‘Dedicated my life to the cause of Amazon forests’

Shaji Thomas, a Keralite who landed in Brazil in 1989 on a scholarship, is now a citizen of the football crazy nation.

In Brazil, he took a doctorate degree and completed three post-doctoral studies. He has a law degree as well and is the only Indian origin lawyer practicing in the South American country. He has been a major environmental activist and even lived in a houseboat on the Amazon river.

The following are some excerpts from an exclusive interview with IANS:

Q. You have been a citizen of Brazil for 30 years now. What are your thoughts about the country?

A. I came to Sao Paulo in the end of 1989 under an overseas training program. When I came here, the country was reeling under high inflation (more than 5,000 per cent per year). Though the country is extraordinarily rich, it has the high rate of corruption too. The right-wing government which was in power for many years favoured the rich class. Brazil is three times bigger than India and owns almost two-third of the Amazon rainforest. The gap between the rich and the poor is very evident in Brazil.

The political situation here changed in 2004, when the Left government under the leadership of Luiz Inacio Lula was elected as the president of the country. In fact, under his government, the country witnessed a lot of changes and millions of people came out of poverty. Social movement also strengthened under his government. But at the same time, the political alliance with the right-wing pushed the country back to poverty and subsequently the government changed. After Lula, the Left government was weak and the right-wing movement gained momentum. This led to the impeachment of the Left President Dilma Roussef and the criminal condemnation of former President Lula.

In 2018, the extreme right government was elected under the leadership of Bolsanaro, an ex-military person. Poverty has increased under his reign.

Q. Amazon forests are the major reason for the balance of the global environment. You have been active for the cause of protecting Amazon and its forests. Brief us about the movement.

A. As soon as I came to Brazil, I had a wonderful social experience with landless/ homeless people living here and saw other social movements here. I also visited Amazon in 1990 for the first time and got a chance to live with the traditional tribal people there. The vast amazon forest and its natural resources have attracted many people from all over the world. Apart from illegal occupants and timber companies, there are big mining companies and drug peddlers in Amazon.

The pressure for economic exploration of Amazon and protection of the forest have always resulted in conflicts and a number of social and environmental activists have lost lives in such conflicts. There are more than 3,000 tribal (red-indians) communities and African origin communities in the forest and these people are totally dependent on forest resources. Also, there are hundreds of small and large cities in the bank of the Amazon river and its tributaries. From 1950, there was a large migration movement to Amazon organised by the military government which opened highways in the middle of the forest.

After the military rule in 1988, there was a change in the conception of the Amazon forest, but the conflicts still are there among many groups. When the Left government was in power, Amazon was under strong protection but in the regime of the new government, the illegal occupancy has increased.

Q. After reaching Brazil, you have struggled a lot owing to the language constraints. How did you overcome that?

A. I had no idea about the Brazilian Portugese language when I reached Brazil. The Brazilians greeted me with “Bom dia” (good morning) after I reached Sao Paulo. I had no idea about the language and culture.

A Japanese tutor gave me initial Portugese classes but most of the language I had learnt through my daily interaction with the local people here. After two years of my local experience, I have now managed to understand and write Portuguese and I started my graduation in theology in a university in Sao Paulo.

Q. The present Brazilian President has not taken Covid seriously, he has also allowed felling of trees in Amazon. Is the country transforming itself into a banana republic?

A. President Bolsonaro is very much influenced by the ideology of ex-American president Trump. With extreme right ideology and support of the fascist ideas, he has been a negationist in science. He promoted Cloroquine treatment for Covid-19 and he was very inactive in supporting Brazilian vaccine for Covid.

With his government, the most environmental laws were altered, and the monitoring of Amazon has been at the lowest level. The burning of Amazon forest has increased and in the last year we lost about 15.000 sq km of Amazon forest due to mining, timber traffic, agro-industry use. Less than 5 per cent of environmental fines are paid in his government. The actual Environment Minister is supported exclusively by the landlords and big companies which have got much interest in exploration of Amazon. During the lockdown and pandemic situation, the destruction of Amazon has increased. The government is also trying to weaken the social and environmental movements in the Amazon region by cutting down economic and political support. Most of the funds for research work in Amazon have also been withdrawn by the government.

Q. Were you into environmental conservation since a young age, if so who was your inspiration?

A. I was born in an agricultural family which had a lot of land and lived in the middle of the village in Ramapuram, Palai in Kottayam district. My uncles were living in high range and I always went to those areas during my childhood. My father was a local politician and social worker who had a great interest in the protection of the environment. He was a great inspiration for me. But when I was doing graduation in Mysore university, I developed great interest in Amazon forest and always dreamt of visiting there. As soon as I reached Brazil, I visited Amazon. The first visit to Amazon was very inspiring because I could live with tribal and riverain communities in Amazon. So, as soon as I finished my studies in Sao Paulo, I opted to work in Amazon.

Q. What are the possibilities of the present Brazilian government retaining power?

A. The government is losing the support because of its inaction over Covid-19 pandemic, that too, despite enjoying 35 per cent support. The death toll has reached more than two lakh and it is one of the few countries which started vaccination lately. The economic situation is also not in favour of the government with a high rate of inflation. The lack of public policy for environmental and health issues has drained the public support for the government. A lot of ministers are related to the military personnel. Also, the change in the administration in the US has a clear influence in the upcoming elections in the country. People are disappointed with the present government and its disastrous social, environmental and economic policies.

Q. What are your major activities in Brazil?

A. Till 2008, I was frequently visiting the tribal and local communities in the state of Para, in Amazon, while working with social justice. During these years, I travelled hundreds of kilometres in Amazon by road and rivers and even lived in a houseboat in the Amazon river for years.

From 2008, I started studying law and in 2013 passed my bar examination in Brazil. I am the only person of Indian origin who has become a lawyer in Brazil. At the same time, while studying law, I did my Masters in Environment and Phd in sustainable development. I also started research work on natural resource governance and participation of local people.

In the last six years, I did three post-doctoral research on the effect of climate change and its influence in the governance of natural resources in Amazon. My five books on climate change, natural resource governance, environmental laws, etc. have also been published. Besides my research work, I also gave judicial assistance to the local communities in land and environmental issues. I have also participated in the society of biodiversity in the Guiana Shield which includes all the eight countries which share Amazon.

I have been part of seminars on social and environmental issues in many universities in South America and other countries. This month, I moved into a city in the heart of Amazon forest and the bank of Amazon river. I opted for this to be close to local people and support their struggle for their rights. There are a lot of land and environmental conflicts in Amazon and local and indigenous communities are suffering due to this. On one side, we have accelerated the destruction of Amazon forest due to mining, land grabbing, timber exportation, soybean plantation, cattle grazing, etc. and on the other side, we have social destruction of tribal communities whose land and resources are being used by the invaders.

Q. As an activist, academic and a lawyer, what’s your take on the unsavoury issues taking place vis-a-vis environment protection?

A. As an activist and environmental scientist, I believe that humanity can only be saved by saving our nature. I do vast climatic research and I can affirm that the adverse effect of climate change and destruction of our planet are human made and if we do not change our attitude and action, we are digging our own grave. We cannot save our nature without the effective participation of the local people and we need more public policies which favour the environment. The fascist government only favours the capitalists and we do not have an equilibrium between destruction and resilience. The capacity of auto resilience of the Amazon forest is at the end and we need urgent intervention to protect the forest and its habitants.

Q. Will the new democratic government in the US help the environment cause globally?

A. We need a new democratic government where people can have effective participation in the decision making. We need investment in innovation and technology with the participation of local knowledge of the traditional communities. Though efforts for environmental issues are being taken up globally, the lack of initiatives in countries like Brazil and the US have weakened these efforts.

As an environmental and social activist, I have decided to dedicate my life for the cause of Amazon and its local population, producing knowledge and sharing it. I know, I will have to face a lot of challenges while doing it but my conviction that we need Amazon is much stronger than any challenge.