Maria do Socorro Silva’s body holds the history of the ravaging of the Amazon. It is also a record incarnate of resistance. Socorro is fierce. She belongs to the realm of women of fierce life. When she tells her story, Socorro makes her listener’s body hurt. It is as if the words issuing from her mouth inscribed themselves on her listener’s skin with a sharp point. After she falls silent and covers her perilous jaguar eyes with the full black hair that she wears uncombed, the words remain there, inside the other’s body, pulsating. She, her body, persists. Skinny and shaky. Ravaged, like the forest, in all senses.
Socorro’s story began long before she was born. Her ancestors were among the nearly five million enslaved Africans who arrived in Brazil from the sixteenth through the nineteenth century. Those who arrived there alive. Millions of others died on the way. No other country demanded as many slaves as Brazil, and Brazil was the last country in the Americas to formally abolish slavery, in 1888. Thousands of these slaves revolted against the horror of a life in chains and the swiftness of death that came even for those who accepted the yoke. They fled. To avoid capture, they ventured deep into every forest and tracked through regions penetrated only by the indigenous.
These communities of rebels were called “quilombos” and the rebels became known as “quilombolas.” “Aquilombar-se”—to form a quilombo—became a reflexive verb in Brazil, conjugated in the plural by all those who resist by joining together in enclaves of insurrection. Now, in a Brazil governed by Jair Bolsonaro, one of the despots elected at this time of crisis for the world’s democracies, aquilombar-se is the verb of resistance for the Brazilians of all colors and races fighting against the rising authoritarianism.
For those who rebelled, the Amazon forest was not a fatherland but a motherland, and the forest was their womb. The accounts of the elders who settled the region of Barcarena, in the state of Pará, contain oral memories of sugar plantation slave quarters and of the Jesuits from the Gibirié mission, who in the early eighteenth century, began their efforts to convert the indigenous peoples. In this patchwork of memories woven together by ear, the priests forced everyone to be baptized, to marry, to kneel down. Socorro is a quilombola, but she is also indigenous. The only way she can understand herself is if she conjoins the identities of these two peoples, for centuries tormented but never vanquished.
Being discovered is the curse of all those who can exist only if forgotten. This is what Socorro realized in the late 1970s, when she heard the word “progress” for the first time. For the military dictatorship that ruled Brazil, the forest was the body from which everything was to be ripped, especially ore. Back then, the propaganda slogan touted by the regime was that the Amazon was a “land without men for men without land.” Human beings like Socorro didn’t exist for the white elites, except to be ravaged like the forest. At the age of 13, Socorro made her own discovery when the mining company men arrived, bringing progress to a people who were not seen as people. “I’d never seen silk clothes before, I’d never seen leather shoes, or even handsome men. That day I saw handsome watches,” she says. “And there they came…they opened roads and tore everything up. That’s how I saw this land massacred.”
There were foreigners who spoke a language whose origin she still doesn’t know and Brazilians from São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, gringos almost as much as the others. Her young girl’s body was handed over to them, like the bodies of the other dark-skinned girls. Her uncle said that was how things went, and he profited from it. And that was how things went. “When I went to school, he’d give me a notebook. When I went someplace, it was clothes. When he traveled to that big city he was from, he’d bring back a watch, a pretty skirt. So, I saw that I’d started becoming his property. I told my aunt, ‘You changed me.’” When Socorro tells me of the rape, she says, “I don’t know his name. I just remember he spoke Brazilian.” At the age of 54, she confesses that she still thinks, still remembers, still feels.
They put at least one child in her, which they made her rip out—they put more children in other girls. She remembers the cramps from the abortion. Those men sowed fetuses because they could, but they didn’t want their whiteness sullied by the DNA of those they didn’t consider wholly human.
Then Socorro realized that what was happening to the forest was happening to her. Raped like her, bored into like her, her uterus was grievously ravaged to rip out the gold. Socorro saw herself melded with the forest, flesh of the same flesh. And she understood herself as the forest. Not as the forest poetically, as a turn of phrase. Not a metaphor. But literally as the forest. At that time, she became Socorro do Burajuba, with the name of her quilombo as her surname because identity comes from the Earth, not the clerk’s office.
The white men kept coming, one white man after another. There were always company men in Barcarena, men with blue eyes. The priests had said angels had blue eyes. But those men weren’t angels.
“I want you to understand something well. Without us, the peoples of the forest, there is no river, there are no animals, there’s nothing. If you want to normalize the planet’s temperature, you have to take care of us. Because without us there’s no future generation.”
Now Socorro knows. For years she has fought against Norsk Hydro. Based in Norway, the company has 35,000 employees spread over 40 countries. As Norsk Hydro says on its website, “Brazil is Hydro’s main source of the important raw material bauxite.” For big transnational corporations, that’s what a country is: a source of raw materials. After being extracted in Paragominas and Trombetas, the ore goes to the “world’s largest alumina refinery outside China,” as described on the company’s website. This refinery that fills the Norwegians with so much pride is called Hydro Alunorte, and it lies in the land where Socorro lives. Barcarena is also home to Albras, a joint venture between Norsk Hydro and NAAC—Nippon Amazon Aluminium Co. Ltd., a consortium of Japanese corporations, trading companies, consumers, and manufacturers of aluminum products. Hydro Alunorte was built on one of the headwaters of the Murucupi River, which used to propel the lives of tens of thousands of the peoples of the forest and family farmers.
In March 2018, the Evandro Chagas Institute, part of the Brazilian Health Ministry, detected high levels of aluminum, iron, copper, arsenic, mercury, and lead in the Murucupi River. Alunorte was suspected of leaking toxic waste, and the Brazilian courts shut down part of its production. But the plant is back up and running. Over the years, Hydro companies have repeatedly been charged with environmental contamination, but the battle is extremely lopsided. It always has been. When contacted by Atmos, Norsk Hydro contested the institute’s report, denied any responsibility for river contamination, and claimed that its production practices are environmentally sustainable. The company also claims that it has worked to strengthen its relations with the region’s communities as part of its sustainable development goal.
The indigenous quilombolas of Barcarena have charged that nonstick pots and pans, beer barrels, and plane parts all contain a bit of their blood. But the wealthy part of the world is hard of hearing. When she hears the word “Norway,” Socorro’s body tenses all over. When she met with the European climate activists, they found her horror puzzling, because Norway—like the mythological figure of Hydra—has several heads, one of which poses as an environmental defender. Socorro leads an association nearly 20 thousand strong, and on a trip to the country of her nightmares to attend a climate crisis event, she says she took along a couple of bottles of water and offered one to a Norsk Hydro director. “Do you want to drink my water or yours?” she asked. He didn’t choose hers.
It’s as if Socorro were a mirror of the forest. And like the forest, her body suffers a bit more devastation each year. Today, the once beautiful region of Barcarena is a body destroyed, where contaminated rivers die and kill whoever drinks from them. Like Socorro, who has discovered a kidney cancer that eats a bit of her each day. “And you know how I got it? It came from heavy metals. Because I am of the people of the forest. I drink water from the river, I bathe in the river, I make food with river water. My family has eight people with cancer now.” Were Socorro not so savage, she’d be sad. “I’m the descendant of slaves and the granddaughter of Indians. I’m strange like that. I don’t accept things. I’m difficult.”
At the gathering “Amazon Center of the World,” Socorro spoke to the young climate activists who hailed from Europe. “I want you to understand something well,” she explained. “Without us, the peoples of the forest, there is no river, there are no animals, there’s nothing. If you want to normalize the planet’s temperature, you have to take care of us. Because without us, there’s no future generation.”
The youth who decry the inaction of adults in Europe heard from this adult from the forest about the horror of those who know they have been sacrificed, those who, like Socorro, know that time is up. They are, like parts of the Amazon, beyond the tipping point. “Every day we drink water and every day we die a little. My generation eats and drinks contaminated food and water so your generation doesn’t need to eat or drink this water or this food.”
The body of a forest that has already been depleted is like Socorro’s body, where nothing is born but tumors. Perhaps this is what Socorro thinks about when she spends long hours alone, staring at the world. Socorro knows that like the forest where she lives, she is already dead. And because she is fierce, she sharpens her nails and fights so the next generation can live.
Special thanks to Maurilo Clareto. Translated by Diane Grosklaus Whitty.
This article appears in Volume 03: Flourish/Collapse of Atmos.
Nature is a delicate balance of expansion and collapse, flourish and famine, growth and decay. Have human beings permanently disrupted this cycle, throwing the wheel off its axis, or are we just paving way for the next species to thrive? Is it still possible for us to return to a point of flourishing without collapse? Explore these questions with the Extinction Rebellion, the women warriors of the Amazon, and more of our heroes on the frontlines of conservation. Featuring contributions from Sylvia Earle, Elizabeth L. Cline, Ben Toms, Sam Rock, Stefanie Moshammer, Liliana Merizalde, Kristin-Lee Moolman, Gareth McConnell, Pieter Hugo, Simon Armitage, and more.