Anticolonial - against the alienation of excess

Let me start by acknowledging my ignorance, and perhaps a years-long negligence. I can’t tell for sure when and how the topic of coloniality appeared explicitly on my radar. I do recall my friend (and MA supervisor at Unicamp) Rafael Evangelista talking in class about (British) cultural studies and decolonisation, a decade ago. But the topic slipped out of my attention for a while. More recently I would come across the work of Luiza Prado and learn of her involvement with Decolonising Design. An anticolonial stance was also noticeably articulated in events I attended such as the 2021 edition of DRS’s Pivot Conference.

It was however only some months ago that I started adding an anticolonial lens to reflect on parts of my work. Not by coincidence, it was last October - Anti-colonial month in some institutional contexts - that I started to dive a little deeper into that subject. By then I met Anita Ekman, a Brazilian artist doing curatorial research around South American artefacts brought over the centuries to European museums. I also attended a meeting at Floating Berlin organised by the Urban Trialogue to discuss decolonisation and development. And another friend recommended by the same time an article - Capitalocene, Waste, Race and Gender - whose author Françoise Vergès would give a talk online about “Decolonising the Anthropocene”. All in all, one could say I arrived at the topic of coloniality somewhat by chance, or rather pressed by its growing presence in public debate. And despite still having little familiarity with the wider literature on it, when I look back I do see coloniality all through my career, as well as being completely intertwined with my personal life, family relations and sense of belonging.

An invitation to be a keynote speaker at the CRDM Symposium made me recollect and articulate some of these impressions. The theme for this edition of CRDM was “Infrastructure and/as Anticolonialism”. In preparing for that, I was able to explore some avenues of thinking that were somewhat new to me, and to reframe others that I was already familiar with.

As probably many others, I had my share of anecdotal estrangement with colonial pasts here and there. I was for instance overwhelmed to feel the Damrak in Amsterdam as a sort of scenographic architecture on my first trip to Europe, in the early 2000s. It was the first time I felt like an awed South American native brought to a rich country, in contrast with my own upbringing as a middle-class cis hetero educated white (for Brazilian standards at least) man. I was also disappointed some years later to realise how unimpressive Lisbon felt in its similarity to Brazilian cities - I expected more opulence from our colonial metropolis. And I was upset by seeing the gold-plated Albert Memorial in London from a bus when a friend suggested that that gold could have come from Brazil (possibly making a quick stop in Portugal before being sent over to the British, as the friend went on, echoing Eduardo Galeano[^1]).

All these episodes tell a bit about one’s expectations and assumptions, sometimes misleading and out of sync with lived experience. Estrangement can be a useful tool to see things from a different perspective and to add to understanding them. For my talk at CRDM, I decided to explore that sort of dynamics. But instead of trying to be an unrealistic objective observer, I would instead look in the mirror to examine colonial strangeness embodied in myself and in my upbringing.

I would do that by exploring my own name. Granted, it is a rather egocentric exercise, which however can still be useful to offer more nuanced thinking about colonialism and anticolonialism. I was born and raised in Brazil, that large country in South America currently governed by a genocidal thief (a remark that may look irrelevant here, but I will eventually return to it). In Brazil we usually adopt the Portuguese custom of naming people with the family names of both parents. Until some years ago I used to introduce myself simply as “Felipe Fonseca”. Outside the south of the country where I was born, people will often mistype my mom’s family name, Schmidt. Ignoring it was quicker and simpler. My decision to use my whole name, Felipe Schmidt Fonseca, only came when I realised that abroad it was sometimes perceived as uncommon. Particularly in German speaking countries, where the first syllable of Fonseca may sound like “von”, which will often make locals laugh. It was weird, so I embraced it.

Fonseca

My last name is Fonseca, a Portuguese name. The Pereira da Fonseca family has moved to Brazil relatively recently. My great-grandfather was born in 1908 in the city of Pelotas, from Portuguese parents. Most of our family lives in the southernmost state of Rio Grande do Sul, and our very presence there is obviously linked with coloniality. This realisation is somewhat new to me. From the way history is taught at Brazilian schools, we tend to situate the term colony further in the past, way before my ancestors moved to the country. Brasil-colônia, we are told, ended almost exactly 200 years ago, in 1822. I will try to contextualise that episode - in a superficial way, apologising in advance for any mistakes as I am no expert.

In the early 1800s, as it happens from time to time, there was a terrible dictator in Europe invading his neighbouring countries. His name was Napoleon Bonaparte. The king of Portugal, João VI, decided to flee his land and move to Brazil. He took with him the royal family, nobles, state employees and servants. They were escorted by the British, which had been gently threatening war if the Portuguese king didn’t make up his mind whether or not to surrender to Napoleon.

From then on, the Portuguese court settled in Brazilian territory. They called this new configuration the “United Kingdom of Portugal, Brazil and Algarves”. Rio de Janeiro was their new capital. I may be mistaken, but that configuration - having the capital inside the colony’s territory - seems different from most of the other relevant colonies of the time.

There are many ways to understand colonial dynamics. A common characteristic is what we could call alienation. Power is exerted from outside the territory towards inside. Natural resources are extracted from the territory towards the outside, benefitting groups that are either abroad or loyal to alien powers. Cultural values, tradition, language, are imposed onto the territory from the outside. Even though the Portuguese royal family was now inhabiting Brazilian territory, all of those movements kept going. We were still sending natural resources to be used abroad, under the protection of the British crown. As had been the history of Brazil for centuries before.

What we do learn about colonial (and post-colonial) times in Brazilian schools - often in a triumphant tone - is about our economic cycles and the unbalanced social impact they had. You see, oligarchies are not at all a new term. Already in the 16th century, the Portuguese court decided to donate large swathes of land to private entrepreneurs - a decision that is still very much connected to social inequality in the country nowadays. Those pieces of land were called Captaincies, and their owners - our own oligarchs of that time - were the “donatários”. Most of the Captaincies were several times larger than the territory of mainland Portugal.

The current name of our country comes directly from the extraction of resources. The Portuguese who arrived in the early 1500s to what was then called Terra de Santa Cruz (Holy Cross Land) noticed the abundance of a tree whose name was Pau-Brasil, or Brazilwood in English. The word brasil, Portuguese for embers, comes from the red colour found in the heart of that tree. Its wood was used to produce red dye in an European economy where manufacturing was already growing ahead of the Industrial Revolution. Due to unregulated extraction, the Pau-Brasil tree was almost extinct in the country.

Brazil, as journalist Eduardo Bueno [^2] jokes, was also the first place in South America to produce - in large scale - a quite addictive white dust. Sugar, that is. The most successful Captaincies in economic terms have been the ones that replaced the original rainforest for vast plantations of sugar cane. In the present day, the world is growing aware of the importance of the Amazon forest, situated between the north of Brazil and some of its neighbouring countries. But comparatively very little is said about Mata Atlântica, the tropical rainforest that used to cover almost all the Brazilian coast and went up to thousands of kilometres inland. Over the last five centuries, no less than 93% of Mata Atlântica was decimated. Remember Pau Brasil? Yeah, that’s the kind of environment it needs to grow, which makes reforestation very hard. Even then, what’s left of Mata Atlântica has a higher diversity of animal and plant species than the whole of Europe.

The Brazilian gold rush concentrated in a state called Minas Gerais (Portuguese for General Mines) and went on for about 150 years. Unlike the shorter gold rush in the US, though, it did not result in local investment. The gold was all sent to Europe. Manufacturing was forbidden in the colony.

Alienated excess

Eduardo Galeano [^1] suggests that Brazilian gold and Bolivian silver were largely responsible for the European Industrial Revolution, in material terms. The same applies for nutrients that would feed its labour force, coming from South American vegetable species such as potatoes and corn which adapted well to the old continent. One could also wonder the extent to which intellectual development in the modern age could have been influenced by the dissemination of a plant originally used for spiritual and magical purposes by amerindian peoples: tobacco. Not to mention the fact that Brazil was the first large scale international producer of yet another addictive and energy-giving substance: coffee. The combination of minerals, biodiversity and extremely fertile soil, as well as sunlight exposure and clean water, made our territory abundant.

Such an excess of resources was made available relatively easy. Even easier for the colonial power, for another important reason. For centuries, all of those natural resources were extracted by enslaved people either brought all the way from Africa or captured from within amerindian populations. The numbers vary, but some estimates say that over the centuries five million people were trafficked from Africa to Brazil. And that the population of amerindians could add to up to 8 million people when the Portuguese arrived in 1500. Just for comparison, by the time of our current constitution 34 years ago, there were less than one million self-declared native indigenous individuals in Brazil.

Abundant resources, slavery and alienation of power. That’s a summary of Brazil-colônia. Which, as I mentioned, is said to have ended in the early 19th century. You will remember that the Portuguese kingdom was being run from its largest colony. When things in Europe started to calm down, the Portuguese court returned to Europe. King João left his son Pedro in charge of Brazil. Exactly 200 years ago though, the Portuguese court started pressuring Pedro to return to Portugal as well, as a way to solve disputes over the crown. But as we learn in high school, he said that he would stay.

Some months later, the same guy declared the independence of Brazil. Or, I should type, “independence” between quotation marks. It was, as the saying goes, a big transformation to make sure that everything remained the same. Pedro established his own royal court to rule what was now called the Brazilian Empire. The “independent” Brazil was still run by a Portuguese king, or else, Emperor.

Clearly, formal independence does not mean the same as autonomy. Even less does it entail an anticolonial take. Nominally, Brazil was not a colony any more. But our institutions were basically the same. The economy still operated under colonial dynamics. Even if manufacturing was gradually allowed, it would take decades before it became even relevant. The UK abolished slavery and started to pressure Brazil to do the same, but that change took several decades and was made in the worst possible way - leaving millions in poverty and with no political rights. That also has deep consequences today, as a reminder that coloniality is not in our past. It is ongoing. Even if the country is nominally independent and if slavery is formally illegal.

Schmidt

As Pedro I of Brazil finally accepted to return to Europe and become Pedro IV of Portugal, he left his son - also called Pedro - in his place. Brazil would decide to find another source of cheap labour. Following episodes of famine due to cold summers in Germany and later in Italy, desperate poor farmers were lured into moving to Brazil. Mostly to the south, in order to occupy land under dispute with Spanish-speaking countries. There were promises of land, seeds, credit and infrastructure. When they arrived, there was only land. And that’s another layer of colonial history in my own name.

Obviously, Schmidt is not a Portuguese name, nor is it a native Brazilian word or an African one. My mother’s ancestors moved from a small place close to the Rhein river in Germany to the south of Brazil. They were not the only ones. About 90 thousand Germans moved to Brazil from 1824 until the end of that century. Even today, the German dialect my grandmother speaks - Riograndenser Hunsrückisch is also spoken by over two million people in Brazil.

In my childhood in Porto Alegre, the southernmost state capital, I remember that children who spoke with a German accent were bullied as “colonos”, Portuguese for “settler”. The word is associated with people fleeing from rural areas, with little formal education. In that context it was derogatory. It sounded even worse when they were called “colono sem terra”: landless settlers. Towards the end of the civil-military dictatorship in the 1980s, the country would undergo a strong exodus of rural workers to cities. The Brazilian landless workers’ movement - MST - was then being formed and getting a bad rep from the oligarch-owned broadcast media and newspapers. Social tension and prejudice were naturally present in public school classrooms.

The family of my mother is also composed of former colonos who moved away from rural areas. My grandmother, now just turned 95, still tells stories of when she and her sisters would harvest tobacco leaves with their bare hands. But she eventually became a school teacher, while my grandfather was a truck driver. They never returned to the colônia, as the folk there call the rural settlements. Some years ago we took her to visit the farm where she was born and spent her childhood. Production nowadays is totally mechanised and relies largely on chemical fertilisers. It is rare to find anyone producing organic tobacco.

In any case, German family names are not that common outside the south of Brazil. And as I mentioned, that would only become apparent after I started to travel abroad. And my full name was not the only source of estrangement.

International weird

I was lucky to have had opportunities to exchange and travel based on some of the projects I was involved with in Brazil. One of them was MetaReciclagem, a network of centres for the remanufacturing of donated computers founded in 2002. Some years into that, we were talking to an NGO based in an European country about how to manage e-waste. According to their view of the matter, what was required to solve the problem of e-waste was efficiency. To ensure that that would happen, household e-waste should be sent directly to recycling facilities.

From a perspective of material recovery, they might even be correct - one of them introduced me to the concept of “cradle to cradle” as proposed by McDonough and Braungart [^3]. Our lived experience in Brazil, however, had a different view. From our perspective, the biggest waste was not to reuse electronic devices that were still functional. MetaReciclagem was doing just that: collecting and repairing what society had produced in excess, and trying to address a social imbalance: redirecting those resources to people and organisations who could not afford to buy IT equipment. There was a big gap in our conversations with the European NGO, as if we were doing things the wrong way. We felt that if we wanted to compete for very useful funding, we would need to change our language and probably some of our goals. We eventually gave up. Come to think of it, there was an aspect of conflicting worldviews on that divide that smells of coloniality. If we wanted to cooperate with that organisation that could probably grant us access to development grants, we would need to accept their way to understand the issues related to e-waste.

As subprojects associated with MetaReciclagem evolved, some of us were excited to learn about the international scene of hacklabs and hackerspaces, and the emerging maker culture. A certain hybrid approach to digital technologies through one’s own hands seemed to be a point of connection suggesting more situated ways to promote the critical appropriation of technologies. Some years later, however, the so-called maker culture went mainstream, with celebrity tech writers proposing a new industrial revolution.

I criticised this perspective here. Instead of promoting a new wave of hype over old practices, my own take was rooted in elements we found in Brazilian cultures such as the ideas of gambiarra (improvised solutions) and mutirão (pop-up collectives) . Both can be interpreted as ways to transform scarcity into abundance precisely by diverting from the “right way” to solve problems. In that first text I pushed for a “repair culture” instead of a “maker culture”. Some years on I would shift a bit the focus towards “transformation of matter” rather than repair, a take still present on my current research.

In exploring that course correction, I point that the image of an “industrial worker” on social imaginary is frequently misleading. We’re all familiar with depictions of the Industrial Revolution that focus on machines and workforce in European/North-American factories while turning a blind eye to enslaved people extracting minerals and crops at the same time. As mentioned some paragraphs above, without those raw materials there would be no Industrial Revolution. By the same token, it is irresponsible - to say the least - to propose a “new industrial revolution” without addressing or even acknowledging the unsolved side effects of the previous ones - slavery or at least precarious labor conditions, economic inequality, environmental impact, war, climate change. Corporative lingo dismissively dubs these as “negative externalities”.

As much as coloniality does not belong to the past, neither do these issues. Proving it are - right at this moment - the copper mines in Chile; as well as coltan mining causing ongoing civil war in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The pressure of Bolsonaro (there he is again) government attempting to allow mineral extraction on the land of native Brazilians. On the other end of product lifetimes are all the issues related to waste. The open air wastelands of electronics in Agbogbloshie in Ghana (even though I am aware that the horrible images portrayed by western media are not the full story, as noted by Adam Minter and Mark Phillips. Or fashion waste in the Atacama desert. Among many other examples.

With eyes on that situation, my research is aware of attempts such as cradle-to-cradle, the circular economy, green new deal, doughnut economy and other well-intentioned proposals. It feels however as if some of these efforts are only proposing tamed systems to feed back the beast that generated those very problems - and with even less friction to be sure. Instead of focusing on real people, such systems are often conceived from the perspective of those in power, or with a specific focus on materials instead of people. I am reminded of King Pedro I transforming things so that they stayed the same. What about we start from the so-called externalities and work our way to solve them? Among the policy buzzwords , the one that entices me most is “zero waste”. It has an interesting ambiguity, as the term in English can have at least two distinct meanings: waste as material out of place; waste as a verb denoting a suboptimal use of materials. And aiming at “zero”, albeit almost utopian in its practical infeasibility, seems to suggest that all effort is not enough but still useful.

To reinstitute

I was happy to be giving my talk at CRDM from Barcelona, whose former digital officer Francesca Bria wrote an important book with Evgeni Morozov some years ago, Rethinking the Smart City [^4]. In it, they argue that cities are a central place of reproduction of neoliberal capitalism. And one of the possible ways out of this is to think of sovereignty. Technological sovereignty, as they - informed by catalan activists - propose. And which could be extended to material sovereignty to think of waste, reuse, repair and recirculation.

If we are to treat these issues honestly and willing to promote real change, new institutional forms are required. It may be useful to borrow from Elinor Ostrom’s [^5] understanding of institutions as not only recognised organisational forms, but also habits, biases and cultural affordances. It is questionable the extent to which design can affect change in the real world. Creating neat policies won’t do much unless we factor in power and realpolitik. In Brazil we are familiar (and I would assume it also happens elsewhere) with the image of approved legislation that is nonetheless not enforced. The legal construction is there, but without political will inertia wins.

Neoliberal thinking often depicts the private sector as being the site of wealth creation, whilst governments would always be trying to block and regulate innovation. Mariana Mazzucato [^6} proves otherwise. Still, there is this tension about the ability of public institutions to adapt to a changing environment. Naturally, private organisations with a single set of objectives - be it ensuring growing profit or promoting social inclusion in a given community - have arguably a particular group of stakeholders to please over time. On the other hand, institutions are always a portrait of a mixture of both explicit as well as implicit or hidden desires. Including the desire to transform so that nothing changes for real.

I was recently in Portugal with my kids to visit family and friends. Walking one day along the beautiful coast of Cascais, I noticed two guys some metres ahead of me. They talked loudly, occasionally getting their smartphones to record audio messages or type frantically but never losing their pace. They were tanned and sweaty and sounded like members of Brazilian dominant classes. I had them for executives of multinational companies. The type that votes for Bolsonaro and supports austerity in Brazil, but then moves to Portugal - away from poverty, benefitting from public healthcare while the companies they run in Brazil use all available loopholes to evade taxes. How does that differ significantly from the way our territory was exploited for centuries escapes me. Clearly, the institutions - both formal and informal - still favour colonial alienation of resources, natural and human. They do evolve over time, but that arguably only happens with pressure and moments of breakage (or its threat).

I am currently collaborating with a few initiatives in Brazil that are slowly hearkening back from a situation of sheer struggle for survival in recent years to a mode of tending the soil, seeding and growing things anew. It is important in this moment to be attentive to the colonial mentality that still looms over our history, and to regenerate our collective horizon with an anticolonial approach in every possible aspect.

Footnotes

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