The Concept of Sustainability “Stop Devouring the World!”

The Krenak indigenous community, to which Ailton Krenak belongs, lost their livelihoods in the Mariana tragedy.
The Krenak indigenous community, to which Ailton Krenak belongs, lost their livelihoods in the Mariana tragedy. | Photo (detail): Isaac Risco © picture alliance / dpa

The philosopher and Indigenous leader Ailton Krenak orders humankind to go on a ten-year diet.

By Ulrike Prinz

Ailton Krenak became famous for his appearance before Brazil’s National Constituent Assembly in 1987. While giving his speech he painted his face in black genipap paste in protest against the setbacks and attacks on the rights of the Indigenous people. In 2005 he campaigned for an application to be made to UNESCO to establish the Serra do Espinhaço biosphere reserve. He was puzzled by the need to give reasons why it is important not to allow the earth to be devoured completely by mining.

As a result of the Mariana tragedy in 2015, when a dam collapsed at an iron ore mine, the Indigenous Krenak people lost their livelihoods. Two days after the disaster, a toxic flood of mud and mine tailings engulfed their village, which was home to 137 families. 19 people died in the mudslide.

Ailton Krenak advocates adopting a more holistic view of a world in which humans are not the pride of creation but one of many other creatures that together make up the planet.

In his book, Ideas to Postpone the End of the World, which has also been translated into English, he deconstructs a number of our western concepts: humankind, reason, and also the idea of sustainability. The way the west sees it, sustainability describes a development that satisfies the needs of the present without preventing future generations from satisfying their needs.

Ailton Krenak, you question the concept of sustainability. Why in your opinion is it a lie?

The concept involves justifying an exploitative model. How can exploitation continue indefinitely? By introducing sustainability, which is defined in purely economic terms. Consequently, it will continue until the planet is exhausted. When fossil fuels run out we will switch to wind power; when wind power no longer works, we will switch to some other form of energy.

This discourse is based on the premise that the planet’s biosphere comprises a pliable mass, but it fails to understand that what we are dealing with is an ecosystem. This huge terrestrial ecosystem will come apart at the seams if just one point is disrupted. But the economy believes that it can mess about at a particular place – drilling an oil well, extracting the oil, processing the oil and manufacturing countless things – and that this can be sustainable. In this sense all the talk of sustainability is a myth, a predatory myth, and a lie. It justifies itself for it is the core of the colonial idea of exploitation

“What starts as a park ends up as a parking lot.”

You also criticize a particular conservationist idea that likewise appears to be a business transaction, and created a powerful metaphor for this in your book. You write: “What starts as a park ends up as a parking lot.”

In the so-called environmental sphere, the discourse takes a different form, namely by creating reserves. The calculation of ecological sustainability is the reserve. That is nothing other than an economic discourse: save something today in order to eat it tomorrow. This is a viewpoint that focuses solely on the needs of humans and couldn’t care less about any other living creatures. Whales, elephants, birds, forests … This entire discourse serves the sole purpose of control. In my opinion, nature conservation is control!

And this despite the fact that UNESCO promotes the “Men and Biosphere” programme within the framework of which we have created an area that is protected against mining. I myself work on two important committees for biosphere reserves: on the committee for the Atlantic forest and on the committee for the Espinhaço mountain range that is to be found here in Minas Gerais in a region that has been colonized since the 17th century and where intensive mining is conducted.

Since 2015/2016, UNESCO has been funding internal symposia at which to discuss a more flexible approach to the biosphere reserve protocol that would allow such activities to take place in these areas. That’s how I came to realize that what starts as a park ends up as a parking lot.

Sustainability is a false concern about the future! I would say it is a falsification of the future! Greta Thunberg claims that adults are stealing the future from their children. I agree with her and say that they are falsifying the future!

Gregório Mirabal, chairperson of the Indigenous organization COICA, called at the IUCN World Conservation Congress for 80 percent of Amazonia to be protected. You are highly critical of the western concept of nature conservation, so do we find ourselves facing a dilemma?

I do not know the details of Gregório’s proposal. I would ask him why not go for 100 percent? As far as ecosystems are concerned, there has to be a ceasefire, and this is only something we can achieve through global governance. Not only for Amazonia, but for the entire world. The climate issue is a global problem, so a local or regional mandate can have no impact. We must see whether we can reach a consensus that will allow us to take a decision about the Amazon biome.

What needs to be done?

We need to do a stocktake in the Amazon region and prepare a set of rules, as we did for the pandemic. Those who are inside the region remain there, and those who are outside are not allowed in, for a specified period of time. Meanwhile, teams of researchers can get to know the Amazon Rainforest better and draw up proposals for its joint management. The funds that Europe is making available to support the region could be used to compensate local communities for their loss of income incurred by the temporary suspension of economic activity.

During this time one could develop practices of balance – not sustainability! – but practices of coherence and the interplay of human communities with the ecosystem. In this way the original practices of the Indigenous peoples could be restored; they have always lived in this biotope without destroying its structure.

This would constitute a global decision to declare the Amazonian biome and other vital biomes on the planet as places of global interest, which would also further develop the precarious models of government we have in place today.

The Indigenous peoples never had sovereignty over their land.”

But should the Indigenous peoples not have the power over their own territories?

Today Indigenous peoples have no power at all over their land. It is the mining companies, loggers, gold diggers and corrupt governments who have the power. So there is no point saying: “The Indigenous peoples request sovereignty over their land.” The Indigenous peoples never had sovereignty over their land. I know of no evidence of this. They can only be autonomous so long as they have no contact with the local authorities. In this case, they can live as they originally did and feel safe. As soon as they interact at the local level, however, they are subordinated.

They are forced to consume industrially processed foods. All Indigenous peoples who have contact with whites eat only the goods processed by white people. As Davi Kopenawa (editor’s note: spiritual leader of the Brazilian Yanomami who has won multiple awards for his environmental engagement) says: the whites are a consumerist society, and by this he means that they are a contagious society (contact=contagion). There is no such thing as “innocent” goods, there are only tempting, contagious goods.

The tentacles of colonialism that were planted in Amazonia must be blocked. Europe must stop consuming meat, soya, minerals and timber from the Amazon region! It is not only the people in the Amazon region who need to change their habits, but also those who are used to consuming Amazonia. Stop devouring the world! Change your habits. Go on a diet. A diet lasting ten years. And during those ten years, we will research and study the Amazon ecosystem.