By Luciana dos Santos Duarte
Known as the Green Hell, the Brazilian Western Amazon has been the stage of many projects claiming or performing to save the world in the name of Sustainable Development. By default, the projects come from the mind of someone driven by the paradigms of “New” and “Modern”, and other trend topics like “Forest 4.0”, to which Technology is the answer to make profits while saving the forest.
Even though we are in the Anthropocene, slowing pressuring the button of self-destruction, this human being motivated to save the world is not in extinction. This next-door fellow is someone who can create a projectconnecting a company (buyer), an NGO (to provide technical assistance and credibility in the forest), some cooperatives (workforce of rural farmers), multilateral banks (investors), and the Brazilian government (subsides). All the actors connected (call as stakeholders) are humans and its creations (e.g., corporations). – They are Culture.
But what about the Amazon rainforest? Well, the forest – or the stage where the actors play – is just Nature, something separated from Culture, something we can literally step on it, extract, domesticate, design, and redesign. This separation – Culture x Nature, Humans x Nonhumans – is fundamental for the mentioned paradigms to permanently exist in the forest, allowing projects to come and go.
Like waves, the projects go to the Amazon according to markets trends, new politics, investments, disagreements, a genocide of indigenous peoples because of a pandemic, and other problems and “motivations” (proudly called as “solutions”). Then, the projects go away. They incorporate New ideas, not the Maintenance of previous ones.
There is an important difference between humans and nonhumans according to the French anthropologist Philippe Descola (author of “Beyond Nature and Culture”, 2005): “Humans are subjects who have rights on account of their condition as men, while nonhumans are natural or artificial objects that do not have rights in their own right”. Thus, it is an exclusivity of humans to exercise the authority over a certain domain of affairs. I might risk saying that we, white and western, who represent our Culture, are not so diplomatic with Nature. This assumption leads us to the core question: How to think diplomacy for nonhumans in Nature?
My positionality to answer this question is not from a diplomat, but from a product designer doing a double-degree PhD in Production Engineering (Brazil) and Development Studies (The Netherlands), inspired by some outputs of my research in the Amazon. By saying that, and recalling a famous quote on creativity by Einstein, “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them”, I am now confident to point out three possible paths to inspire a more concrete answer in Diplomacy: Law, Anthropology, and Industrial Design.
In 1972, Christopher D. Stone wrote the breakthrough article “Should Trees have Standing?”, launching a worldwide debate on the basic nature of legal rights that reached the U.S. Supreme Court. He starts his argument on the reasons why Nature should be represented in the court, for instance remembering that children in the past were seen as objects without rights, or just extension of their parents, until their rights were represented.
Also, if nonhumans like corporations can be represented by lawyers, why not trees and rivers can be? Indeed, after half of a century of this seminal article, the first river in the world, the Whanganui, in New Zealand, was finally represented in the court. According to a minister, the Maori people had been fighting for over 160 years to get this recognition. The river’s interest is now represented by two people, one member from the Maori tribe, and one from the Crown.
Back to Anthropology, the Ontological Turn scholars have been including the nonhumans in the same epistemological level as humans. For instance, making Science from what is the form of life of indigenous peoples, by creating concepts, theories, and trends, like the pluriverse, perspectivism, and neo shamanism. However, our indigenous brothers have no idea that their thinking-feeling can be framed in those fragmented terms. They are living their lives without seeing division between nature and culture. – They are Nature.
Likewise, we can be Nature too, by creating our rational thinking, Science and projects. As a lecturer in Design, I am teaching my students to represent the voices of nonhumans in the design team and to consider their positionalities in the design process. I believe that the agency of a lawyer should start in the embryonic stage of a project. Once the project is in the Amazon, where we find thousands of nonhuman species, there is a lot of work to do, not only for designers, but also for lawyers, policy makers and diplomats – before we go to the court, or to the Apocalypse in the Anthropocene.
About the author:
Luciana dos Santos Duarte is a PhD researcher at the International Institute of Social Studies.