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Interviews - issue #8

The Future is Ancestral

An interview with Ailton Krenak
Photography by Gessimar Medeiros

Ailton Krenak, born in the Doce River valley in Minas Gerais, is a member of the Krenak tribe and has become one of the main voices in defence of Indigenous peoples’ rights in Brazil. He has an ambitious plan: postponing the planet’s collapse. His book, Ideas to Postpone the End of the World, published in 2019, was an instant bestseller. Despite the title, the book is not a manual, and does not offer practical recipes for sustainable living. On the contrary, the revolution proposed by the author is even more radical, an inner revolution. Ailton proposes to live life radically, without compromise.

Under Jair Bolsonaro’s right-wing government, the fundamental rights, the territory, and the preservation of the way of life of Indigenous peoples in Brazil, as guaranteed by the country’s 1988 constitution, are all at risk. A tireless activist, Ailton has invented new ways of doing politics, such as through Flecha Selvagem (wild arrow) a YouTube channel that proposes dialogues between western science and Indigenous thought. Listening to the voices of Indigenous peoples has never been as necessary as it is now, and Indigenous people in Brazil are currently living through one of the most critical moments in their history.

Ailton is a veteran of the struggle for Indigenous rights in the face of institutional opposition: as one of the authors of the Brazilian constitution he was a federal deputy participating in the constituent assembly, when he starred in a moment that would go down in history. In the pulpit of the parliament, in a suit and tie, as per the house protocol, during an impassioned speech, he slowly painted his face black with Jenipapo paint, as a Krenak warrior would do when going to war.

For the Krenak people the allusion to the colonial wars of extermination, as the Portuguese fought them for the domination of the Rio Doce bay, was clear. The bay’s basin is rich in minerals, giving rise to one of the largest companies in Brazil: the mining company Vale do Rio Doce (now known as Vale S.A.). The company was also part of a consortium responsible for the Mariana dam disaster.

The collapse of the ore tailings dam in November 2015, operated by Samarco, a joint venture between Vale and Anglo-Australian company BHP Billiton, killed 19 people and released millions of tonnes of poisonous sludge that reached the Atlantic Ocean, more than 300 miles away. It is estimated that the Rio Doce, the region’s most important river, could take anything from 10 to 50 years to recover, if at all.

For Ailton and his people, whose village occupies one of the banks of the Rio Doce - or Watu in his language - this is not just a body of water, it is a living organism, the grandfather of the Krenaks, who at the moment is asleep, in a coma assisted by his relatives.

During our long interview, the conversation was interrupted every 20 minutes by the whistle of the Vale train that passes close to Watu’s body, taking another mountain away in its wagons. For the Krenak people, the ore nightmare is incessant. But Ailton’s philosophy is one of hope for the future: as he puts it: “The future is ancestral.”

Ailton Krenak and the polluted River Doce.

Cleiton Campos: Almost six years after the Mariana dam disaster, what is the situation in Rio Doce for the communities that live there?

Ailton Krenak: Nearly six years later, it appears that even more trains pass by dragging wagons taking away our mountains towards Porto. Anyone observing the export of ore must have noticed an increase in the volume of ore that Brazil is exporting. And much of it comes from here. In the village, and also in the riverside communities that are not Krenak, these people’s lives have been turned upside down. With the pandemic, we thought that everything was going to be put on hold, including mining, but they continue to tear up the mountains.

CC: And how is the relationship between the Krenak people and the mining company Vale?

AK: It’s the worst possible. Vale put a lot of effort into its advertising to try to sell the idea that it was giving some kind of assistance. But it is a very unequal relationship. The foundation [set up to repair the damage], has in our view become the company’s interface with the people it victimised. Our dialogue is with contractors, a lot of contractors: one hires the other, who hires another, and you don’t even know who you’re talking to anymore. And, if you translate this into the language of the company, it will say that it is investing millions in compensation, in repairing this ecosystem that it has been incessantly draining.

(Editor’s note: Fundação Renova (The Renova Foundation), which has a multi-million pound annual budget, states that: “The Renova Foundation has a monitoring and governance structure and a set of disciplines applied for the organization to be in compliance with the law and internal and external regulations, independent of Samarco, Vale and BHP Billiton. Its governance is formed by representatives of the government, environmental and civil society organizations and maintains an independent audit process.”)

I always quote a Brazilian poet, Carlos Drummond de Andrade. He lived in the 20th century, and was born nearby, in the municipality of Itabira. This poet spoke of the agony that the discovery of the first deposit of iron ore was for his small community, when he was young. And here, I share the same story. When I look at what happened to him, I think the same is happening to me. I will continue to live here, I will die, and this train will not stop. It’s the end of the world train, so to speak. It was, even provoked by this absurd situation, that I made the reflections that are in the book Ideas to Postpone the End of the World. This incessant violence against the landscape has a very violent dynamic. It doesn’t just happen here in Brazil. Engineering is failing across the planet. It focuses on natural resources, on water, on the landscape, on the mountains - it flattens everything. In a little while we will finally realise the dream of the deniers, which is to have a flat Earth.

You are also deprived of a horizon. Your landscape changes arbitrarily: when you look at it, it’s different. So I think this is creating a state of illness in people, beyond the pandemic. It is this discomfort of people feeling powerless in the face of all this engineering, this machinery of the world, which has no affection for anything. It is as if the economy were the decisive factor for the functioning of the world. If you say that life is important, the person will say: “Yes, life is important, but with the economy…”

There are those who lost their lives, territory, access to the river, who lost references. For many communities it is not possible to calculate a value. It is also a subjective loss.

The polluted River Doce.

CC: And when you look at the Doce River, do you believe it will recover one day?

AK: It would be interesting for us to consider the Krenak worldview. This river is an entity. It is not a body of water. It’s not just a watershed. So, this subjective character of being an entity suggests that he doesn’t die. He doesn’t go through the same experience of finitude as we humans. The capybara (a giant rodent native to South America) that played there, the fish that lived there, they died, but the river didn’t. The river went into a coma.

In the understanding of the people here in this community, this river plunged into itself. That liquid material that is running over there on top of the slab, that toxic mud, is not the river. The real river is now underground. I mentioned this to a hydrology specialist. He looked at me patiently and said: “It’s not absurd what the Krenak say, because a body of water, when it suffers damage on the surface, the tendency is for it to dive. It will form groundwater, even for a while.”

The underground layers will filter the heavy metals so that the body of the river comes out alive somewhere else. So our temporality is different. We’re alive, he’s alive somewhere else. Now he’s in a coma. This feeds our hope of living with Rio Doce. It is a way to face this logic of corporations, that they can eat the world, as if they were an extraterrestrial entity.

‘This incessant violence against the landscape has a very violent dynamic. It doesn’t just happen here in Brazil. Engineering is failing across the planet. It focuses on natural resources, on water, on the landscape, on the mountains - it flattens everything.’

CC: What can be done about that corporate logic?

AK: Public opinion around the world needs to decide how far it will give social license for this kind of thing to exist. I’m talking about the flow of movement of goods. We are denouncing the fact that agribusiness is ending the Cerrado (the biologically rich tropical savanna region of Brazil) to produce soybeans. It is necessary to try to convince public opinion to stop buying this commodity. We need a global mobilisation that ore is an unsustainable economy. Just like fossil fuel, you can’t go on thinking that the world will continue to exist just like that. Some countries are already changing their energy matrix. Even though this transition takes decades, there is a movement to get out of this hell.

CC: This year, COP26, the climate conference, begins. Are you optimistic about the outcome?

AK: Look, in this time that we’re living in, the optimist is either cynical or an idiot. Because if you’re cynical you can say, “sure, I’m optimistic about this”, and keep making money. These amazing guys who run these companies can tell us they are changing the world for the better, as their advertising says. But, if you are an ordinary, reasonable person, you will look and realise that these agencies that drive the climate debate are subordinate to the logic of capitalism. They won’t do anything that threatens corporate profits because it’s the corporations that even sponsor these conferences. This COP is going to be a test. It’s going to be a test to see if people are still serious or if they’ve screwed up in general.

‘In the understanding of the people here in this community, this river plunged into itself. That liquid material that is running over there on top of the slab, that toxic mud, is not the river.’

CC: You talked about the recent pandemic, but the Indigenous population has been facing pandemics for 500 years, since the first contact. This time, what is different for you?

AK: Maybe now the damage has spread so far it has affected many different realities. There is a little more attention paid to an old story of genocide and the exclusion of Native peoples that was naturalised, as if we were sub-human. The supposed clear division that exists between an organised humanity in development and sub-humanity, Covid does not make that distinction anymore.

CC: But isn’t the pandemic also social, as more poor people are dying?

AK: In the first moment there were pandemics, people harboured a certain hope that humanity would come out of it better, and that’s not what actually happened. I myself believed back in the first year that at that stop of everything, everyone would have a moment of reflection and redirection to very obvious things. For example, the idea that the economy is not the only indicator of life success for a population. If capitalism put a brake on this dynamic of the global financial system then environmental issues would gain relevance.

Perhaps that will show up now at this COP26: questions about global financial performance and humanitarian disgrace. I have no doubt that the pandemic is really the result of our neglect of all other issues more relevant than economics.

A presentation and book signing of Ideas to Postpone the End of the World outside Banca do Largo, Manaus, Brazil. (Photographs by Alberto César Araújo / Amazônia Real).

CC: Can you tell us about the ongoing Flecha Selvagem (wild arrow) project?

AK: This project is the initiative of a collective of people from different origins and places: scientists, artists, and thinkers from different fields of culture. It began as face-to-face meetings, at Jardim Botânico in Rio de Janeiro. There were two editions before the pandemic. There was a great enthusiasm for it. There came a time when there was no room for everyone who wanted to talk.

Those debates were so interesting that we thought they could open up to a wider audience. To show that we humans are not the only interesting organisms on the planet. That there are others besides us.

Opening this conversation is a dialogue between science and the cosmovisions of Native peoples, a novelty that gives great encouragement to those who are experiencing this horror of the pandemic. It is a dialogue that is being established between different fields of knowledge, an education proposal that goes beyond preparing people for the market, or to be an engineer at NASA, or to push a button at the bank or supermarket.

Capitalism throws all this crap at us, which makes it look like if we lose capitalism we’re going to starve. We are calling people to think about another ontology, another observation about existing, because “life is not useful” and being alive is wonderful.

[Editor’s note: A Vida Não é Útil (Life is not Useful) is the title of Ailton’s book, in which he criticises the destructive tendencies we have given ourselves to in the name of a supposed civilisation: unbridled consumerism, environmental devastation and the primacy of the economy over the value of life.]

‘We want a constant creation of everything and of ourselves. This can reintroduce us into the constellation of life within the planet, where we stop being an expert and realise we have a common origin.’

CC: Ideas to Postpone the End of the World was your first published book. How do you want people to respond to it?

AK: I get really emotional when I learn that someone read the book and something more radical happened in their life. There was a guy who had a small business in São Paulo. He went to the countryside with his family. He’s doing agroforestry, he’s doing everything he wanted to do when he got rich. He found that he already had everything. Now he’s growing up with his kids, instead of waiting for his kids to grow up and disappear.

If we can throw a rope and a person going to hell grabs hold, it’s worth it. There is a possibility that you will simply experience this life, whether you are in your 30s, 50s or 80s. It may seem like a conversation between a philosopher and a sleeping ox, but my observation of life is always taking place between cycles. I hope that this perspective on life is shared by my grandchildren, my 10-year-old son. I don’t want him to think the world sucks. That’s why we’ve been saying that the future is ancestral.

CC: That’s a wonderful idea: ‘the future is ancestral’.Could you expand on this a little?

AK: When we say that the future is ancestral, it has more to do with DNA than with genealogy. That’s the worldview: it’s the ability to go back to an event that created the world and that is alive in you. We want a constant creation of everything and of ourselves. This is what happens in the DNA, this code passed on by our ancestors. This can reintroduce us into the constellation of life within the planet, where we stop being an expert and realise we have a common origin.

Ailton Krenak and the polluted River Doce.

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