Because of the huge impact of losing a significant carbon sink in the midst of the climate crisis, fires blazing in the Amazon have captured the attention of world media. A carbon sink is a forest, body of water or other natural environment that absorbs carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, so losing one can be devastating.
Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro has been criticized not only for refusing to protect the forest in Brazil’s territory, but for encouraging the widespread burning and chopping that led to the current situation.
While the physical causes of climate change are often thought of in terms of fossil fuel emissions, the destruction of critical pieces of the global ecosystem, particularly through deforestation, is an almost equal contributor.
The Amazon and other large forests, like those also burning in Angola and the Congo, capture large quantities of carbon from the atmosphere. Combined with carbon emissions from fossil fuels, the destruction of what few large and effective carbon-capturing systems remain poses a grave threat.
As progressives—who rightly recognize the danger to humanity—rush into action to defend the Amazon, it is important to analyze the causes of the environmental devastation. It is particularly important to understand that the burning of the Amazon is the continuation of colonialism, a centuries-long process of genocide, land seizure, environmental degradation and exploitation.
Just as important, and closely tied to colonialism, is the violent and destructive birth and expansion of the capitalist mode of production and its development into imperialism. Capitalism relentlessly exploits natural resources to the point of depletion. The configuration of the imperialist world system ensures that this destructive exploitation is concentrated in dependent countries, most of which are former colonies.
Continued imperialist interference, particularly from the U.S., crushes or besieges any movement trying to break free from its influence. This results in the rise of fascistic rulers like Jair Bolsonaro, who enable finance capital’s super-exploitation and who kill progressive leaders and repress resistance—from unionists to Indigenous land defenders.
Colonialism, the motor of early capitalism
There are two key motivations behind the ongoing destruction of the Amazon: transnational capital’s drive to exploit every inch of land it can find and the need to displace Indigenous communities with long histories of resistance to this process.
Many articles in the bourgeois press have mentioned, though in less explicit terms, the first cause. Fewer have mentioned the second, and hardly any have mentioned both of them together. However, land expropriation and suppressing Indigenous land defense are two inseparable parts of the colonial process.
In the five centuries since the Spaniards arrived, soon to be followed by the other colonial powers, the continents now known as America have suffered an uninterrupted cycle of genocide and ecological devastation. Indigenous communities were displaced from their ancestral homes, forced into slavery or slave-like arrangements at gunpoint, and then used to extract huge fortunes in natural resources.
In every country in Latin America, from super-exploitation in the silver mines of Potosí to the deforestation of Caribbean islands for sugar plantations, Indigenous lives and land have long been sacrificed to the capitalist god of profit.
This process, which Marx called “primitive accumulation,” formed the basis of early capitalist development. Silver and gold extracted from Latin America were shipped to Spain, then immediately sent to England to pay down the Spanish Crown’s significant debt from the Crusades. The English banks that lent money to Spain took their payment and lent it out again to textile manufacturers for even more profits—thus converting the blood and sweat of Indigenous peoples into industrial capital.
Capitalist accumulation has never stopped, except in those few countries that have thrown off the shackles of colonialism, imperialism and capitalism.
The burning of the Amazon is no different. On the one hand, the capitalist class in Brazil wants the Amazon for agribusiness; on the other, it wants to smash the organization of those Indigenous communities that have historically resisted it. Many Indigenous authorities have already denounced the deliberate nature of the fires and their genocidal intent.
In a recent meeting with governors of states in the Amazon, Bolsonaro made the connection between the destruction of Indigenous communities and the expansion of capitalist development even more explicit—as well as displaying his naked racism. He stated: “Many reservations have a strategic character. Someone planned that. The Indian does not lobby and does not speak our language, but, today, he has 14 percent of the national territory. One of the intentions is to make us unviable.” (tinyurl.com/y3orehnp)
It should be clear to anyone with political consciousness that the “viability” Bolsonaro is so concerned with is not the viability of Indigenous people, of the workers or the oppressed, or even of human life, but that of the capitalist system.
Bolsonaro: an imperialist puppet
Jair Bolsonaro’s response to the current Amazon crisis is only the most recent in his long list of crimes. He has openly praised the military dictatorship that ruled from 1964-85, attacked LGBTQ2S+ people and gleefully cooperated with U.S. “regime change” efforts in Venezuela, to name a few.
How did such a repulsive individual rise to power in one of the biggest Latin American economies? A decade ago, Brazil was an integral part of the “Pink Tide,” a wave of progressive governments in the region working to break their countries’ dependency on imperialist powers and form a regional economic network that could withstand U.S. pressure.
Bolsonaro’s rise to power began with his predecessor, Michel Temer, who assumed the Brazilian presidency in the wake of a parliamentary coup against Dilma Rousseff in 2016. This coup, as soon became obvious, was orchestrated from the U.S. to reverse the progressive policies of Rouseff and her predecessor, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, known as Lula.
In addition to giving finance capital free reign again, Temer aggressively repressed worker organizations and pulled out of economic and diplomatic agreements with progressive governments like Venezuela.
However, the real historical purpose of the coup revealed itself during the 2018 presidential campaign. The Workers’ Party (PT) chose Lula as their candidate due to his massive popularity. Every poll, except those conducted by the most biased right-wing firms, showed a decisive victory for the PT.
This was unacceptable to the Brazilian capitalists and their masters in the U.S. Lula was soon brought up on a corruption charge. The now infamous “Lava Jato” case, which claimed that he was accepting bribes through a car wash operation, was pushed through the courts.
This ended with Lula in jail and therefore disqualified from the presidential race. Although his replacement candidate did well, without the name recognition of the popular ex-president and with the right-wing media running a full-scale propaganda effort against the PT, Bolsonaro was able to win the election.
Intercept Brazil has since uncovered and disclosed a series of private messages between the investigators and judges in the Lava Jato case that show a clear conspiracy to take Lula out of the running. The messages also show systematic abuses of justice and clear political motivation behind which people were investigated and charged, despite evidence to the contrary.
Bolsonaro’s presidency was only possible through the intervention of U.S. imperialism against a progressive government, and his policies as president reflect total subservience. Activists in the U.S. who are concerned about the devastation this fascist is causing to the environment must always be conscious of where the real power lies in the Brazilian government.
People power, not phony imperialist ‘aid’
At their recent meeting, the G7 imperialist countries, spearheaded by French President Emmanuel Macron (whose repression of the Yellow Vest and Black Vest movements rivals the repression carried out by the Brazilian state), authorized a paltry sum of $22 million to combat the raging fires.
Not only is this aid insignificant in the face of the task at hand (and pales in comparison, for example, to the money raised to restore the recently burned Notre-Dame cathedral in Paris), but it is offered cynically—for political gain.
It was imperialist plunder that put the forest at risk in the first place, by distorting the Brazilian economy to rely on resource extraction and industrial agriculture. It was imperialist influence that installed a government with no concern for ecology and even less for the Indigenous peoples of the Amazon.
Instead, progressives should look to Bolivia as a model. Under the presidency of Evo Morales, Bolivia has freed itself from foreign debt and has now been able to curb the fires that have spread across its border without resorting to imperialist “aid.”
Bolivia’s success has been possible for two reasons. First, the country’s resources are mostly nationalized and put at the disposal of its people. Second, since becoming aware of the fires, the entire country has mobilized to combat them and preserve the forest.
As the fires in Bolivia were contained and later reduced almost to nothing, the Bolivian government declared an “ecological pause,” banning the sale of land where the forest had been burnt and reserving it for reforestation. (tinyurl.com/y2ldrd6j)
The Bolivian example shows that the only really viable response to a catastrophe of this proportion is to mobilize the strongest force on the planet: people power.