Fire Sale: Finance and Fascism in the Amazon Rainforest

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In a recent piece for Jacobin, climate writers Alyssa Battistoni and Thea Riofrancos drew a connection between fires burning in Greenland and those still ablaze in the Amazon rainforest: “They’re being sparked by the rich and powerful, whether by agricultural conglomerates, complicit right-wing governments, or fossil fuel executives who’ve lied to the public so they can keep spewing heat-trapping carbon up into the atmosphere for a quick buck.” The simplicity of the claim was dumbfounding, and, to that end, haunting. Was it merely the rich and powerful who lit the match?

Another writer for the magazine, Kate Aronoff, called for fossil fuel executives to be tried for crimes against humanity. “Technically speaking, what fossil-fuel companies do isn’t genocide,” she wrote, clarifying that energy CEOs don’t target their victims based on racial or ethnic animus. Yet genocidal land grabs are being carried out to expand “the Red Zone” — the agricultural frontier — eking its way deeper into the Amazon rainforest by way of roads and infrastructure backed by global capital. The Amazon, or the lungs of the earth, as it’s often referred to, is being seized from indigenous communities by mining and agribusiness interests, gutting the resiliency of one of the earth’s last great carbon sinks and producers of oxygen. But who is responsible for burning it? Bolsonaro? Corruption in Brazil? The World Bank? U.S. Financial Firms? Silicon Valley? Could the culprits be named, I wondered? Tried?

In July, just weeks before the news of the fires went global, I wrote an essay for this site about the connection between cattle ranching and indigenous land dispossession. In it, I tried to draw a parallel between how ranching shaped both the progression of westward expansion in the United States during the 19th century and the cattle boom that’s clearing the Amazon today. The connections are uncanny: from their mutually shoddy justifications for land-grabbing to their eerily similar cowboy-nostalgia–themed boom towns, 1880s Kansas resembles the Red Zone of today. One of the connections I neglected to note was the role of international finance in funding the frontiers’ forward momentum. British firms invested in American ranching in the late nineteenth century, and today, as The Intercept recently reported, American firms are torching the rainforest for an easy return on investment.

“It’s a shame that the Brazilian cavalry hasn’t been as efficient as the Americans, who exterminated the Indians,” Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro said in 1994. Since taking power in 2018, Bolsonaro has rapidly pulled off the gloves protecting the Amazon and holds no pretext of preserving it, exacerbating the plunder that has been in progress for generations. “The Brazilian state now acts merely as the facilitator of private extraction,“ as the Tricontinental Institute for Social Research put it in their recent report on the Amazon, which traces mining in the rainforest to the WWII era. “Mining in the Amazon dates back to the discovery of manganese (essential to iron and steel production) in the state of Amapá in 1945 by the mining firm Icomi. Icomi represented the interests of the US transnational corporation Bethlehem Steel,” the report notes.

Since the end of the military dictatorship in 1985, the era during which Bolsonaro was an army captain and nostalgia for which he ran his presidential campaign on, Brazil moved left, culminating in the Workers’ Party’s (PT) rise to power. The party ruled from 2003-2016, making large strides for the working class — this resulted in cash transfers for the poor, raising the minimum wage, and expanding access to education. Converging factors — a car wash corruption scandal sinking PT’s political prospects; neoliberal austerity, brought on partially by the United States withdrawing investment in Brazilian bonds in 2013, making PT unable to continue to deliver on popular social programs; and rightward drift egged on, in part, by the adjustment of YouTube’s algorithm flooding the country with paranoid right wing conspiracy theories; among others — created a vacuum that made way for Bolsonaro’s rise.

The following reading list attempts to make sense of the ongoing pillaging of the Amazon rainforest. From global capital to YouTube, carbon credits to indigenous land defenders in their own words, I tried to figure out who lit the match and how the fire might be stopped. –WM

1. Bolsonaro’s Brazil (Perry Anderson, London Review of Books)

In this epic 17,000 word tour-de-force, historian and sociologist Perry Anderson takes readers through the ups and downs of Brazil’s recent unravelling and rightward ascent. At once both gripping and dense, Anderson leaves few stones unturned in understanding PT leader Lula’s fall and his successor Dilma Rousseff’s pivoting failure, creating the space for Bolsonaro to rise through the cracks of fringe obscurity onto the national stage.

[Bolsonaro] is no enemy of foreign capital. His nationalism, in expression hyperbolic enough, essentially takes the form of virulent tropes of anti-socialism, anti-feminism and homophobia, excrescences alien to the Brazilian soul. But it has no quarrel with free markets. In local parlance, it offers the paradox of a populismo entreguista, a ‘supine’ populism – one in principle at least, perfectly willing to hand over national assets to global banks and corporations.

2. What Indigenous Rights Have to Do With Fighting Climate Change (Andre Pagliarini, The New Republic)

Latin American history professor Andre Pagliarini lays out the stakes of the Amazon fires within the contours of Indigenous resistance. This brief piece is rich with historical detail from the military dictatorship forward, weaving together the Brazilian political situation with global climate imperatives in an easily digestible essay.

Clearly, it is in the interest of both indigenous groups and the international community to try to preserve Brazil’s rainforest. But it’s not clear what approach would be productive: Bolsonaro has long questioned the need for the state to protect indigenous lands, and sees the Amazon as a source of Brazilian wealth threatened by international preservation initiatives: “where there is native land, there is wealth underneath it,” he said in 2017. The recent uptick in interest from the United States, wondering how to save the Amazon—one writer even posited the increased likelihood “of serious confrontations and possibly serious conflict” with other countries if Brazil cannot or will not stem the tide of devastation—are unlikely to be productive. After all, retaining control over the roughly two-thirds of Amazon rainforest within Brazilian territory is one of the most pressing concerns of the country’s armed forces. Influential segments of the Brazilian armed forces believe developed countries are currently waging “an indirect war” against Brazil for control of the Amazon using the Catholic church, NGOs, and international organizations like the UN. These generals care less about protecting the Amazonian rainforest per se than they do about sovereignty, that is, protecting Brazil’s territorial integrity against foreign encroachment. This is why the military today is apt to support Bolsonaro’s forceful claim to the Amazon without any real concern for what is happening in and to the Amazon and its inhabitants. As long as those borders are respected, the Amazon can burn for all they care.

Indigenous peoples are speaking the language of resistance. In January, as Bolsonaro took office, an indigenous man in southeast Pará told conservation news site Mongabay that “for the moment we are waiting to see what action the authorities will take, but, if they do nothing, we shall have to see what we can do.” Two months later, a teenage member of the Wapishana tribe told The Guardian that “we are here to fight to the last indigenous person, be it verbally or physically.”

3. Rainforest on Fire (Alexander Zaitchik, The Intercept)

Reporter Alexander Zaitchik went to the Amazon and saw the ballooning Red Zone up close. In a beautiful piece of narrative journalism, Zaitchik takes readers back to the deforestation under the dictatorship and traces its ebbs and flows to the present. The piece follows the indigenous land defenders, militant stooges of agribusiness, and the government’s shoddy defense of the forest as they wrestle for control of the natural resources in the Amazon.

They imagined an Amazon transformed: Out of an impenetrable wilderness, settlers would build a dense grid of ranches and small farms, each one connected to coastal ports and global commodity markets by a mighty network of roads and highways. The inhabitants of the forest, both Indians and non-Indigenous people living traditionally, would have to make way, adapt, and integrate. “Amazonian occupation will proceed as though we are waging a strategically conducted war,” said Castelo Branco, one of the generals who led the 1964 coup.

4. How YouTube Radicalized Brazil (Max Fisher and Amanda Taub, The New York Times)

“If social media didn’t exist, I wouldn’t be here; Jair Bolsonaro wouldn’t be president,” Carlos Jordy, a right-wing-YouTube-vlogger-cum-federal-legislator, told The Times. In probably the most far-out piece on this list, journalists Fisher and Taub report on new research that links Brazil’s right turn to YouTube. “In the months after YouTube changed its algorithm, positive mentions of Mr. Bolsonaro ballooned,” they write, suggesting a direct correlation between Bolsonaro’s rise and an algorithmic tweak.

Then Brazil’s political system collapsed just as YouTube’s popularity there soared. Mr. Bolsonaro’s views had not changed. But YouTube’s far-right, where he was a major figure, saw its audience explode, helping to prime large numbers of Brazilians for his message at a time when the country was ripe for a political shift.

5. Hour of the Furnaces: Imperial Finance and the Colonization of Daily Life (Morgan Adamson, Viewpoint Magazine)

Reading about Brazil, now dubbed the “world’s slaughterhouse”, I couldn’t help but think of the Hour of the Furnaces, a 1968 film made under military dictatorship by far-left filmmakers in Argentina. The film put forth an expansive political analysis that feels prescient to understanding Brazil today, linking neocolonialism, finance, and imperialism; demonstrating how international bankers rob entire countries with fountain pens, to borrow from Woody Guthrie. One of the most iconic scenes is of cows being hung and killed in a slaughterhouse while advertising clips for multinational corporations flash on the assembly line. The scene contextualizes Argentina’s agribusiness industry, situating it within the global commodity market; showing how the country must produce exports in order to pay down their debt to international creditors, thus creating a cycle of “dependency.” In this rewarding review of the four-hour film, scholar Morgan Adamson uses the film’s critique of imperialism and finance to build a bridge between an early-industrial Marxian/Leninist analysis to that of the neoliebral period, culminating in Argentina’s 2001 default.

To understand the critique of finance put forward by Hora de los hornos, we first have to acknowledge that financial systems have their origins in colonial and imperial violence. Take the 1781 Zong slave ship massacre, for example, in which the crew cast 133 captives into the Atlantic, allowing their “owners” in Liverpool to file insurance claims for the drowned “cargo.” For Ian Baucom, this massacre and its aftermath inaugurate what he calls the “speculative discourse” of modernity, connecting the violence of the middle passage to the birth of insurance and other forms of financial speculation. K-Sue Park similarly argues that the practice of foreclosure has its origins in the expropriation of indigenous lands in the early colonial period of North America. Contemporary scholars are not the first to notice that key financial technologies were developed in the course of colonial expropriation during the brutal passage from mercantile to industrial capitalism. In the chapters on primitive accumulation in Capital, volume 1, Marx himself tells the interpenetrating story of the rise of the modern banking system, national debt, and the “idyllic proceedings” of colonial plunder across the globe, concluding that capital comes into the world “dripping from head to toe, from every pore, with blood and dirt.”


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6. How Larry Fink, Joe Biden’s Wall Street Ally, Profits From Amazon Cattle Ranching (Robert Mackey, The Intercept)

This short piece hit me on an emotional level because it exposes the Wall Street allies of prominent American Democrats for who they really are: Bolsonaro sympathizers, content to pillage the planet for short term gain. If we are looking to name the individuals responsible for the destruction of the rainforest, BlackRock CEO Larry Fink seems high on the list of complicity, if you ask me.

That desire to be seen as an ethical investor has not, however, stopped BlackRock from contributing to the climate crisis by providing significant financing to the world’s biggest meatpacker, JBS, which has been caught year after year buying cattle raised on illegally deforested Amazon land.

[…] About a third of that beef is exported by JBS, the spectacularly corrupt Brazilian meat-packing conglomerate BlackRock is heavily invested in. But even as Fink publicly urged business leaders to consider their environmental impact, BlackRock increased its stake in JBS by $41 million between 2016 and 2018, according to research conducted for Friends of the Earth.

7. A Top Financier of Trump and McConnell Is a Driving Force Behind Amazon Deforestation (Ryan Grim, The Intercept)

The Red Zone could not be expanded without the financial support of U.S. investment dollars. Although the WorldBank has historically been involved with expanding roads and infrastructure into the rainforest to aid mining and agribusiness, the complicity of  Blackstone and its CEO Stephen Schwarzman feels noteworthy, because, like Fink, Schwarzman is an individual who is playing an outsize role in the Amazon’s destruction. (The two men and their companies, perhaps not at all surprisingly, have a shared history.)

The Amazon terminal is run by Hidrovias do Brasil, a company that is owned in large part by Blackstone, a major U.S. investment firm. Another Blackstone company, Pátria Investimentos, owns more than 50 percent of Hidrovias, while Blackstone itself directly owns an additional roughly 10 percent stake. Blackstone co-founder and CEO Stephen Schwarzman is a close ally of Trump and has donated millions of dollars to McConnell in recent years.

In recent months, the Sackler family, whose members founded and own the pharmaceutical company Purdue Pharma, have become pariahs for their role in facilitating the opioid crisis and the deaths of tens of thousands of people. Schwarzman’s contributions to the destruction of the Amazon, which stands between humanity and an uninhabitable planet, may ultimately render him as socially untouchable as the Sacklers, given the scale of the fallout from the destruction of the rainforest.

8. Why Carbon Credits For Forest Preservation May Be Worse Than Nothing (Lisa Song, ProPublica)

ProPublica reporter Lisa Song went on a world tour of carbon offsets. She learned quickly that they didn’t work and were helping corporations emit guilt-free. “What if Chevron or Shell or Phillips 66 could offset some of their damage by paying Brazil not to cut down trees?” she asks. Song starts her investigation in the Amazon Rainforest, where they are experimenting with exactly that. Still, the cash from oil executives has not halted deforestation, and, in many cases, trees continue to be cleared for cattle to graze, despite all their good intentions.

I looked at projects going back two decades and spanning the globe and pulled together findings from academic researchers in far-flung forest villages, studies published in obscure journals, foreign government reports and dense technical documents. I enlisted a satellite imagery analysis firm to see how much of the forest remained in a preservation project that started selling credits in 2013. Four years later, only half the project areas were forested.

In case after case, I found that carbon credits hadn’t offset the amount of pollution they were supposed to, or they had brought gains that were quickly reversed or that couldn’t be accurately measured to begin with. Ultimately, the polluters got a guilt-free pass to keep emitting CO₂, but the forest preservation that was supposed to balance the ledger either never came or didn’t last.

9. Operation Amazon Redux (Tatiana Dias, The Intercept)

Tatiana Dias, a reporter for The Intercept Brasil, connects the genocidal land grabs occurring today to those that took place under a military dictatorship in the 1930s. Conspiratorial paranoia has been used to justify rapid expansion into indigenous territories, then and now. Talk of international NGOs using the pretext of environmental concern, as well as even the Catholic Church’s appeals to protect ecology, has fanned the flames of Brazil’s calls for “sovereignty.” In many ways, this article exposes the flip side of eco-fascism: Instead of entrenching militarized borders to fence out climate refugees, this strain suggests that indigenous people, globalists, and environmental activists are an affront to the country’s self-rule; that land must be torched and bulldozed for benefit of, as Bolsonaro put it, the country’s “common good.”

From the populist president-turned-dictator who made one of the early industrial pushes into the forest in the 1930s to the military dictatorship that ruled the country for two decades from 1964 until 1985, the justifications have largely been the same — economic gain and geopolitical paranoia — as were the often poor results.

Take the dictatorship’s push. Known as Operation Amazon, the colonization plan hatched during the military government envisioned integrating the territory into Brazil through building roads and developing agricultural and corporate enterprises — all accomplished by settling people from the south, southeast, and northeast of the country and the coasts in the forest.

10. Money Is the Oxygen on Which the Fire of Global Warming Burns (Bill McKibben, The New Yorker)

Global warming campaigner and author Bill McKibben, in a recent essay for the New Yorker, explicitly examines the role of banking, finance, and insurance in fueling the climate crisis. Not only do giant firms like Chase and BlackRock have the power to pull the plug on lines of credit for new fossil fuel projects, like Arctic drilling, but doing so effects only a small amount of their investment load. McKibben’s group 350 has pushed a global divestment campaign, which, as the essay notes, has halted new fossil fuel projects in their tracks.

But what if there were an additional lever to pull, one that could work both quickly and globally? One possibility relies on the idea that political leaders are not the only powerful actors on the planet—that those who hold most of the money also have enormous power, and that their power could be exercised in a matter of months or even hours, not years or decades. I suspect that the key to disrupting the flow of carbon into the atmosphere may lie in disrupting the flow of money to coal and oil and gas.

11. We, the peoples of the Amazon, are full of fear. Soon you will be too (Raoni Metuktire, The Guardian)

This op-ed in The Guardian speaks for itself.

When your money comes into our communities it often causes big problems, driving our people apart. And we can see that it does the same thing in your cities, where what you call rich people live isolated from everyone else, afraid that other people will come to take their piu caprim away from them. Meanwhile other people starve or live in misery because they don’t have enough money to get food for themselves and their children.

But those rich people will die, as we all will die. And when their spirits are separated from their bodies their spirits will be sad and they will suffer, because while they are alive they have made so many other people suffer instead of helping them, instead of making sure that everyone else has enough to eat before they feed themselves, which is our way, the way of the Kayapó, the way of indigenous people.

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Will Meyer is a writer and musician. He is editor of The Shoestring, a local online publication in Western Massachusetts.

Editor: Dana Snitzky