Imperialism and the Amazon

Imperialism and the Amazon

The article which follows was written at the beginning of the month when the continuing deforestation of the Amazon led to the yet more murders of the indigenous population. Since then the crisis has deepened as the dry season burning of the Amazon to clear the way for farming has reached new heights.

More than 2,500 fires are burning and, according to the Economist,

"Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research (INPE) has detected 85% more forest fires this year than in the same period last year."1

There is little doubt that this increase is a direct product of the policies of Jair Bolsonaro. A climate-change denier who regards the Amazon as “virgin” land ripe for agricultural development, he has sacked 21 of the 27 senior officials of Ibama, the Governmental environmental agency, since taking office. He sacked the head of INPE when he published the findings referred to above.

However when the aerosols from the fires fell in clouds on the populous South East of Brazil, thousands of miles away, Bolsonaro could not remain silent. He first absurdly blamed environmental NGOS who, he claimed, had started the fires deliberately to spite him after he cut their funding. Then he claimed (in incoherent messages) that he had been misunderstood, and that there was just not enough funding to fight the fires. Finally he has announced that he will send in the Army to tackle the blaze (although how they will do this is not yet clear). What has suddenly concentrated his mind is, as ever, economic clout. The French and Irish governments have now called for the scrapping of the EU-Mercosur trade deal2 which has been years in the making but has not yet been ratified by any of the parties.

The whole episode, alongside the burnings in the Arctic underlines once again that the global capitalist system, divided into nation states, is not working for the benefit of humanity. The rain forest and the Arctic are both critical to the ecological equilibrium of the planet yet their fate depends on the attitude and policy of this or that government. These areas are global in importance but their fate is at the whim of individual states which have their own economic problems. Bolsonaro, before he caved into the economic pressure (which included calls for a boycott of Brazil’s meat products), rejected Macron’s criticism as displaying a “colonial mentality”. In other words “hands off Brazil”.

This is just another sign that the world cannot survive as nation states, whether it is the migration that is forced on millions by the wars and climate disasters of the current system, or, in the longer term, the difficulty of actually maintaining a viable living space on Earth for us all.

Capitalism gave us the nation state. It also gave us waste production (and consumption), the pursuit of profit at all costs, and today those consequences show that it has outlived its usefulness. We now have the technology to ensure a decent life for all in an increasingly cleaner environment, but first we have to get rid of capitalism, abolish national frontiers and create a system of world governance that starts from people’s real needs and not the quick fix of immediate profit. The ongoing disaster in the Amazon is as acutely crucial for humankind as a whole as it is for the 20-30 million inhabitants of the area.

Accumulation in the Amazon

The end of July marked several grim developments in capital’s onslaught against indigenous peoples of the Amazon. First, gold miners murdered the chief of the Waiapi tribe and invaded its territory in the north-eastern Amapá province of Brazil.3 Concurrently, illegal logging operations in the nearby state of Maranhão have been inching ever closer to the territory of the Awá Guajá people, an “uncontacted tribe” whose interactions with the heavily-armed paramilitary forces are almost certainly bound to end with their slaughter.4 This kind of bloody expropriation has found a significant expansion under new Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, whose campaign promises to eliminate “every centimeter of indigenous land” have been a great boon to the many timber mafias and mineral-extraction enterprises that infest the Amazon on all sides today. Indeed, since Bolsonaro took office, deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon has climbed a staggering 278%.5

Bolsonaro’s acutely explicit racism towards Amazonian tribes, and his equally explicit promises to auction off every ounce of Brazilian rainforest, are certainly a significant deviation from the previous rhetoric of Brazilian heads of states, and for this reason the bourgeois press have sought extensively to exceptionalize his presidency. This is an insidious erasure of the fact that similar state support for mining and logging on indigenous land have been a mainstay of Brazilian democracy for years, not just under the right-wing presidency of Bolsonaro’s predecessor Michel Temer6, but also under the leftist administration of Workers’ Party politician Dilma Rousseff. Throughout her term in office, Rousseff publicly paid lip service to indigenous and environmental concerns, while privately making concession after concession to Brazil’s powerful agribusiness lobby.7 A comparable situation can be found in Venezuela today; President Nicolás Maduro claims to champion indigenous Venezuelan rights, but in the past six months alone his military forces have been responsible for the murder of numerous Pemón activist protesting displacement by illegal gold-mining operations.8 Likewise, leftist Bolivian President Evo Morales – himself an indigenous Bolivian – has in the last few years gradually revoked a slew of legal protections for native tribes to enable construction projects in the Bolivian Amazon.9 To understand why leftist regimes in Latin America on the one hand claim to champion the interests of indigenous peoples and on the other enable and even actively participate in ruthless violence against them, it is important to first understand the class character of this brutal expropriation.

Since the start of World War I, communists have recognized that capitalism has entered into its “decadent” phase, marked, amongst other things, by the solidification of capitalism as a world system. (See, e.g., marxists.org or leftcom.org). The old pre-capitalist modes of production have largely disappeared, swept away on a global scale by brutal colonial policies, and the world market permeates nearly every corner of the earth. The Amazon today is one of the only exceptions to this state of affairs; sectors of the rainforest persist that are completely untouched by industrial development, and their “uncontacted” native inhabitants represent the world’s only real remaining outposts of genuinely pre-capitalist society.10 This, coupled with an unrivaled abundance of natural resources – rubber, oil, iron ore, gold, timber, cocoa, and wide range of minerals – makes the Amazon fertile ground for accumulation in capitalism’s imperialist phase.

Imperialism is at its core a means for capitalist nations to combat crises. Large capitalist economies export capital to economically backwards regions, building infrastructure (rail lines, roads, factories, and refineries) with the three-pronged intention of stripping valuable untapped natural resources from the area, creating and exploiting a new source of dirt-cheap proletarian labor from the local population, and opening up new markets in which to dump surpluses accumulated in periods of overproduction. What we are witnessing in the Amazon today is a textbook example of this. Since the 1960s, tens of thousands of miles of roads and highways have been built in the Amazon by surrounding businesses and governments.11 This has paved the way for the epidemic of logging and mining operations in the region, and, indeed, 95% of all deforestation has occurred within fifty kilometers of these projects.12 This deforestation has in turn required the bloody expropriation of indigenous lands, causing the mass displacement and proletarianization of native peoples – thousands of indigenous refugees have been forced into cheap labor either within the forest13, or in nearby urban centers.14 All in all, we are faced with a clear example of capitalist accumulation and subsumption into the world market.

The barbarism in the Amazon today can therefore be best understood as a symptom of ever-escalating competition between regional capitalist states, and their vain attempts to stem the inevitable tendency of the rate of profit to fall. It is thus not a coincidence that the recent Brazilian state support for nominally “illegal” development projects in the Amazon was first initiated in late 2012 and 2013 – the start date of a Brazilian economic slump that persists to this day.15 The situation is similar in Venezuela; despite its “socialist” pretentions, the Bolivarian petrostate remains thoroughly capitalist, and like all other capitalist nations is subject to the whims and contradictions of the world market. Thus, when the international oil market began to collapse in 2013, the Venezuelan economy fell with it, leading to the well-reported crisis we see today. This is the context for Maduro’s sudden willingness to enable expropriation of Venezuela’s indigenous lands; it’s a futile attempt at mitigating the country’s economic distress, with horrific outcomes for local native peoples.

In a tragic but unsurprising pattern, the foot-soldiers of these bourgeois regimes are themselves drawn from some of the most desperate sectors of the proletariat, and an overwhelming number of illegal loggers and miners in the Amazon are landless migrants pulled from coastal favelas and other regional slums.16 Conditions in these communities are often monstrous, and the urban poor who inhabit them are inevitably caught between the two poles of organized crime and drug cartels and the equally brutal “peacekeeping” forces sent in by the state to maintain order.17 These nightmarish conditions are the biggest driver of migration away from the cities and towards the rainforest, and capital and its bourgeois servants – both the owners of illegal development projects and the politicians presiding over “legitimate” ones – know exactly how to take advantage of the desperation of these strata of the proletariat. Indeed, these workers co-opted into lives of terrible violence and exploitation are as much victims of the same vicious capitalist system themselves.

The equally horrifying dimension to these imperialist ventures is their potential for catastrophic ecological consequences; the Amazon – which ranges over 2 million square miles – is by far the world’s largest rainforest, and thus plays a pivotal role in regulating the planet’s weather systems and carbon dioxide levels. Deforestation by logging and mining operations is hence responsible for a tangle of dire consequences, ranging from its own hefty carbon emissions to large-scale freak weather, droughts, and famines.18 The magnitude of these effects cannot be overestimated, and in conjunction with similar international developments poses a serious existential threat to the human race. The only way to stem this bleak progression is to sever the profit motive that drives it, and to abolish the long-expired system of world capitalism.

It is also for similar reasons that blood-and-soil calls for indigenous sovereignty – popular on the left – are a utopian vision under capitalism. As we have argued, the brutal policies that mark the era of imperialism – from endless war to vicious expropriation and ecologically catastrophic plunder – are an inevitable consequence of capitalism’s crises, and the situation in the Amazon is no different. Regional policies of preservation of indigenous land – long fought for by on-the-ground activists in Brazil, Venezuela, and Bolivia – were abandoned on a dime and without an ounce of difficulty as soon as it became necessary for the bourgeoisie. This should not be a surprise to communists; no elected politician or legal regulation can possibly hope to overcome capitalism’s contradictions and the corresponding demands of bourgeois rule. National self-determination as a slogan – which essentially attempts to combat the symptoms of capitalism without combatting capitalism itself and would seek to liberate the Amazon’s native peoples merely by demarcating land on ethnic grounds – is therefore a futile errand, and offers no solution to capital’s vicious onslaught. The only way out lies in the solidarity of the entire international proletariat, united in a revolutionary struggle against capitalism. Indeed, the ongoing atrocities against the native peoples of the Amazon are bound to only worsen as the global capitalist crisis deepens, and, for the Amazon – as everywhere – the end of capitalism cannot come soon enough.

Atticus

14 August 2019