Seridoão (part III)
or There and Back Again or A Terran Testimony
Mixing several micopolitical and cosmopolitical techniques, the peoples of the sertão have resisted ever renewed capitalist spells. Yet climate change poses new uncertainties in the region. Part 3 of 3.
(Read part 2)
My father is a landless caboclo. Alone, he waters his garden – and in fact he is a bit of a loner. Except for a word or two with one or two of his peers, he doesn’t join associations, nor does he go to meetings – not because of an active repudiation but probably because of lack of time and motivation. He covets a house with cisterns, a pigsty, a goat pen, and to attend Sunday association meetings. He has heard about the experiences of Juquinha, in the neighboring farm Gatos, or of Mrs. Branca, Mr. Heleno, and Iranildo, in the nearby municipality of São José do Sabugi. They are, yes, part of a great and subtle resistance – an alliance with the semi-arid and the reinvention of practices, knowledges, techniques, and ways of living with the biome.
Resistance is constitutive of the sertão’s way of life. Not in the conventional sense in which the industries of drought paint the picture, as if it were a resistance to the land itself, to the climate, to the sertão. On the contrary, the resistance emerges from the dynamic interaction between traditional peoples and the caatinga biome and the semi-arid climate, in a practical perception that drought is not a natural phenomenon but a biopolitical one. Resistance manifests itself in the movement for coexistence with the semi-arid, animated by a network of thousands of grassroots organizations – peasant, feminist, agro-ecological – connected through the Articulação do Semiárido Brasileiro and its regional and micro-regional branches. This wide articulation is the fruit of that inventive and secular persistence of peasant families and communities – whose nature fits that differance suggested by Eduardo Viveiros de Castro in describing the struggle of Indigenous peoples, the “rexistence” – inside, outside, beneath the perverse mechanisms of colonization in the sertão. And against them.
Since the end of the 1990s, this historical accumulation has been systematized and constantly reinterpreted to act as a “tradition of the oppressed.” It is a collection of practices, knowledge, and ways of living in mutuality with the biome, not in combat with it. Since then, “living with the semi-arid” is the differentiating mark of the struggle of these communities, peoples, and organizations. I mention only one, the most important initiative spearheaded by this network: the implementation of hundreds of thousands of simple systems for harvesting and storing water for human consumption in the domestic units of the semi-arid rural zone. This initiative is perfectly measurable in economic, ecological, and nutritional terms, but qualitatively immeasurable in terms of peasant – and especially female – emancipation, community empowerment, and political awareness.
The popular peasant drift of Christianity – with its apparitions, prophets, female healers, and pilgrimages – is one of the main catalysts of the reconstruction of the “tradition of the oppressed” in the semi-arid. Following the Liberation Theology, the Cáritas Brasileira and related pastoral networks constitute some of the fundamental nodes of stimulation of agroecology and of a solidarity economy in the sertão. The resurgence of traditional peoples and communities – Indigenous, Quilombolas, Afro-Brazilian religious groups – also has a strong impact on the semi-arid Renaissance, with Antônio Bispo dos Santos representing one of its most important thinkers. Not to mention the general reformulation of the ecosystemic horizons of thousands of small towns in the sertão, following the construction of cisterns in the rural areas –, installed to guarantee the “minimum,” which is water suitable for drinking and cooking –, and other social technologies for living with the semi-arid. Along with the public policies put in place during the 2000s, they all came to abolish the traumatic experiences of misery, hunger, disease, and infant mortality in these localities.
Alongside the cistern system, dozens of other decentralized and reticulated actions of care have been developed, rescued, created, or adapted locally by each community. For example, the closed and larger cisterns that capture the rainwater that flows in the home yard or on a sidewalk built for this purpose, whose stock serves for the family’s food production; the use of rock slabs, or the excavation on low ground, for tanks that privilege depth instead of water surface, thus avoiding evaporation; or the underground reservoirs, in the subterranean beds of seasonal waters, which preserve the soil’s humidity. Or the small paths made out of stones and sticks that run along the plateau, in successive levels as terraces, to spare the soil and prevent floods from washing away all organic matter; or the aversion to all poisons and additives from the chemical industry, substituted by products from the forest itself. Or the little dams, set up modestly along the banks of small waterways to hold back floods and revive the streams; or the mulching of the soil with organic matter to slow the evaporation of moisture from the woods and forest soils. All this is remembered from grandparents, all this is revived as attempts, mistakes, and successes, through adaptations and suggestions, and changed and modified in people’s own ways. With all this, the sertão’s communities escape from being reduced to a commodity people, they remember another culture, they claim the supernature of the land.
There are two intuitive assessments to be made here. The first is the comparison between the amount of water accumulated in large reservoirs and the amount stored using these simple technologies. How much is accumulated in both battles for moisture: in one case, a centralized, tyrannical, and capitalist method; in the other, a decentralized, democratic, and biome-friendly method? On one side, the assault on springs, rivers, and groundwater, and on their human and other-than-human communities; on the other, the trust and cultivation of socioenvironmental relations in an always negotiated asymmetry: whether the rain arrives, how much of it arrives, negotiation with the sun, dealings with animals, with the government, with the wind, with the forest, with the stones, with the association. Because that is what the communities of coexistence with the semi-arid are all about: taking advantage of wet chances, negotiating multi-specific solutions, anticipating solar rhythms, making a pact with the Caatinga, and sharing the to-come.
The second assessment is the vulnerability to the atmospheric conditions of the semi-arid region in both cases: on one side, the transfer of the São Francisco River and its large complex of reservoirs – and the malignant spells of the large mirrors of water, which, although seductive, have their illusory abundance absorbed by the dry air; and, on the other side, the peasant techniques – which are hidden and small, multiple and in networks, quiet and camouflaged, nurturing and attentive. I suppose one can quickly perceive the contrast between the ecological-economic irrationality of the hydra-business model and the ecological-economic rationality of the network of experiences of living with the semi-arid. But this is not all.
As a particular avatar of climate change, the advance of desertification in the Seridó threatens to render ineffective this molecularly revolutionary alliance that is both very recent and very ancestral. It does not yet seem possible to assess whether there will be a shift to another phase, in which the pace of adaptation of the Caatinga ecosystems will have to understand and engage with the arrhythmia of mad climate drift. But for the wind energy multinationals that have assaulted and deforested peasants’ lands to install their megatower and cables in São José do Sabugi, and the iron mining companies that have already conducted studies and consulted public authorities in surrounding municipalities, as well as for the semi-arid hydro-agribusiness companies and their criminal servants committed to the current government’s assistance to destruction – for them, yes, it is possible to predict: they will mercilessly continue their unworlding routines.
There seem to be at least three different and complementary ways of conceptualizing the jinxed reality of State-Capital collusion. The first is to conceive of the State as an apparatus for the governing of peoples: this apparatus is realized administratively via regulation, and materially via coercion – not only by the police force, but also, and perhaps primarily, by infrastructural works, spatial reordering, Belo-Monte dams, transfers of São Francisco river, etc. The second way, a step further, is the generic apprehension that this apparatus of government is comprised of a group that organizes itself politically as armed gangs in the exclusive service of extracting and accumulating vital energy – what we call profit. And, finally, the perception that this whole apparatus, however concrete, is like a magic conjuration capable of hijacking people’s desires (except for the desires of those who exorcise it). It is indeed a spell. In this last sense, State-Capital is, as they say, a state of mind, a spiritual possession that realizes itself through false aspirations offered to people: compensation for commodities – because when all means of living are taken away from people, any compensation is a means of survival.
Here begin the imaginations, knowledge, and resistance practices of human and non-human peoples – the resistance of the Terrans, in Bruno Latour’s beautiful expression. Counterspells are possible. The people of the semi-arid sertão, like other peoples of the world, create connections with extra-human realities in order to learn, plan, and carry out resistances. The most classic example is the defense strategies of the Arraial de Belo Monte against the war of extermination perpetrated by the Brazilian State. The Canudos inhabitants defended themselves through their intimate relations with the forests, topography, climate, hidden water sources, animals… So much so that the Brazilian soldiers attested to the supernatural, magical character of the Canudos resistance. This is an example of a frontal rebellion against the exterminating State, but this example is paroxysmal. It represents the extreme of a gradual series of rexistences that, unable to confront the extermination head-on, fight sideways, dodge, pray, cheat, curse, deceive, and plunder.
These episodes served as an instrument of direct democracy, an exorcism that transformed state-owned things into public goods, merchandise into gift.
The instances of pillage recounted in all the drought chronicles are good examples. Commonly depicted as anti-political anomalies, barbarisms, instances of lack of civility or of political intelligence, they may indeed represent noteworthy examples of the semi-arid version of cosmopolitics – a first ritual of metaphysical decomposition of the merchandise. In short: these episodes of plunder were in fact rhizomatic agglomerations composed of sertanejos, peasants, quilombolas, who, in swift and decentralized actions, raided storage sheds or intercepted grocery shipments, and then distributed goods autonomously. On one hand, plundering reinforced the decentralized organization of the sertanejo communities; on the other, it also prevented the establishment of state politics via the distribution of food and other goods in favor of ruling groups. Looting has been reported since the colonial period, when the first chronicles of droughts in the Brazilian semi-arid region were recorded; it was perpetrated by the sertão’s native people, who invaded settlements in search of food. One can even argue that these episodes served as an instrument of direct democracy, an exorcism that transformed state-owned things into public goods, merchandise into gift.
Around the year 2000, governmental entities started to allocate resources for the construction of cisterns. Only with the beginning of the Lula administration did the resources become significant. The organizations of the semi-arid region presented themselves as the most appropriate managers of these resources. And for more than a decade, it was this network that formulated projects and programs, presented legally supported administrative outputs, and obtained the voluminous resources necessary for the implementation of hundreds of thousands of social technologies.
In a macroscopic version of micropolitical pillage, the network intercepts the State’s resources, which would ordinarily be used as bait to secure votes, and redistributes them according to the network of organizations and locally situated demands and practices. This, of course (we are not naïve), required an additional layer of effort, from the installment of new sympathetic occupants in administrative positions to electoral advocacy to pressure at various levels. But this is just it: if the State-Capital complex is a spiritual possession, the sertão people’s organizations cast their counterspell. They went where the power of State-Capital collusion is forged to perform an exorcismic uprising of the semi-arid, in a kind of sub-anarchism, subterranean communism, infra-state micro resistance, Terran occupation of politics, education through whirlwind, etc.
Now: whether there is a means of carrying out this same subversion against the immense world-destroying apparatuses, which have no relation to the micropolitical construction of the rexistences of the sertão, and in a scenario of escalating desertification, we shall see. Perhaps.
The potatoes have been harvested, the garden watered, the radio switched off, the corn praised, and the sun has begun to set. Before the Mother of the Moon haunts him from a tree trunk, dad makes his way back home. He re-enters the brushwood of juremas, returns to the dusty road, honks a horn at passers-by, and crosses the Sabugi River in the afternoon twilight. It’s Saturday evening, time to rest. Mom is home after cleaning the restaurant. She has greeted the little plants in the backyard and now does her nails in preparation for a Sunday of peace and beauty. She and dad exchange pleasant jokes about the weather, the heat, the sweating. Everything from the fields is used at home and in this small restaurant in the town’s central square, where they serve about 30 lunches a day – they set meals at a fixed price. The garden allows them to save on supermarket expenses. On the television, the evening news is running – basically the usual terrible stories from Brasilia.
After the parliamentary coup of 2016, the most reactionary contingent of the bloc of congressional, agro-industrial, financialist forces, and especially their military guards, took over the organs of the federal administration and sunk their teeth into the state budget. The rise of the tenebrous movement of bolsonarism, beginning in 2018, reveals the real face and intent of that coup. The images of devastation, abuse, and genocide unfolding in their various stages and nuances are known worldwide. Among the most effective actions of the Destroyer is the complete dismantling of the support structures for the agro-ecological transition in the semi-arid region. One example is the program for the installation of cisterns: it was simply eliminated. Even though it was expected, the destruction was not less shocking.
Some of the most loyal deputies in the parliamentary gang supporting the bolsonarist regime are the heirs of long-standing political dynasties from the semi-arid region, including those with an electoral base in the Seridó. Bolsonarism is an expression of worldwide fascist capitalism at the very moment when it is no longer possible to deny that the causes of climate change lie in the commodity regime. Climate change is, in practice, the ultimate consequence of this model of Earth predation. The current offensive is a blitzkrieg against every people and community who prove, through their own lives, that where there is forest, there is no misery. The real misery is the one produced when people are reduced to populations with no land, no forest, no rivers, and no world.
Along with peasants, caboclos, community associations, science, and forest beings, this stretch of the Caatinga of the Seridó is warning us that resilience is not infinite. Collapse into desertification is imminent. Against each powerful spell of the commodity regime, it is urgent to rexist with caution and invention, with patience and effort, to change stories, to abandon the “myth of economic development” for the trance of “cosmopolitical re-involvement.”
And the next day, there goes my father seeing everything again, speeding on his motorcycle to the garden, in confluence with a land that doesn’t belong to him, but to which he belongs. Under the sun of noon time, the heat makes us pay attention to what the anis cuckoo speaks – that the (end of the) sertão is the end of the world. If we listen even more closely, we can hear the pods of the jurema-preta studying Ailton Krenak’s message, generating an idea to postpone the end of the sertão.
(Those who suffer from evil in honey, preserve their good in salt.)