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Arriving at the Marvelous City, a cidade maravilhosa

Arriving at the Marvelous City, a cidade maravilhosa

Posted by on may 23, 2013 in all posts, Brazil, on the road | 0 comments







Over the past few months we have written a lot about land and landscapes and forms of learning that emerge from these. It might then seem strange to write about enlivened learning a learning that tends to reconnect to place and community within an intensively urban and highly unequal setting which is the city of Rio de Janeiro.

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We have also been writing about identity, often about indigenous identity, about the traumas of colonialism and the role of learning in healing, in re-signifying and strengthening identities and providing the space and tools for creating other stories and possibilities. All these ingredients, in their particular way, can be found in this vast and complex city of Rio. As groups, say for instance those living in shantytowns, who have been historically marginalized seek to be more fully a part of the city, of its economy, its infrastructure, its culture and its production of knowledge, innovative forms of organization, social action and culture have been created which provide possibility and inspiration.

Of importance to us in our visit here were exciting initiatives emerging in Rio de Janeiros favelas or urban shantytowns, the occupied settlements that pepper the cityscape climbing up the granite hills or stretching outwards in the peripheries. In Rio around 1 million people from its total population of 6 million (1 in 6 people) live in these settlements, some of which date back to a hundred years ago.

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I have worked with different groups in favelas since my postgraduate work in Rio more than ten years ago. During this time I focused on children and young people who were living or had lived on the streets of the city, with the incentive of understanding more about how they managed to leave this way of life. I then focused on how young people living in the favelas organise in different groups and projects and create art, media, music in their struggles against inequality. Over the next few posts we will explore an initiative that has been at the vanguard of innovation in developing creative forms of media literacy and production from favela communities and in broadening access to higher education, for its residents.


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I was very excited to arrive back in Rio. It is also my home, the place I grew up. The city could not have contrasted more to the loud animated tranquility of the forest we had left just a few days before at the Peru/Brazil border. There in the National Park we walked through rain-drenched jungle paths in search of giant otters, stayed in an eco-lodge with a tarantula hanging out in the bar and had one of my socks stolen by a forest rat in the night. (I still imagine fondly my disappeared sock serving as bedding for a rat family somewhere in the jungle).

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Landing in Rio the murmurs of the forest were replaced by hum and beat of city life, increased manyfold by the coming new year party which draws hundreds of thousands of people from across Brazil and beyond.




On the night we arrived we attend another ceremony, this time with around two million other people, gathering on the shores of Copacabana beach to greet the new year under a shower of fireworks.

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New Year at Copacabana beach, photo from http://www.emirates247.com/news/emirates/world-welcomes-2013-in-style-2013-01-01-1.489400

This ceremony started decades back when a few groups from the city’s Afro-Brazilian religious communities (Candomblé and Umbanda), predominantly living in the favelas, gathered dressed in the traditional white to lay offerings to the sea deity Yemanja to bring good fortune in the coming year.




Although members of the Candomblé and Umbanda communities have declined in numbers across Brazil, in particular due to the growing strength of evangelical churches, the outer form of the ceremony remains as most people still dress in white and many light candles in the sand and offer flowers to the sea. Despite the mass concentration of people and the loud music thundering from the stages and the mesmerising firework display, all sponsored by the city council and various corporations, a calm prevails in the sandy stretch as we wait for the Gregorian calendar to tick over at midnight.

I imagine a great global penumbra, a sweeping shadow of time, of midnight, traversing the planet greeted by cheering crowds, each place at midnight. A festive Mexican wave of fireworks and champagne and hugs and kisses. I imagine that festive wave only works in places with a Gregorian calendar or the mass media has penetrated. I guess we all celebrate the passage of big cycles of time somehow and here in Rio we have the help of Yemanja. Maybe that is why people come here, to feel her gentle embrace along these shores as we send her gifts in the hope of a good and peaceful coming year.

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Downpour gets people off the beach during Carnival in Rio, photo by Udi

For me it also feels good to be where I grew up, know people, feel embraced by the language and recognise the thickness of the air, the smell of sea, plants and car fumes. Actually, I am reminded now that at least two people in this journey, both carvers, one a First Nations person from Canada the other a Maori from New Zealand, have told me of how the thickness of the air gives them a sense of home. I suppose it is the same for me, shame it had to be such a strange mixture of fumes! But despite the chaos, the inequality, the pollution and lack of security something creative stirs in this place between the hills and the sea and animates the city and its vibrant and hospitable people.


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The forest at the gate of Brazil

The forest at the gate of Brazil

Posted by on may 19, 2013 in all posts, Brazil, on the road | 0 comments

Entering Brazil through the state of Acre in northwest Amazonia gives a different perspective on the country. In one way it shows how, like the US, Canada and Australia, this country is also a country of settlers and frontiers-people imposing an economy, government, and set of cultures on a place that had already been inhabited for thousands of years. Coming from this direction into the country, away from the larger metropoles of Rio and São Paulo also reminds me of how much environmental devastation the settler nations have imposed on this vast and beautiful territory through destructive and unsustainable models of development. Though forest regions preserved as national parks or more recently extractive reserves are plentiful in this state of Acre, on the road from the Peruvian border all we see are endless fields of cattle farms with the occasional solitary giant tree standing like an archeological memory. This stretch of our journey also reminded me of the deadly struggles over the forest and people’s livelihood being waged both here, in this corner of Brazil, as well as in so many parts of the world.

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On the road to Rio Branco from the Peruvian border, photo by Udi




Acre is the home state of rubber tapper, union leader and environmental activist Chico Mendes who was murdered in 1988 by a landowner from this region. Chico Mendes was opposed to the large agribusiness encroachment into the forest and the decimation of both indigenous lands and cultures as well as the lands and livelihood of those, like rubber tappers, who had been using the resources of the forest in a more sustainable way for many generations. Mendes was very much ahead of his time, envisioning a different economic model for this region by a sustainable management of the forest through extractive reserves in such a way that hundreds of its products could be used and commercialised without destroying the forest or the ways of life of its people.

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Chico Mendes panel at the Biblioteca da Floresta, photo by Kelly




Commemorating 25 years since his death, economic and environmental policy in the state of Acre seems to have now caught up with this way of thinking and the Chico Mendes Extractive Reserve covers 970.570 of hectares of land in the state providing a sustainable livelihood for its forest population. Around twenty other reserves have also been across the country where logging, and large agribusiness are forbidden.

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Biodiversity management within the state of Acre – panel at the Biblioteca da Floresta, photo by Kelly

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Conservation panel, representing the Amazonian region, at the Biblioteca da Floresta, photo by Kelly

Though large landed agribusiness interests are still a powerful force in the state and in the country, and dozens continue to be killed by landowners each year, significant moves for the protection of the forest have been made in Acre, which boasts amongst the most preserved forest regions in the country. You only need to look at aerial views on google maps to see how just across the border in the state of Rondônia the unabated growth of agribusiness, especially through the cultivation of soy for cattle feed and the raising of cattle, has clawed away at the remaining forest. Yet, the powerful landed lobby in congress continues to stifle efforts to pass strong enough legislation for a comprehensive protection of the forest. At the same time a culture of violence and impunity in the frontiers areas surrounding the forest means that the murders of activists and the expulsion of people from their land continues.

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Agrobusiness panel at the Biblioteca da Floresta, photo by Kelly



We had tried to connect up with local groups active with indigenous communities developing interesting projects in the field of education in this region but unfortunately this was a case where fragmented email and phone communication did not open doors for us. As such we were sorry to have spent only a very short time in what is a very exciting and innovative region developing important initiatives in this field. We are hopeful to return at some point in the future.

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The Biblioteca da Floresta, photo from http://blog.brasilturista.com.br/o-acre-existe/




One place we were lucky to have gained access to at all was the Biblioteca da Floresta, the Forest Library. I say lucky because the one day we had to wander about the state capital of Rio Branco before our flight onwards to Rio de Janeiro, the museum was closed. Dropped off in front of the quiet and tastefully designed modern building by the generous owner of the hotel we were staying at, we were feeling disheartened that the one thing we could have seen here was closed. We made our way to the shut building and looked through the glass. A security guard behind the desk inside came out to meet us. Without hoping for much I explained our situation and much to our surprise the guard proceeded to not only invite us in, turn on the lights and say we were free to look around anywhere, but to give us a wonderful tour of the place.

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Inside The Biblioteca da Floresta, photo from http://ascoisasdabiblio.blogspot.com/2011/05/biblioteca-da-floresta-rio-brancoac.html




Our guard turned to be quite an angel. He is a former teacher, who had worked in prisons and had also known Chico Mendes personally, he shared with us a number of interesting stories from Acre state. He was very proud of this Library and the people associated with it, such as Marina da Silva another important environmental activist, Acre native and political figure who was for a time Environmental Minister under Brazil’s Labour government but who resigned for the lack of support for her ministry.

Marina da Silva also ran for president in the last election under the Green Party and came third. We will definitely be following her progress, the last initiative she has been involved with is launching another platform Rede Sustentabilidade, Sustainability Network, an open movement that is reaching out across sectors of Brazilian society but which also intends to contest the next election while moving away from the organisational format of a traditional political party.

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Inside The Biblioteca da Floresta, photo from http://ascoisasdabiblio.blogspot.com/2011/05/biblioteca-da-floresta-rio-brancoac.html




The Forest Library is a beautiful and well-resourced library, museum, gallery, study and auditorium space open to the public and built by the local government. We were told by our guide the Library was going to be named after Marina but that there was some glitch on naming public buildings after people who are still living.

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Studying Inside The Biblioteca da Floresta, photo from http://ascoisasdabiblio.blogspot.com/2011/05/biblioteca-da-floresta-rio-brancoac.html




The Library is well worth the visit if you are in this part of the world, as is the city of Rio Branco. Opened in 2007 the library stretches over three floors with several exhibition spaces. The Library’s goal is to promote sustainability and teach about the region, the forest and the knowledge held about it by local populations. An important focus of the library, and seen in the highly informative museum, is to teach about the history of this region.

The history starts with the rubber boom of the 1800s and the forced labour of indigenous peoples and African slaves to the collapse of the rubber industry in Brazil. This is followed by the rise of different forms of indentured labour in the large farms of this region. The museum provides a map of the various attempts at colonising the forest and extracting wealth from the land through often cruel means. The exhibition also shows various moments and movements of resistance including the union struggle which was led by Chico Mendes. Upstairs the exhibition is about the various indigenous peoples in Acre, telling some of their stories and histories.




Our guard-guide explained to us how this space is used by local high school and university students who make use of the books, computers and study spaces. The Library also runs various events where people directly go and learn over a few days with different populations in the forest, indigenous communities, rubber tappers and others living off the forest.

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The book shelves with seeds and leaves, Inside The Biblioteca da Floresta, photo by Kelly and the indigenous panels

An interesting temporary exhibition we saw here also showed how the regional government and local businesses were promoting sustainable products from Acre’s forest to an international markets. Showing products such as Brazil nuts, latex, different fruits and oils which could be farmed without damaging the forest and a number of which have been used for their medicinal properties.

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Part of a temporary exhibition on local products Inside The Biblioteca da Floresta, photo by Kelly




We left the museum after thanking our guide profusely. Before leaving Rio Branco we walked through the local market. In one of the stalls selling local plant medicines we saw hundreds of species of plants, fruits, seeds, roots being used untold purposes. How strange that an economic system that champions one or two species, say soy or cattle, can prevail and cause such destruction over such an intricately woven and diverse ecosystem.

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A local medicinal plant shop, photo by Udi

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A local medicinal plant shop, photo by Kelly

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