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The Amazon Is on Fire—Indigenous Rights Can Help Put It Out

Colonialism is setting the world on fire. Taking leadership from the people who have been resisting its violence for centuries, while protecting non-extractive ways of life, is our best hope of putting out the flames.

Colombian natives and activists protested against the government of Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro over the fires in the Amazon rainforest, in front of the Brazilian consulate in Bogota, Colombia, on August 23, 2019.(Raul Arboleda/AFP/Getty Images)

Colombian natives and activists protested against the government of Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro over the fires in the Amazon rainforest, in front of the Brazilian consulate in Bogota, Colombia, on August 23, 2019.(Raul Arboleda/AFP/Getty Images)

It was an epic case of projection. Lashing out at the attacks on his Amazon-incinerating policies, Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro accused French President Emmanuel Macron of having a “colonial mindset.”

The not even vaguely funny joke is that it is Bolsonaro who has unleashed a wave of unmasked colonial violence inside his country. This is a politician who came to power railing against indigenous people, casting their land rights as an unacceptable barrier to development in the Amazon, where cultures intrinsically linked to the rainforest have consistently resisted mega projects and the expanding frontier of agribusiness. “If I become president there will not be a centimeter more of indigenous land,” he said, while ominously declaring that “we’re going to give a rifle and a carry permit to every farmer.”

Much as Trump’s relentless anti-immigrant rhetoric has emboldened white nationalists to commit real-world hate crimes, Christian Poirier of Amazon Watch explains that in Brazil, “Farmers and ranchers understand the president’s message as a license to commit arson with wanton impunity, in order to aggressively expand their operations into the rainforest.” According to Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research, deforestation in the Amazon this July went up by a staggering 278 percent compared to the same month last year (the institute’s director was promptly fired after sharing these and other inconvenient findings).

Such a powerful sense of impunity has permeated the region that ranchers have held “fire days,” coordinating when they set land ablaze, and attacks on indigenous communities have seen an alarming escalation. This atmosphere of lawlessness, moreover, surrounds Bolsonaro’s entire administration: Many Brazilians consider the 2018 presidential elections to have been stolen from Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, by far the most popular politician in the country. Da Silva couldn’t run because he was locked up after a corruption trial that has since been revealed to have been rife with collusion and irregularities, a process presided over by the judge who went on to become Bolsonaro’s own justice minister.

The arsonists of the Amazon are driven by many factors — chief among them the quest for profits from beef, soy, and lumber. But beneath them all is the very thing Bolsonaro accuses his critics of possessing: the “colonial mindset.”

By no means unique to Brazil’s landed oligarchy, this mindset is grounded in the belief that European-descended settlers have a manifest destiny to profit from an ever expanding frontier; when indigenous people stand in the way, they must be removed, by any means necessary. Bolsonaro summarized this brutal belief system in stark terms two decades ago: “It’s a shame that the Brazilian cavalry hasn’t been as efficient as the Americans, who exterminated the Indians.”

This sense of divine entitlement to other people’s land in the name of progress is driving the arson in the Amazon — and it is driving the planetary-scale arson that has created the global climate emergency as well.

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Put simply, a great deal of the coal, oil, and gas that we must leave in the ground if we want a habitable climate lies under land to which indigenous people have an ancestral and legal claim. The willingness by governments around the globe to violate those international protected rights with impunity is a central reason why our planet is in a climate emergency.

This is not just about Bolsonaro. Recall that one of Trump’s first acts as president was to sign executive orders pushing through the Dakota Access and Keystone XL pipelines, two fossil fuel projects fiercely opposed by indigenous people in their path. And now there’s Trump’s new obsession with purchasing Greenland, an indigenous-controlled territory alluring to his administration mainly because melting ice linked to climate breakdown is freeing up trade routes and newly accessible stores of fossil fuels. From within his own colonial mindset, Trump feels it’s his right grab the island, much like everything else he feels entitled to grab.

The violation of indigenous rights, in other words, is central to the violation of our collective right to a liveable planet. The flip side of this is that a revolution in respect for indigenous rights and knowledge could be the key to ushering in a new age of ecological equilibrium. Not only would it mean that huge amounts of dangerous carbon would be kept in the ground, it would also vastly increase our chances of drawing down carbon from the atmosphere and storing it in well cared-for forests, wetlands, and other dense vegetation.

There is a growing body of scientific research showing that lands under indigenous control are far better protected (and therefore better at storing carbon) than those managed by settler governments and corporations. Of course, indigenous leaders have been telling us about this link between their rights and the planet’s health for centuries, including the late Secwepemc intellectual and organizer Arthur Manuel (particularly in his posthumously published book, “The Reconciliation Manifesto”). Now we are hearing this message directly from the people who make their home in our planet’s burning lungs. “We feel the climate changing and the world needs the forest,” Handerch Wakana Mura, an Amazonian tribal leader, told a reporter.

Earlier this year, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate change issued a Special Report on Climate Change and Land, which stressed the importance of strengthening indigenous and community land rights as a key climate change solution. A broad coalition of Indigenous organizations greeted the findings with a statement that began, “Finally, the world’s top scientists recognize what we have always known . . . We have cared for our lands and forests — and the biodiversity they contain — for generations. With the right support we can continue to do so for generations to come.”

As the various candidates vying to lead the Democratic Party prepare for CNN’s climate crisis town hall on Sept. 4 — a first in any presidential electoral cycle — we are sure to hear about the need for a rebooted Civilian Conservation Corps to expand forested land and rehabilitate wetlands. It will be interesting to hear whether any of the candidates highlight the central role of indigenous rights in the success of that vast undertaking.

Because colonialism is setting the world on fire. Taking leadership from the people who have been resisting its violence for centuries, while protecting non-extractive ways of life, is our best hope of putting out the flames.

Naomi Klein

Naomi Klein

Naomi Klein is Senior Correspondent at The Intercept and the inaugural Gloria Steinem Chair of Media, Culture and Feminist Studies at Rutgers University. Her books include: No Is Not Enough: Resisting Trump's Shock Politics and Winning the World We NeedThis Changes Everything: Capitalism vs the ClimateThe Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism; and No Logo: Taking Aim at the Brand Bullies.  To read all her writing visit www.naomiklein.org. Follow her on Twitter: @NaomiAKlein.

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