Erasing a country


08/03/2019 16:54

(Arte: Carta Maior)

Créditos da foto: (Arte: Carta Maior)

A far-right extremist has been elected in Brazil. Within just two months of his term, groups, causes, and social movements that historically suffered threats and risks now see their institutional place (i.e. participation channels, rights and legislation protection) and their existence endangered; their agenda erased from the public administration and official data about them disappearing.

Traditional communities, indigenous and quilombolas (black descendants of the formerly enslaved), have had their protected status disqualified by the federal government. The National Indian Foundation (FUNAI), founded in 1967, was engulfed by the Ministry of Agriculture and now the big farming interests are responsible for “identification, delimitation, demarcation and registration of lands traditionally occupied by indigenous people” all in a moment when the President compared indigenous and quilombolas living in protected lands to animals in zoos.

During his presidency, Bolsonaro, who declared that he prefers to have a dead son to a gay one, merged the former national women's secretariat with the human rights secretariat and extinguished the racial equality secretariat to create the Ministry of Women, Family and Human Rights, led by an evangelical pastor, who declined to protect LGBT communities in a country that leads the world in homophobic murders, “registering 44% of all LBGT Defender killings worldwide” and declared that “girls wear pink, and boys wear blue.”

Again, just one example after another, Colombian-born Bolsonaro’s Minister of Education promised to stamp out "cultural Marxism" and “gender theory” studies. He shut down the National Secretariat of Literacy, Diversity and Inclusion with the objective of eliminating the themes of human rights, ethnic-racial education and the very word “diversity” in Brazilian education, erasing them from school books.

In another front, just last week, the National Institute of Colonization and Agrarian Reform (INCRA), a federal agency with responsibility over rural land reform, through its army colonel ombudsman, sent a memorandum to all the administration prohibiting officials from receiving or giving any guidance to entities that are not formalized as companies or institutions. The government action breaks the channels of dialogue with social movements, in particular with Brazil’s Landless Workers Movement (MST), and aims to delegitimize, erase and criminalize those movements. In addition, the legislation that allows social movements and protests to be framed as terrorist acts continues to gain momentum.

Overall, society in general has been directly threatened by government actions, particularly in terms of food security. In January, Bolsonaro shut down the National Council for Food Security and Nutrition (CONSEA), which served as a forum between representatives from diverse sectors of Brazilian society and the government to improve public policies related to the realization of the Human Rights to Adequate Food. In 2014, these policies were responsible for removing Brazil from FAO Hunger Map. The CONSEA extinction particularly impacts family farming and its important share of food production in Brazil (87% of cassava production; 70% of beans; 46% of corn; 38% of coffee; 34% of rice; 58% of milk; 59% of pork; and 50% of poultry, are from family farms according to data of the Agricultural Census 2006 / IBGE). In addition, in its first 50 days, the government has cleared 86 new highly toxic pesticides for use in the plantations.

Furthermore, human lives, in particular the black and the young, don’t appear to have value in a country with one of the world’s highest murder rates and a record 63,880 intentional violent deaths per year. Bolsonaro, using provisory presidential decrees, made it legal for anyone to buy and keep firearms, and established the ‘Anti-Crime law’ that may allow police officers to kill in service. This bill is being understood as extending the situations in which a person who commits a crime is not punished by justice. In effect, the Bill is a deliberate policy intending to erase what the extreme right classifies as “vagabonds,” a broad category which may include historically marginalized social groups, with a focus on police-permitted racial profiling, intensifying what is already considered a huge problem in Brazil.

In a country marked by a violent history, actions like these, if not constituting crimes in itself, are encouraging the criminal activity of extermination groups, militias, and grileiros (land grabbers), as well as fostering new violent state actions.

But the worst seems yet to come, and if there is no immediate counter-action, it will be nearly impossible to reveal and analyze the impacts of the regime led by Bolsonaro and his allies on the country’s future.

Since Michel Temer's government, research institutions have been suffering from deep budget cuts and restrictions on freedoms of thought and expression. As Trump did in the US, Bolsonaro threatens to step out of the Paris Agreement. Both his Ministers of Foreign Affairs and Environment are climate change deniers. Brazil is not just a leader in global environmental negotiations under the UN Climate Change Convention, it is also a leader in climate science in the southern hemisphere. Losing the Brazilian support in continuing climate change mitigation means a global failure in achieving the 1.5 degrees Celsius target proposed by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

The production of data and information about a country is one of the primary targets of authoritarian, extremist or generally undemocratic governments; governments that do not coexist with the contradictory.

In Brazil, the IBGE (Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics) is the main provider of data and information meeting the demands of several types of segments of civil society, bodies at the federal, state and municipal level, as well as the international organizations.

It is for this reason that IBGE's research has been gradually revised, simplified and even discontinued. Scientific research and knowledge do not coincide with the religious fundamentalism and authoritarian policies of Bolsonaro and his supporters. Last Friday, February 22, at the IBGE CO inauguration ceremony, Bolsonaro’s super minister of economy suggested to simplify the census. In his words, “let's simplify!” The census of rich countries has 10 questions, the Brazilian census has 150 and the one from Burundi has 360. If you ask too much you end up discovering things you did not even want to know.

The lack of funds is the justification for the simplification or discontinuity of the census surveys, and the alternative is the increase in the number and frequency of sample surveys. What hides behind this strategy is that several variables are no longer measured, not surprisingly those related to the most fragile and weak sectors. The state renounces knowledge of the current reality and its historical series, erases part of the fact, which is replaced by inferences about the truth. As usually said as a joke in statistical analysis, torture the data so they will say whatever is inquired. Bolsonaro knows what he's doing!

The IBGE’s agricultural census had a drastic reduction of funds. As a result, variables that allowed the identification of the use of pesticides have been discontinued. A coincidence! The same happened with family farming production, which almost ceased to exist in the official data even though it is responsible for a significant portion of the food that goes to Brazilians’ tables. However, the sample surveys that replaced the census surveys do not identify family farming.

In turn, the Demographic Census of 2020 runs the imminent risk of being canceled or being carried out in a simplified way, with less questions and narrower data collection, breaking the historical series. This will negatively impact the monitoring of public policies and international commitments in human rights areas and also the Brazilian participation in the Paris Agreement and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) monitoring agenda. All this to suit the wishes of the Minister of Economy, for whom what is not known does not exist.

The political, economic, social and demographic analyzes have already suffered from the simplification of the Census annual sample survey, PNAD, which ceased to exist in 2018, and was replaced by a “continuous” PNAD which expanded its scope and frequency but reduced its variables, which prevents the update of relevant themes such as the Human Development Index (HDI), and makes it impossible to produce good inferences about, for example, the housing deficit.

The production of social, economic, political and demographic data in Brazil is internationally recognized for its quality and its historical series, and it places Brazil in a prominent stage among other countries. On one hand, Brazil produces data using the most advanced tools and methodologies according to similar national institutions and international agencies, matching the most developed countries. On the other hand, the country generates methods and data which enable the analysis of poverty, inequalities, and precariousness, given a relevant contribution to other underdeveloped and developing countries and international agencies. Brazilian national public agencies such as IBGE, EMBRAPA and IPEA are all research agencies recognized and respected in several international communities and particularly in the multilateral organisms with which they collaborate in the production of global norms for sharing data.

The intentional strategy to erase part of what this government sees as problems, socially and economically, may delete Brazil’s knowledge of itself, preventing its insertion in several world forums and erasing its own future.

Renato Balbim: PhD, Geographer, Visiting Scholar - University of California Irvine

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