The burnt earth: Capital’s colonisation

Reflections on our burning forests: an essay by Alèssi Dell’Umbria (lundi matin #207, 09/09/2019) …

Although the extent of the damage can be quantified in terms of the amount of CO2 released, hectares of damaged forests and endangered animal species, the disaster has in fact become incalculable. Voluntary fires are certainly not new in South America, especially in Brazil and Bolivia, but this time all indications are that a qualitative leap has been made. And both Jair Bolsonaro and Evo Morales bear the responsibility for deliberately playing with fire, to the benefit of agribusiness. The satellite photos clearly indicate that in both countries, fires are progressing from already cleared and cultivated areas, and along recently drilled highways, and in a near-methodical progression. The fires show that this civilization is determined to drag us into its loss.

“Civilisation is death. In the last century, the genocide cleared space in the vast prairies and the mountains of the Far West, which allowed the white pioneers to create the world’s most formidable empire. Now we are witness to the same phenomenon in the bush, the forests and hills of Brazil. There also it is a matter of creating one of the largest States of the universe. The victims are always the Red-Skins.”

Lucien Bodard, Le massacre des Indiens

In the spectacle of politics, and seen from Europe, Morales had the role of the good guy and Bolsonaro that of the villain. On the one hand, a peasant elected by a largely indigenous electorate in the wake of two insurrections invoking the Pacha Mama, on the other a white brought to power by deadly lobbies, who develops a racist rhetoric and accuses the indigenous peoples to be an obstacle to much vaunted development. However, if they start from different positions, the social democrat Morales and the Nazi Bolsonaro (1) find themselves on arrival carrying out the same policy of predation that involves systematized deforestation.(2) The secret of this convergence lies in the political economy which Latin American comrades call extractivism, and which is a particularly virulent form of primitive accumulation.


¿Que pasa en Bolivia? As of August 24, 2019, it was estimated that 1,800,000 hectares of forest had been destroyed by fire in Bolivia, with the province of Santa Cruz leading with more than 1,000,000 hectares followed by Beni with 640,000 burnt hectares. In the province of Santa Cruz, the fire particularly ravaged the Chiquitanía region where 480,000 hectares went up in smoke and that of Chaco (where fire crossed the border, devastating 40,000 hectares in the Paraguayan Chaco). Fifteen days later, this figure must certainly be revised upwards …

On this last July 10, President Morales approved Decree 3973, which allows for the transition from the status of forest to pastoral land, and authorises controlled burns on both private and communal lands in the eastern departments of Santa Cruz and Beni (which cover about two thirds of the country, and most of the lowlands). This was in addition to Law 741, which since 2015 allows cutting up to 20 hectares of trees on any property. This is a long-term operation to push back the agricultural frontier and develop transgenic soybean cultivation and industrial farming, both producing for export to Europe and even more so to China.

On 23 August, faced with the scale of the disaster, a declaration signed by 21 civil organizations demanded the immediate repeal of these new standards authorising burning and slaughter. Morales decided to suspend them without repealing them; the only concession made to the victims was the prohibition of selling land in the affected areas.

On 27 August, as fires continued to spread, the president of the Federation of Santa Cruz Breeders, Fegasacruz, publicly asked the president not to derogate from Decree 3973 and Law 741. “The standards criticised have been well thought out and well-developed, concerning the environmental sustainability and productive development of the country. It should not be derogated. Do not kill the goose that lays the golden eggs”, said Oscar Pereyra on the occasion of a first convoy of 48 tons of beef destined for China.

To set fire to the forest is therefore the initial act of internal colonisation. The Chiquitanía corresponds to the eastern half of the region of Santa Cruz, and borders with the Brazilian province of Mato Grosso. The municipalities of the region have expressly declared themselves these days to be against the creation of new villages in the Chiquitanía, considering that the fires that are currently destroying the forests of the region are caused by these new facilities, to extend the pastures. To which the Minister of Rural Development and Land has opposed with a categorical refusal. The government’s priority is clearly to expand acreage devoted to sugar cane for ethanol, soybeans for biodiesel and pastures for livestock. The argument put forward by the minister, namely the need to provide food for the country, provides the measure of this jesuitical government, when the bulk of this production is for export … But by stating this against all evidence, he wants to animate (in)famous “national feeling”, like Bolsonaro claiming a “national sovereignty” over the Amazon in the face of global protests. Thus the indigenous, although their existence is now recognized in most constitutions, are referred to the birth certificate of the South American nation-states: they are always those that are sacrificed to the best interests of the nation.

On the Bolivian highlands live 1.3 million Quechuas and 1.2 million Aymaras, in the lowlands 110,000 Chiquitanos, 80,000 Guaranis, 45,000 Moxeños; 75,000 people belong to other ethnic groups. If the Quechuas and Aymaras hold a strong position in the highlands, in the lowlands it is not the same. The province of Santa Cruz, which is half of it, is dominated by a totally Westernized elite, which benefits from the industrial exploitation of the land. A few years ago, these people even engaged a separatist agitation over a Bolivia still too indigenous to their taste. It seems that compromises have been made since … Last March, the government and the agribusinesses of Santa Cruz signed an agreement to add 250,000 hectares to the 1.3 million already earmarked for soybeans. The settlement colonisation of forest areas, driven by the government, does the rest …

Another aspect of this internal colonisation is the fact that the government is granting more and more settlement rights to small farmers who go down to the lowlands. This allows it to settle the conflicts related to the possession and use of the land in the Andean regions cheaply and to have peace … It must be known that behind Morales is the apparatus of the agricultural unions, which reason in one perspective, that of defending the private interests of those who exploit the land. It has never been a concern for them to defend the development of the native ayllu (3) as a model, but rather to multiply agricultural activity according to the principle of private property and in this perspective, the colonisation of the lowlands is presented as the miracle solution.

Bolivia is not governed by representatives of indigenous peoples, contrary to what is said in Europe, but by trade union bureaucrats – some of whom are indeed from the indigenous world – who are the leading cadres of the MAS.(4) In fact, since the reelection of Morales in 2009, indigenous organisations are no longer a part of the political bloc in power, a time then when it clearly embraced the option of “modernising the country”, through an extractivist model turned to export. The 2009 Constitution, which proclaims Bolivia as a pluri-national State, puts a brutal end to the aspirations of the indigenous movements: the indigenous reality is only taken into account in terms of civil rights and cultural recognition, according to perfectly western criteria. It was actually predictable, from the day when the repentant Alvaro Garcia Linera, barely promoted vice-president, had presented his project of “Andean capitalism” – roughly: we will develop a competitive industrial sector that will finance the indigenous communities. The good joke … It was in 2005, already …

The conflict between the indigenous worlds and the Morales government was declared openly in 2010 with the announcement of a transoceanic highway project that would connect Bolivia to Brazil through the TIPNIS [Territorio Indígena y Parque Nacional Isiboro-Secure/Indigenous Territory and Isiboro Secure National Park], and which would be built by Brazilian companies. That same year, the Bolivian government, unashamedly, organised a World People’s Conference on Climate Change and for the Rights of Mother Earth, in which the indigenous organisations of the country intervened to denounce the policy of dispossessing the indigenous of their territories, under the IIRSA [Iniciativa para la Integración de la Infraestructura Regional Suramericana/Initiative for the Integration of South American Regional Infrastructure]. It foresees several hundred large projects throughout South America, including about fifty for Bolivia, a country that occupies a strategic location in this process, both in terms of mineral and energy resources and for its central position on the continent. Currently, no less than thirty-eight indigenous reserves are threatened by various road, hydroelectric and mining mega-projects. For example, the planned four hydroelectric dams on the Madera River, on the border with Brazil: the Bolivian government intends to make it the beacon of the “development of the Bolivian Amazon”, and in this perspective the flooding of indigenous territories will pass for collateral damage.

But the rivers that governors want to dam are likely to dry up. The biologist Ninotska Burgoa said that the fire in the Chiquitanía has already destroyed all of the sources that fed the streams leading to the Amazon, and that it would take more than two centuries to recover. Others consider that deforestation could cause a temperature rise of 1.45º throughout the Amazon basin. In other words, deforestation will undermine the in the medium term as long as the pursuit of the activities that cause it persist … If the accumulation of capital is infinite, the planet is finished


O que se passa no Brazil? The states of Mato Grosso, Rondônia, Acre, Maranhão, Tocantins, Amazonas and Pará are the most affected by fires, a part affecting the so-called Cerrado area, a stretch of savannah stretching from the Bolivian and Paraguayan border to the States of the Northeast. Half of this territory is already exploited by agribusiness and livestock, and the fires are clearly intended to expand this half … Another part of the fires directly affects the Amazon forest, where the bulk of the million natives identified by the state live.

The fact that there are still other worlds, in which the forest is not a quantifiable resource but an inhabited place, is an anomaly that has lasted for far too long for the descendants of settlers who have power in Brasilia. “A lot of land and few natives”, Bolsonaro repeats in a loop since his election. From a juridical point of view, the inhabited areas of the Amazonian selva are considered as public lands left in usufruct for the indigenous peoples,(5) or to occupants who, for more than a century, live there by fishing or by harvesting fruit or latex (Chico Mendes was one of them); to this are added the common-use lands of the quilombolas, who acquired these tenure rights by duration of their occupation and use of lands.(6)

By entrusting the demarcation of indigenous lands and quilombolas to the Ministry of Agriculture as soon as he took office, Bolsonaro, who had clearly announced during his election campaign that he would not leave them an inch of territory, sent an unequivocal message: the new minister is none other than a large landowner who ran the rural group in Parliament and defended the interests of the agribusiness lobby. Simultaneously, he announced the liberalisation of the bearing of arms. On these issues, there is a consensus among the different groups that brought Bolsonaro to power (and that is summarised by BBB: Bullets, Bullocks and the Bible, the lobby of the arms dealers, that of the breeders and that of the evangelical sects).

The message was received in the State of Pará by the land grabbers who have been raging for years around the BR-163 national road, and who organised the “Fire Day” to celebrate it. One of them, interviewed by a local newspaper, says they feel “supported by the words of Jair Bolsonaro”, which encourages the opening of protected areas of the forest to farming and mining, and the idea is to show the President of Brazil “that they want to work, that the only way to do it is to fell the forest, and that to develop and clean our pastures, we must set it on fire”. At Novo Progresso, there were 124 fire starts on August 10 and 203 the next day, in Altamira, 194 fire starts on the 10th and 237 the following day … All criminal fires ignited as a manifesto of ultra-liberal colonialism.

“If we did not deforest, Brazil would not exist!”, declared a few years earlier in an interview on Brazilian TV their leader, Ezequiel Antonio Castanha, in June 2015, shortly before his arrest for illegal deforestation. He complained that the law only allows deforesting 20% of the forest from a property in the Amazon, which is “too rigid”. This Castanha holds economic and political power in Novo Progresso: in this city of 25,000 inhabitants worthy of the Far West, he has a supermarket, hotels, car dealerships and many people are obliged. As they say, “he has his people” … It is around Novo Progresso that the biggest deforestation of virgin forest took place in recent years.

These great landowners are the heirs of a colonial violence that does not even bother to dissimulate itself: after all, the model it spreads is without discussion, both on the right and the left. The destruction of the Amazonian forest is thus like a new colonial expedition, to be carried out by the same means as formerly. There are countless natives murdered, or small peasants whose lands are coveted in a process of expeditious concentration. Violence is the very element of this world of colonials – the city of Altamira, in the same state of Pará, was considered last year as the most violent of the country, which, in Brazil, still remains a title difficult to win. In Pará, in March, six rural workers were killed in Baião, a town 80 km from Tucuruí. Among the victims is Dilma Ferreira Silva, coordinator of the MAB – Movimento dos Atingidos por Barragens [Movement of People Affected by Dams -, and who has been fighting for 30 years for the rights of the population affected by the Tucuruí dam; she was murdered on the 22nd of March in front of her husband.

All the more as the anger against the big projects continues, after the ecomonster of Belo Monte Dam, and it does not matter that these are revealed very quickly to be real public dangers. On the 25th of January, on the outskirts of Brumadinho, in the Belo Horizonte metropolitan area of Minas Gerais, three dykes for the containment of mining waste from the Córrego do Feijão mine gave way. About 14 million cubic meters of toxic residues spilled into the São Francisco River. Balance: 300 dead, another wall of contention of the residues always at risk of rupture and the water supply of the States dependent on the São Francisco River seriously compromised. The Movement of People Affected by Dams (MAB) denounced this ecocrime at the United Nations Human Rights Council, emphasising the systemic origin of the dam’s rupture: it is the extractivist development model that produces and reproduces such events. It is not a mere “environmental disaster”, as the government says, but a crime. This in no way prevented the Minister of Mines and Energy from announcing on March 4 that new plans to open native lands and certain border areas to mining activities are being considered.

Here ethnocide coincides perfectly with ecocide, revealing in the negative that the protection of an ecosystem is above all a matter of the relationship to the world. In 1969, Lucien Bodard already showed in his book “Le massacre des Indiens” that the colonial extermination continued in the Amazon, to general indifference. A more recent example: in 2017, a dozen natives of the Javari Valley, which borders the Peruvian and Colombian border, were massacred by gold diggers who then boasted about it during a drinking bout. These natives were part of an ethnic group that had never had any contact with the Western world … Conversely, a group of six garimpeiros (7) were killed with arrows by Yanomami in October 2016 in the State of Roraima, in the north of the country …

The fires finally reveal how much the consumption patterns developed by metropolitan capitalism, in Europe as in China, are based on total and unlimited predation. An uncontrollable industrial chain now determines food consumption in importing countries, and presupposes deforestation as a starting point in America, Africa, South-East Asia to produce palm oil or beef. The recent agreement between the EU and Mercosur will result in increased agricultural imports from South America. A s for China, it depends more and more on Brazil for its imports of soy and beef. A real breath of air for agro-industrial predators …

Bolsonaro only brings to its point of extreme tension the commercial logic accepted by all of the rulers in Latin America, which implies the disappearance of all areas not exploited industrially and considered, as in the times of the Iberian colonization, as res nullius. In reality, people live in these areas, indigenous, quilombolas, poor peasants, who have learned over the centuries the art of living in the forest, to live within fully. But as a member of the APIB – Articulação dos Povos Indígenas do Brasil/the Association of Indigenous Peoples of Brazil says, “Bolsonaro represents the profile of a large part of the Brazilians, who do not accept the indigenous peoples”: and that he realized his largest electoral scores in the southern regions, mostly populated by whites, is in itself significant. This is in effect the model which arrived from Europe in the sixteenth century that continues, this time as an internal colonisation. This is the common situation in all of the countries of Latin America, where a dominant class from the colonial elite and constantly reinforced by the arrival of new settlers from Europe (but also from Japan) has simply displaced the axis that follows primitive accumulation. Agricultural policy in the South American countries is totally extractivist in nature, which means giving carte blanche to these big landowners concerned with securing their positions on the world market of GM soybeans and beef, and who dispose of paramilitary forces and networks of influence.

Constitutional guarantees never weigh heavily on the obsession with national growth, and this government’s plan is to neutralise the guarantees granted to indigenous peoples and quilombos by the 1988 constitution. In Pará, for example, the Fazenda Ouro Verde company had the time to unlawfully clear the equivalent of six thousand football stadiums in the protected and untouchable reserve of São Felix do Xingú before the federal authorities resigned themselves to intervene … The government intends to proceed with a revision of the legal framework, which limited deforestation and, more generally, bypassing the 1988 Constitution. In this perspective, FUNAI [Fundação Nacional do Índio] was placed under the authority of the Ministry of Agriculture … [8] “In a few minutes, the new president of Brazil has overturned more than fifty years of work on the allocation of land to indigenous peoples”, lamented on all sides the defenders of the Amazon. As if everything is a matter of power, rather than of recognised rights: what the State has granted one day, it has the power to take back another day. The guarantees provided by the 1988 Constitution to indigenous peoples and quilombolas created a compromise between the existence of indigenous forms of life on the one hand and the demands of uninhibited neo-colonial capitalism on the other. They did not prevent deforestation and territorial dispossession, but they posed at least certain limits. Everything indicates that the compromise is no longer appropriate: capitalism, in the exponential ebb that is now its mode of existence, can not let a region as vast as the Amazon escape valorisation. The advance of predators in the savannah and in the selva inscribes this necessity on the territory.

But the outcome of the game is not yet decided on the American continent. In Mexico, one of the finest examples of indigenous self-defence is that of Cheran Kéri, in Michoacán, which since 2011 has managed to block the deforestation of its territory: the indigenous inhabitants of Cheran reforest carrying M16s on their shoulders and forbid access to their community by all political parties, the accomplices of talamontes [illegal loggers]. No Morales or Bolsonaro counterpart can come to pour out her/his lies in this community. In Ecuador, the natives of Sarayaku, in the Amazonian plain, officially sacrificed by President Correa’s extractivist, a policy pursued by his successor, succeed in blocking oil extraction projects; after ten years, they defined the territory of their community by planting a belt of trees all around, which are already high enough to mark a long-lasting resistance. In Bolivia and Brazil, mobilisations have also increased these days, and there have been demonstrations of natives in the heart of Brasilia …

Many companies investing in South America are based in Western Europe. One sees them involved in mining, gas, oil, hydroelectric, highway projects … or in the importation of South American agro-industrial products. Nothing prevents us from harassing them here in defence of Mother Earth. Which could be a good contribution to the struggle going on there …

“And it is not the least of the virtues of a forest to give to the bodies that give themselves to it, this first experience of presence. Even the phenomena, the feeling of the forest that looks at me, like me who looks at the forest, is not a turn of phrase but an irreducible reality, the feeling of being present in the world, fully there, without rest.”

Jean-Baptiste Vidalou, « Être forêt »

Alèssi Dell’Umbria, early September, 2019

  1. A political leader who proposes explicitly to destroy entire peoples (with the argument that they are few as a justification!) and who considers that the military in power in Brazil in the 70s/80s were wrong not to execute more “communists”, can not be described otherwise.
  2. At the Presidential Conference on the Amazon held on September 5, Bolsonaro even proffered a eulogy for his Bolivian counterpart …
  3. Ayllu is a traditional mode of community ownership of the land, in effect among most indigenous Andean peoples.
  4. Movimiento Al Socialismo, founded in 1997 by Evo Morales
  5. The 462 indigenous reserves constitute 14% of the Brazilian national territory and are in principle protected by the Constitution.
  6. Chico Mendes was a Métis peasant from the state of Acre, who began by defending the exploited rubber collectors and then led an all-out battle in defense of the Amazon rainforest. He was assassinated in 1988 by killers under the orders of a large landowner in the region. He has become an emblematic figure for all of the struggles in Brazil.
  7. Gold prospectors.
  8. Fundação Nacional do Índio, official body for the management of indigenous issues, created in 1967.
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