where distinct power relations exist. In general, there is a “gap” among the repertoires and knowledge of communities and researchers. This is the space with the potential for the local agent to act, reducing the distance between researchers and investigated populations.
Alessandro de Oliveira dos Santos was Tinker Visiting Professor at the Teresa Lozano Long Institute of Latin American Studies in spring 2018. A social psychologist, he is a senior researcher and professor at the Psychology Institute of the University of São Paulo, Brazil.