Shaji Thomas, a Keralite who landed in Brazil in 1989 on a scholarship, is now a football-mad citizen. In Brazil, he took a doctorate and completed three postdoctoral studies. He also has a law degree and is the only practicing lawyer from India in the South American country. He has become a major environmental activist and even lives in a houseboat on the Amazon river.
Here are some excerpts from an exclusive interview with IANS:
You have been a citizen of Brazil for 30 years now. What do you think about this country?
I came to Sao Paulo at the end of 1989 under an overseas training program. When I came here, the country was shaken by high inflation (more than 5,000 percent per year). Although the country is extraordinarily rich, the level of corruption is also high. The right-wing government, which has ruled for years, favors the rich class. Brazil is three times the size of India and contains nearly two-thirds of the Amazon rainforest. The gap between the rich and the poor is very clear in Brazil.
The political situation here changed in 2004, when the Left government under Luiz Inacio Lula was elected president of the country. In fact, under his rule, the country witnessed many changes and millions of people emerged from poverty. Social movements also strengthened under his rule. But at the same time, political alliances with the right pushed the country back into poverty and then the government changed. After Lula, the Left government was weak and the right-wing movement gained momentum. This led to the impeachment of Left President Dilma Roussef and criminal conviction of former President Lula.
In 2018, a far-right government was elected under the leadership of Bolsanaro, a former soldier. Poverty increased under his rule.
The Amazon forest is the main reason for the global environmental balance. You have been active in protecting the Amazon and its forests. Tell us about this movement.
As soon as I came to Brazil, I had a wonderful social experience with landless / homeless people living here and seeing other social movements here. I also visited the Amazon in 1990 for the first time and had the opportunity to live with the traditional tribal people there. Amazon’s vast forests and natural resources have attracted large numbers of people from all over the world. Apart from squatters and logging companies, there are large mining companies and drug dealers on the Amazon.
The pressure of Amazon economic exploration and forest protection always creates conflict and a number of social and environmental activists have lost their lives in the conflict. There are more than 3,000 tribal communities (red Indians) and communities of African origin in the forest and these people are very dependent on forest resources. Also, there are hundreds of towns and cities on the banks of the Amazon River and its tributaries. Since 1950, there has been a massive shift to the Amazon organized by the military government that has opened up forest roads.
After the 1988 military rule, there was a change in the conception of the Amazon forest, but conflicts still occur between many groups. When the Left government came to power, the Amazon was under strong protection but in the new regime, illegal occupation increased.
After reaching Brazil, you have struggled because of the language barrier. How do you handle it?
I didn’t know about Brazilian Portuguese when I arrived in Brazil. The Brazilian greeted me with “Bom dia” (good morning) after I reached Sao Paulo. I don’t know about the language and culture.
A Japanese teacher gave me initial Portuguese classes but most of the language I learned was through my daily interactions with local people here. After two years of my local experience, I have now succeeded in understanding and writing Portuguese and I am starting my graduation in theology at a university in Sao Paulo.
The current president of Brazil is not taking Covid seriously, he has also permitted the cutting of trees in the Amazon. Has this country turned itself into a banana republic?
President Bolsonaro is deeply influenced by the ideology of former American president Trump. With extreme right ideology and support of fascist ideas, he became a negationist in science. He is promoting Cloroquine treatment for Covid-19 and he has been very inactive in supporting the Brazilian vaccine for Covid.
With his administration, most environmental laws were changed, and Amazon monitoring was at its lowest level. The burning of the Amazon forest has increased and in the last year we lost about 15,000 square km of the Amazon forest due to mining, timber traffic, agro-industrial use. Less than 5 percent of environmental fines are paid in his government. The real Minister of the Environment is supported exclusively by landlords and big companies who are very interested in exploring the Amazon. During lockdown and pandemic situations, Amazon’s damage increases. The government is also trying to weaken social and environmental movements in the Amazon region by cutting economic and political support. Most of the funding for research work on the Amazon has also been withdrawn by the government.
You have been involved in environmental conservation since childhood, then who is your inspiration?
I was born to a farming family who owns a lot of land and lives in the middle of a village in Ramapuram, Palai in the Kottayam district. My uncle lived a high distance and I used to go to that area during my childhood. My father is a local politician and social worker with a passion for environmental protection. He is a great inspiration to me. But when I graduated at Mysore university, I developed a great interest in the Amazon jungle and always dreamed of visiting there. As soon as I reached Brazil, I visited Amazon. My first visit to the Amazon was very inspiring because I was able to live with the tribal and river communities in the Amazon. So, as soon as I finished my studies in Sao Paulo, I chose to work for Amazon.
What are the chances of the current Brazilian government retaining power?
The government is losing support due to its inaction over the Covid-19 pandemic, despite enjoying 35 percent support. The death toll has reached more than two lakhs and is one of the few countries that started vaccinations recently. The economic situation is also not in favor of the government with a high inflation rate. The lack of public policies for environmental and health issues has drained public support for the government. Many ministers are associated with military personnel. In addition, changes in government in the US have a clear effect on the country’s upcoming elections. People are disillusioned by the current government and its disastrous social, environmental and economic policies.
What is your main activity in Brazil?
Until 2008, I frequently visited tribal and local communities in Para state, in the Amazon, while working with social justice. During these years, I traveled hundreds of kilometers in the Amazon by road and river and even lived in houseboats on the Amazon river for many years.
Since 2008, I started studying law and in 2013 passed the bar exam in Brazil. I am the only person from India who is a lawyer in Brazil. At the same time, while studying law, I earned a Masters in the Environment and a PhD in sustainable development. I also started research on natural resource governance and local community participation.
In the last six years, I conducted three post-doctoral studies on the effects of climate change and its impact on natural resource governance in the Amazon. My five books on climate change, natural resource governance, environmental law, etc. Also published. Apart from my research, I also provide judicial assistance to local communities on land and environmental issues. I also participate in the biodiversity community in Guiana Shield which includes eight countries that share the Amazon.
I have been part of seminars on social and environmental issues at universities in South America and other countries. This month, I moved to a city in the heart of the Amazon jungle and the banks of the Amazon River. I chose this to be close to the local people and support their fight for their rights. There are many land and environmental conflicts in the Amazon and local and indigenous communities are suffering from this. On the one hand, we have accelerated the destruction of the Amazon forest due to mining, land grabbing, timber exports, soybean plantations, livestock grazing, etc. And on the other hand, we experience the social destruction of the tribal people whose land and resources are used. by the invaders.
As an activist, academic, and lawyer, what do you think about the unpleasant problems that arise with environmental protection?
As an environmental activist and scientist, I believe that humanity can only be saved by saving our nature. I did extensive climate research and I can affirm that the adverse effects of climate change and the destruction of our planet are man-made and if we don’t change our attitudes and actions we are digging our own graves. We cannot save our nature without the effective participation of local communities and we need more pro-environment public policies. Fascist governments only side with capitalists and we don’t have a balance between destruction and resilience. The Amazon forest’s auto resilience capacity is at the edge and we need urgent intervention to protect the forest and its inhabitants.
Will the new democratic government in the US help the global environment?
We need a new democratic government where people can have effective participation in decision making. We need investment in innovation and technology with the participation of local wisdom of traditional communities. Despite efforts to address environmental concerns globally, a lack of initiative in countries such as Brazil and the US has undermined these efforts.
As an environmental and social activist, I’ve decided to dedicate my life to the Amazon and its local people, generating knowledge and sharing it. I know I had to face a lot of challenges while doing it, but my belief that we need Amazon is much stronger than any challenge.