By Lays Ushirobira*
The 2022 Brazilian elections, in October—to elect representatives for the positions of president, governor, senator, and federal and State deputies—will be crucial for the climate agenda and the Amazon rainforest. “In my opinion, these are the most important elections of our lives: we either certify our joint death or we set directions for a possible future”, said Paloma Costa in an interview with the team of Amazoniar, an initiative of IPAM (Amazon Environmental Research Institute) to promote a global dialogue on the Amazon.
Advisor at ISA (Instituto Socioambiental), member of the UN Secretary-General’s Youth Advisory Group on Climate Change, Paloma is one of the young leaders who are on the front line of the Brazilian socio-environmental agenda. Graduated in Law and currently studying Anthropology at the University of Brasília, the activist stresses the importance of collective construction and including everyone in the climate agenda decision-making process. “If the movement is not collectively built, we will not get anywhere”, she highlighted.
What are you most proud of having done for Amazon or for the climate agenda in general?
I am most proud of having the opportunity of reaching out to the youth in different territories, helping to write a project, and articulating with the youth, connecting these demands with those of young Latin Americans, and link what is happening, for example, in the Yanomami territory with the fires that are taking place in Argentina or with Boric’s election in Chile. I am very proud of the collective construction and of seeing young people leading more and more policy spaces within their communities, showing that we are already mobilizing to make these changes. I believe in my people, the Brazilian people: we are going to change all of this at the elections in October.
What was the most important lesson you have learned so far and what would you like to share?
I think the most important lesson I have learned in this whole trajectory is that this is a collective fight. In the history of the youth movement, Greta’s [Thunberg] contribution to our visibility is undeniable, but we know how things change and what is the impact of putting people like Txai Suruí, Hamangaí (Pataxó Hã-Hã-Hãe), and Val Munduruku on the front line. Young people all over the world are standing up to keep the Amazon rainforest standing, to protect democracy in Brazil, and to stop the undergoing destruction. We gathered over 20,000 people in Brasília and, even so, the National Congress understood that it would be better to approve the Bill 191, disregarding the call of people who were on the street. We must understand that we need to value socio-biodiversity, and instead of looking for a hero, every one of us must become a hero in the fight for the climate. Otherwise, we will all go extinct from this planet.
What is your take on what is happening in the Amazon today?
In 2019, we saw a major change in our entire socio-environmental structure: the extinction of environmental councils; changing roles in ministries; the loss of a major section of the Ministry of Environment, which used to handle climate issues. As a result, in the same year, we saw the Amazon rainforest burn and São Paulo’s sky getting dark in the middle of the afternoon. Activists were arrested and threatened. Areas the size of football fields were burned in the Amazon, over one billion trees were destroyed from one year to the next, and deforestation records were reached. Since then, we have continued to break records of destruction every year. That is why a commitment to end deforestation was launched during the COP 26 [United Nations Climate Change Conference]. But, as soon as I returned from the Conference, I immediately had to get back to work, because the bill on environmental licensing would be on the agenda, for example. So these commitments turn out to be false promises. These are the international agreements that were not materialized here. Especially in the Amazon, this increasingly veiled destruction has been going on for a long time. We need to start appreciating that there are overlooked wars being fought in different areas: here in Brazil, in Sudan, in Ghana, in Kenya… Yanomami children are being killed by the mining industry and Kayapós are being threatened. This is happening in all territories. Although the Amazon is under the spotlight, its people are not being heard. Governments talk about the Amazon and its communities but, most of the time, actions do not reflect what the Amazonian voices want to say. To really listen to them, we need more space so that the indigenous youth can take the lead and to enable dialogues with those on the front lines.
Could you share with us some of your individual and/or collective actions in any of these territories?
It is always a great experience to travel to different territories. Something that impressed me a lot in Raoni Metuktire’s territory was seeing over 600 km of soybean along the way. As I got closer, I saw a little white sign saying “Kaiapó Indigenous Territory” and the standing forest just behind it. It was shocking to see that the soy reached the sign. Another remarkable experience was in the territories of the Iriri River. I remember that at the “Amazônia Centro do Mundo” meeting, a truck of stolen wood passed by my side, and my first reaction as an activist was to stop it. The leaders told me that those who ride these trucks are usually armed and asked: “If something happens to you, how are we going to get you anywhere?” These leaders are used to seeing destruction and it hurts to feel powerless. We have been trying to build several spaces with the youths. In Raoni’s territory, for example, before the pandemic started, we wondered how we would make these young ones—the greatest hackers I know—communicate and articulate with those at the other end, close to the Congress. In addition to technological development, we cannot forget about science, and we need to link it to traditional knowledge.
I remember a story about a great friend of mine, Mitã Xipaya, a youth leader of the Xipaya people. With the pandemic, everyone isolated themselves in the village, where they have no other means of communication other than radio, which works on solar power. We arranged to talk every Wednesday at noon to check in if everything was okay during that time. But we were unable to communicate for days, and when we finally managed to do so, he told me that chains were destroying the trees in his territory near the village. I was very worried: How did we get to this point? But I see that we are building increasingly more together, as in the ATL [Acampamento Terra Livre], which brings many people together to think of solutions and how to build a chain that holds [the forest] instead of one that destroys it. We need to understand that this connection exists and that we can build it together.
Given this scenario, how can young people get involved in the discussions of the climate agenda and in practice?
When I heard about the pandemic, I was next to our great shaman Davi Yanomami at the UN [United Nations] Human Rights Council in Geneva. He was going to do an intervention, which was canceled despite his long journey from his territory to Geneva. In one room, we saw a giant slide that said “pandemic” in red. That same day, Davi had already made an excellent observation: people were talking about how committed they were to human rights but “this place looks like a lake full of frogs because it is just noise here”. David has an incredible perception of the world. And then they started talking about what was Covid and what was happening. I was desperate. I took advantage of the fact that I was next to David and immediately asked: “Is the world going to end?”. Davi, with all the calm in the world, looked at me and said: “Paloma, if we stopped dancing, singing, and painting our bodies, it would mean that the merchandise people won. If they win, we all lose”. We cannot be discouraged by all this destruction. We have to stand up and unite, and the movement has to aggregate people more and more. In the socio-environmental movement, the more we unite, the greater our ability to postpone the end of the world will be. We cannot sit still if we want the forest to stand. So, for the young people who want advice on what to do: get up, talk to everyone, join their collective and mobilize. You cannot standstill. We can do so many things, like chat and create content. What gives us hope is precisely the fact that we can build this space together and we are not alone.
You co-authored one of the greatest climate lawsuits and the same is happening in other parts of the world. Do you think this is a trend?
In several parts of the world, these climate mitigation lawsuits have emerged and many were initiated by young people. There are two lawsuits here in Brazil that had the participation of young people. The “Pedalada Climática” Lawsuit, which I co-authored, was a non-compliance lawsuit with the NDC [National Determined Contribution] filed by Brazil. In the Paris Agreement, we spoke about the Progress Principle, that is, that we should invest more and more in the commitment ambition [to reduce the emission of greenhouse gasses] made nationwide. Unfortunately, in our first NDC, Brazil decreased its commitments, allowing even more carbon levels than previously intended. That was a blatant regression. With the lawsuit, the NDC was reviewed and now we are trying to grasp its feasibility, and handling the challenge of dealing with the Judiciary, which often fails to appreciate the socio-environmental agenda. The other lawsuit is the ADPF 760. I hope it becomes a historic moment for the country to discuss, for example, the application of the PPCDAm [Action Plan for the Prevention and Control of Deforestation in the Legal Amazon] and the PPCerrado [Action Plan for the Prevention and Control of Deforestation and Fires in the Cerrado]. These long-term policies make Brazil a champion in the climate emergency fight; however, they are not being currently applied. We conducted a study with several organizations to try to understand and facilitate the understanding of the different aspects of this complex climate agenda, and I hope to achieve climate justice with established jurisprudence in our highest Court. Our future must be defined pursuant to the Brazilian Federal Constitution, which states that we and our future generations have the right to an ecologically balanced environment. If the environment is our right as a collective good, it should be reflected in our highest Court.
You have a strong connection with other Latin American countries. Do you think Brazil is following this trend or are we still a little behind? What is missing?
I think there is no other way but to follow this trend. I believe that our elections are very different, with a greater diversity of candidates. I want to know if our population is understanding the message that we are trying to convey on the streets, in the courts, and in several formal and informal spaces. We will have options—for the youth, indigenous people, quilombolas, women, black and trans women—and I hope our message has been understood. Analyzing this Latin American movement, who is online and mobilizing? We, the young people, are hacking the system. That is why the movement must be built collectively. We need everything we built to actually be realized, be understood and reflected in these elections, following trends such as in Chile, where a young president was elected, bringing the movement from the streets to a formal policy space. We still have gas. We have been working out there overtime for years, with no payment or underpaid. I hope that by conquering more and more of these formal spaces and by receiving support from artists, thinkers, writers, and companies, which are starting to dialogue with different movements, we might see this change reflected on them.
In Chile, the constituent process is taking place, in which indigenous peoples clearly play a leading role. This is also reflected in Ecuador and Bolivia. Do you think this is motivating indigenous people elsewhere, especially in the Amazon?
We need to congratulate Chile not only for including the indigenous movement but also for its youth. It is very nice to see my colleagues taking an active part in the constitution, a process in which they are learning what legislation is and how to think of it. In the Brazilian constituent process, we also played an active role with leaders such as Raoni, Chico Mendes, Ailton Krenak. It was very important to create these laws. Unfortunately, there is a big gap between writing regulation and applying it, but I understand that reflecting on these democratic processes was what made it possible for the youth, and for indigenous movements, among others, to appreciate that we have to keep fighting for this environment. I think that it is hard for the people of every one of these movements to understand that we grew up in this context: that our highest legislation guarantees it, but, in practice, that is not what happens. I think that this influence [from other Latin American countries] is being rubbed off on Brazil and that we collectively build the Latin American philosophy—each according to its own reality. In this process, we face difficulties to unite. But movements that arise in one place are inspirations for others. So, I’m sure that what is happening today in Chile, Argentina, Uruguay, Bolivia, Colombia… everything will be reflected here in Brazil as well. I hope that these indigenous movement role models, like Soninha [Guajajara], who ran for president, or Joênia [Wapichana], our first indigenous woman deputy, inspire many people.
What similarities and differences do you see between the socio-environmental climate movement in Europe and in Latin America?
In the Brazilian context, despite being a woman, I have very privileged origins. I am a white woman from the Brazilian capital. But, in the international context, I am Paloma Costa, Latin American, Brazilian. I sit next to Greta [Thunberg] and say that our forest is burning and that São Paulo’s sky is getting dark in the afternoon, but what the newspaper prints is not what is happening. This makes us reach the conclusion that this process of insertion and joint construction at a global level has to be further developed. It is a hero story: Every day, people try to find Greta from Brazil. But she is not here. We are Txai, Sâmela, Paloma… We are different people. That is good because there is strength in the following fact: Greta can do what she does from her place, a beautiful work that mobilized and inspired so many people; as for us, from our place, we can continue our work and with visibility. We know that this visibility affects how we move and which opportunities are available to us—for example, having a Txai to open the COP. So, for me, this work of opening doors is more significant than seeking such a spotlight, because I think we make the change “one person at a time”: with each person we add or teach. Another fact: it is also very difficult to be from the South. Sometimes, we have meetings with UN officials, and our list of complaints is significantly longer. We always have more problems. We need to evaluate these realities, which are not under the spotlight. And I think that the collective construction process is beautiful, and it is really nice to see that we are gaining more and more visibility. We still have a lot of ground to cover, but what we have been able to build so far is very beautiful.
What is the importance of this year’s elections for the socio-environmental agenda and for the Amazon?
I would say that these are the most important elections of our lives: we either certify our joint death or we set directions for a possible future. Analyzing the latest IPCC [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] reports, for example, we do not have much to run to, and Latin America is going to be one of the territories in danger. No wonder we started 2022 with seven disasters a week, once a day. We need to evaluate these elections and understand that they can set our future, choosing candidates who are really engaged and will actually dialogue. Every movement I know that works with a socio-environmental agenda, young people, indigenous people, etc. is focused on this election’s agenda, to build joint demands, guide candidates, and dialogue with the civil society. We need to find out who these candidates really are, what they propose, in what they are engaged in, what is their context, and what they have been doing lately. Thanks to the Internet, we can take a broader, more attentive look. The young people will play a great role in disseminating this information, getting to know these candidates, and voting for those who will represent us. These candidates will have to deal with the question of what the Amazon means, its potential, these value chains, and the initiatives that have taken place at the front. For me, it is definitive: the Amazon shall only stand if we have people with us in Congress and in decision-making environments.
What is your message to the people who will take over in the next government?
My message is that we will be monitoring each of their actions more and more attentively. So, I highly doubt that those who fail to follow a path of life and socio-environmental protection will continue to occupy these positions. We will remain attentive and active, aware that the power lies in the collective. I hope you keep the promises made during the election period because we will keep an eye on them.
What message would you like to convey to young people in this election context?
Articulate together and promote spaces for collective construction. Look for possibilities in your cities and States and in the decision-making spaces in your territory to include young people. We know that, from now on, we can no longer have a Congress that refuses to dialogue with the young people, nor a presidency that fails to dialogue with the different movements. We cannot have decision-makers who do not know how to consult and deliberately build with the population they are supposed to represent anymore. Understand the context. Look for environments where we can articulate together and we will elect candidates who are committed to building this joint agenda. Let us be seeds, forest minds and hearts to free our future and postpone the end of the world.
Amazoniar is an initiative of IPAM (Amazon Environmental Research Institute) to promote a global dialogue about the Amazon and its importance for Brazil’s relationships with the world. In its fourth cycle, Amazoniar will promote a series of interviews with young Brazilians and foreigners who inspire the mobilization for climate justice, especially in the Amazon. The chats will be published every week, in full, on the IPAM website in June. Sign up for the newsletter to receive the next interviews!
*Journalist and Communications Consultant at IPAM