Amazon Destruction in the Name of Progress and Profit
The current soaring deforestation rate of the Amazon, brought to the forefront by the recent extensive and unprecedented fires, constitutes one more red flag in the climate calamity list, much like the extreme warming of the Arctic and accompanying sea ice decline. These warning signs are quite serious and should put the climate crisis at the forefront of our current priorities, prompting us to face the problem with all its difficulties.
In spite of the urgency of the climate situation, the response to the Amazon fires was quite tepid. Politicians in the US barely responded, the Democratic Party, carrying the banner of the climate change accepting party, continued to refuse a climate change debate during the primary. The mainstream media dedicated a few articles to the fires with simplistic arguments choosing the villains de rigueur, as though it were a fairy tale; obvious culprits are the cattle ranchers and the meat-eaters, Jair Bolsonaro, the President of Brazil, and some media outlets even blamed Evo Morales, the president of nearby Bolivia.
Cattle ranching and Bolsonaro are certainly a big part of the Amazon’s problem; Bolsonaro became president with the support of multinationals and cattle ranchers and vowed to open up the Amazon for business. Though he is criticized as nationalistic and fascistic, the global media has always praised his willingness to cooperate with Wall St and corporations, including those that destroy the Amazon.
The move towards a more businesslike approach regarding the Amazon had already started under President Temer, the interim president after Dilma Rousseff was impeached under accusations that were later revealed to be false. Temer quickly cut funding for the Brazilian Environment and Indigenous Protection agencies, leaving indigenous populations at a higher risk for displacement and aggression, so that multinationals could be ‘productive’, cut trees, dig, extract and pollute.
President Macron of France quickly posted a tweet expressing his concern over the Amazon and inviting the G7 to action. Macron conveniently forgets that a multitude of G7 companies extracts US$ 20 million worth of resources from the Amazon every minute, creating their share of destruction. A good example is the French oil company Total, who begged the Brazilian government for a license to drill for oil in the mouth of the Amazon, where there was recently discovered a huge beautiful reef. The Brazilian government correctly denied the license in 2018, to the ire of Total.
Presidents Bolsonaro and Macron belong to the same elite group that has sided with corporations around the world; Macron’s rhetoric is less offensive, but his actions are the same. Both presidents are functioning in an economic system and culture in which the Amazon forest is seen as a source of raw materials very needed for the continuation of progress, development, and profit.
In the world’s pyramid of countries, the G7 is at the top, a ranking obtained by early capital accumulation that allowed for an economic development based on the heavy use of fossil fuels and technology. The game for the rest of countries is to try to compete by joining the game of progress with its subsequent entropy production. This is a race to the bottom! A competition that destroys the planet’s capacity to sustain us and leads to the destruction of the Amazon forest and similar ecosystems, doesn’t benefit anyone, even if there are short-term profits for some.
Our current culture’s view of the world as a set of frontiers to conquer and develop in an eternal progress timeline bears responsibility for the troubles in the Amazon, the Polar Regions, the atmosphere and oceans. This frontier vision was essential for the conquest of the American West, in which prosperity and democracy required the opening of new spaces for production and extraction. This cultural set of beliefs which limits variables to a monetary potential for profit or loss, but precludes the preservation of the environment that sustains us, is what started the Amazon’s forest road to perdition, with the consequences that we see now.
A culture based on the mantras of free trade and profit at any cost can not spare a wonder of nature like the Amazon; 6.9 million square kilometers containing a high percentage of the world’s biodiversity and 10% of all the biomass on Earth, which allows it to absorb and store massive amounts of C02, while emitting 20% of the Earth’s oxygen. The high concentration of trees can be seen as one organism that acts in tandem to release water vapor into the air creating air rivers that travel around the world moderating the Earth’s climate.
We have already destroyed about 17% of the Amazon, which is already causing increased droughts that aid in the creation and propagation of fires. If we continue in this way and arrive at a deforestation level of 25%, the Amazon will reach a dangerous tipping point in which the droughts will be so overpowering, that they will dramatically increase the chances of grand scale desertification. This would add to our climate and ecological woes in dire ways that are difficult to imagine.
If you fly over the Amazon, it is majestic and unbelievable, endless trees on the horizon punctuated by the silvery or golden ribbons of rivers. It seems impossible to believe that our culture’s love affair with progress and development could destroy it. The dominant world view of efficiency, profit and growth is blind to the climatic and environmental importance of the area; in the eyes of corporations, the Amazon is just an empty space that should be made productive to benefit consumers. Even a company like Johnson and Johnson, who uses the biodiversity of the Amazon for its drugs and products, has a view of the Amazon as a place to conquer. The head of the company for Latin America during the 1940s, J.C King expressed it well:
“The Amazon basin, with its 2,772,000 square miles of almost unpopulated and undeveloped land offers our greatest challenge and hope. Capable of supporting a 100 million people, a vast new outlet for industrial America, a giant reservoir of raw materials to the tropics, the Amazon stands today, the white man’s greatest failure.”
American plutocrats, great believers in the can-do spirit of the American culture were intent on correcting this ‘white man’s failure’ by trying their best to open up the Amazon for business. Among them, three stand out: Henry Ford, J. P. Morgan, and Nelson Rockefeller. Rockefeller in particular had inherited the pioneer gene from his grandfather John D senior, conqueror of the American West during the 19th century for mining and oil drilling; for his grandson Nelson, the Amazon became the new frontier.
Henry Ford had the idea to plant rubber in the Amazon to supply his automobile business and managed to get a concession of 10,000 square kilometers in the Amazon from the Brazilian government. Ford named it Fordlandia and went ahead with the efficiency model he had used to build Ford Motor Company, thinking that the Amazon presented just a slightly different problem. He cleared the jungle to do an extensive rubber mono-culture, which was a failure. The concentration of rubber in one big area made it overly vulnerable to pests; even with all of Ford’s agricultural experts, the plants continuously died. Finally even Ford admitted the experiment was doomed and Fordlandia was deserted. Ford didn’t understand that in the Amazon, rubber plants are naturally protected from pests by their bio diverse surroundings, and the supposed efficiency of monocultures doesn’t work.
J.P. Morgan, another exponent of the extractive economy and the power of money, financed a railroad in the Amazon from the Bolivian area of Mamore to the Brazilian town of Porto Velho. The railroad, started in 1907, was quickly called ‘Morgan’s folly’ due to the intense human suffering caused by its construction and displacement of indigenous people; even seasoned veterans from the construction of the Panama Canal died like flies. Both the railroad and the greed for rubber of American companies destroyed large extensions of Amazon forest, causing pollution and biodiversity loss. Rubber was needed for the new economy, companies like Goodyear and Firestone were eager to get the rubber bounty cheaply by using Indians as slaves. Brazil had only abolished slavery in 1888, so by 1907 it was easy to resurrect it so that multinationals could lower their costs.
To increase the productivity of the Amazon, more transportation infrastructure was needed and Nelson Rockefeller was the man to undertake the task several times. The Rockefeller family had multiple business concerns in Latin America, from Standard Oil to mining and agribusiness; it was in their interest to encourage adequate transportation.
Nelson started his political career as Coordinator for Inter American Affairs under Franklin D. Roosevelt and was then promoted to Assistant Secretary of State for Latin America, posts that was very useful for his family’s influence in the continent during his tenure and after. Rockefeller money and powerful connections allowed for Nelson to have great power in Latino America, swaying governments into doing what would benefit his family’s corporations.
Nelson accumulated huge tracts of land for cattle in Brazil, just like his grandfather had done in the 19th century in the American West. This allowed Nelson to become an ally of Brazilian elites, who had a tradition of investing in cattle ranching. Brazil has always been a highly unequal country in which land is concentrated in just a few hands. These big landowners and Nelson gave support for the coup that ousted elected president Joao Goulart in 1964 and installed the military junta. General Emilio Medici emerged as the leader of the junta who finally became president.
In 1970, The Brazilian North East experienced a severe drought that made more evident the inequalities in Brazil. This prompted General Medici to propose Trans-Amazonian highways as key developments to benefit the poor. The General thought that millions of people could be relocated to the Amazon, given tracts of land with low-interest loans and turn the jungle into an agricultural Garden of Eden. The Amazon has poor soil good for trees and biodiversity, not for cattle ranching or agriculture. Medici’s development strategy didn’t help to diminish inequality, but it helped the profits of multinational corporations and Nelson was happy to profit.
So it came that General Medici was able to receive funding from Rockefeller banks and USAID for the building of the Trans-Amazonian highway, which cut through the Amazon forest from the North East of Brazil to Peru. There was also an intersecting road from Cuiaba in the Mato Grosso, to the state of Para in the North. The World Bank gave loans for about US$ 750 million for infrastructure and development, some of which was used for the building of these roads.
The roads opened the path to the perdition of the Amazon but were lauded by most media, since they were in the interest of world corporations and of Nelson Rockefeller, for whom prosperity required development and the taming of nature. The bounty for corporations was immense! The prospects for treasures of gold, diamonds, gas, emeralds, molybdenum, bauxite, iron, copper, uranium, tungsten, manganese, cassiterite, kaolin, timber, cattle ranching, industrial agriculture and many more would soon be made profitable by the modern convenience of roads.
When the Indigenous people of the Amazon became discontented by the highways construction and the mining concerns that deforested the jungle and polluted the waterways and soil, the military junta had no qualms in using violent repression to remove the resisters of progress and development. The Johnson administration noticed their human rights abuses and cut military aid to the junta, but Nelson presented a convenient study by one his think tanks, claiming the abuses were exaggerated. The study was enough to restore the US military aid to the junta and progress continued its path unhindered. Once Nixon was in office, the military aid to the junta soared and also the abuses to the indigenous people who wanted to preserve the integrity of the ecological systems against the greed of a dominant world culture.
The Mato Grosso highway opened up the southern area of the Amazon for big agribusiness, who has since then, greatly deforested large tracts of land in order to create extensive cattle ranches and soybean plantations, turning Brazil into the number one producer. This highway ends at the State of Para in the North, which is known as the mineral state of Brazil. This state, crossed by the majestic Amazon River has been defaced by multiple mines, belonging to Brazilian concerns and numerous multinationals from mostly G7 countries plus China. Among the companies, you can count the who’s who in oil drilling, mining and metal production.
As an example, one of the biggest open-pit iron-copper ore mines in the world operates in the Para State owned by Brazilian mining company Vale with the financial support of Canadian and Wall St. hedge funds. This mine has defaced the once pristine area creating a sad spectacle of toxic sludge and tailings, polluting water sources and soil. This is but one example that can be replicated all over the Amazon. The nationality of the company doesn’t matter since all are funded by global capital that requires a high return on their investment and doesn’t care about indigenous people’s rights or the destruction of one of the key elements in the moderation of the Earth’s climate.
Further roads were built after the initial Trans-Amazonian, and these opened the Amazon not just to corporations, but also to colonization by poor Brazilians without land or economic future. In Brazil, there is a law stating that if you succeed in to raising cattle in an area without owner, you can get the property title for that area. The only land available is located in the wild areas of forest, so the law is like a permit to destroy. Poor people enticed by the prospect of land, cut the trees to graze a cow and continue the cycle with more cattle. Besides the deforestation problem, the Amazon forest soil is not even good for cattle, an acre can sustain one cow, while in the US or Canada the same acre can sustain 7 cows.
The Amazon area is also home to a lot of planet’s water, which makes it a target for food multinationals like Nestle and Coca Cola to acquire land and pump water from aquifers and areas that indigenous people rely for their daily use.
Land acquisition by big corporations diversifying their portfolios and whitewashing their carbon footprint by claiming carbon offsets is also worsening the plight of indigenous populations. These so-called ‘primitive’ tribes understand the importance of the forest and know how to protect it. On the other hand, big corporations declare themselves the saviors of the Amazon by buying land to have control of water and trees that they can clear for mining or palm oil when it suits their profits. When criticized, they offer to plant more trees later or somewhere else. This trick is often used around the world to appear ecological while destroying ancient forests, to then replace them with tree monocultures that aren’t good for CO2 absorption and biodiversity.
Our culture seems oblivious to the fact that our extreme individual consumerism multiplied by billions of people implies the destruction of the Amazon. We blame the cattle ranchers, so we decide not to eat meat, but choose to ignore the fact that the Amazon destroyer is the whole consumer society. We are horrified by a huge open-pit iron copper mine in the Amazon, but we like to think that all our ecological and climatic problems can be solved with renewable energy, which requires gigantic amounts of copper for its functioning, much more than the conventional ones. Our current system is one of extreme extraction and consumption of energy and goods, that are becoming increasingly difficult to provide without deepening the already dire climate and environmental crisis.
Our culture chooses to believe that though we made a mess with our planet’s capacity to support us, we can continue with the same economic and cultural system that caused the trouble, while only modifying what we chose, what suits us. Unfortunately, the truth is that the only solution to the climate disaster we are facing is to change our belief system drastically! We must fit our way of life to what is possible under the physical and chemical constraints that our modification of the Earth has caused, and stop hoping that the Earth’s systems will fit our growth-based lifestyle. Our excessive behavior has already set in motion the gears of the Earth for dire feedback loops that preclude probabilities for our species survival.