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Live and let others to live - Capitalism Set the Fires in the Amazon Rainforest

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2019 Amazon rainforest wildfires

Capitalism Set the Fires in the Amazon Rainforest

Fires in the Amazon basin have provoked international outrage over the destruction of one of the world’s most important tropical forests and the seeming unwillingness on the part of Brazilian authorities to do anything about it. President Jair Bolsonaro, whose term began in January, has frequently been singled out as playing a key role in the Amazon’s deforestation, but the fires ravaging Brazil’s rainforest are nothing new. What these fires vividly illustrate is how global dynamics of economic development have propelled processes of deforestation for the narrow purpose of securing global supply chains and maximizing the profits of transnational corporations.

Nearly half of the world’s tropical forests can be found in the Amazon basin, a huge expanse of territory encompassing eight states, mostly Brazil. More than 2 million square miles (roughly two-thirds the size of the continental United States) is covered by dense rainforest, where hundreds of thousands of animal and tree species thrive, making it the most biodiverse ecosystem on the planet.

The Amazon is also an important regulator of atmospheric CO2 in the global carbon cycle. About 25 percent of carbon emissions are absorbed by terrestrial ecosystems, and the Amazon, being one of the world’s largest carbon sinks, plays a critical role. If deforestation increases past a speculated “tipping point,” and that terrestrial sink is weakened or lost, the rate of global warming will accelerate, threatening the fabric of human civilization on a planetary scale.

While Brazil seems to be the focus of the recent fires making headlines, unhelped by Brazil’s reactionary, far-right leader, who has so far been unwilling to accept international assistance, there are currently fires raging all over the world. In every region where tropical forests are under threat — in Peru and Bolivia, and in the Congo basin, in Angola and Zambia — fires are burning, many as big or bigger than the ones in Brazil. Fire season across equatorial regions will continue until next spring, and similar fires will burn across Southeast Asia in Cambodia, Laos, and Indonesia, as they do every year.

Most of these fires are started by smallholder farmers or ranchers who are either clearing new tracts of jungle for pasture or re-clearing their previously deforested plots for continued use, employing slash-and-burn agricultural techniques. Some of those burns get out of control, resulting in the widely reported wildfires. In Brazil, the most intense fires are concentrated in the state of Rondônia, which borders Bolivia in the southwest portion of the Amazon forest. Like much of the Brazilian Amazon, Rondônia was settled by the Brazilian state relatively recently.

Smallholders began migrating to forested regions like Rondônia in large numbers in the 1970s, when Brazil’s military dictatorship (1964–1985) began taking a much more systematic approach to economic development in the Amazon by supporting road and dam construction, and by subsidizing large corporations in extractive industries. Today’s deforestation can be traced back to these domestic policies as well as to international pressures to further develop infrastructure in order to boost foreign investment in profitable export sectors. From the frontier regions to the heart of the rainforest, this intervention — guided by global market demand for commodities like iron ore, copper, gold, soy, sugarcane, coffee, cocoa, corn, palm oil, and beef — has resulted in permanent land-use change.

As these development efforts were underway, rural agricultural workers were being expelled from the land all across Brazil due to increased agricultural modernization, whereby large-scale mechanized production of a few cash crops replaced traditional practices that were smaller scale and more labor intensive. The reduced demand for agricultural workers, combined with the high price of land that was increasingly concentrated in fewer and fewer hands, left the rural poor with no choice but to leave. This process came to be known as the “rural exodus” and resulted in the swelling of populations of major cities throughout Brazil. As the favelas on the peripheries of cities rapidly expanded and social strife skyrocketed, the military regime sought to redirect the migrations of displaced agricultural workers into the Amazon.

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