By Diego C. Smirne
Your objectives are to better understand Amazonia’s local issues such as ecology, economy and drug trafficking to learn about the struggles for social justice of the communities that live in the area. Could you tell us more about your interest in the Amazon region and how the idea for this endeavor began? Were there any specific issues you had in mind?
I was awarded a travel fellowship that was founded in 1965 to honor the memory of Michael C. Rockefeller. The fellowship is aimed at graduating College students and has the mission of enabling its recipients to "seek a deeper understanding of our common human experience and their part in it, through the respectful exploration of a different culture." My proposal with the fellowship has been to travel for one year to the Brazilian Amazon and make short forays into some of its neighboring countries to volunteer with local organizations whose work broadly relates to promoting social justice, from non-profits working on education, human rights, and public health, to organizations working on environmental conservation.
I chose to focus on the Amazon region because I wanted to live among indigenous, Afrodescendants and peasant communities to learn in person about struggles related to race, ethnicity, and class, which I had studied for my undergraduate thesis. I chose the country because as someone from Colombia, Brazil is geographically close to my origins but paradoxically distant in its culture, language, and social structures. Amazonia is particularly foreign to me, due to its unique socio-cultural development with traditional communities that populated the area, pushing the boundaries of wilderness.
Before you went to Amazonia, you spent a period in São Paulo. How did this previous experience in the country help you prepare, apart from getting familiar with Portuguese, for your research in the Amazon?
It prepared me a great deal. I worked for a project called Youth Climate Leaders, an organization that strives to prepare youths from around the world to tackle Climate Change, the main existential issue of our time. This experience made me more interested in environmental issues, a topic that until then I was just marginally interested in. I also worked as a research assistant and director of mobilization for the political campaign for the now elected congresswoman from São Paulo, Tabata Amaral. This experience showed me the side of social justice through politics and community organizing I had hoped for in my fellowship. When the time came to embark on my journey, I had gained a new interest in environmental issues and in a way, I had depoliticized my aspirations for the fellowship. I turned my ambitions elsewhere and became creative. I began picking up an old habit and a passion that I had given up during College: to read literature and write short stories in Spanish.
You have been in Amazonia since October. What have you learned so far? Are there many differences (regarding the issues you intended to study) between your previous knowledge and expectations and the actual reality of the region?
For sure. Now that I am six months into the fellowship, my vision of the Amazon region changed a lot. I quickly discovered that the Amazon is not an untouched land or paradise lost, as it is imagined to be by many around the world. It is a vast region, with conditions and social problems that vary depending on the area, with large cities like Belém, Santarém and Manaus, with people of all kinds—even many foreigners—dealing with common issues that humans worry about everywhere, such as finding a job, consuming technology and having a comfortable life. Yet, Amazonia is also a place like no other I have seen before. Here nature influences every facet of life. For example, since I began my fellowship-year in October, I have volunteered with various organizations with diverse missions ranging from education (Vaga Lume) and public health (Saúde e Alegria) to environmental conservation (Sapopema and IPAM); and all of them, in one way or another, have been connected to the environment and the mission of preserving the Amazon rainforest, its biodiversity, its people and ways of life. Here in the Amazon you cannot be oblivious to the environment. It is an omnipresent factor.
In the last months, I have also learned about the complexity of social problems. On one occasion, I visited the barren lands of a serraria (lumber-mill) where migrant workers labored in a company-town under poor sanitary conditions, surrounded by vultures and enveloped by a suffocating smell of trash that emanated from the cut wood. Despite the awful conditions and the fact that lumber-mills and mines (garimpos)—and, perhaps, the same can be said about narco cultivos too—destroy life in the Amazon, such activities are often the only source of income and therefore the livelihood for many families. Thus, to offer solutions to issues such as deforestation and contamination requires to go beyond decreeing an activity to be illegal, and provide sustainable alternatives to development. These experiences complicated my view of social justice beyond determining what is morally right vs. wrong or the relationship between the exploiter vs. the exploited.
In coming to terms with the complexity of social problems, I discovered the power of writing as a tool for social justice. I believe that doing justice demands, first and foremost, seeking clarity and detail to see the full picture, and creative writing can do such because it is not constrained by the boundaries of reality. It has the flexibility to create scenarios, build characters, present problems and ideas, and do justice to complex issues by exposing all their dimensions, even if they did not exactly take place. When I began my journey I knew I wanted to write about it, perhaps by keeping a journal. Yet, after renewing my interest in literature and realizing the power of creative writing, I began taking writing more seriously. Currently, I am keeping a blog, Lessons from the Amazon, where I publish bi-weekly updates, some creative pieces, and reflections about my journey. I encourage anyone reading this interview to visit it and learn more about my journey.
How do the issues you observe in Brazilian Amazonia relate to the ones of your native Colombia?
In a sense, the problems I encountered here are similar to those I have seen elsewhere in Colombia and Latin America—poverty, inequality, racism and discrimination, violence, and corruption. However, there are many particularities to life in the Amazon, such as those related to the environment, territory and traditional communities, which are unique to the region. Many communities are incommunicado without electricity, telephone, and days away by boat from the nearest towns and basic social services like secondary schools and medicine. Those are beautiful places that, due to their isolation, can quickly turn into death traps in cases of emergency. In one occasion, I took a boat from Breves to Belém in which a young indigenous mother and her newborn baby were traveling. The new-born agonized for hours and possibly died, before reaching a hospital that could treat him. Ways to prevent tragedies such as this from happening here will be very different from those in places where natural barriers do not present such a challenge. In the Amazon, although some problems may be transnational and even global, the best solutions to these are often local and adjusted to the peculiarities of the region.
For someone with a degree in Social Sciences and Philosophy, being able to personally approach such complex questions as the ones you are studying in the Amazon must be quite exciting. How do you see this opportunity?
As someone with a background in social theory and general philosophy, this experience has been a constant fight against the intellect which wishes to conceptualize and generalize situations to make them relatable, and in the process manages to dehumanize them by losing their particularities and concreteness. Nonetheless, I have made a conscious effort to change my mindset and look beyond the conditions of poverty and underdevelopment, and instead interact with the people and places around me to find the wisdom in them. I will only learn anything if I engage in the world by talking to people and discovering new realities. This is something very precious that I learned in an ambitiously named course at Harvard named The Quest for Wisdom, in which we dismantled the idea that we can ever find wisdom by looking within. If we do so, we will only find a mess of contradicting emotions, wills, and ideas, with nothing to teach us. Wisdom is not inside of us but out there, and can be found by engaging in ritual practices and acting out in the world by caring for others.
After this initial period in the Amazon, what are your expectations for the development of your research? Have any of your previous plans been modified? Are there new ideas?
In the upcoming months, I hope to continue traveling upriver to volunteer with other organizations and run into new experiences and people in even smaller and more remote communities deeper in the Amazon jungle. I want to keep volunteering, writing reflections, and continue my creative efforts. One of my goals this year is to end my experience with a compendium of short stories that I can publish to share my experience and lessons learned. In a few days, I will shadow a group of doctors in the Barco Abare—a boat that brings healthcare to ribeirinhos (riverside communities) in the area of Santarém. I also plan to visit a company-town founded in the 1920s by the American industrialist Henry Ford to extract rubber for his cars, and that in the 1970s became filled with garimpeiros (gold miners) seeking to win the lottery by striking gold. I hope to serve and find some inspiration in these experiences and continue to learn more about the social history of this vast and exorbitantly real place that is Amazonia.