He sings for Brazil. Oxford-educated, London-born Dan Baron Cohen’s swaying Brazilian tune is delivered in what I assume is flawless Portuguese, considering he lived in Brazil for 15 years. And, as he gives his performance, he is literally minutes from returning there.
He returns to Brazil for his cause, which is unique – he promotes education in theatre, music, art, and other forms of expression for youths in rural communities. “Rivers of Meeting”, though not activism per se, is a programme that has come to empower those who would otherwise be marginalised, as Brazil’s rapid economic development continues to boom.
When Mr Cohen’s rhythmic song ends, he describes the piece, saying, “that’s the sound of the rain falling” in Brazil.
And in Brazil, it’s pouring. Funds left by the dictatorship have been allocated in the constitution for development projects, but they are used instead to build credit and accelerate industrialisation. Rivers have been turned into high-volume waterways, the construction of hydroelectric plants and dams have begun, increased tourism is anticipated, and electricity is spreading throughout the countryside.
But while some may applaud this progress in the nation that puts the “B” in “BRIC”, it is worth remembering that it can come at a price. To Mr Cohen, it is a high price – the Amazon and its people are watching their world crumble around them. Then he begins to tell a story that “not even Brazil hears”.
The rivers, which Mr Cohen says have been “tied in with indigenous people’s identities” for centuries, have turned to poison. The surge in mining and industry has left them empty of fish and brimming with diseased sediments. The children who still swim in them risk illness. Meanwhile, old traditional homes on the rivers are being replaced with mansions as the government awaits a massive wave of tourism.
The new hydroelectric dam, Belo Monte, will be the third largest dam in the world when construction is completed. For now, droves of the construction workers needed for the project are moved onsite, overwhelming local villages.
When the Belo Monte dam is finished, it could flood 40,000 square acres of land. Fishing communities would be devastated, and according to Mr Cohen, some indigenous groups are already resorting to suicide to draw attention to the issue. The other dams and plants are near the Atlantic coast, where nearly 100% of the forest is already gone.
But the government’s flagship programme, according to Mr Cohen, is the democratisation of electricity, aiming to provide it for 60 million Brazilians. He analyses an advertisement for the project, saying the image of electric poles rising out of the Amazon, designed to look like uplifted arms, illustrate a public acceptance of the project where none actually exists.
The government depicts Brazil’s development in terms of a “democratisation of wealth,” says Mr Cohen, but many people have not accepted it, whatever the ads might say. And he says that opposition is brutally suppressed. Since 1998, 1,500 activists have been murdered.
Brazil’s indigenous youth, based on Mr Cohen’s description, are struggling as they try to “come to terms with what’s happening” around them. The upsurge in the prevalence of drugs and the increasing distance of what was once a pillar of strength in their lives, the Catholic Church, can leave them feeling even more trapped.
This is where Mr Cohen’s “Rivers of Meeting” cause comes in. Youth projects and workshops encouraging creativity, from theatre to painting, occupy the youngsters with whom Mr Cohen works. Both new and traditional forms of self-expression are taught and practised.
It would sound like a summer camp if the leaders and teachers weren’t as young as age 10. Children, pre-teens, and teenagers become imbued with a sense of responsibility and creativity that gives them the self-confidence and self-actualization to stay strong in rural Brazil’s time of strife.
This is Mr Cohen’s cause, and it is a new form of activism. As youths learn to make music and create works of art and act in plays, they develop a new way to communicate. It is a new way to protest, a new way to convey their beliefs, and a new way to try and stop the exploitation of the land and water they see around them.
Mr Cohen explains that “without wanting to, we remain the complicit but passive ‘performers’ of authoritarian and violating dramas, in part because we do not know how to consciously and sensitively ‘read and write’ the language of performance, and through this, intervene in the ‘theatres of oppression and complicity’, to transform them.” By learning the language of performance, he argues, these children can change a society.
The “Rivers of Meeting” programme has bound the community together and empowered its people. As extractivists, meaning someone who extracts from the forest without damaging it, they distribute medicinal plants throughout the village, spreading appreciation of the Amazon’s value. They hope to involve local businesses next to achieve a more autonomous source of funding. Right now, the programme gets a great deal of its money from UNICEF, which altered its rules specifically so it could support “Rivers of Meeting”.
Because the programme interacts through families and communities, it has become powerfully persuasive. The proof of this is both overwhelming and tragic. Numerous assassinations have plagued those involved with “Rivers of Meetings”. Teachers who are only “using popular culture to touch hearts and minds”, says Mr Cohen, are murdered by landowners’ mercenaries, who often go unpunished.
Maria do Espirito Santos da Silva, a teacher at the school, had a sister murdered by such landowners. When they began to make death threats against her as well, Ms Silva requested police protection. The request was denied, and on 24 May 2011 she and her husband were murdered. Maria was a dear friend of Mr Cohen.
Despite the risks to “River of Meeting” members, the programme endures. It is “sustainability through knowledge”, says Mr Cohen. And based on Brazil’s current issues, it seems the nation has yet to strike a balance between this sustainability and its meteoric development.