In this post, I finish this series of three, where I describe my fieldwork and draw some reflections about the experience. Here I discuss development, science, consumerism and colonialism and how they make sense, or not, to me and according to what I saw in the field
Cover photo: Road sunset in Maranhão, Brazil, September 2019
Written by Tiago Reis
The definition of colonialism by the Oxford Learners’ Dictionary is enlightening: “the practice by which a powerful country controls another country or other countries”. The definition of neo-colonialism is even more revealing: “the use of economic or political pressure by powerful countries to control or influence other countries”. Using these definitions, let’s play a little bit. Let’s take out the “powerful country” and replace it with “minds, cultures, values”. Then let’s change “the use of economic or political pressure” for “consumption, need to develop, food security”, things like that, and see what happens. We can adapt from “the use of economic or political pressure” to “the use of consumer pressure”. Suddenly, it seems that economic and political pressure became a pressure for the availability and right to consume. The neo-neo-colonisers are affluent and empowered consumers, shouting out that the useless and luxurious goods they buy are bringing development to the people, who produce them. Is that so?
To examine that, we can look at how the insane, rampant consumerism and waste, swaggered by ideological free trade, is moving resources all over the globe. Free trade is doing that, allegedly, to take people out of poverty and provide food security. Nevertheless, it is mind-blowing that we never had so many overweight and starving people at the same time, living all together here and now . Where are all this free trade, development, and food security going? I did not see them in the frontiers I visited during my field trip. Tell me if you know where to find it. In my field trip, I saw and felt ignorance, exclusion, and inequality; I saw moral, ethical and environmental degradation. To play with Lenin’s famous title , perhaps the highest stage of colonialism is to make the colonised believe they are benefitting from colonisation.
The questions that I could not avoid after this and other field experiences came like bullets. Why do we need to develop? Why do we need to have GDP growth, paved roads, railways, deforestation, power plants moved by fossil fuels, and river dams? Why do we need shopping malls and supermarkets full of items that will soon go to waste? I would love to take only the universal basic income, health, education, healthy environment and sanitation parts of development. Can’t we leave all the other parts behind? Can’t we, as Brazil, or other tropical, developing nations, just jump ahead of the development ladder and create a new developmental paradigm, based on the bioeconomy and biotechnology, on cooperative production systems? Can’t we simply be a forest civilisation, living and flourishing in and with the forests, leaving behind all the mistakes we learned from the history of the western-white-colonialist-racist-fossil-unequal-consumption-industrial civilisation? Why is it so hard to de-colonise our minds and the minds of these development-seekers? I used to think that with science and policy, I could help to do something. The field has shown to me that colonialism is out there eating up everything, from people, to morals, passing through animals, plants, communities, ecosystems, and souls. I want to be proved entirely wrong, but I feel that the only way out is to take a seat and watch as colonialism eats everything, including itself.
The beautiful combination of river, forest and beach in the Brazilian Amazon, Tocantins, Brazil. September 2019.
Sometimes I feel there is a kind of magic spell or that almost everyone is just hypnotised, myself included. And the colonialist and colonised mindsets are so sticky that it seems hard to get rid of them. Ha-Joon Chang did a great job in exposing, drawing and explaining very thoroughly how developed countries create a self-reinforcing development model. This model prevents developing nations to develop within the same logic. In short, once newly developed countries climb up, they “kick away the ladder”. Developing countries need to do precisely the opposite of what the World Bank and the IMF, for example, “recommend” if they wish to succeed. They need to break through global power structures and build their own ladder. As far as I see, concurring with Professor Carlos Nobre and many civil society organisations, agribusiness companies and associations, tropical forest developing countries can create the fourth industrial revolution, totally based on the bioeconomy and biotechnology. The biophysical resources, social capital and the smart use of them, are vital to turn this page of history and make the Amazon and tropical forest countries the centre of the world.
Colonised animals in Nepal, working for consumers. This photo was taken on a personal trip, not fieldwork, in May 2019. I put it here because it adds to the reflection.
I am a Brazilian man, born in a family of farmers, entrepreneurs and liberal professionals who climbed up the poverty ladder. The self-made men who now claim meritocracy and individual initiative are sufficient to make people progress in a highly unequal, post-slave, static and racist society. Also, as an adult who was raised in a small town full of prejudices, ignorance, and obsession with appearances, I am both colonised and coloniser. As an aspiring scientist, I bring the history of colonialism with me, reproducing it here and there, unaware. Now, I start to grasp that science can be wrong and skewed when it ignores the traditional knowledge and wisdom of uneducated people. Science can be wrong when it fails to consider irreproducible experiments because it is too contextualised; or when it pretends to devise feasible and effective suggestions or recommendations to address social-environmental problems because it followed a rigorous and systematic procedure to ignore subjectivity and peoples’ feelings, or because the scientific method ignored the profound realities that shape and determine what happens on the ground. I am happy that I could experience something that led me to similar conclusions as those drawn by Foucault in his power-knowledge concept. I also think it is not always like this – or more importantly, that it cannot be different. It can be different!
Colonised landscape in Mato Grosso, Brazil. September 2019.
As I said, I indeed saw much degradation, but I also saw uninterested friendliness, empathy, and real willingness to help. A man, who is an illegal land-grabber and deforester, is also a family father trying to provide his children with opportunities that he missed to ascend the poverty ladder. He is a coloniser, when he threatens local and vulnerable communities, and forces them to move out of their customary lands, to open space for whatever plantations. But he is also colonised because he is doing that to satisfy the demands of this hungry neo-neo-coloniser, the consumers. The only novelty in this never-ending colonialism is telecoupling and globalisation. They represent the set of means to decrease all types of distances and make the differences between colonisers and colonised fuzzier. Telecoupling and globalisation mean that the neo-neo-colonisers, who are the consumers, can be anywhere. There is no distance, geographic location or national boundary to limit the consumer. He or she is everywhere, willing to consume anything and everything. And it doesn’t matter if you are not either a producer or a consumer, Telecoupling shows that you will still be affected by the spillover or indirect effects. Yes, we are all together on this boat, my friend.
Indigenous women playing football. Araguaia region, Mato Grosso, Brazil, September 2019. In my opinion, indigenous peoples and anyone should have the right not to become consumers and producers for the global economy. We should have the right not to develop, understanding that development means the perpetuation of colonialism. All people should have the right to do whatever they want to do regardless of what any white man or “scientist”, like me, tell they should do.
Consumers have two powerful weapons, which are cornerstones of liberal democracies: purchasing power and voting capacity. These two things create what these guys call the productivity trap. The productivity, or electoral democracy trap as I like to call, implies that growing the economy and consumption is continuously required to maintain full employment. If growth fails, unemployment ensues. Therefore, politicians need to promote growth to create jobs and get votes in a self-reinforcing cycle of unsustainability. This unsustainability of short-term, narrow-minded, populist politicians governing most of the liberal democracies, particularly developing countries like Brazil or highly unequal countries like the US, does not seem close to an end. Moreover, there is still the ideological mission of bringing development, taking people out of poverty, attached to consumerism and global supply chains. This is an ideology repeated like a mantra against all facts, evidence and people’s perceptions. It is a repetition of what the Jesuit priests did in Latin America with the catechisation missions. Change the quest to bring “god and the truth” to these savages for “development and consumption” and you will find kind of the same.
Waterfall with clear water. Maranhão, Brazil. August 2019.
I learned from the field that there are no entirely bad or good people. There are just people. I want to eat, breathe, dress, drink and have shelter, and so does everyone else. Everyone will do whatever is available to achieve that. Some people might be greedier than others, but this is not the only thing. People also want to belong, to interact, to entertain, to feel and experience. We are not rational actors only, we are also sentient actors. In my opinion, science needs to internalise that more actively. The current stage of colonialism perverts our minds by making us believe that it is fine to have everything available everywhere 24h a day and every day. To meet this insane demand, there is a cost in terms of peoples’ lives, happiness, and satisfaction. We should be aware that having avocados, steaks and apples on display all the time in supermarkets have a considerable cost, well beyond the coins we drop at the cashier. The neo-neo-colonialism manifests as the idea that I can have anything, anywhere, all the time. Perhaps the only way to overcome this neo-neo-colonialism is living with what we have around us. Maybe that would also make us less anxious, more satisfied and constructively productive. I do not know, I only guess.
For me, perhaps the most crucial step in this scientific endeavour was to break through satellite lenses and spatial patterns and connect with the inner cores of people. Knowledge can be created and transmitted in so many ways, regardless of power structures. People can be so lovely, beautiful and passionate about what they do and what they represent. A deforesting farmer is a coloniser trying to escape colonisation the same way an aspiring scientist does. He or she only needs to realise that. As aspiring scientists, we need to be aware that the way we pursue truth is an instrument of power that can create inequality. We need to be mindful that the way we clear land, expel people, animals and plants, and create plantations to supply food to hungry consumers is the same way we dismiss traditional knowledge as non-scientific. It is the same way we neglect subjectivity as non-reproducible; we ignore feelings and sensations as non-quantifiable. Free and traditional knowledge can have equal validity and power to influence reality. We need to wake up and realise that we do not need to have everything, everywhere, and all the time. The same way we need to understand that knowledge is not objective. It can be very subjective, contextualised and thus much more useful and positive to influence our experienced reality or to make policies. Knowledge is what every one of us feels and does with the things we see around us. As crucial as it was for my scientific development, I hope every aspiring scientist can do fieldwork in their lives.
Photo credits: All photos are taken by the author, Tiago Reis
His research in COUPLED is focused on understanding how agricultural supply chains behave in face of external changes and shocks. As a result, this research will provide an analytical tool capable of exposing economic, social, environmental and geographical trade-offs for public and private policy-makers who are developing regulations and policy instruments.
Research project: Stickiness in international trade of agricultural and forestry products
Université catholique de Louvain, Earth and Life Institute, Georges Lemaître Centre for Earth and Climate Research (TECLIM)
Place Pasteur 3, bte L4.03.08, 1348 Louvain-la-Neuve, Belgium