GeoSemantics / Geological Affect: Ailton Krenak’s Earth Citizenship / Nicolás Campisi

Waters Pool At Hydro Dam, photo by Matthew Henry.

Several environmental catastrophes have laid waste on the ancestral lands of the Krenak Indigenous community in recent years. Standing alongside the Doce River in the Brazilian state of Minas Gerais and occupying four thousand hectares, the Krenak reservation has suffered from recurring devastations such as the Mariana dam disaster that contaminated the river with iron, killing nineteen people and displacing many others. The Brazilian philosopher Ailton Krenak has published a series of short books—mainly compiled from interviews and public lectures—denouncing this unsustainable development model and proposing alternative Indigenous cosmovisions that give meaning to the land. Krenak argues that these catastrophes have turned the members of his Indigenous community into “refugees in our own homeland,” mourning for a river on the verge of extinction—the river is, according to him, in a coma—after the Mariana tailing dam failure.1 For Krenak, the Covid-19 pandemic has shown that the earth is striking back due to our anthropocentrism that renders human beings dispensable once they stop being productive for the capitalist system.

Ideas to Postpone the End of the World (2019) begins with the premise that there is currently a singular, one-truth humanity that controls the narrative of this world. This Humanity Club, as Krenak refers to it, comprises only a tiny fragment of the world’s population and excludes the vast majority. In addition to separating earth and humanity, this worldview enshrines the “civilizing abstraction” composed of megacities, and relegates Indigenous, riverine, and maroon communities to a “sub-humanity” equal to the corporate idea of nature.2 Krenak denounces sustainability as a Western myth that corporations espouse in order to justify the pillage of bodies and territories. The Krenak tribe includes mountains and rivers as legitimate community members. These sentient beings are revered because they receive gifts from people and provide means of sustenance in return. This right of citizenship means that rivers and mountains are part of “the communal home we call Earth.”3 The intertwinement between humans and land is reflected in the word Krenak—both the author’s last name and the name of his community—which comprises the words “head” and “land,” pointing to the seamless relationship between bodies and territories.

In contrast to humanity’s incapacity to imagine the earth as more than property, Krenak conceives dreaming as an “institution” that leads to self-knowledge and a new awareness of life.4 Dreams are “places of connection with the shared world… not a parallel world, but the world in another register, another potency.”5 An evident source of inspiration is Davi Kopenawa’s philosophy about the role of the shaman in Yanomami culture. Kopenawa argues that it is in dreams that the Yanomami do politics and prevent the sky from falling.6 Krenak thus aligns with Jonathan Crary’s notion of sleep as an affront to global capitalism since it is a sphere yet to be colonized and commodified: “an uncompromising interruption of the theft of time from us by capitalism.”7 Similarly, Krenak conceives of dreams as places of connection with ancestors and expansion of our subjectivities, reversing capitalism’s transformation of citizens into consumers. Dreams are manifestations of the creative encounters that, according to Krenak, are necessary to refuse the idea that we are all the same. The oneiric world is the provenance of the songs, cures, and stories inherent to the Krenak cosmovision.

In A vida não é útil (2020), Krenak argues that dreams provide different languages that collide with hegemonic visions of reality. Specifically, he writes that dreams are “cultural regimes” that channel our affective relationship with the environment.8 Dreaming connects us with the collective consciousness of humankind and the cosmos. Krenak thus sees dreaming as a transcendental experience that ties us with ancestral spirits that give us the tools to confront everyday reality. There is a close link between dreaming and collective identity since, according to Krenak, hunters dream in one way and gatherers in another. He provides an original interpretation of cave paintings, not as a reflection of reality, but as the dreams of prehistoric peoples. These paintings show that prehistoric humans were conscious that life is precarious and that we must learn how to build relationships with nonhuman beings such as rivers, stones, and plants in order to survive. For Krenak, dreaming carries an ancestral cultural inheritance of a time when everyday life was an extension of oneiric reality.

Krenak develops the notion of ancestrality by pointing to how Indigenous worldviews posit that humans were animals, plants, or rocks in previous lives. Indigenous communities transmit this ancestral cultural memory when they refer to themselves as “nations still standing,” making an analogy to trees and forests.9 By contrast, he conceives of late capitalist societies as earth-eating civilizations that through their drive to produce material commodities have become “the most useless toy” on the planet.10 The earth-eating metaphor recurs throughout Krenak’s work to designate how nature is finite and the human desire to plunder the earth is infinite, since we have formatted the earth to look like a consumer good. As opposed to the illusion of time as an arrow pointing only to the future, Krenak speaks of the need to conceive ancestrality as an inalienable right of contemporary citizens: the memory of a time when we were still an inherent part of nature instead of consumers. When he refers to young people as a generation without an inheritance, Krenak echoes Hannah Arendt’s words in Between Past and Future (1961) about the postwar generation as confronting an inheritance without a testament.11 In the face of a dystopian reality—where dystopia designates the impossibility of imagining other worlds since we can only consume them—Krenak calls us to become earth citizens: to build affective communities with nonhuman beings and to imagine the time before time when humans still threaded lightly on the earth.

Krenak’s latest book, Futuro ancestral (2022), theorizes the concept of florestania—an expression in Portuguese that mixes the terms “forest” and “citizenship”—to propose a new ordering of the modern nation. Following the examples of Bolivia and Ecuador’s constitutional reforms to include nonhuman beings as right-bearing citizens, Krenak argues that the idea of a plurinational state counters the colonial state founded upon the banner of piracy: existing to devour the other. The concept of florestania emerged in the state of Acre—located in the Brazilian Amazon—during the 1980s through the environmental activism of Chico Mendes. Advocating for the defense of Amazonian ecosystems and the respect of local communities, Mendes argued that seringueiros (rubber tappers) could only keep working if the large-scale extractive practices of modern agriculture and stockbreeding ceased to exist in this region. Florestania refers to these citizens of the forest who need this ecosystem to remain intact in order not to jeopardize their livelihoods.12 Since modern citizenship relies on the separation of culture and nature, cities and countryside, Krenak argues for urban inhabitants to embrace an experience of florestania. This experience includes the creation of a commons and the reforestation of urban imaginaries that have traditionally been conceived against the natural landscape. Beginning with the view that urbanizing means erasing traditional knowledge, Krenak describes the post-Covid-19 world as a dystopia in which every territory outside cities is wiped out from the map.

For Krenak, the main symptom of late capitalism is “affective collapse”: the lack of emotional ties with nature.13 People see rivers only as potential energy sources or water for single-crop agriculture. The construction of large hydroelectric dams along the Doce River proves that cities have an immense thirst for the water of rivers, whose mutilated bodies have ceased to carry the ancestral spirits of riverside communities. By contrast, Krenak proposes the category of “affective cartographies” to give meaning to the landscape and resist the onset of extractive activities.14 Indigenous communities form inventories of animals and plants to give back to the earth the presence of extinct species. Krenak posits the need to think like a river and find subterranean channels even if the main flow of water has been emptied out or appropriated. We are forced to conceive submerged perspectives to find spiritual presences and talk to a missing world, remarks Krenak, echoing Macarena Gómez-Barris’s concept of “fish-eye epistemes” that seek to observe “the muck of the neoliberal and colonial condition.”15 Inhabiting affective cartographies means being able to metamorphose into other earth beings. For Krenak, there are no clear boundaries between the human body and the other beings that inhabit the planet.

Moreover, Krenak conceives plurinational states as political formations that do not limit themselves to a country or nation. He refers to Latin America as Abya Yala, the Quechua Indigenous word for “land in its full maturity.” He declares that we belong not only to our village, community, or nation, but to Pachamama (Mother Earth) and the planet as a whole. Our relationship with the land unites us with the memory of creation and the ancestral stories embedded in our natural surroundings. Aligning with the Indigenous notion of buen vivir, Krenak argues that old age should not be seen as a threat, but as a place of knowledge. On the other hand, he points out that we should not expose children to our obsession with molding and shaping human subjectivities. Instead of projecting ourselves into the future, we should imagine new worlds through small children’s creativity and fresh perspectives. In this sense, the terraforming project begins with the production of human subjectivities from a young age. Western education limits sociability to the human world, excluding animals, plants, and other beings from our experience of community. Krenak speaks about the importance of a geological and environmental education, pointing out that his most significant teachers are constellations of human and nonhuman beings.

Krenak’s geological writings stand against the extractive notion that bodies and territories exist to be exploited. Through concepts such as ancestrality and florestania, he advocates for a transnational Indigenous movement that weaves connections between communities such as the Zapatista in Chiapas, Mexico, and the Dakota in what is now the United States and Canada. These Indigenous communities are united by the recognition, not of sameness, but of radical alterity. Since every being and person is different, Krenak posits a new idea of cosmopolitanism or worlding (what he calls mundizar): the power to experience nonhuman worlds and Indigenous cosmovisions, and the encounter with mountains and rivers not as abstractions but as dynamic assemblages of emotions. His theses on stones and rivers as active community members resonate with the praxis of contemporary Latin American artists such as Brazilian Silvia Noronha and Colombian Carolina Caycedo, whose works put forward new relationships with water or geologic materials like coal. Instead of conceiving mountains and rivers as the detritus of an abusive civilization, Krenak gives back to these nonhuman beings their capacity to resist the continued attacks of extractive enterprises shows us that mythologies are still alive and well as ancestral communities experience the land through relationships of affection and care.

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This is part of the cluster GeoSemantics. Read the other posts here. 

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  1. Ailton Krenak, Ideas to Postpone the End of the World, trans. Anthony Doyle (Toronto: Anansi Press, 2020), 2.
  2. Krenak, Ideas, 27.
  3. Krenak, Ideas, 49.
  4. Krenak, Ideas, 53.
  5. Krenak, Ideas, 65.
  6. Hanna Limulja, O desejo dos outros: uma etnografia dos sonhos Yanomami (São Paulo: Ubu Editora, 2022), 40.
  7. Jonathan Crary, 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep (London: Verso, 2013), 10.
  8. “Regime cultural.” Ailton Krenak, A vida não é útil (São Paulo: Companhia das Letras, 2020), 37.
  9. “Uma nação que fica de pé.” Krenak, A vida, 52.
  10. “Brinquedo mais inútil.” Krenak, A vida, 60.
  11. Hannah Arendt, Between Past and Future: Six Exercises in Political Thought (New York: The Viking Press, 1961), 3.
  12. Eduardo Gudynas, “Ciudadanía ambiental y meta-ciudadanías ecológicas: revisión y alternativas en América Latina,” Desenvolvimento e Meio Ambiente 19 (2009): 64.
  13. “Colapso afetivo.” Ailton Krenak, Futuro ancestral (São Paulo: Companhia das Letras, 2022), 22.
  14. “Cartografia afetiva.” Krenak, Futuro ancestral, 34.
  15. Macarena Gómez-Barris, The Extractive Zone: Social Ecologies and Decolonial Perspectives (Durham: Duke University Press, 2017), 109.