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Making a difference in the Amazon

At the World Social Forum held in Belem, Brazil, this year, John Samuel meets an unusual activist-researcher from Palai in Kerala who has fought for the rights of the Amazon’s marginalised communities for 20 years

The morning sun has a rare intensity in the Amazon. But the afternoons end with a shower and the evening breeze down at the harbour makes the rivers in Belem dance. Belem in the morning is a bit harsh but in the evening it is soothing. It smells of ripened mangoes; elderly mango trees on both sides of the roads make this city look somewhat benevolent, and the sun and the rain get into a fierce embrace in the afternoon.

Belem is the capital of the Amazonian state of Para in Brazil. The story of Belem begins in 1615 when the Portuguese discovered the possibilities of this port, strategically located in the Amazon region. Thus began the globalisation of its flora and fauna; the journey of rubber, tapioca and many other familiar vegetables across the world began from the port of Belem.

It looks like a city reluctant to leave the shadow of its earlier glory. The old Cathedral and the vast cemetery in the middle of this port city have lots of old stories to tell, stories of wealth and pomp when Belem was the centre of rubber export in the world. Rubber made Belem rich. The Ford company had a special rubber procurement division here to access the best quality rubber for the tyres of its motor cars. Rubber then travelled to Malaysia, Thailand and India where vast rubber plantations came up. Forty years ago, the price of rubber crashed and with that ended the glory of Belem as one of the most vibrant port cities in Brazil. The old rubber warehouses around the harbour area have been transformed into expensive restaurants and pubs catering to foreign tourists.

But the old world charm of the city is still in the air. Even though an average of four or five people get killed every day in street violence and looting. In this metropolitan area of 1.8 million people, 1,400 people were killed in 2008 in various acts of violence. Brazil has everything to make it one of the richest countries in the world, but it has one of the highest levels of inequality in the world. Inequality creates joblessness, conflict, criminalisation and urban violence. Among the landowning classes, one person or family can own hundreds of thousands and sometime millions of hectares of land. In fact, one of the biggest landowners in the country owns land the size of Belgium. The extreme inequality breeds a culture of violence and conflict. Belem is also a major centre of drug trafficking. One can get a gun here for US$ 50 or $100. Drugs from Colombia are trafficked via boat through the Amazon River and then onwards to different parts of the world. All this makes Belem one of most violent cities in Brazil

But there is also a lot to learn from Brazil. It is a country where people have less hang-ups and even protests can take on the spirit of a street carnival. The rhythm of the music and the slogans make every march a sort of massive party on the street. There is a lot to learn from Brazil’s modes of social mobilisation and political processes. The rainbow culture and multi-racial population make it different from the rest of Latin America. The legacy of liberation theology and Paulo Freire is still evident in the dreams and demonstrations of Brazil. Che Guevara, Gandhi, Paulo Freire and Martin Luther King still inspire people and movements here.

Brazilians are curious to know more about India and Indians. Many people on the street and at the World Social Forum come up to me and ask whether I am from India. The reason for this new enthusiasm about India is a very popular serial on Brazilian TV called The Way to India, a Brazilian version of a Bollywood soap opera. The story begins in Brazil and then moves to Jaipur! The entire cast of this soap opera is Brazilian though their looks and costumes are one hundred per cent Indian!

An Indian, too, can look like a Brazilian as I discovered in the long queue for lunch at the Federal Urban University campus of Belem. When a brown complexioned gentleman smiled at me, I took him to be one of the many Brazilian or Latin American friends that those of us who have been frequenting the World Social Forum, held in different parts of the world, had made. I heard him speak fluent Portuguese but when I looked at his name tag, it said ‘Shaji’. When you see a fellow Indian in a faraway corner of the earth, there is a sense of shared belonging and a sort of excitement. Though I was not sure about his identity, I asked him in Malayalam, "Evidunna?" (where are you from?) There came the reply "Rampurathunna, Pala" (from Ramapuram, Palai, Kerala). That is how I discovered a remarkable Indian activist working with fellow indigenous Indians in the Amazon for almost 20 years.

The story of Shaji is an unusual one -- from Ramapuram to Mysore to St Louis University to Sao Paulo to the Amazon. Shaji has not only been living in Brazil for 20 years, he has also been a part of the Brazilian social justice movement. He is one of the few people who have lived with native Americans deep in the Amazon forest, and helped them fight their battle in court, in the media, through mobilisation and advocacy. He came to Brazil on an Intercultural Learning Fellowship, an exchange programme between St Louis University and the University of Sao Paulo in 1989, and never went bank to the USA. While he was a student he worked with the trade union of President Lula. He then moved on to work with MST, the largest and most influential social movement of landless people in Brazil.

This soft-spoken and unassuming researcher-activist is one of the few people who stood up against the land and forest mafia in the Amazon. His Brazilian wife Eli is a senior official in the judicial service and looks more like a pretty Indian while Shaji looks more Brazilian. Brazil is a melting pot of cultures and races and Shaji has been a Brazilian citizen for many years. While he is a researcher at the Amazon University, he spends most of his time fighting for the cause of the African community and indigenous community in the Amazon forests. He told me about the African communities –the Quilombolas -- those who escaped from slavery and found refuge in the thick Amazon forests.

The story of the Amazon people is a story of betrayal, murder, loot and rape of the earth. First the timber mafia came, then the soyabean companies and then the mining companies. The local people lost their land, forests and livelihood. They survive on tapioca powder and fish. They get hardly any education or any benefits from the State. There were 4 million of them when Brazil got independence in the 19th century; now there are only 7 lakh. The rest were either murdered, or died due to various communicable diseases. They still remain a very tragic testimony -- a balance sheet of exploitation and extraction -- in a land which has the largest animal farms in the world. The biggest cattle farm has more than a million cattle, all owned by one man.

While rubber travelled all the way from Belem to Malaysia to Pala, the boy from Pala travelled all the way to the original land of rubber -- to protect mother earth, to stand up for justice, and to live and work with one of the most marginalised and exploited people in the world. Shaji dreamed of going to the Amazon when he was a teenager, inspired by the lecture given by a visiting priest about the unique character of the Amazon forests and the plight of the indigenous people in the region. He followed his dream and went to live deep inside the Amazon forest. He lived in a boat for many days, moving from one village to another, helping and educating one of the most marginalised communities in the world. Though Shaji does not come across as a leader, he has demonstrated rare leadership qualities in not only following his dream, but also demonstrating the courage of conviction to stand up against land mafias and other power cartels. He worked closely with the famous Sister Dorothy who was killed last year by the land and forest mafia.

I was not only happy to find an original fellow Indian in Belem, I also felt proud of a country cousin fighting for the rights of the most marginalised people and one of the most vulnerable lands, in a faraway country. There are such Indians too. He says he loves the Amazon and wants to dedicate his life to its most marginalised people. These are stories that are not heard or told often.

InfoChange News & Features, February 2009