Fifty minutes into our video call, the Brazilian writer and journalist Eliane Brum picks up her laptop to show me the view of the Amazon rain forest from her balcony. “This is where I watched the forest burning for an entire night,” she says, referring to the fires that blazed last summer. Brum describes it as one of the worst experiences of her life, a “holocaust of lives” in which millions of nonhuman beings died in “excruciating pain.” She says that she felt something of this pain in her own body, all while knowing full well that nobody in the administration of then–Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro would do anything to help. Then, briefly, Brum recounts one detail of the fire’s aftermath: “Only the gray butterflies can survive in a burned, deforested landscape.”
In her new book, Banzeiro Òkòtó: The Amazon as the Center of the World, Brum writes as she speaks—in impassioned prose whose cadence, at times, resembles that of a fast-flowing river. Her subject is the Amazon, but the book is not entirely a work of reportage of the kind she regularly produces for The Guardian, El País, and the journalistic platform she recently cofounded, Sumaúma. Rather, Banzeiro Òkòtó is a knotty work that encompasses nature writing, eco-feminism, philosophy, and biting polemic. What emerges is greater than the sum of these constituent parts, a striking portrait of the Amazon told through a “dialogue” between “many creatures”: exploiters and exploited; humans and nonhumans; those who put their lives on the line to protect their home and the earth’s most important defense against the climate crisis.
For years, the Brazilian journalist Eliane Brum has been reporting on the human and environmental cost of the Belo Monte hydroelectric dam in the Amazon. Lately, she has called the forest home. The writer, who hails from the south of Brazil and lived in Sao Paulo for 17 years, moved to Altamira, a city in the Amazon, in 2017. Then, a few years ago, she bought a small plot of land with her husband, Jonathan Watts, the environment editor for The Guardian. Alongside others in their small community, the couple are reforesting land that was cleared for cattle pasture. Yet as Brum makes clear, this reforestation applies not only to the land but also to herself, a process akin to the “decolonization” of the forest and the violent culture that destroyed it in the first place. To illustrate this point, she lifts her forearm to the camera, revealing a tattoo of a gigantic, wide-trunked tree.“I will never be totally reforested,” Brum says. “But I want to have at least my skin like a forest, with insects, trees, animals, and birds.”
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
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Lewis Gordon: You grew up in Ijuí, a city in the south of Brazil. How did you first encounter the Amazon, and what impression did it leave?
Eliane Brum: I had my first contact with the Amazon through my ears. It’s important to say that my grandparents were illiterate and that my father was the first person in my family who learned to read and write. He founded a university, and my family was left-wing in a very conservative city. I was always called the “daughter of the communist.” Almost everyone in the city is a descendant of European immigrants: Germany, Austria—my family is from Italy. I think the first time I heard about the Amazon was through the city’s elite at traditional churrasco barbecues. I listened to these people say how they had bought land in the Amazon and expelled the Indigenous people. They talked about it as if it was a great thing.
Another important childhood moment for me was when an Indigenous man came to my city to give lectures. He was in a terrible place. My brothers, who are older than me, could see this and brought him to our house, where he lived with us for some time. He was from the Xingu River area. Then he took care of me, because my father and mother were teachers who worked hard from morning to evening. He taught me stories. He left a mark on me. These two visions of the forest were very important and helped me understand the side of life I was on—that of nature and the forest people.
LG: The book is rooted in your own journalistic reporting, but there are many other elements to it: feminism, nature writing, and even eco-philosophy. If someone asked me to synthesize it, I’d perhaps have trouble doing so. How would you answer the question “What is the book about?”
EB: It’s difficult for me. I’ve been a journalist for more than 35 years. In the past, I would just say “people,” because I refuse to put myself in a little box. I also won’t put my book in a little box, because the idea that brought me to the Amazon, the way I live here and what I learn, is impossible to categorize. The forest is a big connection, a big dialogue among many, many creatures. My book is like this: It’s a conversation across boxes, definitions, and concepts. This is also how I understand the climate crisis—across gender, race, species, and class.
There are many layers to the book, and among them is this layer of a woman who was born in the extreme southern white part of Brazil. I came here [to the Amazon] because I finally understood that it’s the center of the world during this time of climate crisis and the sixth mass extinction event. The center of the world is where life is, not where the markets are. It was difficult because, with all my experience, I knew that I didn’t really know the Amazon. I understood that I needed to learn more, both from the land and in my body.
LG: You call this process “reforestation” in the book.
EB: Yes, I’m trying to reforest myself. I’m trying to become less white. I know that I will die without being totally reforested, and I know that I will die as a white woman, not just because of my skin but because it’s such a long process.
LG: There’s one section where you discuss refusing to write about Indigenous people in your early years of reporting on the Amazon. Why did you feel that way?
EB: In 2010, my daughter had graduated from university and was independent, so I decided to leave mainstream journalism. I began to follow the construction of the Belo Monte dam and the accompanying resistance. I followed some families that were expelled. I tried to listen to Indigenous people and ribeirinhos, another kind of forest people. I understood, although I knew this already, that writing—especially in these communities, especially in the Amazon—is a way to expel people. The Indigenous people have been here in the Amazon for thousands of years. They planted part of the Amazon forest, and they have been expelled by paper, by the written word. I began to listen and thought, “How can I denounce such violence using the same instrument of violence?” And for some years, I couldn’t. I continued listening in other parts of the Amazon about other subjects, but I couldn’t write. I had a block.
Then they [my interview subjects] started telling me that I needed to write. There were many moments, but the most important moment for me was in 2015, when a ribeirinho arrived by boat to find her house burning. It was horrible. Then she started singing for the burning island, asking for forgiveness because she wasn’t there to stop it. Her husband tried to convince the family to kill themselves on the burned island. I felt that I needed to write, and because I wrote, because I denounced this, they are now living on another part of the river.
There was also a fisherman who only ever lived on one island throughout his whole life. Then his island became submerged [because of the dam], and his entire life disappeared. There are many people that are refugees, because they left their lands for hunger, war, or persecution. And even if they never go back, they [at least] have some materiality [of their former] life. In the case of this man, everything is under the river—even the bones of his father and brother, who were buried there. Then I understood that I needed to not to avoid the contradiction. The contradiction will be there forever. I needed to write about these families who were expelled, signing papers with their fingers that they couldn’t read.
LG: Bolsanaro came to power in January 2019. I’ve seen the footage of the Amazon burning, which you describe in the book as a show of support for his regime. You also write about the rise in physical violence perpetrated by those sympathetic to his cause, including the so-called grileiros—the land-grabbers. How marked did this shift toward violence feel?
EB: You cannot have a president who said the things that Bolsanaro said and did the things he did without having it become physical violence. This began in 2018, during the presidential election: women in short skirts and LGBTQ+ people attacked in the streets.
The best way for me to answer your question is with a concrete story. Before Christmas and the new year, agricultural peasants were forced to leave their homes and families because institutions like the public prosecutor’s office and the federal and state public-defender offices shut down for the holidays. They didn’t have any defense. It was the time when they could be killed and their houses could be burned. Many kidnaps could happen. I followed one family with amazing leadership. Erasmo cannot walk—they have polio—and their wife, Natalha, is a quilombola, a descendent of African enslaved labor. Erasmo and Natalha have four children. In the last year [of Bolosanaro’s government], they couldn’t stay in the territory. The school was burned; houses were burned; [the grileiros] threatened to kill the children. Even when Lula took power, they couldn’t go back—and maybe they can never go back—because these people [perpetuating violence in the Amazon] have always had power here, even before Bolsanaro.
Brazil lived with a dictatorship from 1964 to 1985. That time was when the big destruction of the Amazon happened: roads, dams, big works. And then, from the ’80s, we had redemocratization. And these people, during the redemocratization, continued to keep their local power. With Bolsonaro, it was the first time they felt that they could do anything. They could do what they wanted and nothing would happen to them. Bolsanaro [encouraged] invasion, destruction, illegal mining, and promoted Indigenous genocide. It’s like he liberated something.
LG: That’s one terrible kind of violence. Another is the recent spate of adolescent suicides that occurred in Altamira. You gave a talk at Harvard University where you spoke about hope and despair as “luxuries” that we can’t really afford. That said, when you’re reporting on teenage suicides and violence of the severity that we’ve discussed, how do you reckon with feelings of despair?
EB: This is difficult to explain. I don’t see the world in terms of oppositions like optimism and pessimism, hope or despair. When I followed the process of Belo Monte during Lula’s government—the big hope of my generation—I understood that I couldn’t [rely on] hope. Then I understood the climate crisis in a deeper way, and I realized that if we need hope to move ourselves, then maybe we will be paralyzed. If you really understand what is happening on our planet, then hope is a luxury that we don’t have anymore. We can have the delusion of hope, but I don’t want to have delusion. We need to fight for life independently of hope. I have a lot of fear talking about this, because people have interpreted [it as] that I’m against hope, or that I’m an enemy of hope, or that I’m attacking hope. It’s not about this. We have to fight like a forest.
To fight like a forest is to fight collectively, to use joy as an instrument of resistance. We cry, we mourn, and we laugh, dance, and sing. For us, this is what it means to fight like a forest. This is resistance: finding life in all of the little spaces—the fierce life.
It’s amazing how capitalism has destroyed our survival instinct. My husband is a Londoner, but he lives with me here. I still travel abroad. But I always have the sensation that in the richest places of Europe and the United States, it’s like I’m in an architectural model or a resort. All these very cool people in the restaurants and the coffee shops are living as if the world is not ending. There is a war against nature going on, and we have to choose to fight for life instead of sitting on our sofas.
LG: You’ve alluded to your mixed feelings about Lula’s environmental record in government. How do you assess his legacy and commitments moving forward?
EB: Lula was very important in terms of racial equality, especially for Black people, who are the biggest minority in Brazil. The country is very racist, and this was one of the reasons for the anger against Lula: He did a good job making Brazil more equal. He also raised the minimum wage and ensured that poorer people reached university for the first time. For the Amazon, Lula did some good things, but also some terrible things. It was the return of the big dams that were originally constructed during the dictatorship. This was a historic mistake, a stain on Lula’s biography that will never be erased. Now, in the latest Lula government, we need a lot to happen, because Belo Monte needs a new operation license.
LG: It’s crunch time for Lula.
EB: Yes, and now we need real commitment. I personally, and through my journalism platform Sumaúma, formally support Lulu. It’s the best thing that can happen for Brazil. But we are also living through the genocide of Yanomami people. Lula came to Roraima, the state where the Yanomami live, and faced them. The next step is more difficult: to expel the illegal miners.
Today, we published that Petrobras, the company of state fossil fuels, is intending to exploit oil in the Amazon. If Lula decides to continue with this project, it will be a disaster. These are the difficult decisions that will show whether Lula has changed, and if he has a real commitment to the environment, climate crisis, and the Amazon forest itself.