This is the Dan Baron Cohen’s third letter from the Amazon. Further letters will be published in the next few months. You can see them all here.
Cabelo Seco, Marabá. 18 October 2018.
You know the rivers and forests of the Amazon are our world’s most advanced technology, for living well. Invite everyone, the afraid, the silent and the angry, to create a horizon of good living, to sustain not to choke the future
An explosion of angry voices right outside our home sends startled cats darting in all directions. Harsh street lights on the Tocantins River boardwalk glint in the blade of a knife held in a normally quiet neighbour’s hand. ‘Go on, cousin!’ rages Tiago. ‘Cut my throat, like Bolsonaro will cut the veins of the Amazon!’ Their mothers gather quickly, covering their mouths. The roots of Cabelo Seco community are a tangle of three extended families that have lived in silent unity for 112 years. No one has ever seen such hatred.
‘Don’t you see?’ Tiago pleads with his shocked relatives, his eye on the circling blade. ‘The Thing hates us! For what we are. He won’t just erase indigenous villages and African quilombos in the interior. He will trample our rights into the ashes of all the forests he will burn.’ His cousin lunges at him: ‘You’re protecting the puppet of a convicted Mafioso ex-president!’ Tiago turns to the swelling crowd. ‘When Dilma was impeached, Bolsonaro celebrated the general who ordered activists to be hung upside down, gagged and hooded, from helicopters, right here, in front of our open doors, to crack their heads open on the rocks of Tucunaré beach. Tortured in the name of nation and god!’
Tiago’s cousin points his knife north. ‘Go to Venezuela, communist shit. Your kind are not welcome here any more!’
October 19. A shout away, just past midnight, Bryan leans bare-chested against the mango tree in Cabelo Seco’s village square. Rafael approaches the chipped concrete bench of childhood friends. Victims of the worst state secondary school education in Brazil, these first-time voters struggle to graduate primary school, but read the winds and the rivers of the future. I greet them all and fill our gallon container from the deep artesian well, still the purest water in Marabá.
‘One question has tormented me since the results of the first round of the elections on October 7. Vote in the second round for a self-proclaimed homophobic, racist, misogynist who openly condemns democracy as weak, corrupt and inefficient, and advocates dictatorship? Or vote for the puppet of a corrupted people’s government, run by the imprisoned puppeteer?’ I’m stunned this spontaneous offstage debate is even taking place, here in Cabelo Seco.
One by one Rafael’s friends condemn the system that robbed them of their horizon and the Workers’ Party leaders that betrayed their trust. ‘O mito, the saviour who speaks his mind, speaks what we are all thinking’. Rafael steps in. ‘But the liberty we have now, to talk here past midnight. It will all disappear. Bolsonaro will militarise every school, every village square and every street corner. He’ll arm the landowners and expel us from our homes to get at the iron and gold beneath our feet. Four hundred years of industrialization in 40 years! Our people have already suffered a 20-year military dictatorship. But none of us remember it and those who do are still too frightened to speak. Once again, we’ll be caught in the crossfire. Only this time, the people will be voting to be repressed!’
Silence descends on the bench. Two single mothers, a youth scarred by stray bullets, and three young fishermen who’ve sold their nets, look down, silenced by Rafael’s piercing question. He looks with great affection at each of them. ‘I’m afraid, amigos. Our first election, so much responsibility’. The shadow of the mango tree cast by the village square streetlight mingles with the shadows of Marabá’s first nursery school, ear-marked to become a tourist information centre.
On the boardwalk, cats wail and brawl for bitches on heat. Rafael looks towards the Tocantins. ‘Do we choose the least worst? Or be condemned to decades of repression, silence and irreversible environmental holocaust?’ I turn off the tap to listen.
Rafael turns to face one of the best fishermen of their generation. ‘And you, Bryan?’
Bryan looks up. His easy charisma is being gradually stolen by crack, traded for the loss of the tucunaré fish that he’d hawked door to door, since childhood, hanging from a bamboo staff across his wiry, muscular back. He smiles, a twinkle in his eyes still bright with resilience.
‘I can’t vote. The cops confiscated my ID when they invaded our home and murdered our two cousins in their sleep.’ He nods, as if in agreement with angry ancestors beneath his feet. ‘Tonight’s my last night in Cabelo Seco. I’ve been marked. If I don’t leave by dawn, I’ll be executed by the military police.’ In an instant, Bryan has brought all the dead black youth of Cabelo Seco back to life. He smiles, seeing them present in the uncried tears of his friends’ eyes.
‘But if I could vote, as a son of the River Tocantins, I’d ask Haddad to apologise. To us all. For raising our hopes and then betraying them through pacts with the devil. Then I’d say: look at our canoes, bleached, imprisoned and rotting in the cracked toxic mud of the River Tocantins. Look at our Itacaiúnas, our Araguaia, the Xingu. Look at all the rivers of the Amazon. Our life sources are dying. You did that, in the name of green energy for all. You cemented our back gardens in the name of sustainable development.’ Bryan smiles, surprised by his own focus and lucidity.
‘I’d be generous too. You knew we were hungry so you guaranteed full plates for all. You knew we could read the world, but you also knew we needed to be able to read and write our own books, so you built us new universities. But as each pact corrupted you and your power seduced you, you stopped listening to us. Gradually, as you imposed mega-projects of death, and drove us to consume our own future, you betrayed our trust.’
‘So I’d say Fernando, what did you learn, as a father, as a son, as a political leader and as a teacher, from those Lula and Dilma years?’
Revolving red lights of military landrovers in convoy appear in the distance, entering Quintino Bocaiúva Street leading to the square. Bryan instinctively tilts his head deeper into the shadow of the mango tree. He moistens his lips. ‘I’ll just complete what’s in my mind, as my vote’s been denied.’ He keeps his eye on the approaching landrovers.
‘I’d end by saying: all our communities want the violence to end. We are all scared. But prevention is not a project. It may create an illusion of brief calm. But it creates more fear and anger. And arming every home and school will only increase the violence. No-one can live in fear, or without hope.’
As the convoy of military vehicles approach the far corner of the square, I gesture to Bryan to move. And fast. He nods. His breathing accelerates. He has no notion if he will ever be back.
‘I’d say Haddad, don’t talk about an interrupted project. Nor interrupted democracy. Talk about projects for the future. Of the Amazon, of Brazil, and of the world. You’ve just visited Acre. You know the rivers and forests of the Amazon are our world’s most advanced technology, for living well. Invite everyone, the afraid, the silent and the angry, to create a horizon of good living, to sustain not to choke the future.’
Rafael smiles, relieved, prepared for the final week of debates. Everyone steps up on to the chipped concrete bench, laughing, just a little taller, illuminated by the revolving flashing red lights.
I lift our 20 litres of free pure water up onto my shoulder. Bryan has slipped into the shadows of the mango tree.
Dan Baron Cohen is a performance educator, living in the Amazonian afro-indigenous community of Cabelo Seco, Pará. After doctoral research into ‘theatre as education’ at Oxford University, Dan began his ‘transformance’ project in Manchester, moving to Derry in 1988, to the Rhondda in 1994. and, in 1998, to Brazil. Collaborations with at-risk landless, indigenous, trade union and school communities, generated collective performances, murals, sculptures, and in 2008, the Amazonian Rivers of Meeting project. In 2012, Dan co-founded its Community University of the Rivers with the AfroRaiz Collective. As Chair of the World Alliance for Arts Education (2006-10), and member of the World Social Forum international council, Dan advocated arts education for sustainable futures. Dan’s publications include ‘Theatre of Self-Determination’ (Derry, 2001), ‘Cultural Literacy’ (São Paulo, 2004), ‘Harvest in Times of Drought’ (Marabá, 2011), and numerous essays.