Sensitive Territories [In]flows – For New Ways of Existing

A tall mountain of tailings of coal.
The anthracite coal extracted in the Urussanga coal mining region in the state of Santa Catarina is considered to be of low quality, so only 25% of the material mined there can be used. All the rest is dumped in open landfill sites. | Photo (detail): © Henry Goulart and Walmeri Ribeiro

​What power does art have when it comes to establishing a world that is fairer, both socially and ecologically? In this visual essay, Walmeri Ribeiro writes about unrestrained extractivism, exploitation and our bodies' relationship to nature.

By Walmeri Ribeiro

The modern conception of society, which is based on colonization, extractivism and exploitation, has led to our bodies becoming completely detached from the territories that we inhabit. To talk about the pollution of rivers and oceans is to acknowledge that there is a political, economic and social project that is based on oppression, on making people sick, and on the gradual demise not only of our human bodies but also of all non-human bodies that comprise the territories in which we live and coexist.
 
The importance of realizing that we are part of an ecosystem can result in our breaking with the modes of living of today’s society – a paradigmatic break with the past that is urgently needed – for “carrying on nowadays means not carrying on as before, but breaking with old habits” (Bruno Latour).
 
Breaking with old habits means on the one hand breaking with the colonialist constructs of ideas and practices of exploitation and disappropriation upon which our society is based – and which make us a consumerist, throwaway society that is dependent on industrialized products. On the other hand, it means understanding that this “formula of a sick ‘civilization’ deadens all of our vital sensory organs and brings forth desensitized bodies that are habituated to violence, which in its turn is potentially infinite” (Horacio Machado Aráoz).

Debris of the Anthropocene

Breaking with this therefore means adapting our body territories to modes of living that strive to create spaces of compassion, that make them permeable, penetrable, sensitive and open to encounters, to exchange and to potential new relationships between us humans and non-humans. And in so doing opening up new ways of existing and coexisting.
 
Having worked for a number of years in utterly devastated terrains, the challenge that faces me now is to consider what art can contribute to restoring this sensitization of bodies, something that preoccupies me as an artist, as a researcher, and as a Latin American woman.
 
What power does art have when it comes to establishing a  world that is fairer, both socially and ecologically? How can the potency of our bodies be brought to the fore in reinstating new, more systemic and more sensitive models of existence and coexistence? How can numbed bodies become permeable bodies, sensitive forces that are capable of designing new approaches to life in the midst of the debris of the Anthropocene? During my quest for such possibilities, I decided to embark on the project “Territórios Sensíveis” (Sensitive Territories) and staged artistic actions with communities who are living in completely desolate territories, exploited, suffocated and lying in ruins. Or, as I prefer to say, alluding to Eduardo Galeano: who live (survive) under the open veins of the Anthropocene.
 
In this essay I would like to share two experiences that are still ongoing:

Diving into the Contaminated Water of the Guanãbará: How to Survive in the Midst of a Destructive Oil Production Project?

Entering the idyllic setting of the Guanãbará Bay in the Brazilian state of Rio de Janeiro means being directly confronted with a process of destruction. It means understanding with one’s own body and one’s complete sensory apparatus what precisely is meant by that which we call the Anthropocene. Covering an area of 412 square kilometres, and with a catchment area of roughly 4,000 kilometres, the bay encompasses 16 districts and two islands and is home to a population of 8.6 million people. The natural gas and oil production project, with all of the systems associated with it – tankers, refineries, ports, shipyards, oil and gas processing facilities and more than 6,000 active industrial plants – is what is really responsible for the suffocation and slow death of this territory body of the Guanãbará estuary.
  My confrontation with this reality led me to ask: How can signs of life, resistance and resilience be found in the midst of this destruction?
 
In Z-10, a centuries-old fishing village, I encountered the kind of strength needed for the daily battle for survival. Together – that is to say I, the colony’s fishing folk both young and old, residents, artists and others – we created actions that connect. It was a search for possible actions for bodies and territories to awaken dreams and realms of imagination.
 
Action means looking deep into oneself and immersing oneself in one’s own habits and modes of living. At the same time, however, it can mean joint action in setting up a community that is strengthened by shared dreams. To awaken bodies numbed and jaded by a hegemonic system requires impetus that enable us to think, feel and dream – and to create possibilities.
 
Thus, in the relationship of art, fishing and life we found a way together to initiate dreams and to connect our body territories with the territory bodies that we inhabit and that live in us.
 
  • Outlook onto Guanãbará Bay, in which many oil rigs and pipelines can be seen. © Walmeri Ribeiro
    Guanãbará Bay, a national symbol that has been listed as a UN World Heritage site since 2012, is these days the face of the oil policy pursued in Brazil. Its water laps against oil rigs, the pipelines of major national and international corporations, shipyards and industrial facilities and has become a mooring place for tankers. Oil leaks into the water on a daily basis, affecting the entire population around the bay and its tributaries, especially local fishermen whose living depends on their catch. Besides the sight itself and the pollution of the water, the noise pollution generated by the ships is one of the main reasons why marine animals are dying in droves.
  • A close-up of a fishing net. © Walmeri Ribeiro and Sofia Mussolin
    Guanãbará in Tupi-Guarani means “bay similar to the sea”. In the indigenous mythology, the bay is the bosom of the sea that is the origin of all life. Guanãbará is a video essay produced following encounters with the local fisherman of the village Colônia Z-10. It is the form we were able to find to allow the voices, lives and dreams made invisible by oil policy to be heard.
  • Sr. Geraldo - Fisherman © Walmeri Ribeiro
    Sr. Geraldo is the oldest active fisherman in the Colônia Z-10. A role model for and leader of younger fishermen. From the first moment we met, we shared our dreams, concerns, challenges and our desire to jointly come up with visions for the future. From him I learnt a lot about methods of catching fish, life on the sea, and the fauna and flora in the water of Guanãbará Bay. During our time there, he told us about the entire process of Guanãbará Bay’s destruction, the constant leakage of oil, fires, violence on the part of the militia, and the dreams and lives that have been lost in the water of Guanãbará Bay.
  • A part of a boat with blurred faces in the background. © Thiago Caiçara
    Pãozinho (bread roll) is the youngest fisherman in the Colônia Z-10. The son of fishing folk, he grew up on small boats and catches fish to feed his child and his family, and dreams of a socially and ecologically fairer society. Despite his shyness and reserve, Pãozinho taught us a lot each day about how to show love and respect to the place where one lives.
  • A plastic bag is pulled out of the water. © Walmeri Ribeiro
    Every day, the traditional fishermen land tons of waste in their nets. The tides dictate how much rubbish flows into Guanãbará Bay. Since 2021, the local community has been systematically collecting, separating and recycling the waste from the bay. The system was set up thanks to the persistent efforts of fishermen and residents such as Thiago Caiçara, Pãozinho and Sr. Geraldo. A dream that we dreamt and turned into reality together. It is just a first step that was only possible thanks to the willingness of these open bodies to act; they decided to believe that it is possible, and that individual and collective action is vital to ensure survival.
  • Dirty water © Walmeri Ribeiro
    A video showing images of the bottom of Guanãbará Bay, recorded by Thiago Caiçara. Thiago is a resident of the Colônia Z-10 and a great activist and networker. Being a critic of dragnet fishing and other systems that harm marine life, he himself uses a harpoon to fish. To survive, however, he hires himself out to oil companies by the day, carrying out maintenance on oil rigs and tankers. Like Thiago, many young people from the Colônia work for the oil industry even though they know that this is exactly what is crushing their bodies and their lives. However, these are body territories of the battle that the hegemonic system has been unable to appropriate and euthanise.

Tailings – Do not Touch! It Is in Me, in Us…

Latin America, which has been famous for “its” rich deposits of natural resources for more than 500 years, is being exploited and crushed by extractivist acts – iron ore, coal, bauxite, copper, gold, oil, natural gas etc.
 
What is left for us in the name of such progress? Poverty. Environmental pollution. Huge mountains of tailings that contaminate the soils, rivers, groundwater, air and sea every day. The destruction is irreversible. It is inside our bodies, which have become sick from the pollution and have been suffocated by a systemic, neoliberal interconnection.
  The rivers in the catchment area of the Rio Urussanga in the southern Brazilian state of Santa Catarina are completely dead, choked by sulphur, mercury and sulphates from the mountains of mine tailings. Images in which the mining of the twentieth century is perpetuated. The old, abandoned mines are still poisonously active. The rivers, now orange in colour from the oxidation of pyrite, have become wastewater gullies and rubbish tips in inhabited areas.
 
Society in the twenty-first century has turned its back on the river and everything that we call nature.
 
There is no warning sign: “Caution! Do not touch!” The ongoing contamination is in me, in us all. It is in our body territories.
What can be done? Dive once again into the veins and traces of the Anthropocene.
 
Watch. Sense. Listen. Summon up the strength and the voices that have been silenced, suffocated and wiped out by a colonial and colonizing system. Act individually and collectively to counter a system and (re)sensitize and liberate our body territories in order to protect the territory bodies that we still have.
 
  • Pyrite © Walmeri Ribeiro
    Pyrite, also known as fool’s gold, is 47% iron and 53% sulphur and is the main tailing generated by coal mining. Though a stable element that does no harm to the environment in its original geological composition, it sets in motion an oxidation process when brought into contact with oxygen that contaminates the soil, air, groundwater, rivers and seas.
  • A tall mountain of tailings of coal. © Henry Goulart and Walmeri Ribeiro
    The anthracite coal extracted in the Urussanga coal mining region in the state of Santa Catarina is considered to be of low quality, so only 25% of the material mined there can be used. All the rest is dumped in open landfill sites. Since the last century, there have been mountains of tailings there.
  • Orange-coloured water © Walmeri Ribeiro
    The colour orange, caused by the oxidation of pyrite in contact with the surface water, has become the landscape and the realm of imagination for an entire population who has never known their rivers to be of any other colour. The water there was clear and the rivers were still deep until the 1940s. A former resident of the city, Sr. Armando Betiol, tells us that the children would bathe in the Urussanga River in the summer, the boys on one side, the girls on the other. The water took on an orange hue in 1942 when the first rock leached out, and the suffocating fish flapped around until they were dead.
  • A street made of tailings. © Walmeri Ribeiro
    Robson, a miner from the company Rio Deserto during his daily mapping of mine tailings and as yet untapped coal deposits. Rio Deserto has acquired the mining rights in the region, and Robson’s job is to map and evaluate the potential coal mining yield there. Yes, there are still large deposits underground that can be mined. He looks along the street at the end of the coal mine and says: The street here is made of tailings! Everything here is tailings! Paths on tailings, we live on tailings.
  • A mountain of pyrite and sulphur. © Walmeri Ribeiro
    Robson helped me to recognize pyrite, to recognize it and to understand the impact it has. Beyond the road, he points, is the pyrite, which is continuing to have more of an effect than we have had. The yellow that we can see is sulphur. While collecting samples, and in between explanations about the composition of pyrite and how it reacts upon oxidation, Robson also told me about the importance of mining for the region’s economic survival. During our conversation, I asked him: How does it feel to work in a destroyed landscape like this? His gaze lost somewhere between the mountains of tailings, he answered: crushing.
  • Polluted water © Walmeri Ribeiro
    On the edge of a pool of coal and sulphur, on a pile of tailings, the tailings that one is not supposed to touch, a dragonfly lands in front of my camera. A gesture of resilience? A hint of life? Potential for action. The power of coexistence! A glimpse of a possible future!