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

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 ...

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, not only trying to prevent being infected by the virus, but also encroachment by multiple actors on Amazonian land—a process that continues despite the pandemic. Here, we present the ongoing struggle of indigenous peoples in the Brazilian Amazon and how they are resisting several threats simultaneously.

“The indigenous peoples, quilombolas, and the black population … they were always the invisible targets of such necropolitics. The only issue is that these matters are in the spotlight under this government.” (Pedro Raposo, Professor at the State University of the Amazonas)

The struggle for control over land in the Amazon is far from over. The region that is so diverse and rich in natural resources has been targeted by large capital, garimpeiros[1], loggers, and agribusiness that aim to extend the soy frontier through forced burnings of the forest. As the Amazon spans several country borders, border dynamics are also a challenge for the region, which faces problems such as drug trafficking, smuggling, narcotics, and a drug war among criminal gangs of different countries. When elected, Bolsonaro, current President of Brazil, announced that his government would not proceed with indigenous territory demarcation, a statement that made evident the prioritization of agribusiness interests over the rights of indigenous peoples. His policies are connected to the deforestation of the Amazon and to the deterioration in the livelihoods of the indigenous peoples in the region. In this context, the fight of indigenous peoples for the right to their land continues unabatedly.

COVID-19 accentuated these land crises and pushed Brazilian indigenous peoples to the limit, making their struggle for survival even more profound.[2] Due to the pandemic, the land-grabbing situation has deteriorated exponentially.[3] Even with a decrease in economic activity, land grabbers seem to have profited (i.e. increased their actions, sensing implicit approval)  from the lack of control and loose laws during the pandemic. Deforestation and burnings have increased dramatically[4] in a context where we would generally expect them to have declined.

Yet indigenous peoples are not giving up without a concerted and coordinated fight.

Despite original observations that the new coronavirus may be an urban crisis, unfortunately it got to the Amazon. Since indigenous peoples have had less contact with pathogens than the non-indigenous populations, mortality due to COVID-19 is higher among rural indigenous populations than among any other group in Brazil. An analysis of the impact of COVID-19 on this population performed by the Coordination of the Indigenous Organizations in the Brazilian Amazon (COIAB), and the Institute for Environmental Research in the Amazon (IPAM) showed that the mortality rate from COVID-19 among indigenous people is 150% higher than the Brazilian average and 20% higher than recorded in the country’s northern region, where the highest mortality rate has been cited.[5] By January 2021, the number of deaths among the indigenous population hit 936, and 46,834 people from 161 different indigenous groups have been infected according to Brazil’s Indigenous People Articulation (APIB).[6] Real numbers are expected to be higher as cases are underreported. As the guardians and propagators of their history, indigenous elders face the highest infection risks and mortality rates.[7]

Manaus is one of the cities that was worst hit by the pandemic. After leading a dramatic peak of deaths in the country in April 2020, the capital of the State of Amazonas revealed the potential devastation of COVID-19 in the Amazon region when the health system in the city collapsed. This situation became even direr due to the lack of oxygen available for patients at the start of this year. In April 2020, the municipal administration dug collective graves for burying bodies as the death rate tripled and burial services were overwhelmed. Now, in January 2021, Manaus is experiencing new record-high hospitalization and death rates.[8]

Collective graves being dug by tractors in April 2020 in municipal cemeteries in Manaus to deal with the sharp rise of burials due to the COVID-19 pandemic and related deaths. Source: Sandro Pereira,

These numbers show that the Amazon is not excluded from globalization processes, which comes as both a benefit and a curse. While the connections among indigenous and non-indigenous groups brought the former health supplies and information, it was impossible to prevent this connection from being one of the vectors of transmission of the virus in the region.[9] This was the case even in the very isolated regions of the Amazon. Unable to rely on federal government support, indigenous organizations have come to rely on existing and new connections with local universities and the local public ministry to partially overcome the crisis. Working with organizations at the local level represents a change of strategy for groups that were used to lobbying only at the federal level. In Brazil, indigenous ‘matters’ are officially the responsibility of the federal government.

“Since the first case, with the death of our warrior Borari in Alter do Chão, we felt helpless… Different indigenous groups started working from their own organizations, making sure that public policies would work.” (Anderson Tapuia, CITA[10])

These partnerships supported the translation of informative materials to indigenous languages[11] that in some cases do not even have the word ‘disease’. Health support arrived by boats organized by civil society organizations. The ‘Saúde e Alegria’ initiative for example organized an ambulance boat that could reach isolated communities. In addition, they distributed donated food and hygiene products.

But all these efforts are not enough—the battle is also against those who should be protecting them. As presented in this series of three blogs, the present Brazilian government’s lack of strategy and specific policy to deal with the pandemic can be understood as necropolitics (Achille Mbembe[12]), as it weakens current protective institutions and destroys the chances of already vulnerable populations to survive in the pandemic.

Brazilian civil society may have acted in a fast, vocal, and organized way, reaching places that the state did not. These initiatives showed traces of a society based on solidarity bonds, citizen engagement, and may render them protagonists of their own transformation. However, to win this battle in the Brazilian Amazon, more is needed. A major change in the way the Brazilian government perceives indigenous peoples and the forest must first take place.


[1]Garimpo’ is a form of prospecting, often illegal and accompanied by precarious labour conditions, that uses rudimentary techniques to extract minerals. It generates a range of social and environmental problems as prospectors (garimpeiros) invade state or indigenous reserves, often through violence, diverting rivers and embankments and contaminating soil, air, and, water contamination with heavy metals, mainly mercury. In Yanomami indigenous territory, there are about 25,000 illegal gold miners

[2] To understand this process, we performed desk research and a qualitative comparative analysis of in-depth semi-structured interviews among indigenous peoples, activists, researchers and senior academics in the Brazilian Amazon. This is the third and last post out of the three published on Bliss, in which we have been presenting the main findings of the research work about COVID-19 in Brazil for the ISS project ‘When Disaster Meets Conflict’.

[3] In April 2020, during a peak of deaths related to the pandemic, the number of deforestation alerts in the Amazon rose by 64% compared to the same month in 2019. See

[4] For further information, please see (1)

(2) and (3)

[5] See

[6] Information collected in January 26th, 2021. See

[7] See and


[9] Besides the spread of the virus due to the movements of different actors related to land disputes (garimpeiros, loggers, etc.), contagion also occurred because of the displacement of health services to urban centres and the withdrawal of emergency aid. And there were also cases in which health workers spread the disease to indigenous communities. However, it is also important to note that not all indigenous peoples live in isolation from other indigenous communities or outside of urban areas.

[10] CITA, the Conselho Indígena Tapajós Arapiuns (Tapajós Arapiuns Indigenous Council), is an NGO that aims to ensure that public policies reach indigenous peoples, mainly those related to health, education, land issues, and social security.

[11] For more information, please see: and

[12] 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).

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

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.

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

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 ...

Contesting the Amazon as an ‘Open Space for Development’ by Lee Pegler and Julienne Andrade Widmarck

The use of land for soya cultivation in the Brazilian Amazon has led to compelling debates on the sustainability of the movement of products globally through global value chains (GVC) and the democratic processes surrounding these. All of us, in the Global North and Global South alike, have played a role in stimulating the expansion of GVCs in the Amazon that has led to an increase in the precarity of livelihoods, landlessness, and health/environmental problems. Without sustained and imaginative strategies by local and transnational social movements, this disjuncture between the market, sustainable futures, and democratic processes may simply widen.

The Amazon does not leave the news. Fires of unprecedented scale have devastated the area and are still occurring at a fast pace[1]. The latest wave of fires in the Brazilian Amazon appears to be not just an ecological warning, but also part of a cyclical strategy for land recovery and sale and/or alternating use of soya and cows by farmers[2]. The lungs and waters of our collective ecological future are at stake[3]. Nevertheless, those of us in other parts of the world are not without responsibility for this. At the same time, we are open to the assertion that the fate of the Amazon is none of our business.

What happens in the Amazon is our business, however. For example, energy- and protein-inefficient soya for animal feed produced in the Amazon is promoted as a low-cost input for sale to European farmers from a value chain supported by Dutch capital and the Dutch state[4]. Whilst Dutch farmers react to EU directives to curb emissions[5], Dutch and European consumers continue to purchase meat and dairy products, produced thanks to soya supplied as bulk feed for cattle and pigs from unsustainable and conflictual locations such as the Brazilian Amazon[6].

Amazon squeezed from all sides—can it cope?

The soya Global Value Chain (GVC) emerging from the Brazilian Amazon is threatening local populations’ security, livelihoods, and health as widespread deforestation continues to make room for soya plantations[7]. Various national and multinational companies financing land, sourcing output, and providing infrastructure for this chain (e.g. for local ports) are reacting to an increased demand for soya, thus “doing what the market tells them to do”.

The Dutch government, one of the countries with the greatest demand for soya is, on one side of the chain, emphasizing their country’s sustainable policies, initiatives, and institutions[8]. On the other side of this chain (in Brazil), we have a national regime that sees the Amazon as an “open space” for commerce (for cows, soya, minerals, and tourism) and a civil society that is fighting to raise the voices of indigenous communities and small-scale farmers threatened by these developments[9]. Thus, while there is a push for more responsible soya production practices from outside and from within, this is countered by the Brazilian government’s aim to commercialize the Amazon further[10]. The Amazon is being squeezed from all sides—can it cope?

This particular debate on the soya GVC is being studied within the ISS/EUR Governance of Labour and Logistics for Sustainability (GOLLS) programme[11]. In a project about commodity traders and social movements, we are exploring the link between firms at a global level and their activities in this region/sector. What is evolving is called the Ferrogrão[12] (logistical train/road grain chain) and a waterway silo-platform-barge system (strongly supported by Dutch firms and government) for the more efficient movement of soya along the Tapajos river, up the Amazon River, and then onto Europe/the Netherlands/Rotterdam[13] (Figure 1 below).


Figure 1 – Logistic Plan of Soya GVC in Amazon. Credit: Portal of the Company of Planning and Logistics S.A. (EPL)

Ongoing resistance to land use changes

A key mechanism for resisting these plans, used by local communities, small-scale farmers, indigenous groups, and their social movement supporters, has been a process of participation and rights recognition through ILO Regulation 169[14] (ratified by Brazil in 2003). Along with campaigns urging farmers not to sell their land, this participation protocol process has been one of the flags of resistance of affected parties and their supporters[15]. This reliance on institutional regulation and push for greater transparency on land rights[16] has helped boost the morale of many and put some local players in a position of influence, but also greater precarity[17].

Experiences locally and in other contexts note how such struggles consume many resources and will be met by counteraction by firms and, at times, by the state[18]. This is also happening here. For example, the current Brazilian federal regime is further undermining this rights process via proposals[19] for land area freezes for the indigenous, increased rights to mining in protected territories, and in amended participation rights—groups may still have their say, but no veto over “development” proposals[20].

At a local level, NGOs have been asked to explain their activities to public representatives[21]. Indeed, the ambient surrounding our case studies (one where land has been appropriated and soya grown, the other a mainly mining community where soya from other regions is being stored) reflects these local political economy dynamics. In one location, capital accumulation is dominated by “the laws of small-scale mining,” whereas, in the soya production case study, even the more accepted model of concertation (“accumulation by legislation” – i.e. by rules) is under pressure[22].

This situation clearly requires more concerted public awareness and broader level (international) collective responses. This ISS-EUR/Brazilian research programme seeks to widen the scope of awareness and societal action on these themes. We plan to move beyond our present case studies to other logistical points and to carry out further participative studies of local (displaced) communities.

It is essential to take these issues up to centers of decision making in the Global North (much as is being done by indigenous leader gatherings across Europe and by action groups like the “Amsterdam Coalition for Democracy in Brazil”). Local and transnational social movements are under severe pressure to make their cases heard[23]. Without sustained and imaginative strategies by them and others, this disjuncture between the market, sustainable futures, and democratic processes may simply widen.

About the authors:

JulienneJulienne de Jesus Andrade Widmarck has been a PhD researcher at the ISS since 2018 and a PhD student in Applied Economics at the Federal University of Uberlândia from 2019. She was a substitute professor at the Federal University of Viçosa from 2017 to 2019. Currently, she is a consultant in Territorial Development, Agroindustry, and Business Planning. She has experience in the field of agricultural economics, with an emphasis on commodities exportation, econometric methods, and family farming. Outside the academic field, she develops financial empowerment activities and participates in the National Human Rights Movement in Brazil.

Lee 3Lee 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.

Title Image Credit: Vinícius Mendonça/Ibama from FotosPublicas
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[21] Also noted in author interviews with social actors in Santarem, October/November, 2019.