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Is It Time to Engage With the Destroyers of the Amazon Rainforest?

If we care, not only about extinguishing fires but about how to prevent this next year, we need first to understand who these destroyers of the Amazon are and how to engage with them in environmental governance.
Aerial view of a large burned area in the city of Candeiras do Jamari in the Brazilian state of Rondônia. (Photo: Victor Moriyama/Greenpeace)

Aerial view of a large burned area in the city of Candeiras do Jamari in the Brazilian state of Rondônia. (Photo: Victor Moriyama/Greenpeace)

The world is condemning President Bolsonaro’s policy of developing the Amazon, which has been facilitating the spread of forest burning. Watching the forests burn is simply painful for many. At the same time, it is a familiar sight. Bolsonaro’s provocative rhetoric of developing the Amazon against the international demand of conservation is the same as the military government’s slogan of the 1960s: Amazônia é nossa! (The Amazon is ours!). This familiarity should make us pay closer attention to some important and often forgotten actors involved in practicing this rhetoric on the ground: 1) local politicians and municipality officers who are landowners and 2) cattle ranchers who fight to defend their territories in the frontline of deforestation frontiers in the Amazon. They are the ones who are actually allowing the fires to keep on burning. If we care, not only about extinguishing fires but about how to prevent this next year, we need first to understand who these destroyers of the Amazon are and how to engage with them in environmental governance.

A brief history of Amazon municipalities

While much attention is paid to Bolsonaro’s intention of attracting agrobusinesses to the Amazon, throughout the contemporary history of the Brazilian Amazon, the rainforest has been opened to infrastructure building including highway constructions or development of hydroelectric dams along the Amazon River’s major tributaries. These infrastructures typically embody the modernisation ideal and show a clear authoritarian intention of integrating the territory into a nation-state. The agrobusiness or extractivism is made easier because this integration has been already facilitated to some extent. Such an intention of integration has always been there with the Amazon and this essentially did not change during the leftist era. This means that the expansion is not only of deforestation frontiers but also of human settlement frontiers and, eventually, administrative, municipality frontiers.

To be precise, the human settlement frontiers began to expand in the late 1960s when the military regime promoted internal colonization of the Amazon. The poor and landless farmers from semi-arid areas were encouraged to enter the Amazon through newly built highways and to clear the forest to create their own land for cultivation and cattle raising. During the 1970s and 1980s, these farmers’ plots were formalized through agrarian reform. The cluster of these farmers’ plots became the so-called settlement projects. The settlement projects grew mostly in remote areas in the frontline of deforestation frontiers, and settlers had to survive without any substantial basic services. Their sense of security and authority came from churches, especially the Assembly of God and other evangelical denominations. The Amazonian settlers are thus quite religious, practicing the classic Weberian theory of Protestant ethics of capital accumulation by altering the nature and working hard on their land, obtained through forest clearing and burning.

Throughout the contemporary history of the Brazilian Amazon, the rainforest has been opened to infrastructure building including highway constructions or development of hydroelectric dams along the Amazon River’s major tributaries.

During the 1990s, some settlement projects had grown large enough that needed a centre or administration nearby. Between 1988 and 1997, the number of municipalities in the Amazon increased dramatically. Dr. Alfredo Homma analysed this increase of municipalities in relation to deforestation in his book Historia da Agricultura na Amazonia (2003). A municipality requires road extension within its territory and building of an administrative centre. Families of the early settlers grow, or others arrive from outside to join them, and the population grows, putting further pressure on surrounding forests.

When the so-called social-environmentalist approaches were taken after Rio Summit in 1992, these settlers were encouraged to sustainably conduct their agriculture in the Amazon. The family farming credit schemes enabled “associativism” among the small and medium sized farmers to collectively learn the sustainable use of the land. Both national and international NGOs deployed various sustainable agricultural and business projects, targeting new associations and cooperatives, and the government largely supported these projects. Though in a pilot scale, municipalities were also directly encouraged to engage in sustainable forest management such as in the green municipality project of the International Centre for Forestry Research (CIFOR).

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However, this associativism-based social-environmentalism changed in the late 2000s, when agrobusinesses (owned by external companies and by earlier settlers expanding their ranches and farms) started to expand in these settlement projects-based municipalities. Large agribusinesses set aside forest reserves, following environmental regulations at the time (leaving 80% of a new property as forest) while taking family farmers’ land or labour as their properties. The deforestation and forest burning rates dropped because of this land property concentration, marginalization and proletarianization of family farmers. This was especially evident in soy frontiers in the southwestern to central fringes of the Amazon.

The municipalities that are allowing most forest burning to take place today coincide with such agribusiness frontiers, including Novo Progresso, Altamira, São Félix do Xingu or Itaituba in Pará state. The constituents of these municipalities dominantly voted for Bolsonaro in 2018 in the first round by at least 60%. These voters are those who had gotten tired of being environmentally correct or being unable to encroach further into the forest, as their forefathers did, in order to establish new lands for their own use. They are perhaps also fiercely evangelical, believing in virtues of working on the land without knowing much about environmental stewardship as more conventional pastoral movements in Brazil taught in the countryside.

The blind condemnation of Bolsonaro, as if he is the owner or manager of the Amazon rainforest, only encourages him or his environmental minister to aggrandize themselves.

How to engage with the hardworking forest destroyers

When I look at the electoral map of 2018, municipalities in the eastern fringe of Pará state, where the major deforestation frontier lied during the late 1990s - early 2000s, largely voted for Haddad, the Workers Party candidate. This is in a way surprising since when I lived in one of these municipalities (São Geraldo do Araguaia to be precise) in the early 2000s, few people supported the Workers Party. However, national NGOs and advocacy organizations with international funds were active then in trying to promote family farmer associations. These associations were supported to receive extension services for agroforestry practices and intensive cattle ranching and to commercialize the fruit and milk. The intervention was meant to discourage forest burning required for an extensive use of land. The organizations also collaborated with the municipal secretariat of environment in order to make the intervention more permanently present. The current mayor of São Geraldo is an extension service officer, and I suspect that this experience with trying to do something about intensive use of land or to keep their cooperative agriculture presumably encouraged people to turn to the Workers Party.

However, these experiences have not reached to deforestation frontiers that opened after mid-2000s. The global shift in international aid and funding structures in the later 2000s facilitated more concentrated use of money in obtaining large-scale and quick results in dropping deforestation rate. Thus, the small-scale agroforestry and agroindustry for the settlers who had already destroyed much of the forest did not become attractive. Instead, management of forest and indigenous reserves would receive more attention and funding, and large-scale sustainable agrobusiness operation would be encouraged under the aid and trade principle adopted by several European countries and the US. The shift practically killed NGOs and projects for family farmer associations that would require long-term engagement and cooperation with municipalities in the deforested land.

While funding reserves are important, without any practical support to encourage intensive use of land at the small-medium scale (remember, in the Amazon, 1000 ha is still a small property), the same scene of forest destruction will be repeated next year. The blind condemnation of Bolsonaro, as if he is the owner or manager of the Amazon rainforest, only encourages him or his environmental minister to aggrandize themselves. Instead, the international community needs to think about how to engage his constituents at the frontline of deforestation in governing their forest. In Brazil, to sustain largely means to sustain a family. We need to speak the same language as the forest destroyers in order to ultimately stop the extensive forest burning.

Kei Otsuki

Kei Otsuki is a sociologist specialized in the field of sustainable development. Her interests centre on the relationship between sustainability discourses, practice and environmental justice.

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