Forest Alliances in the Amazon



The historic bridges between the 1964-1985 military dictatorship and today’s fascist regime of Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil are plentiful. Paulo Tavares approaches them through their extractivist and capitalist relationship to the Amazon, and tells us about Indigenous and worker alliances dedicated to fight for and with the forest.

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Converging grassroots struggles. Photograph of one of the famous empates, i.e. stand-offs against loggers conducted by the rubber tappers movement in Acre, Brazilian Amazon, circa 1982.

After the U.S.-backed coup of March 1964, the Brazilian military dictatorship launched an ambitious, basin-wide program of territorial colonization over the Amazon River valley called “Operation Amazonia.” On the ground, this project was articulated through a series of large-scale territorial interventions, including the construction of a network of highways cutting through the entire basin; mega-infrastructures such as dams and artificial lakes; extraction enclaves, rural colonies, urban settlements, and other projects branded “development poles.” It was as if the entire ecology of the rainforest could be geo-engineered by means of planning and design.
The rationale behind “Operation Amazonia” was informed by the enduring legacies of colonial imaginaries and geographies, but now re-framed under the militarized global Cold War and the repressive forces that ruled Brazil. Colonial visions depicted the forest as a “void” and “desert” space in need of interventions to foster “progress.” The generals and their cadre of planners translated this colonial imaginary to the context of Latin America’s Dirty Wars and its attendant doctrines of national security, defining the Amazon as a reservoir of natural resources to be conquered, harnessed, and exploited by modern technology. In the colonization of the backlands — what former dictator Getúlio Vargas called “our imperialism” — they saw the means by which the nation could be propelled to Western development. Modern planning and architecture turned into main driving forces of this neocolonial project, providing not only the means by which “integration and occupation” was conceived and implemented on the ground, but also an ideological apparatus that legitimized this project under narratives of progress and nation-building.

Contrary to the general perception, the apparently chaotic patterns of deforestation plotted on contemporary maps of the Amazon are not the collateral product of lack of government intervention and control, but precisely the opposite. These ruined landscapes were designed by an orchestrated strategy whose origins date back to the militarized colonization projects implemented by the dictatorship. Like other frontier zones across the Third World, the channels of extraction carved out in the rainforest were shaped by the ideological and political conflicts of the global Cold War; their designs were formulated and legitimized by discourses of security and development; and this project was implemented on the ground through the alliance between the power of transnational corporations, international financial institutions such as the IMF and the World Bank, and an authoritarian planning apparatus.

In the late 1970s, the generals began to steer Brazil through a “gradual and secure” transition to democracy. This process of “opening,” as it was called, coincided with the rise of the international environmental movement. In the Amazon, likewise in many regions across the Third World that had been subjected to similar militarized schemes of colonial development, the environmental concerns raised by scientists, activists and NGOs in the Global North were intrinsically related to the local struggles of social movements fighting both for the protection of the forest and for civil liberties and land rights.

In parallel to the macro-structural reforms in the state apparatus, the “democratic opening” of Brazil was driven by intense micro-political convulsions triggered by popular mobilizations. In the shift from the 1970s to the 1980s, resistance to the military regime started to be articulated in novel forms and opened new spaces for collective engagement and representation, which in turn empowered new social actors that completely redrew the political map of Brazil. “What seems important to me in Brazil,” Félix Guattari stated after attending a debate organized by Lula’s Workers Party in Brazil in 1982, “is that it will not be after a great movement for the emancipation of minorities that the problem of an organization that can tackle political and social issues on a large scale will arise, as this is already being posed at the same time.” This articulation between micro and macro politics can also be seen in the way Indigenous and peasant movements situated local struggles in relation to broader international issues. Grassroots organizations that addressed ecological and land rights — notably the Union of Indigenous Nations (1981); the Landless Worker’s Movement (1984); the Movement of the Peoples Affected by Dams (1984); and the National Council of Rubber-Tappers led by Chico Mendes (1985) — emerged as decisive actors in shaping not only the “democratic opening” of Brazil, but also the opening of a new political-ecological consciousness worldwide.

The forestlands of the Amazon became a geopolitical battleground. In every local frontier-zone where “development poles” advanced, resistance multiplied. In the western Amazon state of Acre, the rubber-tappers movement devised a powerful strategy of peaceful stand-offs to block further deforestation and land-grabs, eventually forcing the World Bank to withdraw financial support for colonization projects. At the northern edges of the basin, the Yanomami fought a decade-long campaign against mining projects and successfully obtained land rights. In the region of the Xingu River, a broad coalition of Indigenous nations led by the Kayapó also managed to pressure the World Bank to halt financial support for dam projects.

These victories came amidst escalating violence against social movements and their leaderships. As reported by the Comissão Pastoral da Terra, from 1985, when Brazil returned to civilian government, until 1988, when Chico Mendes was murdered in his hometown Xapuri in western Amazonia, an average of more than 100 people per year were assassinated in Brazil because of land and water conflicts. From the perspective of forest peoples, whose economic, social and cultural systems are deeply tied to land and water, the fight to protect Amazonia was a question of survival. Within the political ecology of the South, activism for civil liberties and human rights and the defense of forests and rivers constituted inseparable parts of the same struggle. Freedom (of speech and expression, from want and from fear) was inextricably related to the maintenance of the ecological basis upon which forest communities dwell.

Hence in the proposal pushed by Chico Mendes and the rubber-tappers movement to form the Forest Peoples Alliance — “the broadest possible alliance with traditional peoples in the Amazon, with workers unions, with environmental organizations, with movements in alliance with forest peoples” — environmental conservation was associated with an ambitious programme of land reform based on communal territories. This proposal was formalized in the mid-1980s in the concept of RESEX, a new type of territorial jurisdiction whose principles follow the model of Indigenous sovereign lands. Different from the traditional views of conservation, where environmental protection is set to limit human intervention, in the concept of RESEX the protection of the forest presupposes its collective ownership and management. The legal-spatial design functions to contain land expropriation and environmental depletion while guaranteeing socio-economic autonomy for local communities by protecting collective rights to land.
Ecological conservation is thus bound to the right to the commons; forest survival is attached to the survival of the people who care for and cultivate the forest.

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The political frontlines of global climate change. This satellite image analysis shows the region surrounding the Chico Mendes Reserve, a territory covering over 930,000 hectares of forests that was established in the state of Acre two years after Mendes was murdered. Forests are identified in green; deforested areas in red. The borders of the communal reserve mark the threshold of deforestation, drawing a barrier between the forest and its elimination. These are the front lines of global climate change. / Map by Paulo Tavares.

Before being internationally recognized as an environmental activist, Chico Mendes was first a leftist militant and union leader associated with the Workers Party. A son of landless peasants who migrated to the Amazon from the drought-prone areas of the Brazilian Northeast, his activism was informed by socialist views on land distribution, social equality and class struggle. The environmentalism Mendes fought for, as exemplified by the political project of the Forest Alliance, was an intersectional environmentalism, situating ecology in relation to social and economic justice as well as to broader visions of freedom bound with the preservation of the forest, its cultures and cosmologies. In the Amazon “democratic opening” was not only associated with the recovering of political and civil rights, it was also a reaction to the enclosure of the commons, ecological dispossession, and the authoritarianism of the development ideology.

In a not so distant future, when historians of climate change will try to make sense of the chronology of events that led to planetary ruin, the years we are living though will stand out as a tipping point in the catastrophic path that brought us there. Besides the Covid pandemic, we are witnessing the burning of immense areas of forestlands in every corner of the planet practically at the same time. The months-long devastating wildfires that spread across the Brazilian Amazon in mid-2019, and Australia’s apocalyptic “Black Summer” at the turn of the year, were only the most visible events of an unprecedented wave of global wildfires. Massive forest burns occurred around the planet, including the United States western coast, Amazon regions in Bolivia and Peru, tropical forests in central Africa, and temperate forests in Alaska, Greenland, Siberia, and across Europe. From the perspective of the longue-durée history of the Earth, the fires occurred simultaneously in a fraction of time, as if the whole planet was set aflame like a matchbox. “2019 was the year that the world burned,” one journalist poignantly noted. As we witness Earth’s last forestlands — our most valuable resource to lock carbon on the ground — being wiped out by uncontrollable fires, we are forced to acknowledge that a much-predicted future has arrived: “We have seen the unfolding wings of climate change,” an Australian woman declared after experiencing the fires.

The scorching of the Earth is the product of climate change as much as it is the product of climate denial and the crimes against nature committed by denialists-in-chief. Brazil, where the incumbent government of far-right president Jair Bolsonaro considers climate change a “Marxist plot,” is a good case in point. Bolsonaro’s militarized cabinet is implementing a set of measures to weaken Indigenous lands rights and environmental protection. He attempted to transfer the custody and demarcation of Indigenous territories from the Ministry of Justice to the Ministry of Agriculture, thus subjecting Indigenous rights to the interests of Brazil’s powerful agribusiness lobby. He also declared that Indigenous peoples should be “integrated” into national society, reinstating the discourse of the military regime and vowing to open their lands for industrial mining and agriculture.

“Our interest in the Amazon is neither the Indian nor the fucking trees,” Bolsonaro said in late 2019, just after the fires devastated the rainforest. This neofascist vision derives from the ideologies of development conceived by the latest military regime. Bolsonaro’s appraisal for the dictatorship, including his open support for the use of torture against political opponents, must be seen in tandem with the project of recuperating the militarized colonialism that the generals implemented in the Amazon.

The forest has been the laboratory of some of the most extreme, violent, and authoritarian experiments of social-environmental engineering witnessed along the colonial-modern 20th century. As a counter-reaction, it also came to constitute an experiment in the most progressive forms of direct democracy, configuring a territory — as much environmental as political and symbolic — through which our notions of rights were further expanded. For Indigenous movements as well as for the powerful rubber-tappers movement led by Chico Mendes, the fight for the forest was as much a question of protecting nature as it was a struggle for liberation and decolonization Similar to the period of the dictatorship, the shrinking of civil rights experienced now in Brazil is related to a necropolitical vision over nature that is legitimized by far-right nationalist discourses. In order to resist, we need to draw new “forest alliances” which, inspired by the movements that fought the military regime, operate across trans-generational and intersectional practices connecting the social and the ecological into a radical program of political emancipation. ■