The global pandemic is expressed in Brazil as true pandemonium.
As if the more than 110,000 recorded COVID-19 deaths in the third week of August were not enough — a result of profound neglect by a government that denies science, privileges banks and leaves people to their own luck — we still have to deal with the cruel effects of a structural capitalist crisis.
The current government is fascist-inspired and operates under military tutelage that plans an increasingly authoritarian destiny for the country.
Meanwhile, the government's social and environmental dismantling has literally set Brazil on fire. While some aspects of this tragedy are possibly reversible — although not easily — through social struggles, the destruction of nature in Brazil demands collective attention and action from an internationalist perspective.
This is the country where most of the world’s largest forest, the Amazon, the world’s largest river and an important portion of the world’s biodiversity can be found. The future of life on Earth is also at stake when we consider Brazil.
Environmental policies dismantled
It has never been easy to defend forests and other biomes in a country plagued by the dynamics of dependency capitalism in the Global South. This challenge intensified after the 2016 coup and the election of Jair Bolsonaro in 2018, which was marked by the most advanced methods of big data, behavioural psychology and fake news broadcast through social media.
The far-right government has aggravated the environmental dismantling by its destruction of policies to combat deforestation, attempted statistical fraud, active harassment of government employees and inflammatory speech by Bolsonaro, which encourages the advancement of agribusiness over forests and indigenous territories and validates both deforestation and the fires that follow.
During the Amazon burning season last year, so much smoke was deposited in the atmosphere that it darkened São Paulo in the middle of the afternoon — a city located more than 2000 kilometres away.
In that period, according to the most respected deforestation report in the country, 12,187 square kilometres were destroyed, which is equivalent to eight times the size of São Paulo. Since this number is difficult to imagine, just consider that, on average, last year, the equivalent of three professional soccer fields of native areas was deforested per minute. These numbers scandalised the world, which demanded a change, but, a year later, not only did that number not decrease, but in some months of this year it almost tripled.
The Amazon is not the only biome at risk. More than 30% of the deforestation last year happened in the Cerrado (the savannah with the greatest biodiversity on the planet) and, this year, the Pantanal (wetlands) is also experiencing a crisis with a three-fold increase in the number of fires, reaching more than 7500 outbreaks this year. This is the highest rate in the last 14 years, according to data from the government’s own space research institute, leading one of the local governments of this biome to declare an emergency situation.
When fires intensify in Brazil, there is always much speculation about their origins and there are also many international charges. When this situation gained notoriety last year, the government initially defended itself by saying that the reports were wrong. Bolsonaro then put pressure on the director of the governmental research institute and ended up firing him when said director declined to issue a subsequent report denying the previous information. The president said that the real information was in a NASA report and, a few months later, NASA itself recognised that, in fact, Brazil’s data was correct.
Unable to hide the data or convince people that the humid rainforest was spontaneously on fire, Bolsonaro changed his version to accuse NGOs, indigenous peoples and even Leonardo DiCaprio of setting the forest on fire to weaken the government internationally.
Apart from the informational dispute with the far-right in the 21st century, the procedure to set the forest on fire is part of the daily life of agribusiness and part of its business model in the Global South.
As a land-grab strategy, agribusiness advances over indigenous territories, national parks, conservation units and other territories using a technique they call “the big chain”, which is an immense chain connected to two bulldozers that will knock down all the trees in their path. After the forest is cut down, the most valuable wood is illegally traded, and the rest of the organic matter is left to dry for 3–4 months.
After that, the matter is burnt to prepare the soil for livestock, a transitional step until the land is prepared, once again, to receive the monoculture of, in particular but not only, transgenic soybeans for export as a commodity. Often the fire also advances over the native forest, permanently destroying that ecosystem, leading to a process of savannisation.
It is necessary to deny the non-scientific version that the fires are simply spontaneous or that they are unrelated to the destructive model of agribusiness. And it is also important to make a more dedicated analysis about the ultimate responsibility for these fires. After all, it is Brazil, a country in the Global South that is still tied to the centre-periphery economic dynamics and an underdeveloped position in the international division of labour. The powerful at the centre of capitalism benefit the most from this situation.
An article recently published in the magazine Science showed that 17% of the meat and 20% of the soy beans imported by the European Union from Brazil were from deforested areas. The same can be said about wood and even the wealth obtained by this model.
Once we consider the concentration of the agribusiness market in the transnationals of poison, GMO seeds, the machinery industry, logistics, international transportation and trading of commodities and the speculative financial engineering behind this model, it is plain to see how this model is environmentally destructive and socially unfair. Perhaps worst of all, these terrible externalities are maintained by the government subsidies dedicated to the model that, otherwise, can actually be considered economically deficient.
Brazil is going downhill in its relations of exploitation, oppression and destruction of nature. Meanwhile, the forest’s fundamental role for life on Earth and for future generations is depleted.
In 2018, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change published a report on the role of forests in climate regulation, demonstrating that forests can capture 25% of the carbon that is released annually into the atmosphere.
In addition to all the biodiversity, there is also the role in the water cycle due to the evapotranspiration of leaves that releases moisture into the atmosphere. In the case of the Amazon, the amount of water carried by the wind to the rest of the continent exceeds the volume of the Amazon River itself.
In addition to losing its potential to regenerate the planet, the cutting and burning of forests emits an immense amount of carbon dioxide. Since the forests capture carbon, we should note that in the Amazon there is enough carbon equivalent to 100 years of emissions from the United States.
Other problems are the emission of methane, a greenhouse gas 28 times more potent than carbon dioxide, from high intensity livestock and, finally, the industrial fertilisers used in monoculture that emit nitrous oxide, 298 times more potent than CO2.
Unlike most countries in the world, the sector that emits the most carbon in Brazil is neither energy nor transportation: it is agribusiness, which if not stopped can, in the name of short-term profit, end the possibility of life in abundance for all future generations.
It is our ecosocialist and internationalist duty to resist the destruction promoted by capitalism and its expressions in Brazil and throughout the Global South. This involves a dedicated defence of the territories and indigenous and other traditional peoples who, for more than 500 years since the European invasion, have been giving their lives in the defence of nature.
Our job is also to confront the powers on top of the social pyramid, so that we can build mechanisms for peoples’ power and direct democracy that consider humanity as a part of nature and never submit the ecosystem to the economic system again.
This process requires defending public investment today, putting life and the future above profit, promoting practices of great ecological transition in the cities, in the countryside and in the forest and also defending a real environmental education — one that communicates the sense of urgency of our historical mission to end all forms of exploitation, all oppressions and the destruction of the planet.
With ecosocialism as our strategic horizon, we can make the revolutions of the 21st century, change the system and build a society of buen vivir.
[Reprinted, with further updates by the author, from the Global Ecosocialist Network. Thiago Ávila is a social environmentalist and ecosocialist activist at Subverta-PSOL in Brazil, an organiser of the Agroecological Communities of Buen Vivir and a Youtube content producer at Bem Vivendo.]