Why is Amazonia On Fire?

August 26, 2019
The dark smoke that hovered over southern Brazil on the 19th of May was a warning of the flames that consume the Cerrado and the Amazon Rainforest. According to INPE (National Institute for Space Research), there were 71,497 fire outbreaks from January to August, 82% more than last year. Out of them, more than 53,000 outbreaks were registered in the states that make up the Brazilian Amazonia. Obviously, the increase in burning has to do with Bolsonaro policy, which has practically dismantled the entire system of environmental surveillance and the fight against deforestation, as well as explicitly stimulating the invasion and land grabbing of public lands, Conservation Units, and Indigenous Lands. As if that were not enough, he wants to silence the INPE and now he blames the NGOs for the burning in the Amazon.
By: Jeferson Choma
Thus, the explosion in deforestation and burning rates recorded in 2019 is a consequence of the “free pass” given by the Bolsonaro government for illegal logging, and for the expansion of agriculture and mining.
No, Bolsonaro is not a Nero, the crazed emperor who set fire to Rome. It is just the cruel and barbaric face of this system. But why then is Amazonia on fire? Why does the world’s largest rainforest come close to the limit from which it can undergo irreversible change, becoming a savannah as scientists warn?
Apparently, the Environment Minister, charged with rigging maps of the Tietê River Flood Management Plan to benefit mining companies and convicted by Court, came closer to the answer when he said: “the solution for Amazonia is capitalism.” In fact, the minister must be corrected. Capitalism has long been spreading across Amazonia, and the real culprit in the fires of the world’s largest rainforest is precisely the expansion of the private capitalist property.
It is now known that Amazonia began to be inhabited by humans over 10,000 years ago. The region was densely populated before the European colonial conquest by complex civilizations such as the Marajoara, Tapajonica, the Omaguas (where Manaus is today), and others anonymous, such as the one that inhabited Acre and produced huge geoglyphs, similar to the Nazca lines. There are archaeological clues of large cities and roads that connected each one. They are also known to relate culturally or commercially to the Inca civilization, among other Andean societies. All were liquidated by the European conqueror, that wore the royal coat of arms on his chest and in his spirit the fervor to accumulate capital.
But some native populations remained. They could escape from the apocalypse caused by colonial mercantile capitalism. To survive, thousands took refuge in the woods and fled to the headwaters.
Years later they were found by greedy landlords, the big rubber tappers, who got rich with the so-called rubber cycle. Large-scale rubber production was driven by demand from industrial capitalism that needed the product, especially for the elastomer and tire industry in the United States and Europe. The exploitation of rubber was the result of Brazil’s subordination as a source of raw materials to the global capitalist market.
To occupy these territories, the rubber tappers carried out the so-called “correrias” (rushes), organized killings of Indians. Women and children who escaped the killings were taken as trophies. Private property was thus erected.
Years later, capitalism no longer needed Amazonia’s rubber. The region was presented as a huge “demographic and economic vacuum,” “comparable to polar regions,” according to the institutional propaganda of the military dictatorship in the 1960s.
It was necessary to “integrate not to deliver”, and the solution was to encourage the expansion of capitalist private property by granting public money to large national and multinational companies through tax exemptions. It worked, and soon many capitalist enterprises began to invest heavily in agriculture and mining. Now development was against the rainforest, considered to be a jungle to be felled, an obstacle to progress. Then the great fire of the Amazon Rainforest began.
It was this process that brought a hitherto unfamiliar notion to local populations: the concept of capitalist private ownership of land. Many were expropriated and liquidated. It is estimated that during the military dictatorship (1964-1985) over 8,300 indigenous people and about 1,200 peasants were murdered. Many of them also resisted and conquered their territories in subsequent years.
The act of burning the rainforest may be simultaneous or the aftermath of the expropriation and unsettlement of these populations. It is part of a process that means the creation of the farm for capitalist production. Sometimes members of the expropriated population, whose society has been torn apart, are recruited to clear the forest and open the farm. In other cases, exiled peasants from other parts of the country were attracted by the false promise of abundant land. Empty promises that served the purpose of just being a relief valve for agrarian conflicts in regions such as the Northeast, South, and Southeast. As sociologist Otávio Ianni reminds us, Incra’s colonization projects in the Amazon were, in fact, an agrarian counter-reform to preserve the enormous land concentration in the country. Without resources and abandoned in the woods, this population soon lost their land and was easily recruited by the landlord.
Hence comes the modern slave labor in Amazonia. A totally capitalist process (to constitute the farm as a means of commodities production) but which is based on a non-capitalist production relationship, that is, not in wage labor but in the recreation of slavery, also known as peonage.
Sociologist José de Souza Martins was one of the few researchers to thread his way through Amazonia in the 1970s and record that process. Also a photographer, he recorded a group of these ragged workers in an iconic image of the slaves who felled the forest and opened the 140,000-hectare Volkswagen farm in southern Pará.
He explains what it was like to “open a farm” at that time: “The founding of farms (or industries) in the Amazon Rainforest was the means of getting tax exemptions. But it depended on backward and archaic mechanisms of labor exploitation and capital accumulation, such as the peonage and violent expropriation of the original settlers of the land, the Indians and squatters.
The vast majority of the Amazon Rainforest are vacant lands, state lands. There are millions of hectares occupied by indigenous people and peasants. The Amazon was never a demographic vacuum, as the dictatorship used to say. The burning process has always been a process for the advance of capitalism in the region, associated with genocide and land grabbing for the institution of large private property. That is why Chico Mendes said that maintaining the forest standing depended on the permanence of the people who live there. This is why he and his fellow rubber tappers refused to receive property titles to small lots offered by the state. They defended the usufruct, the common appropriation of the territory, the community self-management, characteristics of the then original proposal for the creation of Extractive Reserves. They were inspired by the creation of the Indigenous Lands, as explained to me by the Acrean indigenist Antonio “Txai” Macedo:
In 1984 we gathered 84 Indian leaders and also invited Chico Mendes who came with Osmarino so we could also give a message to Chico, which was interesting for them at that time.
It was like this: what was known before was that the bosses threw the rubber tappers against the Indians and the Indians against the rubber tappers. They could not combine, form an alliance or the like. They had to be set apart so the boss could take advantage of their division. So we said this: ‘Chico, the rubber tappers and the Indians are not enemies. They are separated by a common enemy who is the boss, the cattle breeder. They [indigenous and rubber tappers] drink the same water, they eat the same food. They live practically together. The “empate” [rubber tappers’ organized resistance to deforestation] is a very good tactic, but at the same time [there is] the fight for the land. They fight for a land of similar social use, that’s what the indigenous land means for rubber tappers, who are societies similar to indigenous populations.”
From this also came the Forest Peoples Alliance, uniting peasants and indigenous populations.
It is the establishment of large private property, of farms, that has always driven and still drives the current uneven, contradictory and subordinate development of Brazilian capitalism.
What we see with Bolsonaro is the radicalization of this process. The increase in deforestation is a direct consequence of the advance of capitalist agriculture over Amazonia, which is a direct consequence of turning the Brazilian economy in a commodities-production hub. The international division of labor recreated the old export plantation, now merged with the large capitalist enterprise. While Brazil has faced a partial process of deindustrialization in recent decades, at the same time it has become a major producer of primary products for the foreign market. The Bolsonaro government deepens this recolonization project. As proof of his servility, he has already said that his goal is to explore Amazonia associated with Trump’s U.S.
This is why Bolsonaro encourages the invasion of indigenous lands and protected areas. As recalled in an interview by Neidinha Suruí, an activist who advocates for more than twenty indigenous tribes, all indigenous lands in Amazonia were invaded.
The history of the devastation and genocide in Amazonia is the history of the making of capitalist private property in the region. This is the social process behind the satellite images that record the burnings. But the history of its preservation is the history of 500 years of struggles and resistance of the so-called rainforest peoples. There is no other way out than fighting back. Rainforest peoples must resist, in alliance with urban workers and all the oppressed, to defend their lives and those of us all. But Amazonia will only stop burning when we overcome the capitalist system and large private property.

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