As Law Meets Culture
Environmental(ist) Lessons from Brazil’s Politics of Reparation
Presented at the 44th Annual Caribbean Studies Association (CSA) conference in Santa Marta, Colombia.
In 1988, a new Constitution was enacted in Brazil. In it, there was a clause which became commonly known as the “quilombo clause.” Quilombos, for those of you who are unfamiliar, is the name given to Brazil’s many maroon settlements. It refers to the radical, syncretic, decolonial spaces that were created by people of African and indigenous descent, in forests and coastlines away from the repressive structures of empire. Quilombos hold an important place in Brazilian cultural history. It was in the quilombos that the internationally beloved genre of capoeira, for instance, developed.
Within the movement for Afro-Brazilian recognition that swelled in the second half of the twentieth century, quilombos hold an important place. In 1980, the activist Abdias Nascimento articulated a philosophy called Quilombismo. Quilombismo called for a new paradigm in Brazilian race relations that drew inspiration from the way quilombos were historically organized, and the principles upon which life within them ran. Quilombismo was a much-beloved philosophy. When the quilombo clause was legislated, it granted land titles to the descendants of historical quilombo communities.
The implementation of the quilombo clause involved a great deal of controversy. Several years ago, I wrote a chapter about the subject, in which I reflected in particular on the way social philosophy and law can present very different understandings of justice and reparation. What can law — in this case, a constitutional clause — add to a movement for social justice? What are its limitations? How does philosophy and shared vision cast light on the limitations of law? How does law inform the course of social change? These are the sorts of questions that animated the article to begin with, and they continue to feel essential to me.
I am now returning to this subject as a musician and environmental educator. I work to foster ecological understanding through the power and vibrancy of the world’s living musical traditions. The struggle for recognition which is foremost on my mind now is that of recognizing the rights of the natural world. It is upon these rights that all other life is founded. And asserting the immeasurable influence of the environment on our histories, cultures and spiritualities is a social process that cannot be ignored. Asserting the rights of the world’s people to live within the planet’s means, with dignity and hopes for a sustainable future, is a movement in itself.
The struggles for reparation that have taken place in and around Brazil’s quilombos offer extremely important lessons for activists across a wide range of issues, be they environmental or cultural, in the realm of civil society or in the realm of law.
What I’d like to do today is share some of these lessons, and relate them to the project which is at the heart of my current and future work: seeking recognition for the rights of the biosphere, by harnessing the power of culture, of music.
The first lesson is that comprehensive transformations to society always involve change in multiple arenas — politics and law, culture and the arts, economy, even philosophy and spirituality. These aspects of life often interact and overlap, and successful social movements mobilize hearts, minds and systems in turn. When it comes to environmental justice, the crises we face are legal, and cultural. Is there a way to transform both the laws and cultural norms that undergird sustainable systems? Is it possible to create dialogues between cultural activists and activists pushing for legal change, so that each might benefit from the insight and experiences of the other? I believe that for the environmental movements of today to succeed, such dialogue is necessary. Social transformation and legal transformation are not separate arenas. For better or worse, they reinforce each other more than we might believe.
The interwovenness of many social and legal struggles brings me to the second lesson: Calls for legal change that double as social philosophies tend to be extremely effective. Abdias Nascimento’s philosophy of Quilombismo was part of a movement that called for changes to legislation around reparation and recognition. But the text of it does not read like a legal argument. Quilombismo is highly imaginative, highly poetic and ultimately, highly resonant with the scope and significance of quilombos in the history of Brazil’s African diaspora and indigenous peoples.
The philosophy of Quilombismo drew from a historical and cultural context that touched people, and that brought policy into contact with long-standing stories of resilience and resistance. Figures such as Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. did the same thing — they envisioned change in ways that prompted both changes in the law, and positive transformation in how people understood their own histories and cultural traditions.
Environmentalists have much to learn from this. We must apprehend how intertwined law and society are. We must be open to the possibility that environmentalism can be strengthened by appealing to certain cultural sensibilities, and certain understandings of history. Music, I’ve found, can be extremely helpful in achieving this. In the stories of many of the world’s living musical traditions lie visions of harmony, responsibility and the power that comes from nurturing these qualities. Capoeira is an important example. Incorporating music into visions of social and environmental change can bring passion, joy and solidarity to a movement. And while these qualities are not exactly legal concepts, they can provide people with a platform to hold law accountable to the spirit of the changes it proposes.
And the third lesson is as follows: In the process of reckoning with law — that is, fighting for legal change and evaluating its results — do not be afraid to pull from a diversity of cultural sources, and from the stories that you have directly witnessed or experienced. These are all important resources that are necessary in the pursuit of justice. When it comes to environmental justice and environmental law, it is the stories of the Earth itself that are the most important. Ultimately, environmental law is accountable not to its advocates or to its critics, but to the land and sea and sky. Music is a way for people to express their attachment to, and reverence for land. When wielded for this purpose, it can help to convey nature’s beauty, intricacy and depth. We must take the cultural resources that we have at our disposal seriously, because they are important agents of social change. They may not make it into courtrooms, but they can provide the necessary energy for the fight to reach there.
If we look at world history, we may find that some of the best legal ideas come out of cultural visions. So, I would like to conclude with this thought: The next time somebody around you makes a clear-cut distinction between law and culture, consider where the bridges between the two exist. For these two pillars of social life are only as strong as the bridges which connect them. Thank you.