January 14, 2022. Belo Horizonte, Minas Gerais. What a name for a state: General Mines. At the central market of Belo Horizonte, its capital, hundreds of merchants offer typical products from the region: cheese, sausage, sweets, cachaça, herbs, handicrafts – but also poultry and pets, dogs, rabbits, cockatoos.
It’s the day after the flood. The first two weeks of the year have seen nearly uninterrupted rainfall. Rivers are rising to more than eight meters above their normal water level, and several neighborhoods have been flooded. A muddy river flecked with gleaming dust assaults already precarious houses, extinguishing lives and driving people out of their homes.
And yet, market bars are as crowded as ever. Patrons drink beer and savor local delicacies. Everything seems normal. Too normal, perhaps, in the midst of this pandemic that has wrought so much havoc here; too normal, perhaps, considering that eighteen major mining structures in the state require emergency repairs, among them three dams at high risk of collapse.
The farms of Minas Gerais – famous for their cattle pens and their craft food articles – share their territory with these mining structures. Most of the region’s gold and diamonds were avidly swallowed up by the Portuguese Crown within a mere sixty years during the 18th century; almost two hundred years later, however, new mines cropped up, following the localization of rich iron reserves across large swathes of the state. The past and the present of this region – as, in fact, of Brazil as a whole (what’s that again?) – are indissociable from large-scale mining and extractivism.
Extractivism is endemic to colonial history. It ransacks and transforms earth’s forces – human and non-human – fixing them into profitable commodities to be devoured elsewhere. And its effects manifest in the Brazilian social structure – largely marked by slavery and its legacies – in deforestation, and in local populations’ relation to water (as well as land). For the Amazonian peoples who live in particularly watery worlds, the damming of rivers for hydroelectric energy and their pollution due to illegal mining give rise to a situation of perpetual catastrophe. Here, the end of the world is nothing new.
Also consider how for peoples from the Caatinga region, who have developed the capacity to live with and off the scarcity of water, an administration of progressive desertification designed at the level of local and national politics intensifies the problem that it was meant to resolve. Large-scale projects – such as the transfer of the São Francisco river – signal the emergence of profitable hydrobusiness that advances the extractivist technocracy over water bodies and water beings, altering their corporeality and stabilizing their fluxes.
At 6 pm, back in Belo Horizonte’s central market, everything is still soaked in rainwater as merchants lock up the metal grills of their stalls. Market traders stock up on products for the next day. Beside one doorway, a musician plucks the strings of a guitar for a sparse audience of passersby. Workers, just off work, seek pleasure in the happy hour of tightly-crowded halls.