Interview carried out and written by Keila McFarland Dias
Paulo Ricardo is a leading Brazilian activist who holds as his mission to make environmental justice a reality in all societal, governmental and institutional spheres. Paulo is the Climate Group coordinator at Engajamundo, an NGO created by young people who believe in their responsibility as a key part of the solution when it comes to tackling the greatest social and environmental crises our world is faced with.
A central objective of Engajamundo is to empower and educate the Brazilian youth in the face of environmental and social issues. Engajamundo is built on four pillars: education, advocacy, mobilisation and civic participation, expanding on five work groups, which focus on Climate, the SDGs (UN Sustainable Goals), Gender, Biodiversity and Sustainable Cities, respectively. This is a highly effective approach as one cannot speak about climate change mitigation without addressing, for instance, how climate change aggravates gender inequality.
Engajamundo has been an active organisation in multiple United Nations Climate Change Conferences. The diversity brought by Engajamundo to these conferences acts as a channel fostering an intersectional and inclusive environmentalism. What is often overlooked is the vast array of challenges that NGOs such as Engajamundo are faced with when accessing these international spaces. Following the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, Brazil became a leading actor driving environmental protection efforts. Nevertheless, under the present Bolsonaro government, certain privileges awarded to non-governmental organisations, such as credentials to attend the UN Conferences of Parties (hereinafter COPs), were removed, thus hindering the representation of relevant groups in international conferences and consequently silencing the voices of the communities most affected by climate change. Paulo explains how, beyond the lack of governmental support, another challenge relates to the financial barriers imposed on organisations from the Global South: even though Engajamundo is the leading youth climate organisation in Brazil, the lack of resources impedes the representatives of this NGO to have a seat at the table in these high-level conferences that so greatly impact decision-making. This is a contrasting (and devastating) reality compared to the easier access to these conferences enjoyed by Global North activists, which further accentuates how these events tend to be inordinately influenced by the elites.
Additional challenges are found in the realm of language barriers: Brazil is the only country in Latin America that has Portuguese as its official language, therefore indigenous peoples and other ethnic/racial minorities struggle to be able to speak on behalf of their communities as access to the English language is virtually reserved for the wealthy parts of Brazilian society. An important objective of Engajamundo is to open spaces for people with these language barriers to be able engage in environmental decision-making, thus striving to make the movement more accessible, intersectional and balanced. Engajamundo translates the jargon of what is decided in these conferences in order for the general public to actively participate in climate change mitigation efforts, given that for decades the environmental movement has been a distant one predominantly embraced by the elitist categories of society, consequently neglecting the experiences and rights of marginalised communities, reflecting the imbalance of power of the global structure.
Mainstream environmentalism remains strongly white and middle/upper-class in character; it has therefore excluded the experiences and rights of people of colour. Herein lies the weakness of the environmental movement: it traditionally seeks solutions “from the very demographic that is most complicit with causing and benefiting from exploitation and environmental degradation”. A widespread misconception has been that environmental protection has been primarily driven by Western activists. In 2018, youth climate activism gathered “momentum” through Fridays for Future, founded by Greta Thunberg. Albeit being an important part of climate activism, the media has terribly misconceived this movement as the first of its kind.
Youth climate advocacy and action for change in different corners of the world have taken place for decades, nevertheless, these remain invisible. We must not fail to point out that the immense spotlight placed on Greta has been a result of her privilege as a white person from Europe, which Paulo has discussed with Greta herself. Her achievements are honourable and have certainly helped in consolidating the movement, nevertheless, it is crucial to highlight that in countries such as Brazil, grass-roots organisations, especially those that are youth-led and/or led by vulnerable groups most affected by the climate crisis, have been actively engaging in the fight against the environmental crisis for decades yet have received no such recognition. The voices of environmental activists from the Global South have been blatantly silenced by systemic racism.
An abysmal example of racism took place during the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland: Ugandan climate activist Vanessa Nakate gave a conference alongside fellow climate advocates Loukina Tille, Luisa Neubauer, Greta Thunberg, and Isabelle Axelsson. Nakate, the only activist representing the Global South, was however removed from a photo taken of the group, which sparked fierce debate over race and media representation. “Her voice is just as, if not more, valuable than ours in a place like this”, wrote Axelsson. Nakate has stated that this racist act performed by Associated Press, represented the erasure of the continent, as “Africa is the least emitter of carbons, but we are the most affected by the climate crisis…You erasing our voices won’t change anything. You erasing our stories won’t change anything“. Founder of Rise Up Climate Movement, which aims to amplify the voices of activists from Africa, and spearheading the campaign to save Congo’s rainforest, which is facing massive deforestation, Nakate has been a leading activist not only in her country but in the continent as a whole, and regrettably the reason which brought her visibility was this instance of flagrant racism and discrimination. Paulo stresses that BIPOC communities have been at the forefront of the fight against climate change long before the movement gained prominence, yet they are made invisible and virtually excluded from decision making, in addition to being stripped from their achievements as they are constantly “measured” against white activists.
The environmental movement has a long-standing, uneasy relationship with racial politics. “There’s a level of racism in the movement itself, where some folks think that talking about these issues is a distraction,” said Jacqueline Patterson, director of the NAACP Environmental and Climate Justice Program. The racism and implicit bias is evident within environmentalism, therefore elevating racial justice within the movement has been a constant struggle, despite the scientific evidence that demonstrates that racial and ethnic minorities are the communities most at risk from climate change. The year of 2020 brought to the fore a reality that has burdened the BIPOC community around the globe: that of environmental racism. Paulo sheds light on the disproportionate impacts of climate change on people living in slums, people living far away from the urban cores, the indigenous tribes, and other marginalised communities. Communities that unjustly carry the burden of discrimination and racism are further impacted by climate change as governments do not comply with their international obligations to respect and safeguard basic fundamental rights. In the USA, for instance, over 14,3 million people of colour live in areas under high levels of pollution due to decades of residential segregation and racial injustice. In Brazil, the issue of environmental racism is even further aggravated as the country is governed by politicians who, like the Minister of Foreign Affairs, believe that climate change is a Marxist plot, proving how this is a negationist and negligent government. The most striking example of environmental racism in Brazil is the lack of basic sanitation, which, albeit being a right guaranteed by the Constitution and defined by law, disproportionately impacts neighbourhoods of people of colour.
It is important to highlight how the government itself has launched attacks on the environment, for instance, Brazilian Minister of the Environment Ricardo Salles called for environmental deregulation while public was “distracted” by COVID-19, which was condemned by Greenpeace Brasil spokeswoman Luiza Lima stating that “Salles believes that people dying in line at hospitals is a good opportunity to move forward on his anti-environmental project.” Top level politicians propagate a discourse that is contrary to the environmental protection agenda. According to Tica Minami, Brasil’s Greenpeace Programme Director, “this is a government that neglects its role in protecting the rainforest, as it incentivises deforestation. As a result, destruction levels, criminality and violence have exploded in the Amazon”, increasing Brazilian emissions and breaching the human rights of the indigenous communities living in the rainforest. Engajamundo diligently works towards changing this reality as its representatives lobby for environmental justice, by bringing climate litigation strategies.
Paulo concluded the interview speaking about how Brazilian climate activists engage in this fight against climate change on the basis of their need to survive. As emphasised by Paulo, “a luta pela justiça nunca pode parar” (the struggle for justice must never stop): climate justice will never be achieved in a world that is deprived of racial and ethnic justice, therefore it is imperative to uplift the voices of BIPOC activists and amplify their narratives, as they are key to solving the environmental crisis.