The Amazon fires have been a long time coming

When I lived in Bolivia the first time, in 2006, I lived in the Yungas, a series of cloud-forested valleys between the Andean altiplano and the Amazonian lowlands. All that winter, I watched as what looked like clouds crept day by day further into our little valley, until it became clear that these were not clouds but pooling smoke. By August, we could see the line of fire consuming the hillside across from us. A small fire, one of thousands set intentionally that winter, with the cumulative effect of blocking out the sun.

protective measures, 2006.

By that point I was routinely wearing a bandana to breathe when I left the house but even so I developed a cough that lasted a good six weeks after my return to the States. But the fires of 2006 were no emergency or global crisis.

Our neighbors told us the burning happened every year. The fires were set mostly by small-time coca growers, laid off former miners and poor farmers for whom this was the best way of earning a living, clearing fields by fire the easiest way they to plant the next crop.

Rather than a time honored practice, however, what I saw was a new boom of people settling and resettling a landscape that burned up the land all across the valley. This was shortly after the historic election of Evo Morales, and so after years of US-backed eradication programs, coca was no longer officially discouraged by the government. Legalizing the coca trade created immediate economic and human rights benefits for poor Bolivians, but it had devastating immediate effects on the landscape.

The next time I visited that community, six years later, the fields and houses had been devastated by mudslides and floods. A few years of burning and the denuded hills couldn’t keep the soil and water from washing through the valley. But a few years more and the the valley was also greener and less smoky. People had learned to be more cautious about how and where they set fires. That kind of real time accommodation to the landscape was possible in small quantities because these were just regular folks who had to reckon with their communities and the effects of their actions on a small scale. On a small scale, most decisions are reversible.

In fact, people have been setting fires in the Amazon for thousands of years to change landscapes and create arable land. The Amazon, under normal conditions, doesn’t burn very easily, and in fact creates a firebreak for nearby regions more susceptible to fire. The problem is deforestation creates knock-on effects, and we don’t know how much of the forest still counts as “normal conditions.” What’s changed is the scale, the technology, and the accumulation of global risk.

The fires I witnessed were mostly for crop clearing. These are not the kind that tend to rage completely out of control, but they get people used to the idea that fire is relatively controllable because again, in a healthy forest, they are. The fires raging in the Brazilian and Bolivian Amazon today are something different. They are small fires set in deforested and mixed use regions dominated by larger industries: agribusiness, livestock, and mining.

The vast scale of deforestation is being encouraged tacitly and vocally by both Jair Bolsonaro and Evo Morales’s nationalist approaches to development. Despite vast differences in policy and politics, both governments have pushed the idea that national well-being must come from the exploitation of natural resources. And why wouldn’t they? Every nation in the world that has achieved a general level of prosperity for its population has done so by extracting wealth from its national resources, or more truthfully, those of its colonies or unequal trading partners. Although his “socialist” credentials are by now fairly suspect, the more leftwing approach by Morales argues that the Bolivian government should have control over this process of resource extraction, while on the right, Bolsonaro prefers to give private corporations free reign.

Historically, as now, this means that in the Amazon, small cooperatives and large corporations alike have free range to flaunt local regulations, ignore mandates to consult with indigenous communities, kill anyone who protests, and justify their actions in the name of prosperity, whether collective or individual.

Bolsonaro, the climate change skeptic, has characterized the forest fires as a natural disaster, as the unfortunate results of an abnormally hot, dry year, and refused international criticism linking his policies to the fires. Meanwhile, Morales, who began his presidency writing protections of the Earth and indigenous rights to land into the Bolivian constitution, has had to suspend campaigning for his October election because of the fires.

These fires are the result of decades of small decisions to view the Amazon as a perpetually untapped resource, a place so vast as to absorb any possible damage, and by more recent big decisions by industries to ignore mounting evidence of crisis in the global climate.

As one of the wonders of the world and also a real place, the Amazon is at the same time home for specific communities of people and a global resource to be fought over. The Amazon has been cast as a pristine antithesis to modernity even while being populated for centuries by large numbers of poor people needing to put food on the table, changing the landscape for pennies to enrich investors attracted by the next boom. Those workers tended to call the Amazon home. Many of the investors exploiting their work have been and continue to be European, North American, or even local elites expressing an internal colonial relationship to the Amazon.

The Amazon is integral to the health of humans across the planet but it does not belong to Europe or the US or even to Bolsonaro. To “save” the rainforest people in the US and Europe would do well to curb our own reliance on meat and soy, first and foremost.

We would do even better to restructure our global economy away from extraction that depends solely on short-term profits for decision-making and start building credible, green alternatives–not with leaders of foreign states like Bolsonaro, but with local and regional organizations more inclined towards conservation.

These alternatives must recognize that communities across the global south can be leaders and not just stakeholders in this endeavor. I welcome suggestions as comments, and will be creating a list of those below who might benefit from donations.

In the meantime, some suggested readings on the history of the Amazon.

  • Blanc, Jacob and Federico Freitas, eds. Big Water: The Making of the Borderlands Between Brazil, Argentina, and Paraguay. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2018.
  • Cote, Stephen C. Oil and Nation: A History of Bolivia’s Petroleum Sector. Morgantown: West Virginia University Press, 2016.
  • Dean, Warren. With Broadax and Firebrand. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997.
  • Nepstad, Daniel. “Amazon Fires: What We Know and What We Can Do.” Earth Innovation Institute, August 24, 2019.

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