Valentina Ruas: Bolsonaro encourages violence against activists [Climate Generation Talks-9]

Valentina Ruas is a 17 years old climate activist from Brazil. She is currently on her last year of school. She’s been striking for one year but she has been a climate activist for almost four years. She acts locally in Youth for Climate- Brasília and nationally in Fridays for Future Brazil.

My biggest hope is one day seeing the global society awake and notice that we shall not prosper or live on a planet blinded with greed. For that, we need to start somewhere, and that’s why the youth has been uniting itself each day more. We have said enough is enough.

Atlas: How did you become a climate activist? Can you tell us your story?

In a country where inequity levels are extremely alarming, I grew up in what I can regard as a “bubble” of privilege. However, the same privilege enabled me to notice that I fit into a group of exception, and this knowledge, throughout my childhood, created a spark of uneasiness inside of me. How come I could live comfortably knowing that, among the people I lived with in my daily routine, there were ones that had to choose whether to buy a single bus ticket or save the money to afford a package of bread at the end of the day? And the same fact still repeats itself in other millions of families.

Because of that, ever since, I promised myself that I would use my privileged position in society to help resounding the voices of the most vulnerable ones, and I would dedicate my life to point out all injustices and hopefully be able to make changes. At the same time, in my early years of school, I was being introduced to the science of climate change. Environmental protection already played a big role in my routine because my parents raised me teaching the importance of respecting all forms of life.

‘Educational system does not cover climate crisis’

Nevertheless, both sources of awareness -my school and my home- had always led me to think that individual change was all we needed, because the Brazilian educational system fails in giving enough information about the climate crisis. All we are taught in the majority of schools is the scientific phenomenon of global warming, in a way that doesn’t allow us to make our vision wider and realise that systemic change is needed.

I was only able to comprehend the complexity of climate change a few years later, in 2017, when I simulated COP 22 in a Model United Nations. Because of that, I made several deep researches on every possible matter regarding climate change I could find, and I noticed that I could involve the climate crisis and social issues in the same narrative. From that moment on I started to advocate for climate justice, raising awareness in every way I could.

‘Environmental activists are being killed’

 In Brazil, how is your movement’s relation with the government? How do they perceive the climate activists?

 Brazil occupies the fourth position in the rank of countries in which activists are killed the most, and environmental activism carries 40% of the deaths, as evidenced by the Frontline Defenders organisation. This information by itself is already an example of the hostility activists need to face here, however, there has been an escalation of violence encouraged by the current government.

In my mind, I can divide this situation in two parts, being Bolsonaro’s election the great turmoil between them. The violence against activists is not a recent problem, it has always existed. However, the main difference is that environmental activism was mostly dangerous on the front lines, for those who were defending the environment face to face with land owners, executives and politicians in some places like the Amazon Rainforest, and of course for Indigenous peoples and traditional communities, that are murdered for defending their territory ever since the colonisation. But Bolsonaro has always been known for his hostility against social causes and, of course, against climate activism. The main problem with this is that he has thousands of supporters that believe full-heartedly in what he says.

‘We are taking classes of security’

So, from the moment he started to throw speeches that falsely incriminated environmental NGOs and the climate movement, not only decision makers were hateful toward us, but also the civil society. We are often called “communists”, which is an offense for the current government, sweared at, among other threats that make us feel exposed to danger, even though some of us are in places that once were way more safe.

We also take classes of security and are always alert, because we know that digital and physical attacks are things that the government would encourage, even if not explicitly or publicly.

‘My parents are worried about me’

Do you get support for your activism from your family, friends and school?

 I live surrounded by very supportive people that are proud of my activism. My parents were the ones that teached me from the very beginning that I need to speak up and work hard in order to achieve what I want, so they are happy that I channeled their advices into activism. However, they worry a lot about me and wish I didn’t speak so much against the government neglectfulness towards the climate crisis because of the constant violence activists face here, but they understand it is necessary.

My friends are always encouraging me and my school is open minded for it too, although they would never allow me to constantly miss classes and strike physically every week without failing the school year and having to repeat it.

‘Our biggest protest ever was in September’

How do you organise the Global Climate Strikes in Brazil? Do you get enough participation on the streets? What kind of protests do you do?

The movement in Brazil has a big number of regional groups spread out across the country, so in Global Strikes we don’t have a central organisation. We exchange information, help and plans, but every region does the strike as it suits itself the best.

Speaking for my group, Youth for Climate Brasília, we have a broad network of contacts that help us with a big propagation starting weeks before the strikes, while we plan all details such as the venue, possible actions and legal implications. We usually don’t get enough participation on the streets, that’s still a big challenge for us, because our society is filled with people that deny the climate crisis or don’t see the point in protesting against it.

2019, in my city, when we gathered around four thousand people, but not without making a huge effort. However, the normal is way less than that amount.

We try to bring innovative and creative actions to our strikes, such as music while we march, theatrical presentations and other kinds of art. Some regional groups stand striking in one place, but as we are in the centre of Brazil’s administration, we march occupying our biggest avenue, stop in front of the Environment Ministry and then head ourselves to the front of the National Congress.

What kind of climate destruction is happening in your country and how is the people’s reaction to that?

Brazil is a vast country with a big biodiversity variety within its biomes. As it is widely known, the Amazon is increasingly being destroyed by all kinds of actions, motivated by the mentality of prioritising profit above lives. All the worst rates are growing, such as the deforestation, fire and mining ones. However, what the media doesn’t show is that this situation is happening in all the other biomes, for example in the Cerrado, of which natural cover was reduced by anthropic action in more than 50%.

The majority of people are aware of some of the climate destruction happening in Brazil, because it’s a recurrent matter on television channels and newspapers, but the most common reaction to that is negligence. Even if they are bothered with it, they won’t do anything to change the situation, being it for a feeling of powerlessness or fact denying.

‘We can engage ourselves in movements’

What do you think is necessary to bring people awareness about climate crisis? What can we do individually and as a movement for this?

 Firstly, before considering any ideas or alternatives, we need to have in mind that the biggest ones to blame for the climate crisis are not individual civilians, but governments and every sector, private or public, involved in our failed society system, and therefore, when discussing it, it should me of utmost importance to clarify that we don’t deserve to be held accountable for our actions while protesting against the climate emergency.

One way of doing this is by advocating that, since the first years of school, the government provides an efficient and accessible education that brings awareness about the climate crisis starting very soon on children’s lives. It should also be mandatory that every working place and public sectors of services offer climate education to its employees and communities. Individually, we can engage ourselves in movements that fight the climate crisis, raise this matter in our society circles to generate discussions and put pressure on our respective governments and decision makers.

As a movement, we can start by doing these same key points but in a broader area of impact, using the advantage of having a bigger public presence to demand change from politicians and bring awareness to the civil society. In a Brazilian context, I need to highlight the importance of occupying political spaces, as one of the things I learned having to deal with our parliamentarians is that they won’t change unless they’re highly pressured and intimidated, and the youth participation plays a big role in it. It is evident the difference on behaviour and posture of our regional decision makers when Youth for Climate is present in the discussions and when it’s not.   

You are one of the 16 activists involved in the SOS Amazonia campaign.  How did the campaign start and what is happening in the Amazonia region at the moment?

The campaign started when the mayor of Manaus asked publicly for Greta’s help to fight the pandemic in the Amazonas state. After having a meeting with the town hall, in which they gave all details of the dire situation the population was facing, we decided to make a video to ask for world leaders’ help in countries that had already been through the peak of the pandemic. When we published the video on our social medias and launched it to the press, thousands of people got in touch with us asking how they could help, so we decided to create a crowdfund and make the campaign be officially named SOS Amazônia.

The Amazônia region is facing a lot of problems currently, but some key points are constant fires, mostly provoked by illegal farmers and miners, illegal lodging, deforestation and of course the exploitation and abuse of indigenous peoples and traditional communities like riverside populations and quilombolas, which have their lands invaded and their rights taken away from them, resulting in many deaths and loss of their culture. In addition, the government, that should be doing everything in its power to stop it, is only making the situation worse, with hateful speeches against them, impunity of the activities -or crimes- and even their encouragement, because they offer them profit.

As a climate and social activist, what do you think about the Covid-19 pandemic and the climate crisis? How would you expect the transition should be? 

The pandemic has been making undeniable the fact that every aspect of our society is intertwined and, because of that, the consequent issues cannot be treated separately. The fragility of our social and economical system that suddenly had to deal with a major health crisis and proved itself to be completely inefficient is the same one that is leading ourselves to the aggravation of yet another crisis we face -the climate one. So, we shouldn’t hope and wait to see if they’ll be able to deal with this, because they are already showing they won’t, and for that we need to start making now what’s necessary to avoid the worse.

If scientists had warned us twenty years ago that Covid-19 would be our reality in 2020, but had as well provided ways of avoiding this catastrophe, the governments would surely do what was in their reach to refrain it. Why aren’t they doing anything to control the climate crisis, if the circumstances are the same? I wish the transition to a recovered society had climate justice as one of its main focus, keeping as a priority an economic stabilization that worked on tackling the climate crisis having in mind all the social implications and duties the process would carry.

Nevertheless, wishing is different from expecting, and I expect tough times ahead. If we don’t pressure our governments to achieve a green and fair recovery in every possible way, they’ll just keep up with business as usual and the climate emergency will get each day worse. This is why we’re in a decisive moment to make ourselves clear: we don’t want them to think that we are the generation that will “save the world” in the future, we want them to know that we are demanding change now, in the present. If they don’t attend what we urge, it would only show their irresponsibility and unpreparedness in dealing with the crisis we are confronted with, and for that they should not be in power.


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