On decolonizing environmental justice narratives – An interview with Camila Nobrega

Image with Illustration of Camila

Introduction: Beyond the Green is a journalistic experimental project which explores feminist narratives about megaprojects that affect our lives, bodies, and territories. It combines investigative journalism, academic knowledge and artistic languages together in a documentary process with the aim of unveiling power dynamics in an increasingly digital world. It aims to strengthen narratives around social-environmental justice. Ouassima (Superrr Lab) spoke to Camila (Beyond the Green):

SUPERRR: How would you describe Beyond The Green to someone who has never heard about feminism and environmental justice before?

Camila: Beyond the Green is a platform that uses social environmental perspectives and feminist lenses to bring visibility to mega projects that impact territories and bodies, especially in Latin America and the so-called Global South. It is a transdisciplinary project that sits between journalism, academia and art.

SUPERRR: Why did you start Beyond the Green?

Camila: It started in 2015, when I came to Germany as part of the Alexander von Humboldt German Chancellor Fellowship. My idea was to find German collectives working with alternative journalism on environmental issues. I learned about some very interesting German initiatives connected with Latin America. However, when I asked about the connections between the projects happening here and struggles in the so-called Global South, I started to notice that deeper collaboration between Europe and Latin America, as well as more horizontal forms of joint action and reflection, are still rare.

Originally, I wanted to map what is happening here. But it changed a lot. I would say it actually became a different project, because now it is not a platform to connect different initiatives, but rather to build and circulate those narratives. If there is a dam being built in Brazil, what is the energy produced destined for, who benefits, what is the broader perspective? For me, the main point with Beyond the Green is to understand the connections we cannot neglect.

SUPERRR: Agribusiness consumes more than 30% of the total energy produced in Brazil, with a good part of this production going for export. How is it possible to understand power relations if we look at conflicts and environmental narratives in a fragmented way?

Camila: Discourse on environmental and social justice is very fragmented. Living in Germany for six years as a Latin American woman, I must keep this as my focus, trace these links. It has a lot to do with heteropatriarchy and colonialism, which still govern access to land, to communication, to the narratives that circulate on the internet…

SUPERRR: Could you tell us more about the example of the dam you are working on in connection with Beyond the Green?

Camila: As part of my PhD, I am researching the possible effects on people and the environment of the planned São Luiz do Tapajós hydropower plant in the Amazon region. For many years I reported on environmental issues for traditional media organisations. However, most still take hegemonic perspectives, for example focussing on global approaches to sustainable development, or presenting technologies as the salvation of social and environmental crises. I still work with them but also now with popular communicators in a variety of local territories. Together, we try to connect and build different narratives.

On the internet, algorithmic logic concentrates the narratives of those who circulate the most information. Yet it also makes possible connections between people in different territories, collaborations between journalists and popular communicators in different parts of the world. To find the spaces in between and dispute discourses, to see the power relations behind them, see beyond, to how communities wish to be – this is what Beyond the Green does, this is the idea behind it. And Brazil is my starting point.

SUPERRR: You said it is important to look at who is taking part in public conversations, who is (un-)heard, and why and how to disrupt existing hegemonies. Do you have an example where you thought “Wow, this is why I am doing it”?

Camila: Yes, many times. Official documents for this hydropower plant state that it’s in the public interest that more energy is produced. So the position of the government and the companies involved is that there is no other way, we need to build it. But when I visited I saw a completely different reality. People living there are not even included in the environmental licencing process until it is already under construction. It’s hard even to get any details.

The majority of people I interviewed there were women – firstly because they are under-represented in academic research, and secondly, because women lead many of the resistance actions there. They revealed to me different forms of technologies, complex community structures, nuances in communication. Through radio, local meetings, small newspapers, online and offline, these women have developed networks of communication over centuries – none of which are mentioned in the official documents that analyse how a territory will be changed. They are not counted by the patriarchal, capitalist tools used to assign value.
The people living there have been managing the forest for centuries. I mean, the forests are not just growing like that, but because of the people there. All the life that exists there would just disappear because of the dam and the connected mega projects. When I visited, I saw that many networks for defending the territories already existed. For me, as a journalist, it began a very deep process of questioning and repositioning my own work.

SUPERRR: What did that mean for you personally?

Camila: For sure, it changed my view of how knowledge is produced through academia, journalism, art. So many things are epistemically erased, there are different levels of violence. When you try to define from outside what is there, what these communities are about… it is so violent. How to make that visible is part of my research. It’s an ongoing process for me.

SUPERRR: Yes, absolutely. How is resistance also a part of your work?

Camila: What I try to do now is connect it with my PhD and journalistic work. I try to invert how these kind of conflicts are investigated, learn from and with different perspectives. I do not talk for people or “give them a voice”. It is better that we pass the mic and understand the point of view from which we speak. For example, when I have the chance to question someone from the government, I try to formulate questions from other perspectives. In Brazil we have a law allowing access to information. So when I am in this position either as a researcher or as a journalist, I also have to change what I am looking for. It is about re-understanding how to ask question. Because I think we sometimes ask the wrong questions. There are other ways of understanding time, collective memory, local knowledge... We ask what the problem is when we should ask whether a project should even happen

SUPERRR: Impressive. As you work from feminist perspectives, how does intersectionality come into play and is it important to you?

Camila: An amazing question, thank you for asking it. It’s one I’m trying to answer in my own research. I think feminist perspectives help me unveil power relations. It is not necessarily about women but rather making layers of power visible. For example, my understanding of epistemic violence and systems stems from feminist Latin American scholarship. Feminist and indigenous women are the most threatened not because they are vulnerable but because they are at the front. They raise their voices, dispute discourses and claim territories and spaces. It is not about vulnerability, it is the complete opposite.

Working closely with different communities, thinking collectively, is feminist perspectives in action. There are different forms of knowledge that aren’t necessarily documented or written down. Oral communication is one of the main forms in the Tapajós region. To communicate there therefore means visiting each community by boat and discussing the arrival of the dam.

SUPERRR: So they mobilized people by taking a boat up and down the river?

Camila: Yes, exactly. These communities are connected through the river, which becomes a means of communication in the sense that if these people were relocated, it changes a lot. It takes away a certain communicative possibility.

SUPERRR: Wow, communicating through the river – it’s a beautiful picture. What are your next steps, what is Beyond the Green in five to ten years?

Camila: I’ve been thinking a lot about it lately. I hope that becomes a space that gives visibility to different narratives online and offline, and to women and non-binary people. That it becomes a space to produce other forms of journalism, where we learn from each other, understand the limits of our own points of view. Where texts, videos and photography are produced that focus on these mega projects, for now in Latin America, starting from Brazil.

SUPERRR: So why Germany?

Camila: It was not planned to be honest! But Germany is one of the leaders on environmental policy, with goals for reducing carbon, a transition of renewables… What relationship does Latin America have with this country that shapes environmental discourses and narratives so much, when the region exports food, minerals and other commodities? Discussions about power, coloniality and gender were taking place. Could a truly international community exist? I came with big expectations and found many frustrations. Colonialism, racism, sexism play a big role in shaping who has the right to talk, to write, to decide what is knowledge and what is not. 

The New New has been a nice experience, because my trajectory means I am part of many networks and involved in collective means of production. And although the project involves a lot of people, a PhD is lonely. So to have the chance to work on Beyond the Green really connects things.

SUPERRR: That sounds superrr. Thank you so much for this inspiring interview!

Illustration: Anna Niedhart, Rainbow Unicorn.