One morning in July, after the Brazilian native philosopher, writer and environmentalist Ailton Krenak (68) has given a speech at a major Pan-Amazon conference, something extraordinary happens. As students at the university complex on the Amazon River eat their lunch and enjoy the view, the branches of a tree above them begin to shake. They look up startled. The rustling gets louder. Suddenly, they see a huge iguana appear and maneuver itself to the very end of the branches. Then the animal falls into a free fall and plunges into the river. The students watch in amazement as the iguana swims away with its head above the water with the current of the water.
Ailton Krenak – who will receive a Prince Claus award on Tuesday for his efforts to protect indigenous culture and nature – could describe this situation as a moment of insight into the fact that people are not at the center of everything. Animals and nature also claim their place. And if we don’t change our lifestyle of consuming and making money, they will catch up with us.
In books and lectures, Krenak fiercely criticizes how nature in Brazil and the rest of the world since colonial times has been sacrificed to the ‘development’ of the West in particular. Although you cannot eat money – according to a native saying – but nature will feed you forever if you live well with her.
Humanity, says Krenak, faces an ecological and economic abyss of disease and environmental disaster due to industrialization. But it is not too late to look and change it, he says. To stop further environmental disasters, we must embrace a new kind of dream that allows us to reclaim our place in nature that we have now lost.
In his latest book Ideas to delay the end of the world Krenak describes how the Covid-19 pandemic forced humanity to a temporary standstill. It reminded us that we are vulnerable and will die if they shut off our air for a few minutes. Erasing humanity does not require a complex war system.
Ailton Krenak belongs to the group of Krenak indigenous people who live around the river Rio Doce in the state of Minas Gerais in southwestern Brazil. He is one of the most important contemporary thinkers in Latin America and writers in Brazil, and as an environmental activist and champion of indigenous rights, he fights against the further destruction of nature and the extermination of indigenous peoples.
The area where Krenak comes from has for centuries, since colonization, been plagued by land expropriations and other conflicts between indigenous people and large landowners. Many large mining companies settled in the region to extract gold, minerals and iron ore. In 2015, the area was in the news due to a major natural disaster: a dam by the mining company Vale broke, dozens of people died, and large mudslides flowed into the Rio Doce. Where the Krenak once numbered around five thousand members because they were hunted, displaced and massacred, there are now only one hundred and fifty Krenak indigenous people in Brazil.
Ailton Krenak also experienced the danger as a child, he told a packed house at the Federal University of Belém during the Amazon meeting, where members of indigenous organizations, leaders and environmentalists from all Amazon countries spoke about the state of the largest tropical rainforest. the world.
Deforestation is progressing so quickly that, according to the participants, a state of emergency must be declared. “We, my relatives and ancestors, hid in the forests,” said Krenak, whose participation in the conference was initially canceled because he, like many other indigenous leaders, is under threat. Especially since the arrival of the far-right Bolsonaro government, which advocates opening up the Amazon for economic purposes and pushing back indigenous land, life has become more dangerous for activists: More than 30 leaders and environmentalists were murdered in Brazil last year. . “During my teenage years, I repeatedly fled with my father because our land was taken by landowners and mining companies,” Krenak continues. “When I was seventeen, we settled in southern Brazil in Paraná, where I learned to read and write.”
Krenak became a journalist and author and has become an important representative of the indigenous peoples of Brazil. He became famous when he painted his face black with ritual symbols of mourning on live television during one of the debates on the new 1988 constitution and the position of indigenous peoples. In the same period, he supported the environmentalist and former rubber tapper Chico Mendes’ fight against the construction of roads and large fazendas in the Amazon. In 1988, Mendes was assassinated for his activism. Ailton Krenak co-founded several indigenous rights organizations such as the União dos Povos Indígenas (Union of Indigenous Peoples) and the Alliance of Jungle Peoples.
In his book, Krenak talks about the Rio Doce. “We call it ‘Watu’, Grandpa. We see the river as a person, not a resource like Western economists.”
And as a child, Krenak learned that mountains also have a character and that you can ‘read’ mountains. “In the village where I grew up, people look up at the mountain every morning to see if it’s going to be a good day or if it’s better to stay indoors. Sometimes the mountain seems moody, so you better stay indoors. But sometimes the mountain wakes up in all its splendor and looks beautifully radiant – with white clouds around the peaks. Then we know it will be a good day’.
Krenak receives the Prince Claus award at a critical time. The climate crisis is becoming more and more evident due to droughts and floods. The native wisdom of his books seems further from us than ever.
Luis Manuel Otero Alcantara
The Cuban performance artist Luis Manuel Otero Alcantara (1987) receives the news of the Prince Claus Prize in his cell. He was arrested again in June 2021 and remains in prison. The reason was a video that he had posted on Instagram. He asked people to participate in a demonstration for freedom of speech. Alcántara is the leader of the San Isidro Collective, which stands up for cultural rights and freedom of expression in Cuba. He also co-founded the online Museum of Dissidents, a public art project celebrating the art of Cuban dissidents. Due to her performance art and interventions, Alcántara has been arrested several times. In 2017 for possession of ‘illegal construction materials’ when he built an alternative Biennale in Havana. Two years later, because he had a Cuban flag draped around his shoulders at a performance, which would be contrary to how to handle a Cuban flag.
“The legacy is ours”, sums up the Egyptian architect May al-Ibrashy her work together. From the Athar Lina platform, she wants to preserve the heritage, make people aware of its importance and embed it in the social interest. “If people see heritage as a resource they can benefit from, they will work harder to preserve it. We do this through education, crafts and arts that focus on heritage. The local community is vital to its preservation.” Al-Ibrashy receives the Prince Claus Prize not only for his efforts and involvement of the local communities in the preservation of this heritage, but also for ‘rewriting’ history by linking the preservation of the heritage to the local community. “Art and culture are the best ways for people to expand their horizons and challenge existing dogmas. Art has the power to touch us regardless of cultural differences. We have a responsibility to take steps on an intellectual level to bridge these cultural differences, but also to take a nuanced look at understanding other arts and cultures.”
“The desire for change in society was enormous and I had to find artistic forms to deal with it,” emails the Moroccan artist. Hassan Darsi (1961). When he settled in Casablanca after his education in Europe, he noticed that the art was dominated by conventional art. There was little room for young artists to develop and therefore focused La source du Lion op, a collective where artists, journalists, students and the public can discuss the role of art in society. “It started in 1995, and to this day we have artistic projects that differ from what is usual in Morocco. It was a matter of survival for me to be able to express myself.” His project was striking L’Hermitage Park in Casablanca, where together with the residents he created a plan for art and common spaces. “In a society, any word that deviates can be perceived as a threat. Getting to know each other’s art and culture leads to a model of society that is open to differences and creates a society where the territory becomes a poetic one.”
“With my art, I try to influence society as subtly and honestly as possible. But I will never be able to force people to do what they do.” The Senegalese film director and screenwriter Alain Gomis (1972) describes his work in these words. He is known for his films L’Afrance (2001), Andalusia (2017), aujourd’hui (2021). His movie Congratulations (2017) – about a woman looking for money to avoid her son’s leg amputation – was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film and won a Silver Bear (Grand Jury Prize) at the Berlinale.
In 2018, he founded the Yennenga Center to stimulate film productions from the continent and train young talent. He receives the Prince Claus Award for making films accessible to Senegalese society and for making social issues accessible to a wide audience through his ‘effective and empathetic way of telling’. Gomis himself hopes that cultural differences can be bridged by artists, whereby “some art is meant to be local but conquers the world, and some art has to be universal but not even beyond the street corner.”
“We create because we have to break with something that limits us or makes us uncomfortable,” suspects the Argentinian writer, poet and activist Maria Medrano (1971). In her country, she fights for women’s rights in Argentine prisons. For her, it is important to work from a collective. “We try to make the world a more livable place. In my work, I rebel against an unjust world and hope to influence and change the status quo.”
Medrano founded YO NO FUI after teaching poetry workshops in women’s prisons in 2002. Three years later, she founded the publishing house Tinta Revuelta to publish the work of the LGBTQ+ people who had attended the workshops. Poetry as a means of creating opportunities and giving marginalized women a chance to reintegrate into society is one of the reasons why Medrano was awarded the prize. “Art is a tool that allows us to build other worlds and create flight lines in relation to power. Cultural differences are a wealth in this respect, for this is how the most diverse nuances, meanings, signs and disorders are expressed.”
A version of this article also appeared in the newspaper on 6 September 2022