The Amazon and the hell of power

03 October 2019

Power inferno”, this is the title Jean Baudrillard gave to one of his essays in the aftermath of the attack on the Twin Towers, paraphrasing the title of a catastrophic film that hit the billboards years earlier: A “Tower Inferno”. A hell of power. This we might say today, as in past occasions, of the Amazon, an image of fire, destruction and resistance, that has been cyclically appearing and reappearing in the media, and that periodically unleashes indignation and helplessness, as if the Amazon were some sort of symbol of past and future apocalypse.

Slash and burn agriculture in the Amazon / Photo credit Flickr/Matt Zimmerman/CC BY 2.0

Almost 30 years have passed since the murder of Chico Mendes, a trade unionist of the ”seringueiros ” of Xapurì , in the state of Acre at the extreme periphery of the Brazilian Amazon. And from the historic meeting in Altamira when representatives of indigenous peoples from all over Brazil gathered to step up the profile and coordinate their opposition to the construction of large dams.  At that time, dam construction (together with other large infrastructure, such as highways) was one of the first catalysts of the planned colonization of the Amazon and for the exploitation of its vast reserves of natural resources.  Minerals like iron, gold, copper, were extracted in the mines of Carajas, in the state of Parà, bauxite was dug out to produce aluminium in Trombetas where Bolsonaro today wants to build another mega dam. Gold miners were invading indigenous land. Open air holes were opened, manned by thousands of miners in conditions of semi-slavery, as depicted in the famous reportage on Serra  Pelada by Brazilian photographer Sebastiao Salgado.

The history of the exploitation of the Amazon goes hand in hand with the cycles of colonization, starting with the rubber cycle, a first act of biopiracy of an  English adventurer that then stole Hevea brasiliensis  plants to replant them in the British colonies of Malaysia.  Goodyear had just discovered the vulcanization of rubber and the Amazon was a key supplier of rubber for tires: not coincidentally Henry Ford founded a city there, Fordlandia. Rubber was followed by sugar-cane,  coffee, minerals, mahogany, gold, in a combination of extractivism, advancement of the frontier and human alteration of the landscape that still characterizes the current phase of extractive capitalism in the Amazon and elsewhere.

During the period of the military dictatorship, when the generals ruled Brazil, the Amazon was considered a land without men for men without land, and therefore an empty space to be pried open with  large scale colonization projects, and to be altered with the construction of the basic infrastructures needed to push the frontier forward. The main purpose was to defuse the social tension that was building up as a consequence of the failure of land reform in a country that still suffers one of the world’s highest rates of inequality in the distribution of land ownership.At the time of Chico Mendes’ killing, when the Amazon hit the headlines for the first time and became a global concern, the emphasis was all on megaprojects, Tucuruì , Balbina, Xingù , Carajas , Polonoroeste , Calha Norte . The latter was a complex web of facilities and infrastructures fostered by the military, a class that has always considered itself as the  champion of national sovereignty, protection of borders and of what they still consider as a qualifying element of sovereignty, the Amazon. A space to control and occupy.

The “s” factor (“s” standing for sovereignty) has always been a sort of mantra of the Brazilian right, always in connection with the Amazon. In the past it was behind the opposition of Brazil to any proposal made shortly before the Rio Conference on Environment and Development in 1992 – to declare the Amazon a  common heritage of Humankind or to elaborate a Binding Convention on Forests at the Rio Conference, something that never materialized.  In the wake of the Rio Conference, the G7 then approved a pilot plan on the Amazon that evidently was not enough, with hindsight, to effectively tackle the root causes of forest destruction. Nowadays, the “s” factor permeates again the populist narrative of Brazil’s current president and his attacks against anybody that he deems guilty of interfering with matters that should not be of their concern.

The root causes of destruction relate to  power, of those who have it and of those who would like to have it, of those who are entitled to it and do not have it. And that certainly will not be addressed with a handful of millions of dollars: 20 million US dollars have been allocated at the Biarritz G7 Summit, not considering the funds allocated by Norway and Germany  with the Amazon Fund. In the wake of the Amazon fires, Norway and Germany have suspended the  1 billion USD Fund, due to the obvious reason that this was expected to pay farmers and other actors to compensate for their possible economic losses (opportunity costs in jargon) that they would incur if they commit not to cut or burn the forest.  This scheme – that has stirred much debate and controversy within the global environmental movement – is known as REDD+, Emissions Reduction from Deforestation and Degradation.  The Green Climate Fund too approved a REDD project in Brazil last July, in spite of concerns voiced about the impacts of government policies on the Amazon and deforestation rates.

The Amazon is a conundrum of processes, factors, and root causes that date back in history, made up of occurrences and recurrences, dilemmas and contradictions related to the connection between the extractive model, social equity and what a great Latin American scholar of decoloniality Anibal Quijano, called the colonialidad del poder . The latter being a sort of institutionalized racism, so recurrent in Bolsonaro's narrative and hate speech.

After the military dictatorship and the neoliberal phase there came the wave of progressivism, with Lula and Dilma, that was common in various experiments of ”Socialism of the XXI Century ” in Latin America, did not dismantle the  architecture and  structures of privilege and power concentration encrusted in the history of the country. On the contrary, they remained faithful to the extractive model at home and abroad, albeit in this case the end goal was to redistribute the proceeds in social policies for the poor rather than to enrich the already historically wealthy elites. Some important achievements were made in the long struggle to protect the Amazon, especially when Marina Silva was Minister of the Environment, but in the long run no real effect was felt on overall deforestation rates.

From Odebrecht, to  Petrobras (companies involved in corruption scandals whose shockwaves have shattered governments and ruling elites almost all over the continent), and BNDES (the Brazilian Bank for  Development), the extractivist model changed political color, but continued to consider ecosystems as territories of conquest. A significant case was represented by the Belo Monte dam megaproject which was supposed to represent the classic “desert cathedral” of progressivism. A contradiction that repeats itself  continuously in Latin America, from Evo Morales’ Bolivia (the fires  in the Chiquitano forest are equally dramatic to those in the Amazon but do not hit the headlines) , to Maduro’s Venezuela, to Correa and Moreno’s Ecuador: the legitimate urgency of repaying a historical and social debt to the excluded entails the accumulation of an ecological debt to them and the generations to come. And hence the conflict with an equally legitimate right to live in a health and sane Planet. A sort of “Catch22″  that will never be resolved within the box of extractivism.

Hence, the history of depredation, colonization and transformation of the Amazon ecosystems into materials and goods to be put on the global trade market, and to fuel the mainstream development and growth paradigm needs to be unpacked in the attempt to create some possible hypotheses of response and alternative.

The first element of the conundrum is precisely that of extraction cycles , of  extractive capitalism, a common element of the so-called “right” and “mainstream” left .

Today, according to data available, fire is affecting mostly biomes such as the Cerrado (where most of the soy is produced) and the Pantanal that are, together with the Amazon rainforest,  part of the so-called Legal Amazon, an entity established by the past governments to identify a space to be accessed, colonized and managed. Today only 2% of the soy produced in Brazil comes from deforested areas, the rest from the so-called ” Cerrado “, areas already deforested at the time to make room for livestock or crops. It is in those areas, then close to slaughterhouses,  and along the roads, such as the BR163 that connect soy producing lands with the huge Cargill terminal in Santarém, that most of the fires have occurred, although in a tragic domino effect, burning the forest now has turned into a sort of ritual, a collective act of conquest of the territory anywhere in the Amazon region. A look at the distribution of fires on satellite photos  shows a frontier that advances from croplands or along the already opened roads  to gain ground especially for the production of meat and livestock, of which Brazil is a leading exporter. The world’s largest meat producer is Brazilian JBS . Exports go first of all toward China, then Egypt, then the European Union. It is assessed that between 1993 and 2003 cattle herding in the Amazon increased by 200% and now as many as 600 million livestock have been counted in the country. The use of fire to colonize is not a novelty, since in the past in order to gain property rights to forest land in the Amazon settlers had to show that this was “productive” and in order to do so , they cut and burned it to gain pastureland, where they put a few cows. Enough to access subsidies and gain property rights. Nowadays, the figures speak for themselves: 65% of deforested land is for transformation into pasture, 10 percent for mining, 6.5% for agriculture.

A situation that is likely to worsen further due to a series of endogenous and exogenous factors. It must first be said that the Amazon cannot be considered as a region isolated from the global context, whatever the Brazilian government or the president may say or argue. And this is not only for the importance that the Amazon has for climate change and biodiversity,  but also for the richness of its soil and subsoil and its relevance for global markets and industries, as well as for trade liberalization agendas. The Amazon is therefore solidly located in the complex web of structures and infrastructures of extractive capitalism.

For example, it has become evident that  the war on duties between Beijing and Washington, with the US being the key exporter of meat and soy to China, is pushing Beijing to depend more and more from Brazilian meat and soy,  with an exponential increase in the volume of imports and also investments in the agri-food sector. Greater demand for meat implies the need for greater supply, and hence the urgency to advance the frontier and gain more land for grazing. And the situation would not be better with the recently concluded trade agreement between the  Mercosur and the EU which would lead to an increase in imports of “risk” products from the Mercosur countries in the name of the mantra of market liberalization. In this context, it is not surprising to note that only Ireland and France have expressed themselves critically on the EU- Mercosur agreement in the aftermath of the Amazon fires and the equally incendiary responses from the Brazilian president.

The second element of the conundrum  concerns those that hold in power   and support the Brazilian government today, an infamous  connection between the lobby of beef producers and cattle ranchers, evangelical Protestants, and those of ” bala “, the bullet , of those who thrive in crevices of lawlessness, a distinctive trait in  much of the Amazon, where the large landowners still hire gunmen  and professional assassins . To that of the large media moguls.

A web of power that is confronted by the countervailing power of those who   are legitimately entitled to, notably indigenous peoples that have lived in that forest since time immemorial, and that today are in the front line in defense of the forest and in opposition to government policies. Movements that came out of the forest to occupy the streets and squares of cities, shifting agency and bringing conflict from the periphery to the centre. The first episode of this development occurred the time of Temer Government when thousands of indigenous men and women took to the streets of Brasilia, welcome by tear gas and watercannons. It should also be acknowledged that this year’s “Campamento da Terra” went on without any repression by the police.

The coalition of the three “b”, ” Bala , Buey Biblia ” which supports Bolsonaro  paradoxically lives a sort of schizophrenia . The same cattle ranchers who benefit from Bolsonaro ‘s lax and anti – ecological policies are those that at one point tried to convince him to appease his incendiary rhetoric, for fear of an international boycott of their goods. Even the military seem to have played a role in trying to dampen the president’s impetus, urging him to admit that in fact in the Amazon there is a serious problem that needs to be addressed. Something that before the president would never have dreamed of doing. In his staunch effort to deny evidence he had fired a key expert of INPE (Instituto de Pesquisas Espaciais ) the institution of Brazilian space research that with its satellites monitors in real time the state of health of the Amazon. In Bolsonaro’s eyes he was guilty of simply telling the truth.

A conundrum of powers then, power of those who want to keep it and those who would want more. For the military the discourse is complex: on the one hand they respond to the Pavlovian reflex of defending national sovereignty , on the other they hardly digest to be used for public order operations, so their role as “firemen” of the Amazon comes in handy, also to continue to have a say in the matter. 

The third element is the “software”, the subculture that Bolsonaro and his supporters attempt to construct to disarticulate and delegitimize those who mobilize for the environment , and to redesign the paradigms of indigenism and environmentalism . A software made of hate speech and criminalization of NGOs and institutionalized racism aimed at  discrediting the claims of indigenous peoples, a strategy of “divide and rule ” to put national interest in the forefront. A sovereignty facade that uses the Amazon as the former Italian minister of interiors  Matteo Salvi  uses the Mediterranean sea.  And then there is the ” lawfare” the use of law or the dismantling of the legal apparatus of protection of the environment.  What is striking in Bolsonaro is the systematic way in which he proceeded to dismantle the architecture of government and environmental control, from   IBAMA tasked with  “fiscalization“, the control of illegal practices, from extraction to trade, to the Ministry of the Environment, and the suppression  of all laws that  protect the environment, forests and the rights of indigenous peoples.

In this regard, it is worth stressing that Bolsonaro has suffered a severe defeat on the indigenous issue. Before the summer, the Congress, in the wake of the work done by the only indigenous parliamentarian elected Joênia Wapichana, had passed a law which restored the autonomy of the National Foundation for the Indian (FUNAI) responsible for the demarcation of indigenous lands as established in the 1988 constitution.  With a surprise move the President  tried to put the FUNAI under the purview of the minister of agriculture , in fact subordinating the rights of indigenous people to those of the big landowners and agribusiness. Immediately after the vote at the Congress, he issued a decree that cancelled the law, but in early August, the Supreme Federal Tribunal invalidated his decision. A significant impasse that has given even greater impetus to the resistance of indigenous organizations and determined to defend their land to the last drop of blood. And life for the president will definitely not be made  easier by the recent announcement of the Speaker of the Brazilian Congress to heed the call of a group of former ministers of the environment and announce publicly his determination to stop any project that would put the Amazon or its peoples at risk.

Women are in the forefront of this struggle for survival. They are leading and finally putting into question the existing patriarchal structures in Brazilian society and in many native cultures: Joênia, and then the president of COIAB, the Federation of the Indigenous Peoples of the Brazilian Amazon, Francinara Baré, and the indigenous leader Sonja Guajajara . They join forces with rural women that fight against gender violence, with GLBQTI movements, at  the “Margaridas march” that rural women organize every year to denounce violence and feminicide in the rural areas of the country and that brought 100,000 women in Brasilia in mid-August. Indigenous women are already  suffering the effect of ” colonialidad del poder ” for the only reason of being indigenous, and then as women they suffer the machismo and the patriarchy that is present also in their communities and movements, and then the attacks and threats for defending the Earth and their lands.  It is worth recalling that Brazil continues to be one of the countries in the world with the highest rate of homicide of defenders of the earth. According to the latest figures from Global Witness Brazil, with 20 Earth defenders killed in 2018,  it is fourth in the world, after the Philippines, Colombia and India. The agribusiness and extractive sectors are the riskiest for defenders worldwide.

Lawlessness, invasions of land by  gold miners, loggers, gunmen,   organized crime,    represent  a deadly mix, that thrives in the current political situation, and endangers the safety and the space of initiative of individuals and communities that protect their lands and environment. It should also be remembered to those who routinely say that “the Amazon is ours”, that the Amazon, those lands and those forests, are neither ours nor the historically dominant classes that consider them an empty land of conquest or colonization. The Amazon is first and foremost of those who have lived there for thousands of years and have the right to land and self-determination. Those indigenous peoples that know how to protect the forest   for future generations. And of those for whom the destruction of forests brings with it not only a loss of ecosystems or the “physical” effects of climate change, but also cultural genocide. As a matter of fact, indigenous peoples’ culture, world view, spirituality and cosmology depend on integrity and the symbiotic relationship with those ecosystems and their life cycles. This is why allowing for the destruction of the Amazon should be considered as a crime against humanity, if not an ecocide, due to the impacts of “land-grabbing with fire” on the ecosystems and on forest peoples.

The International Criminal Court, precisely because of the effects of landgrabbing on peoples’ rights, defined them as a crime against humanity and declared itself competent to consider complaints against those who had been guilty of this crime. More recently, the Tribunal on the Rights of Nature ( announced that it will hold a session on the Amazon and the rights of nature in occasion of the UN Climate Conference in Santiago de Chile in December of this year.

A solution to the Amazon problem and to climate change in general needs to come from “below”, from the communities and grassroots. The necessary precondition for this to continue to happen is to support and strengthen the agency, mobilization and advocacy from indigenous peoples and their allied movements. Data gathered by the Rights and Resources Institute (RRI) give an idea of the extent to which recognition of indigenous peoples’ rights can contribute to climate change mitigation. Forests and lands protected by indigenous peoples and local communities store 300 billion tons of carbon dioxide that will not be released into the atmosphere. This is the equivalent of seven times the global emissions of the energy sector in 2017. In parallel, it will be necessary to step up pressure to tackle those drivers of deforestation and land-grabbing connected to the demand and consumption of risky products, and addressing the impacts of trade liberalization of those products.

The crucial element of resistance is that of creating  common alliances and platforms with those who challenge the logic of extractivism , patriarchy, and the coloniality of power, in the name of the rights of peoples and of Mother Earth. An essential step which, however, presupposes a radical change in the dominant “worldview”, since a radical paradigm shift will require to abandon  an anthropocentric vision, and  recognize equal dignity to all forms of life and to Mother Earth.

This means , as  Argentinean sociologist Maristella Svampa puts it , to call for a synthesis between those who think that we are in the Anthropocene , where it is believed that Humankind is indiscriminately responsible for the destruction and alteration of ecosystems, (and that however, being in those ecosystems has somehow learned how to relate to them) and those that think that we are in the Capitalocene. Notably, that the destruction of the environment is a consequence of the capitalist model.

In practice that would bean combining a radical critique of the dominant economic and development model while strengthening the “positive” and respectful relationship between humans and nature. Nothing more and nothing less than what   indigenous movements practice in their daily struggles all over the Planet.