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‘For Them, the Amazon Is for Capital Accumulation’

Left Voice interviewed Brazilian Marxist and environmentalist, Gilson Dantas on the recent fires in the Amazon and a socialist response.

Left Voice

September 9, 2019
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Image: Joao Laet/AFP/Getty Images

Left Voice spoke with Gilson Dantas, Brazilian Marxist environmentalist and member of the MRT (the Revolutionary Workers’ Movement) about the massive forest fires in the Amazon. Dantas is author of the book Natureza Atormentada, Marxismo e Classe Trabalhadora (Tormented Nature, Marxism, and the Working Class). 

What is the status of the fires today? What is the estimated damage? Does the government of Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro have a plan to stop the fires?

 Under international pressure and after to large mobilizations by Brazilian youth in the streets, the government has been forced to change its discourse and now admits that there are fires being set in the Amazon. However, the government continues to dismantle the organizations that are monitoring the situation in the region. It continues to carry out violence in the countryside and to give its full support to the agribusiness sector. The fires continue to burn each day—just as we are entering the time of the year when fires have historically increased. In the month of August alone there were 30,000 fire hotspots. If we compare this August to that of previous years, it is clear that we have the largest burning campaign the country has seen in quite a long time. In other words, Bolsonaro has brutally accelerated the number of fires. At this pace, Brazil will surpass the annual record of 63,000 fire hotspots set under the government of Lula. 

Bolsonaro has no plan to stop the fires. He sent the military to the Amazon but only for PR purposes. The estimated damage just in August is 30,000 square kilometers of forest lost (the equivalent of 4.2 million soccer fields) as a result of the fires.

It is more and more evident that the fires in the Amazon were part of a coordinated burning campaign by the agribusiness sector. Can you tell us more about that? How is it that this sector can act with such impunity?

In his presidential campaign, Bolsonaro openly declared his support for agribusiness and the large landowners, and he announced his intention to attack protected indigenous lands and the landless peasants movement. He promised to loosen restrictions on guns so that the landowners could confront land occupations, which he did immediately upon taking office. He also established closer relations with the Trump government.

Trump and Bolsonaro both agree on the burning campaign in the Amazon, which was intensified this past month. In the past, agribusiness had the support of Lula and the PT representatives in the Amazon region and received major government subsidies. But now there is a major acceleration of fires in only a short amount of time, a heavily armed landowner class and a government that intends to liquidate indigenous reserves, which are home to large mineral deposits and other raw materials.

The impunity of the agribusiness sector is a result of a government that is firmly on its side, that acts as a loyal servant to the United States and that has an openly genocidal policy toward indigenous communities. The deregulation, privatizations and opening up of the country to U.S. imperialist interests (including mineral deposits, natural resources, and the maintenance of military bases) are all defended by Bolsonaro. And a large part of the opposition (Lula’s PT) has been demoralized by its neoliberal policies and its bourgeois methods.

What have been the effects of the fires in other parts of the country? How have workers and activists responded? Have the fires created a crisis for the Bolsonaro government?

The tropical flora of the Amazon are fundamental to the water cycle in the south of Brazil along with the north of Argentina and Uruguay. The humidity that comes from the Amazon rainforest travels south. Recently, the smoke from the fires reached the south and completely blacked out the skies. It was a national scandal with major cities going dark in the middle of the afternoon as a result of the smoke. The masses were outraged. The effects of the ecocide in the Amazon became more visible. “The Amazon is here,” said many, and it signaled that deforestation in the Amazon is a national problem and, of course, affects climate around the globe.

There were big demonstrations in the cities when Bolsonaro spoke on TV. Thousands of thousands of young people took to the streets. The popularity of the government fell even further. We also saw a major diplomatic crisis with France. And the crisis continues with new marches planned for this month. At the same time, the union federations linked to the PT and the Brazilian Communist Party did nothing. The resistance to Bolsonaro has been led by students and the youth. New struggles will surely develop too, particularly because the government continues to attack the universities and strip students of the rights they had won in the past. The dispute over the Amazon will not end now that the United States, China and Europe are faced with the prospect of recession.

Can you tell us what commodities are produced in the region of the Amazon where the burning campaign is taking place? Where are these commodities destined?

The major commodities produced in the deforested areas are grains and cattle, but it is also a region that is important for the mining and logging corporations. Almost all the products from the region are destined for export. Their primary destination is China but also the imperialist countries. Meanwhile, there is a serious lack of food security among communities of the region, which are overwhelmingly poor.

The burning campaign is being carried out to expand agricultural lands, first and foremost, and this expansion is taking place at the behest of the agro-business sectors for the international market. The tropical rainforest, which covers half of Brazil’s territory, is of no importance to them. The capitalist class can understand the Amazon only as a source of capital accumulation and the site of increasingly acute interimperialist dispute. The countries that present a “green” discourse only do so because they aim to take control of the Amazon and its biodiversity (the greatest in the world). They denounce the deforestation, but only to keep rival countries from gaining control of the region’s resources.

There have been tensions between the Bolsonaro government and that of Macron in France. Why did Bolsonaro reject Europe’s aid package? What is the role played by the core capitalist countries like the U.S. and the E.U. in this crisis?

Bolsonaro’s government is, on the one hand, completely subservient to the United States and, on the other, a defender of the interests of agribusiness and mining sectors.

After he rejected aid from Europe, Bolsonaro had a “good talk” by phone with German Chancellor Angela Merkel. This points to new trade agreements with Germany, which is seeking a market for its industrial products in Brazil. Germany and the other core countries of Europe intend to exchange their industrial products for Brazilian agricultural products while continuing to exploit the minerals and resources of the Amazon.

When Bolsonaro was elected, he immediately signed on to the extreme right-wing policies of Trump. The closer ties between the United States and Brazil caused serious concern among the rival imperialist countries, who refuse to stand by idly as the United States takes control of the Amazon’s resources, especially in the context of a possible new global economic crisis.

The tensions between Bolsonaro and Macron stem precisely from that: The French interests in Brazil are being threatened by the Bolsonaro administration (including the purchase of French military aircrafts, which had been agreed upon before Bolsonaro). The response from Macron is an attempt to guarantee European purchases of French agricultural products and to remove Brazil from the Europe-Mercosur agreement. At the same time, Macron wants to lay the blame for the ecocide in the Amazon on the United States.

Deforestation and burning campaigns are no concern for Macron (who has done the same in the French Guinean Amazon). Macron’s goal, in presenting France as a “green” power, is to guarantee the European market for French agricultural products, and not Brazil products and to dispute the U.S. for access to the Amazon’s mineral deposits.

And what is the role of China, as the largest importer of grains in the world? Trump in his trade war with China, increased the price of American soy. As a consequence, the Chinese will have to purchase soy from Brazil. And there is the contradiction: In the trade war with China, Trump needs Brazil to distance itself from China, but Brazilian agribusiness won’t go along with that. So more tensions are inevitable.

We must denounce the environmental hypocrisy of the major capitalist powers and put forward an anticapitalist program based on the independence of the working class.

In his presidential campaign, Bolsonaro made clear that he would expel indigenous communities from their lands, and today the fires are directly threatening these communities. Can you give us some examples of how indigenous people are being affected by the fires? What has been the response from these communities?

The current burning campaign is the continuation of a policy of genocide against indigenous communities, which includes expelling indigenous people from their lands, encouraging mining in protected forest reserves and assassinating peasant leaders. There are dozens and dozens of fires burning right now on indigenous lands. Historically, indigenous lands were protected from deforestation and burning, but they contain an enormous amount of wealth, like niobium, rare earths, and other minerals, which are being sought by the United States because of their importance in new technologies.

Members of these communities are reporting that they are being systematically displaced by “whites.” Their forests are being wiped out, and landowners are betting on indigenous communities not challenging this campaign. There are thousands of examples of resistance by these communities against the logging companies, mining companies, but they are not very visible today. In general, they do not find any support from the unions, the PT or the PSOL, beyond declarations. But they continue to fight back.

What does the MRT propose as a response to the fires?

We argue that there is no possibility of environmental sustainability within the capitalist mode of production. Nature will inevitably suffer degradation when the system is based on the profit motive. There is no “ecological” or “green” capital. Those who are most responsible for the destruction of nature and the contamination of our air and water—including nuclear contamination—are the major capitalist powers.

We support the youth movement and every mobilization in defense of the Amazon and against the devastation of the biome caused by the logic of the market, which is that nature is used only as a source of capital accumulation and the site of imperialist competition. We march together with the poor and indigenous communities of the Amazon, against the policies and measures of degradation, which have intensified with the global economic crisis. A degradation that began under the so-called progressive governments like Lula or Evo Morales, which is now leveling the forests in Bolivia. But which was expanded under the extreme-right government of Bolsonaro and his supporters in the military, a completely pro-U.S. regime.

We put forward a program of class independence, organized, beginning with youth and students to take to the streets, calling for a workers’ united front, fighting alongside young people, environmentalists and the people of the Amazon for a radical agrarian reform in the region which represents more than half of Brazil’s territory, for the nationalization of agribusiness under control of the workers and a reorganization of production, producing without poisoning our people and nature.

And we argue for a free constituent assembly, which would not only change the players (i.e., the politicians) but also the rules of the game to propose measures to defend the people and ecosystems of the Amazon.

We demand the expulsion of the mining corporations who poison nature with mercury and other toxins. We say: Imperialists out of the Amazon. The only possible policy from the state and its government is more destruction and death. We already know Bolsonaro and his hypocritical “nationalism,” which is in fact complete subservience to the United States. After his recent meeting with Trump, Bolsonaro said, “I told him I want to offer the U.S. the opportunity to open the Amazon to exploration in cooperation with Brazil.” If we don’t take action, we will lose the Amazon, a region which is vital to Brazil and the planet.

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Left Voice

Militant journalism, revolutionary politics.

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