Brazilian democracy – an aberration or a challenge?

Brazilian democracy – an aberration or a challenge?

The invasion of government offices in Brasília on 8 January by mobs of protestors and vandals forces us to revisit a fundamental question: is Brazil’s relatively recent move to democracy ...

Fashion and Beauty in the Tower of Babel: how Brazilian companies made sustainability a common language at COP27

Fashion and Beauty in the Tower of Babel: how Brazilian companies made sustainability a common language at COP27

  Fashion is one of the most polluting industries in the world, plagued by sky-high greenhouse gas emissions, mountains of excess clothing manufactured and cast away each year, and the widespread ...

How recognizing the Amazon rainforest as non-human helps counter human-driven ‘sustainable development’ interventions

Projects introduced in the Amazon rainforest to ‘protect’ it from harm hardly ever follow this objective; instead, they represent human interests while negating the interests of non-humans. But the rainforest as non-human also deserves the right to be represented. Luciana dos Santos Duarte in this article draws on developments in three academic fields to show how non-humans can become recognized in such projects.

Known as the Green Hell , the western part of the Amazon rainforest stretching across Brazil has been a stage for many projects that claim to save the world in the name of ‘sustainable development’. These projects are often conceived using the problematic paradigms of ‘new’ and ‘modern’ (for example introducing ‘new ways to…’), and other buzzwords like ‘Forest 4.0’, where technology is always the presumed answer to sustainable development issues because it ensures the making of profits while saving the forest.

Although we are living in the Anthropocene[1], slowly pushing the button of self-destruction, entrepreneurs motivated to ‘save the world’ are not an endangered species. They create projects connecting a company (buyer), an NGO (to provide technical assistance and credibility in the forest), some cooperatives (workforce of rural farmers), multilateral banks (investors), and the Brazilian government (subsidies). All these actors (called stakeholders) are humans, as are their creations (e.g. corporations). They constitute culture and are Culture.


Dichotomous thinking

But what about the Amazon rainforest? The forest, or the ‘stage’ that these actors occupy, is seen as ‘just Nature’, assumed to be separate from ‘Culture’ – something we can literally step on, extract, and reshape based on our will. These binaries – culture/nature, human/non-human – feed the paradigms mentioned above, allowing them to permanently exist in the forest and enabling them to come and go. Like waves, the projects go to the Amazon in accordance with anticipated opportunities for profit. Then, they go away. They incorporate ‘new’ ideas, but do not maintain previous ideas.

There is a key difference between humans and non-humans according to French anthropologist Philippe Descola (author of Beyond Nature and Culture, 2005), “Humans are subjects who have rights on account of their condition as men, while nonhumans are natural or artificial objects that do not have rights in their own right”. Therefore, exercising authority over a certain domain of affairs is considered exclusively human. We humans think from the top down, representing our Culture, and are not so diplomatic with Nature.


Diplomacy for non-humans

As part of Culture – because it is a human invention – diplomacy mediates between different interests, traditionally benefiting humans, but not non-humans[2]. However, the complexity of this mediation between the interests of hundreds of cultures and nations around the world, which we can see on daily news (wars, terrorism, etc.) becomes overshadowed by the need to mediate between human interference in nature and the right of existence of the thousands of animal and plant species (to highlight just two categories of non-humans) that are dying due to deforestation, pollution, etc.. Due to humans, non-humans are disappearing.

The lack of representation of Nature in ‘sustainable development’ projects leads to the core question: How can we think about diplomacy for non-humans in Nature?

My positionality allows me to answer this question not as a diplomat, but as a product designer pursuing a double-degree PhD in Production Engineering and Development Studies, inspired by the outputs of my research in the Amazon. In saying that, and recalling a famous quote on creativity by Albert Einstein, “we cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them”, I offer three different paths that could possibly inspire a more concrete answer to diplomacy for non-humans: Law, Anthropology, and Industrial Design.


The right to representation

In 1972, Christopher D. Stone wrote the breakthrough article; “Should trees have standing?”, launching a worldwide debate on the basic nature of legal rights that eventually reached the U.S. Supreme Court. He based his argument on the reasons why nature should be represented in court, for instance remembering that children in the past were seen as objects without rights or just an extension of their parents until their rights became recognized. Also, if non-humans like corporations can be represented by lawyers, why not trees and rivers?

Indeed, half a century after this seminal article was published, Whanganui River in New Zealand became the first river in the world to finally be represented in court [4]. The Maori people had been fighting for over 160 years to get it recognized as a legal entity. The river’s interest is now represented by one member from the Maori tribe and one from the government.

Regarding the field of anthropology, some scholars have been placing non-humans at the same epistemological level as humans, for instance, making science from what is the form of life of indigenous peoples, creating ideas like pluriverse[6]. However, our indigenous brothers and sisters do not know that their thinking-feeling can be framed in such fragmented terms. They do not see or live the Nature/Culture division. They are Nature.

Likewise, we as humans can be Nature, too, in our rational thinking and our creation of science and projects. As a lecturer in the field of Design, I am teaching my students to represent the voices of non-humans in their designs and to consider their positionalities in the design process. I believe that the agency of a lawyer should start at the embryonic stage of a project, amplifying the agency of the designer. In other words, the designer can represent Nature and non-humans through design inasmuch as they can do this for humans, mediating between the two as diplomats do. We become Nature by allying with Nature in our human activities.


The way forward

Once a project is in the Amazon, where we find thousands of non-human species (animals, plants, spirits), there is a lot of work to do – for anyone who can recreate their agency and their positionalities in projects, either for an entrepreneur, a scientist, a policy maker, or a designer – before we can go to court or march on to the apocalypse.



DESCOLA, Philippe. Beyond Nature and Culture. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2013, p. 488.

ESCOBAR, Arturo. Sustainability: Design for the Pluriverse. Development, 2011, 54(2), pp. 137-140.

LATOUR, Bruno. Telling Friends from Foes in the Time of the Anthropocene. In Clive Hamilton, Christophe Bonneuil & François Gemenne (editors). The Anthropocene and the Global Environment Crisis – Rethinking Modernity in a New Epoch, London, Routledge, 2015, pp.145-155.

HARAWAY, Donna. Anthropocene, Capitalocene, Plantatiocene, Chthulucene: Making Kin. Environmental Humanities, vol. 6, 2015, pp. 159-165.

HUTCHISON, Abigail. The Whanganui River as Legal Person. Alternative Law Journal, vol 39, 3 2014, pp. 179-182.

ROBINSON, Kim Stanley. The Ministry for the Future. London: Orbit, 2020, p. 576.

STONE, Christopher D. Should Trees Have Standing?–Towards Legal Rights for Natural Objects. Southern California Law Review 45, 1972, pp. 450-501.

STONE, Christopher D. Should Trees Have Standing? Law, Morality, and the Environment. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010, p. 264.

VIVEIROS DE CASTRO, Eduardo. From the Enemy’s Point of View: Humanity and Aivinity in an Amazonian Society. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992, p. 428.

WALSH, Catherine. Development as Buen Vivir: Institutional Arrangements and (De)colonial Entanglements. Development, 53(1), 2010, pp. 15-21.

[1] The Anthropocene is a concept proposed as a geological epoch to mark the impact of humans on Earth, like changing the climate and causing irreversible damage. According to Latour (2015, p. 2), the Anthropocene is “the best alternative we have to usher us out of the notion of modernization. […] Like the concept of Gaia, the risk of using such an unstable notion is worth taking. […] The use of this hybrid term made up of geology, philosophy, theology and social science is a wakeup call. What I want to do is to probe here in what sort of time and in what sort of space we do find ourselves when we accept the idea of living in the Anthropocene.”

[2] The recent launched science fiction, or climate fiction, book ‘The Ministry for the Future’ (ROBINSON, 2020) provides some insights in breaking this tradition. In the plot, a body stablished in the Paris Agreement acts as an advocate for the world’s future generations of citizens as if their rights were as valid as the present generation’s – humans considering their own non-humans.

[3] The status of legal personhood has been broadened in the course of history. For instance, slaves were once treated as property; however, with the abolition of slavery – a process, not a single event, in many countries – slaves were no longer regarded as property but as legal persons (HUTCHISON, 2014). Likewise, the status of legal personhood for nature – Stone’s idea – has been impacting courts, the academe, and society, which can be read in his book launched almost fifty years after the original article (STONE, 2010).

[4] In practical terms, it means the river can be represented at legal proceedings with two lawyers protecting its interests – one from the Maori, the other from the government. The Maori also received a NZD 80 million (USD 56 million) settlement from the government after their marathon legal battle, as well as NZD 30 million to improve the river’s health.

[5] Viveiros de Castro (1992) had proposed the term ‘perspectivism’ for a mode that could not possibly hold inside the narrow structures of nature versus culture. By studying indigenous people in Brazil and their shamanic practices, he saw that “human culture is what binds all beings together – animals and plants included – whereas they are divided by their different natures, that is, their bodies” (Latour, 2009, p. 1).

[6] According to Escobar (2011, p. 139) “the modern ontology presumes the existence of One World – a universe. This assumption is undermined by discussions in transition discourses, like the buen vivir” (in Spanish, or suma qamaña, a concept from the indigenous people Aymara, in South America), and the rights of Nature. For Walsh (2010, p. 18), the concept of buen vivir “denotes, organizes, and constructs a system of knowledge and living based on the communion of humans and nature and on the spatial-temporal-harmonious totality of existence”. Coming back to Escobar (idem), “in emphasizing the profound relationality of all life, these newer tendencies show that there are indeed relational worldviews or ontologies for which the world is always multiple – a pluriverse”.

Opinions expressed in Bliss posts reflect solely the views of the author of the post in question.

About the author:

Luciana dos Santos Duarte is doing a double-degree PhD in Production Engineering (Federal University of Minas Gerais, Brazil) and Development Studies (International Institute of Social Studies). She holds a master’s degree in Production Engineering, and a Bachelor degree in Product Design. She is a lecturer in Industrial Design Engineering at The Hague University of Applied Sciences. Part of her research is shared on her website


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COVID-19 and Conflict | COVID-19 in the Brazilian Amazon: forging solidarity bonds against devastation

COVID-19 and Conflict | COVID-19 in the Brazilian Amazon: forging solidarity bonds against devastation

The indigenous populations in the Amazon are putting up a commendable fight against the Brazilian government’s lack of adequate response to the COVID-19 pandemic. They are fighting an epic battle, ...

COVID-19 and Conflict | Pandemic responses in Brazil’s favelas and beyond: making the invisible visible

COVID-19 and Conflict | Pandemic responses in Brazil’s favelas and beyond: making the invisible visible

The inaction of the Brazilian government during the COVID-19 pandemic has pushed some members of Brazilian society into an even more vulnerable position. Yet many of these groups seem to ...

COVID-19 and Conflict | The state’s failure to respond to COVID-19 in Brazil: an intentional disaster

The COVID-19 pandemic in Brazil stretches beyond the fight against the SARS-CoV-2 virus. The inaction of the government over the past year to counter the effects of the pandemic has worsened living conditions for millions of Brazilians and ultimately resulted in the loss of lives. We argue that the intentional disaster resulting from the mismanagement of the pandemic was caused by the direct (in)action of the federal government as gross negligence rooted in apathy clashed with historically constructed conditions.

“The famous ‘stay home’ idea does not work for us here; it is not our reality […] quarantine in the favelas is the biggest fake news invented.” (Gilson Rodrigues, communitarian leader)

“The domestic worker already has a lot against her. If the boss gets sick, he uses his private healthcare system and is treated and cured. Domestic workers use the public system, stand in a large queue, and most of them die. This is the case not only for the domestic worker, but for all poor workers.” (Cleide Pinto, domestic workers union)

The above quotes provide just a glimpse of life during the COVID-19 pandemic in Brazil, painting a picture of gross negligence, mismanagement, and death. These stories are not exceptions. Millions of Brazilians have had to navigate the pandemic, suffering as much from the inaction of the federal government as they did in fighting the SARS-CoV-2 virus. The pandemic became a crisis as the virus entered the country via elites and as existing inequities were compounded as the government stalled. The failure to act to save lives through imposing crucial pandemic measures is why we call it an intentional disaster.

To understand how this intentional disaster came to pass, we performed desk research and a qualitative comparative analysis of in-depth semi-structured interviews[1] conducted with members of three civil society groups in Brazil: residents of favelas (informal settlements), domestic workers, and indigenous peoples of the Amazon. Interviews took place in July 2020, at the peak of the first wave of the pandemic in Brazil. The struggles of the three groups to survive the pandemic represent an ongoing fight, but also show their capacity to be organized, innovative, and quick in resistance. The common threat to the studied groups, besides the virus, was and remains the inaction of the government.

Inequalities in Brazilian society were dramatically exposed by the posture of president Jair Bolsonaro, who relativized deaths and disregarded the importance of the disease by claiming it was “just a simple flu”. Bolsonaro’s government attempted to obscure the official number of lives lost to COVID-19[2] and created obstacles for governors and mayors who felt compelled to implement measures to fight the virus[3]. Initially, governors rejected the directions of the president and implemented lockdown measures. It came to a point where the Supreme Court had to intervene, clarifying that the governors indeed had the responsibility to intervene and were permitted to do so. This provided a shimmer of hope in the face of the absence of larger, national measures.

Moreover, after the resignation of the Minister of Health in May this year, no other minister has been proclaimed; the ministry has since been run by a military general. It is notable that the country is facing the worst pandemic in a century without an official health minister. A lack of leadership, lack of planning, and lack of care for the dying population became the norm.

The devastation this level of inaction caused should not go unnoticed. The number of deaths from COVID-19 in Brazil surpassed 175,000 by beginning December – as a country of continental numbers, Brazil is now the third country in the world in terms of numbers of lives lost to the virus and confirmed cases. Similar to the US, a populist government openly denied scientific findings showing that COVID-19 was real and potentially lethal. A difference between the two countries, however, is that in the United States, Donald Trump eventually realized the need to take measures to contain the pandemic (even if due to electoral motivations). In Brazil, Bolsonaro seems to continue to ignore that responsibility.

What can now be witnessed is that Bolsonaro did not seem to learn, with all the lives lost, nor with Trump’s defeat, how crucial the imposition of measures are. The president continues to appear in pictures without wearing a mask and without adhering to social distancing measures. He now behaves as if the pandemic was over, plans to cut the emergency cash support to the population, and incites the population not to trust a vaccine originating from China. The year has gone from bad to worse.

Copacabana Beach in Rio de Janeiro: protest in remembrance of 100,000 lives lost to the new coronavirus during the first weeks of August 2020, when the country hit the second place in the number of lives lost to COVID-19.
Picture: Rio da Paz. Authorized by authors.

How is this failure to act felt on the ground? What studies revealed in the Brazilian case is that a virus that arrived through elites when returning from vacation in Europe had a bigger impact in the most vulnerable spaces. People on the peripheries, residents of favelas, informal workers, the black population, and indigenous groups are hit hardest. The highest number of deaths seems also to be among the poorest. In a study of infections in São Paulo, almost 66% of the victims lived in neighbourhoods with average salaries of below R$3,000 reais (around 200 euros) per month, and 21% in places with an income of up to R$6,500 reais (around 1.000 euros) per month. Within regions where the average income was above R$19,000 (around 3,167 euros) per month, only just over 1% of deaths were registered.

This pattern found in São Paulo is likely to be repeated in other parts of the country. Populations with a higher socioeconomic status are those who can afford to be in isolation or lockdown and can work from home. A large part of the population cannot afford to do that. In the State of Rio de Janeiro, the first death due to COVID-19 was of a black domestic worker infected in the house where she worked after her employers had returned from a trip to Italy and were tested positive. COVID-19 in Brazil brings to the fore historic inequalities that follow the country’s development. Additionally, these inequalities are aggravated by an intentional policy of negligence by the federal government.

The failure of the Brazilian government to deal with the pandemic seems to be a combination of: (1) the obscure discourse of the president; (2) the lack of specific policies and proper communication with different groups; (3) the cover-up of official information, especially regarding the number of deaths; (4) the deliberate weakening of public services by the current government; and (5) a lack of strategy and planning. In summary, it is an act of complete neglect by the federal government, which in times of pandemic can be perceived as an intentional strategy to decimate the population, especially the most vulnerable, which is known in the literature as necropolitics[4].

In the words of indigenous leader Anderson Tapuia,

here in Brazil we have a government that sends the message that if corona arrives at the villages, it should continue there, doing its work, which means exterminating indigenous peoples”.

 [1] This is the first out of three posts to be published on Bliss presenting the main findings of the research work about COVID-19 in Brazil for the project ‘When Disaster Meets Conflict’.



[4] Necropolitics is a process in which the state uses political power – by its discourses, actions and omissions – to put specific groups into a more marginalised and vulnerable position (Mbembe, 2019).


MBEMBE, Achille. 2019. Necropolitics. Durham, London : Duke University Press.

About the authors:

Fiorella Macchiavello is an economist and holds an MA degree in Urban and Regional Development from the Federal University of Santa Catarina (UFSC), Brazil. Currently, she is a PhD researcher in the third year of a Joint Degree between the International Institute of Social Studies (ISS) of Erasmus University Rotterdam and UnB, University of Brasilia, Brazil.

Renata Cavalcanti Muniz is a full time PhD researcher at ISS in the last year of her research. Her PhD research was funded by CNPQ-Brasil, and she is part of two research groups at ISS, DEC and CI.

Lee Pegler

Lee Pegler spent his early career working as an economist with the Australian Labour Movement. More recent times have seen him researching the labour implications of “new” management strategies of TNCs in Brazil/ Latin America. This interest expanded to a focus on the implications of value chain insertion on labour, both for formal and informal workers. Trained as an economist and sociologist (PhD – LSE), he currently works as Assistant Professor (Work, Organisation and Labour Rights) at the ISS.

Are you looking for more content about Global Development and Social Justice? Subscribe to Bliss, the official blog of the International Institute of Social Studies, and stay updated about interesting topics our researchers are working on.