Basic Sanitation and black Brazilian: The Colonial Relationship
Note from BBT: When I think of what material that I think is important for my readers to understand the situation of black Brazilians, of course, from time to time, people will come away with the idea that some things must be an exagerration. I mean, it just couldn’t be all that. I didn’t set out to create a blog that simply spoke of the negative things that happen to black folks in Brazil. Believe me, there’s enough bad news that I could devote a whole blog to just that. But I don’t think that would be a fair portrayal of the situation.
There are many things I love about Brazil that involve black people. There’s the music. There’s the way they managed to maintain their connection to a religion of African origin. I love the culinary tradition and the rising sense of Afro-Brazilian entrepreneurship, black theater, the spreading of Afro-Brazilian fashion and the idea of Black Money. These are all great concepts that are in need now more than ever. On the other hand, to fully understand the uphill battle that being black in Brazil is, I must also share the absurdities that I am familiar with.
When I first began visiting Brazil back in 2000, my first experiences were in the capital city of Bahia, Salvador, the city some refer to as “Black Rome”. Many memories from those first trips still stick with me to this day. Some great, some not so great. One of those memories that struck me was where the mother of a friend, Paulo, I met on that first trip lived. On that first trip, I discovered the varying levels of favela life. Whereas one of my friends lived in a favela but had a boombox, a TV, tile on the floors and many other luxuries, Paulo’s mother lived in a home made of bamboo shoots with dirt serving as her floor.
As if seeing this with my own eyes weren’t enough, I soon began to learn just how many Brazilian homes at that time, the first years of the 21st century, didn’t have access to the most basic things, such as drinkable water, sewerage and trash collection. Needless to say, the majority of people who live in such areas don’t have white skin. When I add this fact to the numerous other methods Brazil has used to undermine its black population, it becomes very obvious that these things don’t happen by accident. I called it genocide years ago. Abdias do Nascimento called it genocide MUCH longer ago than I, and after two decades of experience, I still see it this way.
Over a century and a half ago, Brazil sent thousands of black Brazilians to die on the battlefield in a war that decimated the black population. A little afterward, it set an agenda to entice its black population to voluntarily disappear itself through generations of miscegenation. Then we think about the inequal access to education from elementary school to college and then post-grad studies.
Another fact that we simply cannot ignore is the fact that black Brazilians are far more likely to die in a violent manner, whether by police actions or street violence. This last point seems to confirm a genocidal agenda. We find these inequalities in nearly every area of life in Brazil and if we don’t speak about the quick manner of killing off black people, then we have the slower method. From low-paying jobs, to lack of health care services and things that are needed on a regular basis to ensure one’s health.
Keep all of this in mind as you read the piece below on what has been defined as environmental racism.
The colonial relationship between basic sanitation and the black Brazilian population: notes on environmental racism, eugenic genocide and racial stigmas
By Victor de Jesus
Currently, there has been a debate about Brazilian health inequalities that involve inadequate basic sanitation. Although this debate is only now being racialized, sanitation and race/racism have a relationship as old as colonization and refer to what writer Carolina Maria de Jesus called the Quarto de Despejo or what was later called environmental racism by the black American movement.
Before proceeding, it is necessary to stick to two important concepts, the first of which is basic sanitation. Due to the sanitation concession companies, which historically provide services, works and infrastructure for water supply and sewage, we commonly associate basic sanitation with water and sewage. However, according to the sanitation law, basic sanitation also covers the collection and proper disposal of solid waste (garbage) and rainwater drainage (rainwater). Therefore, basic sanitation involves water, sewage, garbage and rainwater.
The second concept concerns the concept of environmental racism which is equivalent to the racially disproportionate impact, damage or environmental risk, regardless of the intention of the causer (polluting companies and/or the State), which impacts the living, working and/or leisure environment of historically racialized groups. For example, the impact of luxury resorts and condominiums on protected areas, hydroelectric-wind-power plants, agricultural estates, soy and eucalyptus monoculture, petrochemical-pharmaceutical industries, butchery, mining activities, pesticide pollution and many others whose environmental damage/costs have historically been borne by the indigenous peoples and by the black population for the benefit of the great white-urban-southeastern agro-industrial entrepreneurship.
With this in mind, I discuss environmental racism for inadequacy in basic sanitation, highlighting the historical and colonial relationship between sanitation and the black Brazilian population that embraces not ‘only’ racialized inequality in access to sanitation, but also the mortality of the black population in consequence of diseases related to inadequate environmental sanitation and, also, the racial stigma that black people are dirty, filthy and stinky. The historical relationship between sanitation and the black population therefore involves environmental racism, eugenic genocide and racial stigmas.
From the slave ships of Africa to the traffic on Brazilian soil, the black population was already deprived of basic conditions of sanitation and hygiene, surviving in unhealthy situations of poor ventilation, contaminated water, an environment with feces and living with countless vectors of diseases such as cockroaches, mice and mosquitoes. This situation remained in the slave quarters, tenements, basements, prisons, mocambos (small villages) and favela slums of yesteryear and now. In 2010, according to IBGE census data, even with the black population being 51% of the Brazilian population, they represented 79% of the population that did not even have a bathroom at home, 69% of the population without garbage collection, 62% of the population without running water, 59% of the population without sewerage. In practice, this means that millions of black Brazilians were in the most vulnerable health conditions due to inadequate basic sanitation.
The consequence of this situation is a scenario of genocide, the cause of which is the unhealthy environmental conditions of housing, work and/or leisure. From the countless deaths from diseases related to inadequate environmental sanitation from the navios tumbeiros (that is why they were called tumbeiros or tomb ships) to the black bodies scattered in colonial cities, sanitation diseases were almost a death sentence for a population already weakened by hunger, misery, long-term forced labor and severe punishment. Like that time, even today the black population continues to die from diseases considered preventable and neglected, such as worms, diarrhea, tuberculosis, cholera, leptospirosis, dengue, malaria, yellow fever and leprosy, among others. Every hour and a half a black person dies in Brazil due to a disease related to inadequate sanitation, half of these deaths are of black babies and elderly people, according to DataSUS data.
And, as if it were not enough to live and die amid garbage and shit, the historic, everyday black population has been reduced to disposable body-garbage-waste. From colonial Brazil to contemporary Brazil, there are countless cases where black people are attacked, humiliated and symbolically raped as dirty, unclean and stinky. Preto fede, preto sujo, preta fedida, preta imunda (stinky black, dirty black, smelly black, filthy black) are some of the colonial insults that endure today, shouted in the street or sprayed on bathroom doors, or updated with humorous characters and racist jokes. As if it were not enough to live without the right to sanitation and the right to life as a result of the deaths that ensued, racial humiliation and the destitution of one’s dignity is also another mark of the colonial relationship between sanitation and race/racism.
As in colonial times, not recognized as subjects, nor as subjects of law; added to the projeto de embranquecimento (whitening project) that unites post-abolition and the proclamation of the Republic, the eugenic genocide continues as a State policy in its various ways, from police action to inadequate sanitation. A scenario that tends to worsen with the new sanitation framework that deals with the right to sanitation as a commodity and opens space for the sector’s privatization.
In view of this, the new coronavirus pandemic is added to the eternal pandemic that the black population and native and traditional peoples have been experiencing in the face of environmental unhealthiness stemming from environmental racism due to inadequate sanitation since colonial times. Finally, there are countless ways to whiten a nation, sanitation has been one of them, precariating life, producing physical and symbolic death and actively consuming the eugenicist genocide of the black Brazilian population.
* This essay consists of the summary of my master’s research, for more detailed information see dissertation “Coisas negras no quarto de despejo: saneando subjetividades, corpos e espaços”, available at: <http://objdig.ufrj.br/42/ theses / 860943.pdf> or article “Racializando o olhar (sociológico) sobre a saúde ambiental em saneamento da população negra: um continuum colonial chamado racismo ambiental”, disponível em: <https://www.scielo.br/pdf/sausoc/v29n2/1984-0470-sausoc-29-02-e180519.pdf>.