Brazil’s Days of Fire

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By Markus Lehner

With the onset of the dry season in the Amazon region, an inferno of forest fires has hit the Brazilian states of Rondônia, Pará, Mato Grosso and Amazonas. Satellite images show rainforest the size of one and a half football pitches being consumed every minute.This is a disaster not only for the inhabitants of the Amazon region itself but for everyone on the planet.

The deliberate complicity of the extreme right wing government of President Jair Bolsonaro is now undeniable. In the few short months of his rule, the limited progress made under the Lula and Dilma governments, due also to international pressure, saw the pace of deforestation reduce from 20,000 square kilometres per year in 2004 to less than 10,000 at the beginning of this year. This has now been reversed. Since Bolsonaro took office in January, and up to June, 79,000 new fires were recorded, an increase of 82 percent over the same period last year

This is due in large measure to the green light the president has given to agribusiness and extractive industries to ruthlessly exploit the Amazon region. This so-called development strategy will only develop the profits of his main campaign donors; otherwise it is pure destruction. Bolsonaro cynically denounces concern for the global environment as trying to stop Brazil’s economic development. International criticism he dismisses as “neo-colonialism” and makes murderous threats against environmental activists, the landless movement, MST, and indigenous Amazonians

One of the first acts of Bolsonaro as president was to purge Brazil’s Federal Environment Agency, IBAMA, firing 21 of the 27 regional directors and slashing its funds. Tereza Cristina, the Minister of Agriculture, herself an agribusiness lobbyist, was given responsibility for the Amazon region. The “Minister of Environment”, Ricardo Salles, explained that it is the primary duty of his ministry to “protect the rights of landowners”.

Salles says he will now use the $980 million that the EU has made available for reforestation in the Amazon to “compensate” agro-enterprises that had been penalised for illegal clearances under previous presidents – most of which land they still occupy.

Much to Bolsonaro’s fury, the disaster in Amazonia was so huge that it could not be concealed from the world’s press and global environmental organisations. Even the dismissal of the director of the country’s satellite surveillance system could not help. French President Emanuel Macron’s condemnation and threat to veto the ratification of the Mercosur/EU Agreement’s threatened Bolsonaro’s big plans for agribusiness exports with tariff reductions promising huge openings for meat and animal feed.

Certainly, the French president’s concerns for his domestic agricultural lobby probably played as big a role in this as any concern for the climate or the Amazon. It is clear, however, that the Brazilian agroindustry itself woke up to the threat and was soon also demanding measures against the fires. They recognised that Bolsonaro was harming rather than helping their business.

The use of the Brazilian army to fight fires, however, must also be understood as part of the internal class struggle. The army will not only act as a fire brigade, but will doubtless aid the landowners’ thugs in the fight against the local “terrorists”, in other words, environmentalists, indigenous people and landless people. Likewise, the “relief ” from Europe and the USA, especially that for “reforestation” will certainly be used mainly as “compensation” for landowners renouncing further slash-and-burn operations. From Germany and the EU in any case, these public relations stunts are to be understood as mainly a means to save, rather than sabotage, the Mercosur Agreement.

An intensifying crisis

The deforestation already carried out has measurable long-term effects on the regional and global climate. Since 1970, 800,000 square kilometres (of an original 4 million) have been deforested, with a measured effect of 0.6 degrees warming in the Amazon basin. The deforested areas are on average 4.3 degrees warmer, which is increased by agricultural use; without the effect of forest flora, only a fraction of the rainwater can be retained in the soil, the majority flows away. The already nutrient-poor soils leached in this way become largely unuseable after only 4-5 years. Many are then abandoned and deserted; which explains the hunger for ever more deforestation.

These ever larger aisles of the Cerrado, the Brazilian savannah, which are penetrating into the rainforest, undermine the microclimate in more and more areas of the forest. At today’s rate of warming, the overall temperature will have increased by 1.5 degrees by 2050, compared to 1970. The ability of trees to act as “water pumps” can no longer function in these areas. Then even rainforest trees become easy prey to wind born sparks.

According to various models, there is now talk of a definite “tipping point” of forest dieback in the Amazon Basin. For a long time, it has been said that a 40 percent loss, relative to its size in 1970, would mean a point where self-regeneration and microclimate protection rapidly collapse and the existence of the forest as a whole is threatened. That means the region could then fall victim to desertification. In the meantime, models with 20-25 percent are being discussed, figures which are already close to the 17 percent forest destruction achieved today

The effects of reaching this tipping point would not only be devastating for the regional climate and thus for the natural foundation of agriculture in South America. The Amazon Basin contains 40 percent of the world’s rainforests and 10-15 percent of global biodiversity. Above all, however, the rainforest is also a huge carbon sink: the biomass of the rainforests contains as much carbon as mankind burns in 10 years. In “normal” years, those without extreme droughts, the Amazon rainforest absorbs about 1.5 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, thus counteracting the global warming caused by greenhouse gases.

This was reversed in the last years of drought, with major fires taking place every five years since the 2000s, the last was in 2015. In those years, the burning of the carbon reservoirs of the forest causes more greenhouse gases to be produced than are produced in the same time by China and the USA combined.

In the present conjuncture there is certainly also evidence of a connection to the El Ninjo phenomena. Warming in the Eastern Pacific leads to a reversal of convection currents over South America, leading to a weakening of the trade winds, which are vital for the rainforest. What is alarming too is that this year this phenomenon has not yet reached its maximum, this is likely only next year. This is speeding up and intensifying the man-made destruction.

If the predictions for the next two years are correct, and Brazilian policy does not change fundamentally, the effects on the rainforest and the world climate are truly unimagineable! A tipping point could well be approaching.

Fascistic movement

The criminal activity of the big landowners in the region can be seen in the attack on the Wajãpi indigenous people in the state of Amapá. On June 24, armed men from a mining company invaded the area “protected” from clearing, expelled the inhabitants and killed several people, including their spokesman Chief Emyra Waiãpi: a murder aimed at terrorising indigenous rights activists.

The Bolsonaro movement, funded by big landowners, is recruited mainly from the lower middle classes and its henchmen are murderously racist and energetically seek to destroy any obstacles to what they call “genuine Brazilianism”. This includes the indigenous communities, the landless farm workers and small farmers, mostly represented by the MST, as well as environmental activists and leftists who stick up for them.

Bolsonaro’s ‘movement’ has similarities with the Italian fascists of the 1920s, which emerged during the bitter class struggle in the latifundia, huge estates, of the Po Valley. Thus, the forest fires are not only an ecological disaster, they are also part of a violent movement against all those who are fighting for the preservation and sustainable management of the rainforest. The declaration of the MST, which Bolsonaro has dubbed a “terrorist organisation” on the recent fires states:

“The abolition of the previous (weak) protective regulations in the Amazon region is one thing, but at the same time the persecution and criminalisation of the parts of the population that traditionally receive the biomes of Brazil is growing: the simple rural population and the indigenous people”. (Biomes refers to a large fauna and flora ecosystem).”

So it is no wonder that when a “Day of Fire” was called for on August 10 on a Whatsapp group of 70 Bolsonarist landowners along federal road 163, which connects the now particularly affected regions of Mato Grosso and Pará, near Rio Tapajós, this became a major scandal. After this group had been leaked by Globorural magazine, Bolsonaro tried, in vain, to claim environmental organisations themselves planned to set the fires to discredit him. Even his ministers had to abandon this Trump-like claim. No wonder the US and Brazilian Presidents are such great friends.

What can we do?

Of course, in view of the time scale of the problems and the proven slowness of global climate policy, even before Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, the implementation of such a cautious global plan was inadequate as a solution. Therefore, today, the global environmental movements needs to go all out to force their respective states to take radical measures.

The increases in the number and severity of extreme weather events and tragedies like the Amazon fires are awakening the world’s population to the danger. But what is needed cannot be separated from serious anticapitalist measures and the tactics of class struggle against regimes that will do nothing or which actively make matters worse.

In the case of Brazil, that means: Expropriation of the agro- and mining companies, agrarian reform to redistribute the large landed property to the rural population and development of a plan for the reforestation of the rainforest as well as for its ecological management. All this must be under the control of the social and ecological movements, especially the agricultural workers and small farmers and the indigenous peoples.

It is not the aid funds of the of G7, EU & Co. financed by taxes on the masses, which only flow back into the coffers of the big landowners, that can solve the problem. Instead, the big imperialist corporations must be compelled to pay heavy taxes from their profits for the rainforest regeneration projects, to be spent under the control of their indigenous and poor rural population!

We have to oppose any support for the Bolsonaro regime by EU and US governments and corporations; there will be no saving of the rainforest without the overthrow of this right-wing and neoliberal regime! Therefore, the fight for the environment also means support for the movement to overthrow Bolsonaro. This movement of the urban and rural workers, women and students, has already carried out several general strikes to halt his reactionary rampage!

We must call for the immediate ending of the ratification of the Mercosur/EU Agreement, which plays into the hands of EU corporations exploiting Brazil as well as those of Brazilian agricultural corporations and big landowners. It can never be a means of preserving the Amazon region.

All these demands must be taken up by movements against climate change, like the Fridays For Future and Extinction Rebellion, in place of the misguided strategy of directing criticism at consumers. Let’s make Amazon Day on 5 September and Climate Strike on 20 September the beginning of a global movement to fight big capital that is destroying the planet!

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