eyes on the U.S.

Black Lives Matter In Brazil, Where Racial Tensions Simmer

Demonstrators in Manaus
Demonstrators in Manaus
Alessio Perrone

João Pedro Matos was in his uncle's garden on May 18 in São Gonçalo, near Rio de Janeiro, when Brazil's Federal Police stormed in. Police claim officers traded shots with armed drug traffickers, though the Matos family denies this. A bullet fired by an officer hit João Pedro, who was taken away in a helicopter and reported as missing. His parents were only told the next day that he had died. João Pedro was 14 years old.

The victim's father, Neilton Pinto, addressed Rio de Janeiro state governor Wilson Witzel on television. "I want to say, mister governor, that your police force didn't just murder a 14-year-old boy with a dream and plans," the UOL newssite reports. "Your police force killed an entire family, it killed a father, it killed a mother and João Pedro. This is what your police force did to my life."

João Pedro's death is just one reason why the protests against police brutality aimed at people of color — which began last week in the U.S. after officers killed George Floyd in Minneapolis — have also flared up in Brazil. The anger has found particularly fertile ground in Brazil, a country with several historical and political parallels with its North American neighbor.

People gathered outside the headquarters of the Rio de Janeiro government on Sunday, May 31 to protest against police operations in Rio de Janeiro's low-income neighbourhoods, known as favelas. Protesters marched with banners chanting Vidas negras importam, the Portuguese for "Black lives matter", and Parem de nos matar, ("Stop killing us'). Later, as some protesters lingered after the end of the demonstration, police fired stun grenades and rubber bullets to disperse them, causing a stampede, O Globo reports. Dramatic footage showed an officer holding a protester at gunpoint with an assault rifle. Similar scenes were seen in São Paulo and other major Brazilian cities.

Bolsonaro was elected promising a ‘licence to kill" to police officers

Police violence against people of color in favelas has been a problem for years in Brazil, a country that shares with the U.S. a tragic history of slavery of African populations. Just over half of the country's population identifies as black, but black Brazilians represent more than 75% of the victims of police operations. According to BBC Mundo, Brazilian police forces kill up to 21 times more black citizens than their U.S. counterparts.

But many believe that the election of Jair Bolsonaro, a former military officer, has exacerbated the problem. "Bolsonaro was elected promising a ‘licence to kill" to police officers," writes Folha de São Paulo columnist Ilona Szabo. Since Bolsonaro's election, police killings have reached new record highs. Police killed 1,810 people in Rio in 2019 – the highest number since records began in 1998. In the first four months of 2020, Rio de Janeiro police have killed 606 people, by their own count.

Like Donald Trump in the U.S., Bolsonaro has appeared to fan the flames after the first protests, calling black rights protesters "terrorists, idiots and drug addicts', Folha reported. A high official appointed during Bolsonaro's time in power was recorded calling the black rights' movement "scum", months after claiming that slavery had benefited black Brazilians. Bolsonaro's sons Carlos and Eduardo, both politicians, publicly endorsed Trump's promise of a hard line stance against protests.

Also like in the U.S., the racial tensions in Brazil have been mixing with a rising death toll from a very poorly managed coronavirus outbreak. This week, Brazil overtook Italy as the world's third worst hit country in the world. On Friday, Brazil's Supreme Court temporarily halted police raids in favelas during the pandemic, though critics of the government cited the ruling as a response to the recent killings of blacks Reuters reports.

Popular protests in Brazil against the police have thus far not escalated, though new demonstrations are expected on Sunday.

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Green

Ecological Angst In India, A Mining Dumpsite As Neighbor

Local villagers in western India have been forced to live with a mining waste site on the edge of town. What happens when you wake up one day and the giant mound of industrial waste has imploded?

The mining dumpsite is situated just outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat

Sukanya Shantha

BADI — Last week, when the men and women from the Bharwad community in this small village in western India stepped out for their daily work to herd livestock, they were greeted with a strange sight.

The 20-meter-high small hill that had formed at the open-cast mining dumpsite had suddenly sunk. Unsure of the reason behind the sudden caving-in, they immediately informed other villagers. In no time, word had traveled far, even drawing the attention of environment specialists and activists from outside town.

This mining dumpsite situated less than 500 meters outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat has been a matter of serious concern ever since the Gujarat Power Corporation Limited began lignite mining work here in early 2017. The power plant is run by the Power Gujarat State Electricity Corporation Limited, which was previously known as the Bhavnagar Energy Company Ltd.

Vasudev Gohil, a 43-year-old resident of Badi village says that though the dumping site is technically situated outside the village, locals must pass the area on a daily basis.


"We are constantly on tenterhooks and looking for danger signs," he says. Indeed, their state of alert is how the sudden change in the shape of the dumpsite was noticed in the first place.

Can you trust environmental officials?

For someone visiting the place for the first time, the changes may not stand out. "But we have lived all our lives here, we know every little detail of this village. And when a 150-meter-long stretch cave-in by over 25-30 feet, the change can't be overlooked," Gohil adds.

This is not the first time that the dumpsite has worried local residents. Last November, a large part of the flattened part of the dumpsite had developed deep cracks and several flat areas had suddenly got elevated. While the officials had attributed this significant elevation to the high pressure of water in the upper strata of soil in the region, environment experts had pointed to seismic activities. The change is evident even today, nearly a year since it happened.

It could have sunk because of the rain.

After the recent incident, when the villagers raised an alarm and sent a written complaint to the regional Gujarat Pollution Control Board, an official visit to the site was arranged, along with the district administration and the mining department.

The regional pollution board officer Bhavnagar, A.G. Oza, insists the changes "aren't worrisome" and attributes it to the weather.

"The area received heavy rain this time. It is possible that the soil could have sunk in because of the rain," he tells The Wire. The Board, he says, along with the mining department, is now trying to assess if the caving-in had any impact on the ground surface.

"We visited the site as soon as a complaint was made. Samples have already been sent to the laboratory and we will have a clear idea only once the reports are made available," Oza adds.

Women from the Surkha village have to travel several kilometers to find potable water

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

A questionable claim

That the dumpsite had sunk in was noticeable for at least three days between October 1 and 3, but Rohit Prajapati of an environmental watchdog group Paryavaran Suraksha Samiti, noted that it was not the first time.

"This is the third time in four years that something so strange is happening. It is a disaster in the making and the authorities ought to examine the root cause of the problem," Prajapati says, adding that the department has repeatedly failed to properly address the issue.

He also contests the GPCB's claim that excess rain could lead to something so drastic. "Then why was similar impact not seen on other dumping sites in the region? One cannot arrive at conclusions for geological changes without a deeper study of them," he says. "It can have deadly implications."

Living in pollution

The villagers have also accused the GPCB of overlooking their complaint of water pollution which has rendered a large part of the land, most importantly, the gauchar or grazing land, useless.

"In the absence of a wall or a barrier, the pollutant has freely mixed with the water bodies here and has slowly started polluting both our soil and water," complains 23- year-old Nikul Kantharia.

He says ever since the mining project took off in the region, he, like most other villagers has been forced to take his livestock farther away to graze. "Nothing grows on the grazing land anymore and the grass closer to the dumpsite makes our cattle ill," Kantharia claims.

The mining work should have been stopped long ago

Prajapati and Bharat Jambucha, a well-known environmental activist and proponent of organic farming from the region, both point to blatant violations of environmental laws in the execution of mining work, with at least 12 violations cited by local officials. "But nothing happened after that. Mining work has continued without any hassles," Jambucha says. Among some glaring violations include the absence of a boundary wall around the dumping site and proper disposal of mining effluents.

The mining work has also continued without a most basic requirement – effluent treatment plant and sewage treatment plant at the mining site, Prajapati points out. "The mining work should have been stopped long ago. And the company should have been levied a heavy fine. But no such thing happened," he adds.

In some villages, the groundwater level has depleted over the past few years and villagers attribute it to the mining project. Women from Surkha village travel several kilometers outside for potable water. "This is new. Until five years ago, we had some water in the village and did not have to lug water every day," says Shilaben Kantharia.

The mine has affected the landscape around the villages

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

Resisting lignite mining

The lignite mining project has a long history of resistance. Agricultural land, along with grazing land were acquired from the cluster of 12 adjoining villages in the coastal Ghogha taluka between 1994 and 1997. The locals estimate that villagers here lost anything between 40-100% of their land to the project. "We were paid a standard Rs 40,000 per bigha," Narendra, a local photographer, says.

The money, Narendra says, felt decent in 1994 but for those who had been dependent on this land, the years to come proved very challenging. "Several villagers have now taken a small patch of land in the neighboring villages on lease and are cultivating cotton and groundnut there," Narendra says.

They were dependent on others' land for work.

Bharat Jambucha says things get further complicated for the communities which were historically landless. "Most families belonging to the Dalit or other marginalized populations in the region never owned any land. They were dependent on others' land for work. Once villagers lost their land to the project, the landless were pushed out of the village," he adds. His organization, Prakrutik Kheti Juth, has been at the forefront, fighting for the rights of the villages affected in the lignite mining project.

In 2017, when the mining project finally took off, villagers from across 12 villages protested. The demonstration was disrupted after police used force and beat many protesters. More than 350 of them were booked for rioting.

The villagers, however, did not give up. Protests and hunger strikes have continued from time to time. A few villagers even sent a letter to the President of India threatening that they would commit suicide if the government did not return their land.

"We let them have our land for over 20 years," says Gohil.

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