THE Amazon fires with Brazil at its epicentre, have become worldwide news. Explaining the fires recently, Douglas Morton, chief of the Biospheric Sciences Laboratory at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center said that August 2019 stands out as a month with a far higher number of fires than any preceding year since 2010. This is similar to what the Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research (INPE) had reported earlier. The head of INPE was fired on August 5 this year after INPE came out with figures based on satellite imagery that showed that deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon had increased by 40 per cent in two months over a similar period last year.
That it is largely man-made can be seen from looking at where the fires have started in Brazil: mostly along the major highways and spreading into the forest. Clearly, it is an attempt to clear the forests for economic exploitation – logging, cattle ranching, commercial farming and mining – that lies at the heart of President Bolsonaro’s policies. Speaking to reporters in the last week of August, Bolsonaro said, “It is too much land for so few Indians.” While he has declared a temporary moratorium on land-clearing due to the fires, the thrust of his policies is still to dismantle all obstacles to handing over the Amazon to big corporate and landed interests in Brazil.
Amazon forests is the world’s biggest store of carbon as well as its largest global sink. If it goes up in smoke, it will produce climate change on a scale not seen before. And this change could soon become irreversible, as once a forest starts dying, it becomes almost impossible to stop its downward plunge after a point. Apart from acting to fix atmospheric carbon, Amazon forests also help in the hydrological cycle that produces rainfall. The loss of forest cover in Amazon would not only affect the world’s climate, but also the local climate in Brazil and neighbouring countries, leading to less rainfall and adversely affecting its agriculture.
While Brazil has taken the lead in a direct attack on the Amazon, with Bolsonaro adding a racial element to his attack on the indigenous people, the pressure to open the Amazonian forests to agriculture, logging and mining is not just limited to Brazil. Obviously, why should other countries, which have finished their forests, argue that countries with forests keep them permanently for global benefit? Who pays and who gains, is very much a part of the climate change negotiations – the Paris Accord – from which Trump and the US have walked out.
This pitch – who pays and who gains – could indeed be a nationalist pitch for Brazil. But this is not Bolsonaro’s argument. For Bolsonaro, the only issue is that fires lit for clearing the Amazon should not burn without control. He must be shedding tears about all those logs that could have been sold for money going up in smoke. He is asking President Trump, a fellow climate change disbeliever and another white nationalist, for help in dousing Amazon fires. He has no sympathy for Brazil’s indigenous people, or Indians as he calls them, bemoaning the failure of the Brazilian cavalry in “clearing” its indigenous people, unlike the US cavalry, which was so much more efficient in its genocide.
Before we address the complex issue of climate justice, indigenous rights and economic development, we need to address one misunderstanding on the role of Amazon forests. Amazon forests do not produce 20 per cent of the oxygen the world needs as is commonly quoted. It is the largest producer of oxygen on land, producing about 6 per cent – 9 per cent of the total oxygen that is produced globally including the oceans. But we cannot talk of producing oxygen without also asking about how much does Amazon consume? We must see instead the net oxygen that Amazon produces, meaning subtract the oxygen consumed by the Amazon from that it produces. Once we do that, we find that the net output of oxygen from Amazon is near zero, as it is also the largest consumer of oxygen. Amazon’s value is in fixing atmospheric carbon, and its loss will mean the release of stored carbon into the atmosphere with devastating consequences.
Is it possible to use the forest lands economically such that we do not have deforestation with both local and global consequences? The argument is yes, this can be done using scientific methods and using technology such that we can get short term developmental benefits as well as meet long-term goals. It would mean culling of forests, but within limits of its regeneration and using a mix of trees that are natural to the Amazonian environment. It would mean if mines or other projects do take place in such areas, how to minimise its impact. It would also mean leaving large areas as natural reserves that would be untouched. And of course a policy for those who are indigenous to the region in a way that respects their identity while allowing them to choose the way they integrate themselves, not as living museum pieces, but as living communities in harmony with nature and the larger Brazilian society. These are complex issues and there is no one answer to such complex questions. It would mean a democracy that allows for dialogue and a way of reconciling the goals of development as well as maintaining peoples’ identities and their cultural diversities.
Instead of following this complex democratic path, the logic of capital is quite simple. It prioritises the interest of the capitalists – not capital but capitalists – over other sections of the people. For the capitalist, there is a simple way of looking at any issue: what is the return I get if I can get the state to follow a certain policy? Giving away land, forests and underground mineral resources to capitalists by the state is what Marx called primary – or primitive – accumulation. In the language of the commons, it is “enclosure” of the commons, in this case the Amazon forests as the commons. If Bolsonaro can hand over forest lands – both its trees, minerals and its use after clearing forests for cattle ranching or soya bean farming – to his capitalist cronies, they make big bucks. This is the crux of Bolsonaro’s policies. This is similar to what Modi is doing in India with now the modification to the Forest Rights Act.
Both are expropriation of the peoples rights over natural resources on a grand scale. This is what capital and their ideologues call releasing the animal spirits of capital.
Capitalism not only has Trump’s, Modi’s and Bolsonaro’s determine that what is good for capital is good for the people, but it also has its other ideologues. One of them, William Nordhaus has built an economic model which essentially “shows” that it is better to spend money, not on preventing climate change today, but mitigating it in the future. There are two fallacies in this approach, one is that those producing climate change – either producing directly through their emissions or consuming products of carbon emissions – are going to be impacted far less than those who produce much less of carbon emissions. Unfortunately, the impact of such climate change is going to be far more adverse in tropical and equatorial regions of the world, where the bulk of the poor live. They also produce much less carbon emissions. The other is Nordhaus type of models privilege benefits received today over adverse affects in the future, the same way a capitalist looks at his profits: this quarter’s profits matter more than long term sustainability of capitalism itself.
Are there other approaches and models possible? Yes, of course. A number of approaches that address both these issues exist. But climate sciences today have little to do with science, it is politics and the interests of capital that is deciding our climate future. Upton Sinclair, the American writer had written in the 1930’s, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it!” Denying global warming is not a scientific mistake that the global right makes, it is simply who is paying the bill that determines their belief.