Earth Restorative Justice
Restorative approaches to environmental harms

Interview with Restorative Circles pioneer Dominic Barter

In 2015 the world was shocked by the Mariana disaster: the collapse of Samarco’s iron ore tailings dam in Minas Gerais, Brazil, which killed 19 people, displaced hundreds more and destroyed the Doce river ecosystem. The owners of Samarco and the Brazilian Government together set up the Renova Foundation to remediate and compensate the immense material, social and environmental harm caused by the dam collapse.
In this interview, Dominic Barter tells how his work with Restorative Circles supports Renova in the aftermath of the Mariana disaster. Dominic is a world-renowned leader in the fields of education, justice, culture and social change. He has collaborated in the development of Restorative Circles, a community-based practice for dynamic engagement with conflict that grew from conversations with residents in gangcontrolled shantytown favelas in Rio de Janeiro. He adapted the practice for the Brazilian Ministry of Justice’s award-winning national projects in restorative justice and supports its application in 49 countries.

How did you get involved with Renova’s work?

Since our journey with restorative work is rather different from that of some other practitioners, it might be useful to provide some context first. We have been building restorative justice systems with communities and organisations since the mid 1990s. The work began by listening to children in favela shanty towns under gang control, so it’s origin is intimately related to ecological questions around land and ownership, around territory and the tense relationship between marginalized communities and the State. In other words, the origin of Restorative Justice here is not in the judicial system: its origin is in the context of an historically antagonistic relationship with the State and the formal justice system. So though we have a long relationship with the Ministry of Justice and public prosecutors, and designed the first Restorative Justice pilot projects in the formal justice system, people think of our work as being strongly related to community self-empowerment and determination. Therefore, it was not surprising that the organisation set up to respond to the disaster, Renova, would consult us as part of their work.

What is so special about Renova’s set up and mandate?

The way the organisation was set up is quite an unique thing in Brazil and in the world. As would be expected with a crime of such magnitude, a judicial case is launched against the mining companies. Given the complexity of the issues, the economic and political stakes and how slowly the justice system moves, it would not be strange to expect that the hundreds of thousands of people who were impacted by what happened - who lost their homes, livelihoods, work, land, or who lost their lives – might wait as much as 20 years before they receive any kind of material compensation.

But in response to the Mariana disaster, the mining companies and the Government, through the Environment Ministry and other agencies, founded Renova. The idea is that this organisation, funded by the mining companies, will organise a much more agile response to what happened. The founding document of Renova is already quite extraordinary, because instead of setting a financial limit on compensation it sets a regenerative limit. The focus is the complete regeneration of the river and the surrounding communities: a quite exceptional environmental response.

Why did the companies agree to this?

Civil society is increasingly conscious of itself and strong. There was such outrage at what these companies had allowed to happen. Local footage put shocking images of the destruction on everyone’s screens. This disaster was not described simply by the number of deaths, or by the number of houses that were destroyed, it was defined as being ‘the death of a river’, of a being that was experienced as kin.

Companies connected to such impacts are in increasingly weak positions, given the history of the damage, the decades of warnings, the flouting of   established regulations. Local activist groups have been sounding the alarm for decades. Governments are also increasingly pressured to respond. From all these angles, it was clear that this time they had to do something very large and very fast.

Renova asked us to design restorative interventions for different aspects of the work they are doing. Interventions that could be used from the level of the executive council right to the level of the communities that were overwhelmed by the death of the river. Renova’s role is to mediate, and they wanted dialogical processes as a meta-principle throughout all they do.

What has been contributed so far?

One stage of this work is to create dialogue spaces for people in decision making-roles to be able to register and mourn what has happened, in order to recover the ability to act. In our Restorative Circles, we observe a key sequence running from mutual understanding, through self-responsibility to agreed, restorative action. This is a dialogical, not a scripted, process. We look for any point at which this dynamic might be blocked in the way an organisation is functioning. This then helps create specific restorative practices for responding to the many moments of conflict that can arise in local communities due to the immense pressure they are under and frustration with the complexity of implementing change. As part of Renova’s process, dialogue teams research and learn from the community, to find out what information they need in order to be sure that where there is rebuilding, it happens in the right way and place, and where there is compensation, it reaches the right people. It’s crucial to strengthen those teams so they can do their work effectively. In contexts such as these, those doing such work are often under immense pressure, sometimes needing physical protection.

For instance, a situation might arise in which criteria for evaluating impact include some and not others. Say toxic mud went up 15 streets beyond the river – what happens to the people in the 16th street? A lot of dialogue in such a scenario has to do with helping people deal emotionally with what occurred. At other times it’s needed to respond effectively to the anger and despair that emerges when things were not immediately getting better.

Another challenge in such a context is how to help people deal with the news that some will be compensated, and some will not. Disasters at a huge scale, such as the recent Amazon fires or coastal oil spills, might involve hundreds of thousands of people who suffer and yet are not considered ‘directly impacted’. Even if huge sums are invested in the communities they live in, many might not receive direct material compensation. With numbers like that, it’s complex to predict how many people may be evaluated inaccurately. Dialogical processes are required to receive objections and to allow such decisions to be contested and mistakes remedied.

In other words, the task is to identify the different unmet needs, and create interventions so that they can be met. The danger is doing this with the colonial mentality of control and dependence, coming in like ‘great external saviours’. So the foundation of such a response involves the ongoing interplay between offering technical knowledge which might be effective and listening to the local intelligence of those on the ground, so that whatever happens supports the communities’ resilience and ability to regenerate.

What kind of reparation has taken place asides from financial compensation?

There has been a lot of work done on restoring community housing and building community infrastructure. There is a lot of work on the ecological recovery of the river which is a quite technical matter, having to do with the chemical balance and the right conditions for life to regenerate, and with thinking about the aspects of wildlife that are particularly powerful in restoring the river from the specific damage it received and toxins it was exposed to. It’s very much an area of research and experimentation and all of this leads to the sense that the river is an entity which needs to be restored to health. And though the idea that the river is a living being with its own rights is not yet part of any formal legal recognition in Brazil, as is the case in some of our neighbouring countries, a lot of what is going on results in the river being treated with the same seriousness. It’s part of a more general re-awakening that our lives are not made up of money, but of trees, of air, and running water.

Just recently, due to the fires in the Amazon, São Paolo went dark at three in the afternoon. The smoke had travelled thousands of kilometres and completely covered the sky. When it rained the next morning it was as black as black paint. So these natural crises, created by humans, c an result in an awakening that the forest is a living participant in our community of existence, in the same way that the river Doce is. It is a relevant participant in the process of responding to damage and we have to think about how to reorient the justice system to recognize this. This process is aligned in a very deep way to res torative justice, and our work has been on how to make that visible.

Black rainwater collected in buckets by a citizen of São Paolo

This shift is a huge challenge and we are not there yet. At the same time, there is a potential that is still untapped in our ability to recognize that we live together. Restorative solutions are sustainable in terms of relationships on a level that punitive systems can’t reach. The affected communities in many ways continue to depend on the mining companies for their livelihood. When disaster happens, we are reminded that we live in community. The more this consciousness of community and care for sustainable relations becomes part of the way of thinking within a society, the less we have to wait for a disaster for it to happen. That’s when restorative work becomes preventative.

Many people feel powerless over the destructive actions of those in political or corporate power. What hope can Restorative Circles offer in this regard?

I think this has a lot to do with self-responsiveness. When we build restorative systems for our own communities, we learn to diminish our fear of conflict, and we discover that engaging fully with conflict and creating spaces where conflict can fully express itself, be heard and be transformed into specific action, increases community cohesion. So we are less frightened by the awful things we do to each other. Then, when we get a political moment like this, which is devastating in many ways, we are not immediately put into a reactive mode. Of course we need to strengthen our support systems. Of course we get into despair, or pass through a superficial level of just being angry or frightened, but we tend not to stay there.

Because you’ve built resilience on the individual and community level.

Yes, especially on the community level. We try to de-individualise things as much as possible. When one of us loses it and engages in de-humanising behaviour to themselves or other people as a response, for example, to actions of the current Government, collectively we view that as feedback that this persons’ support system (which means us) is not strong enough for the challenges this person is dealing with. Why are they challenged? Because they care. If they didn’t care, they would just go to the beach and relax. But if they are at home, sending angry messages on Facebook, this means their support system was insufficient.

It takes away individual blame for moments of danger. That is hugely supportive of our resilience. It makes the journey between shock and harm, between that and a creative response that engages with the situation transformatively, much shorter.

Where do you personally draw from to be able to respond to this enormous crisis?

A key element in doing my restorative work is making sure I also build strong support systems for myself. The listening that I require in order to be able to do what I do, is similar to the listening we are trying to promote in a Restorative Circle. It’s the same quality of empathic attention. We have not dealt with anything of this scale before, but because of the social reality here, we’ve dealt with huge tragedies and many losses of life for almost two and a half decades. I’ve been in civil war zones and situations where people have done the most horrific things to each other. So unfortunately, we are somewhat warmed up in dealing with intense suffering.

Which personal stories have touched you the most in your restorative work for the Mariana disaster?

One story that impacted me I heard in Mariana, the first of the larger towns that was majorly impacted. An older man who I met in the street said to me: ‘Can you bring back my peace of mind?’. He said that his marriage had become intolerable, because he used to wake up at 5 a.m. and spend all morning and the beginning of the afternoon fishing. When he came back, his wife would have gone into town, and they would see each other in the evening, when they both had a full day of life to share with each other. He said: ‘Now I wake up late, there is nothing to do, nowhere to go, it’s difficult to find food, and me and my wife squabble. The river is my way of living, and when the river is taken, everything falls apart.’

That has stayed with me since then. It is a strong reminder of the limits of what reparation can do and that restoration does not mean going back to how things were. Rather, it means an understanding of what creates the conditions for people to organise, to regenerate, their own life.

Impactful too were the stories of the people who were putting the things we are teaching into practice, going all the way from the head of the organisation to members of the dialogue team who are at the point of contact with the impacted populations. The many stories of anger, antagonism and even threats of physical attacks, which transformed through very simple and very persistent deep listening. Transformed into a recognition that below that anger is pain and sadness, despair and fear. And that a lot of what otherwise might be expressed as violence, is in fact grief. It has been very strengthening for me to see how people working for the organisation who build systems of support for themselves, are fortified in their ability to see the humanity of people behind often very tense disagreements.

This article was first published in the booklet "Environmental Justice: Restoring the Future. Towards a restorative environmental justice praxis" (European Forum for Restorative Justice, 2019), launched on the occasion of the international Restorative Justice Week in November 2019. The booklet can be downloaded here: Environmental Justice Restoring the Future.pdf .