Forest Alliances in the Amazon

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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.

Tavares Funambulist 2
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.