The Amazon forest burns

Photo: Pedarilsosbr / Global Canopy


VALPARAISO, Chile — It has been the driest winter in the central valley of Chile in 60 years. June, July, and August are winter in the Southern Hemisphere, and also the rainy season in Chile. Water shortages have been declared in 50 communities and agricultural emergencies in an additional 100 communities. Sheep and cattle ranchers are moving their herds to the south of the country to prevent them from dying off. On Thursday, Sept. 5, Chile’s president formed an emergency task force to manage the crisis.

The central valley of Chile is the breadbasket of the country as well as producing most of its crops for export such as fruits, vegetables, and wine. Winters of scant rain are followed by summers of widespread forest fires. Chileans expect the worst fires in decades in December, January, and February. In the port city of Valparaiso, where I live, there has not been a single drop of rain in six weeks. The word on everyone’s lips is mega-drought.

The Chilean draught is part of a mega-drought that stretches across the entire Southern Hemisphere. Australia, Southern Africa, and Latin America have all been affected. It is against this backdrop of drought that the Amazon forest is burning.

The Amazon forest is an invaluable biological treasure, habitat to many species, and one of the most important carbon sinks on the planet. Without the Amazon forest, global warming will accelerate and our species will have little chance to reverse course.

But the drought is not the cause of the fires. Many of the fires are set by ranchers seeking to turn forest into pastureland for the production of beef to export to the capitalist center. Indeed, ranchers burn the Amazon every year, systematically reducing the area of the forest. What is different this year is that the fires have increased three-fold, marking an extraordinary increase in the pace of destruction at the precious moment that destruction must cease and the forest allowed to regenerate.

Both the forest and the fires are not limited to Brazil. Fires are also burning in northern Argentina, Paraguay, Bolivia, and Peru. All of these countries include part of the forest.

In “Late Victorian Holocausts: El Niño Famines and the Making of the Third World,” Marxist political economist Mike Davis presents a brilliant analysis of 19th-century famines and the interaction of capitalism and the El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO). These famines were the product of ENSO, the forced capitalist penetration of the so-called Third World by the imperialist powers, and government policies in both the capitalist center and periphery.

These three factors also influence each other. The famines killed many millions in Brazil, China, India, and Africa, a genocide perpetrated by the capitalist system and imperial powers for the sake of profit.

The current fires in the Amazon can only be understood within a Marxist framework. The forest is burned to create pastureland for cattle and fields for soy beans, both exports to Europe and increasingly to Asia. The fires are part of a broader deforestation caused by unsustainable forestry, mining, agriculture, and hydroelectric dams.

It is the quest for profits that drives the destruction of the Amazon forest. Within this dynamic, government policy plays a role.

Jair Bolsonaro, the right-wing president of Brazil, promised to open up the Amazon to increased exploitation during his campaign. Once elected, he followed through by cutting the budget for Brazil’s Ministry of the Environment by 25% and trying to merge it into the Ministry of Agriculture. He also stopped the prosecution of individuals charged with starting illegal fires. The burning of the Amazon forest accelerated dramatically with his election to office.

According to Brazilian and international experts, the Amazon forest now runs the risk of turning into a mostly treeless savanna. This is due to the rapid deforestation and the current prolongation of the dry season due to global warming. What is needed, according to these scientists, is a complete stop to the deforestation, replanting of the already destroyed forests, and a sharp reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. Without these radical measures, the planet will lose its lungs.

The G-7 offered $22 million in aid, a package that Bolsonaro originally rejected but was later pressured into accepting. Other countries have also offered aid, above and beyond that given after the G-7 meeting. It is generally agreed that this aid is a pittance compared to what is needed. One country that has not pledged any aid is the United States. Instead, Trump, like Bolsonaro a climate change denier, has given Bolsonaro “complete support.”

And Bolsonaro needs Trump´s support. Opinion polls in Brazil show that the approval rating for Bolsonaro’s government has fallen to 29.4%. His personal approval rating has fallen to 41%.

In Bolivia, August was an especially cruel month; an area slightly smaller than the state of Connecticut burned. These fires took place in both the Amazon forest and other parts of the country.

Over 80 environmental groups have accused Bolivia’s president Evo Morales of ecocide for his role in these fires. In 2016 the Morales government passed Law 741, which facilitated land clearance, and in July of this year Morales issued decree 3973, permitting the burning of forests for pasture and crop lands. Morales donned a blue jumpsuit (used by Bolivian fire fighters), toured the burning area, and was photographed fighting the fire. At the same time, he categorically rejected calls to revoke decree 3973 and repeal Law 741.

The fires were made worse this year and burned out of control due to the drought that Bolivia is currently experiencing, a drought linked to global warming.

The fires in Bolivia may have an impact on the upcoming Bolivian presidential elections. The elections take place Oct. 20, and Morales is seeking re-election after 13 years in office. He is currently ahead in the polls, with 34% in support. His two leading competitors are Carlos Meza, with 27%, and Oscar Ortiz, with 13%.  Almost 20% of likely voters are still undecided. If no candidate gets 50% or 10% more than the leading rival, a second-round election will take place. As of this writing, a second round is likely, but the winner of that election is anyone´s guess. As a senator, Ortiz supported Law 741.

While the Amazon forest burns, capitalist governments around the world either fiddle or throw fuel on the fire. The defense of the Amazon is a fight for the future of the human species on earth. Defend the Amazon! The choice could not be starker: socialism or ecocide.

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[Editor’s note: We reprint this article by the Committee for the Abolition of Illegitimate Debt (CADTM). In 1989, the Bastille Appeal was launched, inviting popular movements throughout the world to unite in demanding the immediate and unconditional cancellation of the debt of the so-called developing countries. This crushing debt, along with neo-liberal macro-economic reforms imposed on the global South, has led to an explosion of worldwide inequality, mass poverty, flagrant injustice and the destruction of the environment.


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