From Bolsonaro to Duterte, governments are destroying forests—and the people in it—for profit
With over 10,000 fires set in the last week alone, the Amazon rainforest in Brazil is burning at a record rate, jeopardizing the future of life on Earth as we know it. According to the National Institute for Space Research, there have been more than 74,000 fires in the world’s largest rainforest from January to August of this year—an 84 percent increase from last year, resulting in a state of emergency.
It is important to make the distinction that these are not wildfires—these are fires set by humans. Natural fires are rare in the Amazon, yet fire threat is on the rise in recent years because agribusiness and mining corporations use them to illegally clear the land of Indigenous people for logging, mining, cattle ranching, and farming—and they are now aided
Greedy and short-sighted, Bolsonaro’s policies deliberately weaken protections and open up protected areas and Indigenous territories to the extractive industry. The Brazilian government had previously made moves to redress its colonial wrongdoings and to recognize Indigenous people’s rights to the lands they traditionally inhabit, but the new government has pivoted, deliberately undermining the rights of the Indigenous people who live there. Incredibly, Bolsonaro alleged, without evidence, that nongovernmental organizations and environmentalists are the ones responsible for setting the fires in order to embarrass his administration.
Who is affected by this destruction?
Environmentalists and human rights groups are sounding the alarm about the destruction of the Amazon. As one of the world’s most important natural resources, the Amazon produces 20% of the oxygen in the Earth’s atmosphere and plays an increasingly critical role in the absorption of carbon dioxide as global warming advances. Dangerous smoke from these deforestation fires have spread widely, travelling as far as Brazil’s Atlantic coast. The plumes have darkened the skies and rains of Sao Paulo over 2000 miles away, posing a serious health hazard by releasing copious amounts of toxic carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide as they drift.
But Indigenous people are at the forefront of the struggle against this global threat. Extractive businesses set these fires to forcibly remove or eradicate Indigenous communities in the way of their profits.
On the local level, it is known that land grabbers have been selling off parcels of Karipuna land to speculators as well as cattle farmers. Deforestation is at an all-time high; illegal loggers can be heard running their logging equipment late into the night. Large scale corporations like Pepsico, Unilever, and Nestlé are complicit in illegal deforestation and environmental damage in the Amazon. In a video that went viral across Brazil last week, Célia, a member of the Pataxó Indigenous community, stated:
[translated] Look what they’ve done to our reservation. For two years we’ve been fighting to preserve this land, and now those troublemakers come here and set fire to our village. As if it were not enough, the Vale mining company kills our river, our people, our source of life, and now they’ve come and set fire to our reservation.
In their efforts to resist the destruction and protect their homelands, many different peoples of the Amazon have organized their own forest guards to patrol their territories, confront the people who are ravaging their territories, and decommission their equipment. It’s dangerous work, and those who do it often receive violent responses from loggers and miners, even assassination of Indigenous leaders. It has been reported that when you view a map of the fires, the limits of the fires themselves indicate where Indigenous communities can be found protecting their land. Predictably, Bolsonaro’s government has used this as an opportunity to militarize the region.
It’s not just Brazil
Bolsonaro’s policies are alarming, reckless, greedy, and short-sighted, but these fires are just the most recent manifestation of a deeper, more troubling global threat. This isn’t about one man’s environmental folly: governmental threats against the environment and Indigenous people is an established and worsening international crisis.
From Trump’s attempt to gut the Endangered Species Act and his appointment of oil and coal executives to the Environmental Protection Agency, to the Philippine President Duterte regime’s declaration of martial law on Indigenous territories and steady killings of Indigenous and human rights defenders, there has been an alarming increase of fascist policy in service of the capitalist class, corporations, and environmental destruction.
Worldwide, we’ve witnessed the rise of government administrations that refuse to enforce existing protective legislature, deregulate and deliberately change regulations within laws in order to weaken environmental and human rights protection, and appoint corrupt officials and climate deniers to public office—all in the service of global neoliberal profiteering. These governments work hand-in-hand to protect their individual interests intertwined with private business with disregard for human life. But it is folly to simply delineate between environmentally “friendly” and “unfriendly” governments, instead of actually tackling a country’s imperialist culture. For example, the U.S. government—no matter which party happens to be in control—provides military training, arms, and funding to the Philippines (an important market and a source of cheap labor, land, and mineral wealth) despite the Philippines’ use of armed forces in harassing and slaughtering Indigenous people who are fighting for the right to stay on their ancestral lands.
As in Brazil, human rights abuses persist in the Philippines in ancestral domains where the big and foreign mining companies and agri-plantations operate. A “state of emergency” was used by the Duterte regime as a pretext for suspending rights and freedoms guaranteed to the people under the constitution, and in 2017 declared martial law in the southernmost region, Mindanao. To this day, martial law remains in effect and is continually exploited to maintain military presence in the region. Martial law is used to the criminalize, displace, and murder Indigenous Peoples and environmental defenders there. Under Duterte, over 30 Indigenous people have been assassinated, the majority of them prominent indigenous leaders like Beverly Geronimo and Bai Leah Tumbalang, or prominent indigenous and environmental defenders like American Brandon Lee, who survived an assassination attempt after years of harassment from the Philippine Army.
It’s not just about the environment
One of the most prevalent reactions to environmental catastrophe has been to zero in on individual consumer habits. The message implies that by altering our habits on a personal level, people themselves can stem the tide of climate change disaster. Some of the more popular calls circulating on social media include switching to metal straws, buying a reusable water-bottle, or converting to a plant-based diet. While these conscious habit-changing practices are well-meaning, the reality is that they never create the kind of change most people want them to. The trend toward consumer responsibility glazes over the fact that these individual-level gestures have little to no impact. Their efficacy is ultimately metrically negligible in the face of the self-made challenge humanity is up against. They are also glaring examples of the way in which multinational corporations pass the buck on to their consumers and thereby side-step their own responsibility to ethical production in favor of profit. By buying into these sustainability fads, not only do people weaken their collective power by dividing themselves into those who perceive themselves as right and others as wrong, but they also inadvertently take the demand off of extractive global enterprises (along with the governments that embolden them) to establish and practice truly ethical, sustainable standards.
This is not to say that a metal straw isn’t less environmentally friendly than continuing with single-use plastic. On a material level, of course it is. However, these solutions also operate in service of a capitalist market, urging people to just buy a different product over the existing one. In the end, failure to create the fully sustainable lifestyle they outwardly promise is inherent; these so-called solutions are just release-valves that give people the illusion of agency. Exploitation is in-built to solutions that work in the name of profit. How else can manufacturers offer these kinds of products at an affordable price to folks in the Global North?
It is important to be critical of the methods by which the solutions on offer are manufactured. What happens when a product is traced all the way back to its components, its source material, its shipping requirements? All things considered, it’s undeniable that in order for manufacturers to turn a profit, someone or somewhere is being exploited at every stage of mass-production. Who labors in the factories that produce those straws? Who is forced to leave their families to work aboard the container ship that freights those goods around the globe? That metal it’s made from—how and where is it extracted from the Earth? And more likely than not, what multinational operation is putting Indigenous peoples and their land through bloody violence to extract that metal?
For the Global North, where switching to metal straws seems like a viable solution to environmental catastrophe, it’s easy to mistake the Amazon disaster for yet another climate crisis fueled by right-wing governments. The Amazon Rainforest is, after all, the #lungsoftheearth. Amidst this political posturing and finger-pointing, it’s also far too easy to dismiss, diminish or simply forget about the central role played in this planetary tragedy by the fight for Indigenous life and sovereignty. Unlike Indigenous communities, lives in the Global North aren’t threatened directly every day by the violent land-grabbing, arson, and bullets deployed by corporations and their hired guns. Those in the Global North have the distanced-comfort to imagine that the solution to this crisis lies in switching to reusable and simply electing more “environmentally-friendly” governments.
As stewards of their diminishing territories, Indigenous communities are at the front lines risking their lives to protect their ancestral lands and prevent those same government-aided corporations from exacting their environmental pillage. As the conversation for solutions to the Amazon wreckage continues, Indigenous people around the globe are being targeted by large-scale, multinational corporations. It is time to stand in solidarity with them. Now more than ever, it’s important to ensure that what may seem like two separate issues—the fight for environmental justice and the fight to protect Indigenous lives—are recognized as one and the same. The enemy isn’t individual habits and it isn’t any one particular fascist leader. We must keep repeating that truth until we finally set our sights on dismantling the violent set of global profiteers and the imperialist governments that aid them.
GABRIELA LA is a grassroots organization of Filipinas in the Los Angeles community fighting for the rights and welfare of people through education, organizing, campaigns, and cultural work. We strive to build a mass movement of Filipinas recognizing that the problems Filipinos face are linked to the root problems of the Philippines. We are a chapter of GABRIELA USA, an overseas chapter of the historic GABRIELA.