The Abyss of Normality: Social Crises, Environmental Injustices, and Resistance in Contemporary Brazil

By Leonildes Nazar Chaves

Cars travel through subterranean roads in São Paulo in more normal times. (Photo by Fabio Barbato.)

Critical times guide us to feelings of rupture and reinvention. The horizon that we were unable to envision as the possibility of a more just and equitable future, today dwells inside of us with apathy and distrust.

Everything passes by at high speed. The disillusionment with liberal political and economic models; the inadequacy of public social protection policies; the lack of response from public bodies and the global system’s institutions; the ruin of the social pact of democracy; the high degree of insecurity due to socio-environmental impacts; the continuity of threats to the lives of people across borders and territories.

In Brazil, the emerging Covid-19 pandemic unveiled this critical reality even more clearly. As Carlos Milani points out, the virus alone does not single out individuals, “but pre-existing and enduring cultural, social and economic inequalities ensure that the virus discriminates. Because the world is shaped by economic power, nationalism, gender, racism, xenophobia and ecological injustices, the virus does not spread along virgin territories. It empirically validates the reality of preceding and continuous social and economic systems.”

These social inequalities are deep inside the Brazilian sense of normality. For many people in Brazil, the 120,000+ Covid-19 deaths as of September 1, 2020 are just numbers to be updated. It is also expected that those numbers are even bigger than those publicized by the authorities.

But it is difficult to assimilate to what is normal. That difficulty is mainly due to two themes, which I will try to address below: one more structural in nature; the other, more junctural; and both critically highlighted by the current pandemic as challenges.

Dressed in white, with masks and red balloons, artists pay homage to the people killed by Covid-19 in Brazil, May 2020. (Photo by Leopoldo Silva/Agência Senado.)

Brazil owes itself many debts. They are the expression of the invented national idea of Brazil as a democratic country, that respects diversity, and whose structural problems, caused by historical inequalities, have been repaired. According to this view, the Brazilian system of exploitation and subordination of non-white people no longer exists.

The abyss of Brazilian normality is the perpetuation of this mistaken and dangerous nationally hegemonic thought. The invention of this idea began to take shape as soon as the colonization project of the Americas and its peoples succeeded. The project of civilizing logic, expropriating resources, and social war gave the country a basic configuration that even today reproduces violence to non-white bodies and dreams. As anarcotransfeminist artist Bruna Kury and afrotransfeminist intellectual Walla Capelobo emphasize, this is a process observed from slavery to the new faces of racism in contemporary Brazil.

Many actors intertwine and fight for power to maintain hierarchies and racist and anti-democratic narratives in the country. Among them are political groups of significant influence and public mobilization, such as the “5B” interests represented in the Parliament: Bullet (pro-guns), Bible (religious), Boi (ruralists, from the Portuguese for cattle),1 Banks, and Bula (the health industry, from the Portuguese for “leaflet”).

Public flogging of an enslaved person in 19th-century Brazil, from a painting by Johann Moritz Rugendas. (Photo by wilfredo.)

Contemporary Brazilian problems have very old roots that are still perpetuated by the force of highly active and continuously reinvented political agendas. Fabiano Santos and José Szwako argue that, in recent years — which include ex-president Dilma Rousseff’s impeachment in 2016 — Brazil has experienced: the worsening of a political, fiscal, and economic collapse; a crisis of representativeness of the democratic system and its institutions; and the emergence of sinister forces supported by elites, conservative, and reactionary groups.

Some contextual factors must be taken into consideration when analyzing the deepening social-political conflicts we face today: the further aggravation of conflicts by the murder of city councilor and political activist Marielle Franco, the electoral climate of 2018 and the profound crisis in the political dimension — that is, in a system that breaks down in its democratic essence.

In other words, in addition to social disruption and the last economic crises contributing to the current chaotic scenario, the politics and the political regime add to Brazil’s critical situation. There is a political system that calls its policy a reform because it is colonialist, oligarchic, elitist, and corrupt. And the challenge is real: even the fields of information and knowledge are in dispute because these political actors organize their truths (in general fake news) in association with reactionary, medieval minds.

The intensification of economic activities, such as agribusiness, infrastructure and mining, in addition to the spread of associated illegal practices, are another challenge of the present time. The escalation in violence against and persecution of marginalized populations in the countryside and cities, reinforced by the historical genocide of black and indigenous people, are observed in parallel with the current criminalization of social movements, activists, and civil society.

Brazilian politics and society are also being challenged by the reformulation of Brazilian foreign policy, as well as education, science, and technology policy guidelines. These are part of the bureaucratic institutional reform efforts recently implemented.

Brazil President Jair Bolsonaro at a March 2020 press conference. (Photo by Isac Nóbrega/PR.)

In 2019, the newly-elected President of Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro, began a series of changes that disrupted the administrative and institutional body of the Brazilian state, initiating his political project to dismantle the bureaucratic functioning and organization of previous governments.

In the new structure proposed by President Bolsonaro, political and democratic institutions are divided between the three main groupings of his power base: the military, (neo)liberals, and dogmatic (reactionary/religious) groups. This new framework for public bodies also reflects certain Brazilian social groups — such as non-progressive sectors, political and institutional elites, and ideological radicals and reactionaries — and the historical inequality at the core of Brazilian society, mainly mobilizing the middle classes.

The bureaucratic reforms have profound impacts, due to the elimination of national councils, committees, secretariats, and ministry programs. The Ministry of Environment, for example, dismantled the Secretariat for Climate Change and Environment Quality, and several of its responsibilities were incorporated into the Ministry of Agriculture, the bureaucratic home of ruralists.

Today, even while Brazilian society has more than 1 million people infected by Covid-19, the inability of the Brazilian government to move beyond its electoral campaign and its intolerance of critiques has made the dream of a more democratic country more distant. This scenario, however, does reflect what the current government seems to represent: Brazil is trapped by the political, economic, cultural, environmental, and symbolic aspects of racism and anti-democracy.

On the environmental and climatic faces of racism, we can point out that the Brazilian government sets out guidelines that seem to have encouraged illegality, impacting the lives of several peoples. The flexibilization of policies for environmental protection and conservation is one of the government’s strategies that have been contributing to the escalating number and severity of violations.

According to a report presented in May 2020 by MapBiomas – an initiative of several scientific entities, companies, and civil society – 99% of 2019 deforestation in Brazil was illegal. More recently, in a meeting with Bolsonaro, the Minister of Environment Ricardo Salles defended the government’s taking advantage of the media’s attention on the Covid-19 pandemic to approve a “simplification” of environmental legislation that would benefit the agribusiness sector.

Fires in Rondônia, São Miguel do Guaporé county. Recent wildfires burn scars in reddish brown. On the bottom left is Guaporé Biological Reserve, to the right Rio Branco Indigenous Land. (Photo by Oton Barros, DSR/OBT/INPE.)

The government of Jair Bolsonaro has succeeded in deepening the threats to national biomes such as the Amazon and the Cerrado, as well as to several populations: Indigenous and forest peoples, quilombolas,2 peasants, and the inhabitants of favelas and urban peripheries. Increases in wildfires, deforestation, and conflicts between traditional communities and criminals (such as land grabbers) have become further examples of what we can no longer consider “normal.”

The fire that threatens the existence of Brazilian forests is a danger on many fronts: for the people who live there, experiencing constant tension and changes in habits; for the expansion of greenhouse gas emissions; and for the rise of climate impacts on a global scale, which are potentially more threatening to populations already vulnerable to structural racism, economic interventions, and a disregard of their knowledge and traditions.

Data from the National Institute for Space Research (Inpe) indicate that the rate of deforestation in the Amazon grew 171% compared to April 2019. In May 2020, the non-governmental organization SOS Mata Atlântica presented updated data from its atlas for the most devastated biome in the country; the numbers were not favorable. Between 2018 and 2019, deforestation in the Mata Atlântica Forest, which is already down to 12% of its native cover, grew by 27%. It is worth remembering that Minister Salles gave an amnesty to Mata Atlântica’s deforesters amid the pandemic at the end of April 2020.

The deforestation process occurring in Brazilian biomes during the current Covid-19 health crisis has been identified as a criminal campaign. Different community leaders have claimed it is a potential agent of the genocide against Indigenous, quilombola, and other vulnerable communities.

According to the Articulation of Indigenous Peoples of Brazil (Apib), 29,609 Indigenous people have already gotten the novel coronavirus, with 156 Indigenous ethnic groups affected and 779 deaths (as of August 3, 2020.)3 In data from the National Coordination of Articulation of Black Rural Quilombola Communities (Conaq), there were 4,504 registered cases of infection and 155 deaths in Brazilian quilombos by September 1, 2020.4

In times of environmental and climatic emergencies intersecting with a pandemic, vulnerabilities intensify, and it appears that political and economic forces have continued to reproduce their project of subordination and subjugation of natural resources, cultures, and peoples. Under the new atmosphere brought about by Covid-19, we are witnessing a chaotic state of political instability, increasing inequalities, institutional fragility, and human insecurity.

Water scarcity and severe droughts endanger the right to wash our hands and food. Intensified by emissions from deforestation, climate change has also increased severe rains and floods, leaving whole families homeless and often in spaces which lack basic sanitation, further exposing them to disease and other traumas. Furthermore, worsening air pollution makes normal breathing impossible, and almost a privilege these days.

A dry lake bed in Parana, Brazil in 2015. Climate change has intensified both rain events and drought in recent years. (Photo by Otávio Nogueira.)

In urban agglomerations, cities with neither sufficient infrastructure nor appropriate housing, environmental impacts cause displacement and forced migrations, which inevitably lead to human exposure to inhospitable contexts. The effects of climate change also intensify food insecurity, a state detrimental to healthy living and commensality, the better cooperative relations and interaction between individuals arising from eating together, as political scientist Tassia Carvalho explains.

Nonetheless, these impacts challenge us to prioritize both the creation of effective policies for social justice and the defense of collective health. Doing so could help to prevent more uncertainties in our social system and minimize vulnerabilities to conditions of a better life: safe domiciles and resilient infrastructures; labor, education, and ecosystem protections to guarantee communities the ability to survive and remain on their historical territories; energy distribution; water access; food sovereignty, and so on.

Among all this, community mobilization and collective action remain acts of survival and care. Initiatives have come from popular forces, such as the mobilization of the Brazilian Network of Environmental Justice in partnership with the National Campaign in Defense of the Cerrado, the National Committee for the Defense of Territories Against Mining, and the National Articulation of Agroecology. They have mobilized with local collective health committees in regions across the country, involving more than 80 leaders and actors to create and exchange actions throughout the territories.

These experiences move us to think of another way forward, not only through state institutions but also socially: the anti-racist and pro-democratic pact that Brazilian society needs to create to translate the reinvention of the country into responses and policies. The maintenance of social inequalities and the public permanence of authoritarianism and denialism are the two dimensions that anti-racism and democracy can face together to guarantee social rights and defend diversity and freedoms.

This perspective, resisting reactionary logic, operationalization, culture, and ideas, involves not only not being racist but also being actively anti-racist, as Angela Davis teaches us. The restructuring of the political system, for example, is a turning point and opportunity for reinvention. However, the project for silencing and excluding Black and Indigenous peoples, for creating policies that do not include the poorest, for not emancipating workers into a more dignified life, and for eradicating a country’s arts and cultures is continuous and systematic.

In Brazil, the forest struggles to stay alive, as do the most peripheral peoples in cities and communities. Lives have been interrupted and trivialized. But there are young people who want to stay alive and experience other horizons, not abysses. They deserve a real normality.

A participant in the Indigenous Women’s March in Brasilia, September 2019. (Photo by Katie Maehler.)


  1. Ruralists represent agribusiness actors and have a prominent political power derived from their economic position. Ruralists are an influential group in democratic institutions in Brazilian society, and their influence is found not only in local but also national politics.
  2. “The word quilombo comes from the African language Quimbunco, which means: society formed by young warriors who belonged to uprooted ethnic groups in their communities. Quilombo remnants are defined as ethnic-racial groups that also have their own historical trajectory, endowed with specific territorial relations, with a presumption of black ancestry related to the resistance to the suffered historical oppression, and their characterization must be given according to criteria of self- attribution attested by the communities themselves, as also adopted by the ILO Convention on Indigenous and Tribal Peoples.” (CONAQ, 2020, Available in:

Leonildes Nazar, a political scientist and internationalist, is currently a Ph.D. candidate in Political Science at the Institute of Social and Political Studies at the State University of Rio de Janeiro (IESP-UERJ). Her work is focused on: foreign policy actors and agendas; international cooperation; and climate change, environmental justice, and human rights, especially as related to race and gender issues. Leonildes has a degree in International Relations from the Universidade Federal Rural do Rio de Janeiro and a master’s degree in Political Science from IESP-UERJ. A member of the World Political Analysis Laboratory (Labmundo) and the research platform Latitude Sul, she is also a collaborator researcher at the Interdisciplinary Observatory on Climate Change, and a member of the Brazilian Association of Black Researchers (ABPN.)

Leonildes was a Visiting Scholar at CLAS in 2019–20.

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1 Response to The Abyss of Normality: Social Crises, Environmental Injustices, and Resistance in Contemporary Brazil

  1. Pingback: Leonildes Nazar publicou nota no blog do Center for Latin American Studies (CLAS) – Labmundo

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