La catastrophe écologique et humanitaire de l'Amazonie brésilienne (Felipe Milanez x David Hill /The Guardian)
David Hill (The Guardian: Andes do Amazon) interviews Felipe Milanez, a political ecologist at the Federal University of Recôncavo of Bahia, activist, film-maker, former deputy editor of National Geographic Brazil, and the editor of the recently-published book, Memórias Sertanistas: Cem Anos de Indigenismo no Brasil.
DH: Sometimes Brazil’s Amazon is described as like the US’s old “Wild West”, in terms of violence. Is that a reasonable - or nonsense - comparison?
FM: In some ways it does make sense, this comparison, and it has also been compared with Russian expansion eastwards, as a “frontier movement”, although the contemporary “expansion” in the Amazon is technically an invasion and was started by the brutal military dictatorship in the late 1960s and 1970s. It has been a humanitarian catastrophe for indigenous peoples and local collectives - even today genocides are happening - and caused an ecological holocaust. But the Amazon frontier is incomparably more violent then the US’s, incomparably more unequal and unjust to the poor, and a great source of income to land grabbers and big international capital extracting natural resources. In the US expanding the frontier was planned in a democracy, but in Brazil, in the Amazon, it was done during a dictatorship. What is astonishing is that our current democracy hasn’t made the life of the people living in the forest any easier: indigenous and traditional peoples don’t have the right to be consulted about what affects them and their territories, and they’re still seen as being disposable. And the violence is now increasing, as there is an increase in land grabbing, mining and mega-dam-building. Such economic investments are made in contradiction to social rights in the Constitution.
DH: You say “humanitarian catastrophe.” Can you elaborate?
FM: I mean the genocides, ethnocides, epistemicides, slavery, forced displacement of social groups, dispossession and the disruption of social systems. This is happening today in different parts of Brazil. From 2003 to 2014 there were 390 Indians killed in Mato Grosso do Sul, mostly Kaiowa Guarani, fundamentally in conflict with ranchers and soya plantations. The Guarani consider this genocide. And to combat falling commodity prices, the government now wants to increase extraction of natural resources such as iron ore and weaken indigenous rights and the rights of nature. The Belo Monte mega-dam alone affects 12 indigenous lands and 21 maroon communities. I’ve seen the recently-contacted Arara coming to Altamira, treated by the consortium building the dam as beggars. One Arara community has been completely dysfunctional for the past 4 years: their land has been invaded, with increasingly high levels of deforestation and illegal logging associated with the pressure of building the mega-dam.
DH: And “ecological holocaust”?
FM: I mean the destruction of environments: almost 20% of Brazil’s Amazon and 45% of the Cerrado - the savannah - are deforested, while the main tributaries of the Amazon from the eastern border of Peru and the Andes have around 150 proposed dams, and from the southern banks of the R. Amazon big rivers such as the Tocantins, Xingu, Madeira, Teles Pires and now the Tapajos have been or are being dammed. Last year there were 40,000 fires in indigenous lands in just one state, Maranhão, while the Xingu Park, surrounded by soya plantations, is burning every year. For the first time in their history, the Kuikuro have witnessed a typhoon on their land.
DH: You’ve touched on some of the major “drivers” of these horrors: logging, ranching, charcoal, iron ore, soya and mega-dams. Any others? Who are some of the most feared operators and who’s financing a lot of it?
FM: Capital expansion is certainly the main driver, but it doesn’t work alone. Local histories of violence, state lack of responsibility to the poor, elite privileges and racism are other ingredients. Recent developmentalism has been pushed by the Brazilian Development Bank (BNDES) playing the role that the World Bank did during the dictatorship, financing huge slaughterhouses and mega-dams. In the most violent region, southern Pará, where Zé Cláudio and Maria were killed, the main driver of blood today is the expansion of iron ore mining by Vale, the S11D project, and its infrastructure, such as the expansion of the Carajás railway. Vale was privatized in 1997, a moment of neoliberalism expansion in Brazil that continues strongly today. It has promised to invest around US$15 billion in S11D, but only big ranchers, who have grabbed public land, benefit from Vale’s local investments. Both the PLC and MST claim these ranchers are hiring militias and gunmen to keep the landless out of the company’s sight. And Vale doesn’t pay regular taxes in Brazil due to export incentives, and provides minimal compensation to local communities. The main result is violent land conflict with peasants and indigenous communities. One “Hawk” Indian leader I met last year has described Vale as an “ogre”.