Vivian Mocellin is the Executive Director of Animal Equality Brasil. She spoke with ACE Research Intern Victoria Schindel on November 29, 2018. This is a summary of their conversation.
When did Animal Equality expand to Brazil, and why was that decision made?
Animal Equality started in Brazil at the end of 2016. They always try to go to the places where there is the greatest need for animal rights work and where there is more potential to impact a large number of animals. Brazil is one of the biggest producers, consumers, and exporters of meat. There is a local animal rights movement here but it is very young. It has been growing a lot over the last two years with the arrival of international organizations which have helped to strengthen the movement, but there is still a lot of work to do.
What are the biggest differences between the work Animal Equality does in Brazil and the other countries where it operates?
When Animal Equality first started in Brazil, we started our work on cage-free campaigns using corporate outreach. It was about a year later that we started to build our capacity. I became the Executive Director and we also hired a Corporate Outreach Manager, a Communications Manager, and a member of administrative staff. We are now beginning to look into other initiatives beyond corporate outreach. What we do in Brazil is very aligned to our work in other countries but the main challenge that we face is that we have to adapt our overall international strategy to the local context, such as the culture, the history, and the politics here. People often think of Latin America as one huge area, but in Brazil we speak Portuguese whereas most of Latin America speaks Spanish. As Brazil was colonized by Portugal, it has a very different culture to other Latin American countries.
What are the main opportunities and challenges for political outreach and legislative change in Brazil?
Agribusiness and politics are very closely linked in Brazil. We have had a series of scandals over the past few years exposing the connections between agribusiness—especially the largest companies such as JBS and BRF—and politics. JBS and BRF became the transnational companies that they are today due to the support of the Labor government under President Lula. While this government was in power for 13 years, we had projects trying to turn local companies into big transnationals. JBS and BRF received subsidies from the government and loans from public banks to become large corporations. There is also the fact that a lot of these companies have directly financed the election of many politicians in Brazil. There are many exchanges of favors between politicians and the agribusiness industry. In addition to this, because agribusiness is so powerful economically, they are able to elect politicians to Congress who make up what we call the Rural Bench. This is a group that defends the interests of agribusiness. Anything we try to do in terms of legislation, especially at the federal level, is a challenge because there are so many representatives of agribusiness in Congress.
On the upside, there have been some bills proposed and presented in Congress that have had some success. For example, we are about to ban testing on animals for cosmetics in Brazil. The European Union told Brazil that they would not import our cosmetics because we still perform tests here. When the companies realize that they are going to have problems with their business because of their low standards for animal rights, they begin to change. It really depends on the tactics that we use. Confronting them directly tends to be a problem.
There is also a lot of potential for legal advocacy for animals. We recently had a case of strategic litigation that was quite successful and opens the door for other cases. We have started to put animal rights into the legal landscape which is quite new for Brazil and many judges and public attorneys have never heard of it. Now it is an ongoing conversation and we can start proposing more litigations that push the legal system to view animals in a different way.
How has Animal Equality been involved with the issue of live exports of cattle from Brazil?
There have always been live exports from Brazil, but it was in December last year (2017) when the issue really came to public attention. The biggest port in Brazil started live exports again after about 20 years of being closed for this activity. The first vessel was transporting 27,000 animals to Turkey and that caused a lot of commotion within the movement, the media, and the general public. We work very closely with Mercy For Animals, Fórum Animal, and Animals International on the issue. Quite often there is disagreement about the best way to work on animal rights activism, but on this particular issue local activists, grassroots organizations, and large organizations all came together to pressure the politicians in São Paulo for a ban on live exports. That hasn’t been voted on yet, but there is still pressure and we are still involved in giving support to activists and doing advocacy with the politicians.
Do you have any thoughts on the potential impact of the recent election result on the animal advocacy movement in Brazil?
The President-elect (Jair Bolsonaro) who will take office on January 1st, 2019, has spoken openly about being against international organizations working in Brazil, environmental activism, and really any NGOs or activism. He is ex-military and in favor of a dictatorship. He has even said that he is in favor of torture. The way he communicates is very similar to Donald Trump. He says things that don’t sound good for animal rights or human rights, but really we don’t know what he is going to do when he is in office. In Brazil we have a very strong constitution and an established democracy, as well as a strong human rights movement so it’s not going to be that easy for him to implement all of the very reactionary things he says he wants to do.
There are already some new proposals that could affect our work. The current President (Michel Temer) is very much aligned with the new President-elect so he is already implementing things that the next President wants to see. For example, Temer has signed a decree creating a task force that will involve military investigation of any acts that threaten public security. We still have some legislation from the dictatorship which is still valid though nobody has used for many years. The President is now saying that the military can use that law to protect public safety. This is mainly directed towards other social movements that are closely linked to the political left, but of course it could affect any social movement—or even individuals—working in Brazil.
There is also an anti-terrorist act which was issued before the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. It contains a paragraph which makes an exemption for social movements by saying that activities such as demonstrations and protests can’t be considered acts of terrorism. At the moment there are bills in Congress that want to remove that paragraph which could lead to the criminalization of social movements. Again, it isn’t directed at the animal advocacy movement, but it could be used against any social movement.
In Brazil the constitution guarantees that we are able to protest or hold demonstrations without having to ask for permission. Soon there is going to be a vote about whether to change that so that we would have to get permission to hold protests or demonstrations. Again, although it is not targeted at us, it could potentially affect us. We are going to be monitoring these changes closely alongside other organizations such as Greenpeace, Amnesty International, and other animal advocacy groups. I have also been speaking to lawyers to make sure that we are extra careful in how we strategically plan for the next year.
How do you organize undercover investigations in Brazil and what challenges do you have to navigate to make them happen?
We have done three investigations in Brazil where we have entered farms, the first of which was in 2016 through the international team. The second investigation was into an egg-laying farm. We work with someone who is very well known and respected as a former Greenpeace activist. He has a lot of experience in direct action, investigations, and campaigns. It has been relatively easy to get into farms because undercover investigations are not common here, so the people working on the farms don’t know what they are. The challenge here is to get media coverage because the media is very closely linked to politicians and to animal agriculture.
We are very mindful of safety concerns and make sure we do risk assessments and speak to lawyers before doing investigations. Trespassing is not a crime in Brazil—rather, it is considered to be a minor offence. In cases where trespassing occurs to stop cruelty to animals, it is not considered an offence at all as you have a moral obligation to try to help. In terms of physical safety, we try not to go into the north of Brazil as it tends to be much more violent. We try to do investigations in places that we know are safe and make sure we have a lawyer on call in the area. If there are any risks that are identified on location, then we cancel the investigation. We haven’t encountered any problems so far, but we make sure that we always take precautions.
How does the Brazilian public respond to the footage released from undercover investigations?
We have trouble getting the footage out into the mainstream media, but we have a lot of success with our social media, and with celebrities and digital influencers who support us. The public tends to be shocked by the footage because most people have a romantic view of animal farming and think it is still done on a small scale. People don’t think about the large-scale industrial farms and don’t know about what happens to animals. Generally, the response is very positive and many people say that they will rethink their consumption habits.
Why do you think the live export issues received so much media coverage compared to other animal welfare issues?
I think it was because of the momentum behind the issue. There was a lot of mobilization across the movement including international organizations, independent activists, and grassroots organizations. There were two lawsuits and there were protests outside the court, which is what prompted the issue to get media coverage. One of the lawsuits won an injunction to ban live exports across the whole country which also got a lot of media coverage. There was backlash from agribusiness claiming that it was an injustice and that many people would lose their jobs, but I think it was all the protests and demonstrations that helped get media coverage.
Where is more research needed in animal advocacy in Brazil?
I think we need more research to help understand what motivates Brazilians to review and change their consumption habits. We have surveys and research on consumer behaviors from other countries, but we don’t have much from Brazil.
Brazil is a poor country and there is great economic and social inequality here. It was improving for many years, but we are going through a huge economic recession and there is a lot of unemployment, so people are becoming poorer again. We need to be sensitive to these realities and there is still a perception that becoming a vegan is elitist and expensive. Changing that perception is really key to getting people to change their consumption habits.
In addition, around 55% of the Brazilian population identify as Black or mixed-race. Brazil has the world’s largest population of African descendents outside of Africa, and they have their own culture based on their ancestral history, including their food. It is important to have a dialogue with them, and to understand their culture and their struggles to be able to promote veganism in a way that speaks to them.
Is there anything else you would like to add?
The really important thing to understand about Brazil is the specifics of the culture here. Strategies that work well in other countries are not necessarily effective or meaningful to people in Brazil. There is a lot of potential here—many people are showing interest in veganism and the welfare of animals, but we need to understand what kind of messaging we should be using to reach them. For example, we don’t have a lot of industrialized vegan products in Brazil and I personally don’t feel that we need them because we produce a lot of food here. We need to teach people how to make the most out of the food available here, according to their culture and their habits. We mustn’t impose habits that don’t make sense locally or culturally.
I think part of the reason veganism is viewed as elitist here is that people see digital influencers on Instagram and they don’t feel represented. It’s not about literally translating content from Europe or the U.S., it has to make sense to people here. For example, we don’t show lots of industrialized products. Instead we show people ways to make vegan food at home using ingredients that are cheap and accessible. Also, it is so important to be representative of diversity in Brazil. The gender-based movements and the Black movement are really strong and have a significant influence here. If we can establish a dialogue with those movements to get veganism on their agendas, we can reach many more people. We have people from the countryside and from the favelas talking on our platforms—rather than just people from the big cities—so that we are representing many different cultures and allowing everyone to think about veganism in their own realities.
The other important thing to understand is that there is some tension within the animal advocacy movement itself, particularly between international and local organizations. Many local organizations don’t believe in corporate outreach work, or think that cage-free campaigns actually encourage the public to consume more eggs. They sometimes also think that because we are working for welfare reforms, we are not a vegan organization. Discussions can be very tense. It’s a shame because if we could agree to disagree about certain tactics then we could work together on the things we do agree on, which has the potential to be very powerful. We need to work to improve this and I have been looking at how we can engage with local activists and grassroots groups. I think this is relevant to any international organization coming to work in Brazil: to listen to local activists and groups and truly hear their points of view. Often it’s not about launching new programs—it’s about finding local people already doing the work and partnering with them, sharing knowledge, and sharing resources. By doing this, we build a community and empower people, rather than creating more tension inside the movement.