Who Will Save the Forest?

Against the Current, No. 25, March/April 1990

Alexander Cockburn

I THINK THE battle for El Salvador has a lot to do with the battle to save the Amazon. The Jesuits in El Salvador were murdered by the soldiers of the government because they were calling for negotiations with the FMLN. The FMLN, of course, has land reform as a central plank.

Some of you may have seen a pamphlet put out by the Environmental Project on Central America (EPOCA) on ecological destruction in El Salvador, probably the most ecologically destroyed country in the Americas. It shows how ecological destruction goes hand in hand with political oppression. And this is true in the Amazon as well as El Salvador, as we’ll see when we look at the murder of Chico Mendes, the rubber tapper leader who was killed a year ago, December 22.

Why was he killed? He was murdered because he, with his fellow rubber tappers, persuaded the government to introduce the idea of use rights to forests for the people who were working in and sustaining the forests. That meant the forests couldn’t be sold off to land developers, speculators, barons and ranchers, and burned down. The two sets of murder—in the Amazon and of the Jesuits—are part of the same struggle for the same sort of justice.

In the book that I did with Susanna Hecht, we view the Amazon rain forest and the fight for it in a social, political and economic perspective. There is, of course, a tradition of looking at the Amazon as a pre-human Eden. The obsession or interest in the Amazon far transcends the interest in the rain forests of the Congo or Southeast Asia. It’s always had a very strong grip on people’s imaginations. They feel, “This is what the world was like when the world was young.” There is a Brazilian writer, Euclides da Cunha, who said, “The Amazon is the last, unfinished page of Genesis.” And many people, when they’re thinking of solutions to the Amazon, tend to think of the Amazon in this pre-human way: something that has to be saved as a museum. Like an Eden under glass.

In some ways, when the national park system was being set up here, it was the same thing. John Muir and his associates wanted to set up Yosemite, but there was one inconvenience. There were Indians there—the Miwok Indians. So they deparked them. Yosemite was then a place without Indians. And they said. That’s the real thing. That’s what it was. That’s what it should be.”

When the early Portuguese conquistadors floated down the Amazon in 1550, they reported seeing the banks crowded with Indian tribes, Indian villages. The waters were filled with Indian canoes. They were looking at substantial civilizations. Then what happened after what’s often rather politely called contact? Well, there were 12 million indigenous peoples in the Amazon when the arrival of Europeans took place. Today there are 200,000.

So contact is a kind of neutral word for what was part of perhaps the greatest demographic collapse in the history of the world. And what happened to the indigenous people, the Indians? As you know, their fate was extermination, slavery and disease. Tribes fled deeper into the forest. Gradually the banks of the river became bare. Now people float down the rivers and they look at these empty banks and they say, “Wow! That’s nature! That’s the way it always was.”

But it wasn’t like that, and if you see that there once was a substantial civilization, then you begin to take a rather different view of the forest, as something that was sustained, manipulated, altered, affected by people. Then you don’t see the forest as something pre-human. You see it more in a social context.

The Kayapo Indians today manipulate nature, sustain the forest, alter the forest, over areas the size of Europe. And in that perspective, you take on the idea that the forest can be sustained by the people who have lived in it, lived with it, lived from it for thousands of years. Or, in the case of the rubber tappers, for over a hundred years. Or, in the case of some settlers, for less.

Now, of course, there’s another tradition of the Amazon: getting a fortune from it, making a buck. Lots of bucks. Again, if you go back to the very earliest images of the Amazon, if you look at the early maps in the city of Belem (where there is a convenient folio in one of the museums of all the maps since about 1503), you can see how early all the fantasies were inscribed on the maps. The little drawings of Eldorado, the kingdom so rich in gold that every day the king was painted in gold leaf. And right next to it you can see a little drawing of Indians eating white men’s limbs. Of course, the second picture justified what happened, which was the extermination of Indians in the search for Eldorado. The hunt for gold began almost at the dawn of the sixteenth century and continues today in the Amazon.

Or there was the desire to wrench a fortune from rubber in the forest. As you know, rubber was integral to the industrial revolution: wild, Brazilian rubber. As early as 1750, for those of you who like to think that much initiative comes from military-industrial complexes, the Portuguese military-industrial complex was sending all of its uniforms, its capes, to the Amazon to be waterproofed. By 1800,200,000 rubber galoshes were being sent to Boston from the Amazon.

Immense fortunes were made from rubber toward the end of the nineteenth century. Not by the rubber tappers—who lived exploited, lonely lives in the forest—but by the rubber barons, downstream in Manaus or Belem. Dragging a fortune from the forest climaxed in the first ten years of this century, and then, suddenly, plantation rubber came on the scene from Southeast Asia.

As early as the mid-nineteenth century, the United States was taking a keen interest in the Amazon. It sent a couple of navy people down on what would these days be called a resource assessment. Lieutenant Herndon and Midshipman Gibbon floated down the Amazon, noting its riches. Among other things, they noted the leaf coca, which the Indians were chewing and which seemed to give them marvelous endurance.

This report on the Amazon was eagerly read by many Americans, including Mark Twain, who was living in Keokuk, Iowa, and read the thing about coca. He said, “I was fired with the longing to ascend the Amazon. Also with the longing to open up a trade in coca with all the world. I don’t know how many of you knew that Mark Twain wanted to be a cocaine exporter.

“During months, I’d dream and dream and try to contrive of a way to get to the Amazon. In New Orleans, I inquired and found there was no ship leaving for the Amazon. Also there’d never been one… . I reflected. A policeman came and asked me what I was doing, and I told him. He made me move on and said that if he caught me reflecting in the public street again, he would run me in. On my way down the Mississippi, I’d made the acquaintance of a pilot I begged him to teach me the river and he consented. I became a pilot.”

So you can see that with different shipping schedules, Mark Twain might have become a cocaine dealer, and Huck Finn would have been written on the Amazon.

Other people in North America, a bit more serious than Mark Twain about exploiting the Amazon, made quite a spirited bid, in association with Bolivia, to snip off the most valuable rubber-producing area, the state of Acre, and have J.P Morgan and associates run it as a joint-stock company. So today, when people call for the Amazon to be internationalized, Brazilians tend to remember that such an attempt was made once before, and they didn’t particularly care for it then, either.

One thing running through this history of frying to exploit the Amazon was the amazing ignorance people had about what the Amazon was actually like, what it could do, what the soil was like. The soil of the Amazon is extremely poor, by and large, so poor that the nutrients are held in the trees. If thousands of acres are torched, the nutrients go down into the soil and there is a fertile period of two or three years. Then rain comes, leaches away the nutrients, and you’re left with degraded soil. This is a central fact of the Amazon.

But many people got it wrong, some of the smartest entrepreneurial brains in American history. Very encouraging, for those of us who like to see rich people make mistakes. Henry Ford, for instance. He got tired of paying the prices for plantation rubber and planned a plantation in the Amazon, modestly called Fordlandia. He sent down his finest executive talent from Detroit He didn’t send a botanist He thought it was kind of sissy, probably, to send a botanist along.

Steve Squarejaw types were all sent down to wrench a fortune from the forest. They didn’t know the first thing about what they were doing. Later they said that they thought if you cut a rubber tree branch and stuck it in the ground it would become a rubber free. Yes, probably with tires hanging from the branches. It was a tremendous disaster. They had appalling leaf blight. Never really produced any rubber at all, and by 1945, Ford sold it back to the Brazilian government.

Not long, relatively speaking, thereafter, D.K. Ludwig (some of you may remember Ludwig, he was always quoted in the ’60s as being the second richest man in America after Howard Hughes) wanted to wrench a fortune from the Amazon in the form of wood pulp. He had the bright idea of growing fast-growing pine near the mouth of the Amazon. He got a pulp mill in Japan, put it on a barge, floated it all the way across the Indian Ocean, around the Cape of Good Hope, across the Atlantic, up the Amazon and anchored on the bank of the Vari River, not far from Belem. Bulldozers came, scraped away the precious little bit of topsoil, made it all nice and flat. They popped in the quick-growing pine and then wondered why nothing came up. Lost a billion dollars. Another man who made a big mistake.

You can find these mistakes, time and again, and then you come to the biggest mistake of all: the onset of the real destruction of the rain forest. Now, why is it that about a quarter of a century ago the rain forest began to burn up faster in the Brazilian Amazon than in the Peruvian or the Colombian Amazon? It’s good to figure out why, because if you get it wrong, then you’re likely to come up with wrong political solutions. Got to get reasons for the destruction right.

There are many theories going around as to why Brazilian rain forests began to burn up over the last quarter century. Many people like the hamburger connection: “You’re eating hamburger made from beef raised on pasture cleared of trees in the Amazon.” Well, you can feel bad about eating hamburgers for all sorts of reasons. You might be eating Costa Rican rain forest or Guatemalan rain forest. You’re not, in fact, eating Amazonian rain forest, because the Amazon is a net beef importer
People tend to blame Brazil’s international debt: “They’re running down their resources in the Amazon to pay off their debt.” There’s a lot of agony in Brazil as a result of that debt. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) regularly goes to Brazil, as it will soon be going to Poland, to say, “Do this, do that. How about a bit more unemployment.” But in fact, the commodities that have been sold off to pay the debt have been more soybeans and citrus from Southern Brazil.

Or people blame peasant pyromania. You’ll recall the common images of population pressure forcing people out of the slums of Sao Paulo and Rio, exploding northward. Getting to the Amazon, they do slash and burn agriculture, chop down some trees, burn them up, do a little bit of failed farming, then move on, do the same thing. Well, a bit of that has gone on. But it is not the major culprit.

So who is the major culprit? The major process of destruction began when the Brazilian military took over in 1964. In fairly short order, they devised a plan to develop the Amazon, for several reasons:

(1) National security, which generals tend to think about a lot, too much, actually. The Amazon is thinly populated. They thought there might be encroachment from other countries.

(2) Counterinsurgency. This wasn’t so long after the Cuban revolution. They thought they’d be able to deal with an insurgency in the Amazon.

(3) Economic development. The Amazon is over 60% of Brazil’s national territory. In the words of General Goldbery Couto e Silva, who was the real architect: ‘We want to inundate the Amazon with civilization.” The civilization they had in mind was big business. They wanted big business in Southern Brazil to go into the Amazon and develop around what they called poles of development. They offered incentives for big business to do this. They offered land: million-acre handouts. They offered tax holidays: after seventeen years, no taxes for any corporate endeavor moving up to the Amazon. They offered interest-free loans. They offered infrastructure: free power, roads. And they said, “Go to it.”

And big business did. Many of the largest entrepreneurial enterprises in Brazil went to the Amazon. Now these generals did want a hamburger connection. Not only did they want to industrialize the Amazon, but they also saw it as producing beef to feed Brazilians and to sell on the world market.

It was these incentives to business that started the destruction. You had the enclosure of public or common land into private property. Previously, as in the United States or Europe, there was much neat titling. It wasn’t all laid out on the grid system, obviously. When these large-scale entrepreneurs went out to survey the million acres they wanted, there were of course on the land the indigenous people, or rubber tappers, or back-woods people, who would be frightened off, murdered or pushed oft And battles between these entrepreneurs occurred. Archives of land titlings were burned up. People cheated in many a document.

The way you really registered possession, the way you put in for your subsidies from the government for raising cattle, the way you initially “developed” the land was to burn the trees. Take off some of the valuable timber and burn the rest off. Now, if you fly over the Amazon today and you look at deforested stretches, you’ll see these vast expanses of scrubby land without many cattle on them. Cattle ranching in the Amazon is by and large a bust. Study after study has shown it’s completely uneconomical. Indeed, when the subsidies stopped, many a so-called rancher simply abandoned the ranch.

Much of this land-clearing was for speculation. People would speculate by buying land and holding it, against the thought that there might be minerals underneath it, which there very often were, or because a road might be coming through, which would quintuple the value of the land, or because inflation in Brazil is rung at 1500%. You’ve got to put your money somewhere, unless you go shopping all the time. You could leave it in the bank but 1500% inflation and a year later it’s gone. So you stick it in land or other shelters.

II this time, while this speculation was going on and this wave of exploitation was reaching the Amazon, the government was consistently providing infrastructure to further “development” in the form of dams, more roads—trying to build it up. This is what unleashed the destruction that has now burned up 10% of the Amazon. You’ll hear, higher estimates—up to 20%, or even a quarter of the Amazon. And the Brazilian government, which has no incentive to say anything other than the smallest number it thinks it can get away with, says 5%. Probably it’s about 10% at the moment. But the rate of increase is exponential. Ten is suddenly twelve is fifteen is twenty. And then the rest of the rain forest is gone.

Almost as serious as the deforestation is what’s happened to the water. Twenty percent of the world’s fresh water is increasingly fouled by, for example, gold mining. For every ton of gold that comes out of the Amazon, a ton of mercury is going in. That’s the way the small gold miners refine out the gold. Some of you may remember Minamata in Japan twenty years ago, when the fishing families in a certain area of Japan got mercury poisoning. I think that involved about 1,000 people. In the Amazon, 400,000-500,000 people are affected. This mercury is going into the water. It’s going into the soil. It’s going into tissues of the people working or living there.

Forces for Change

You can go on through the destructive panoramas. Then you have to stop short and say, “What can arrest this? What forces are there that might slow, stop, or even reverse the cycles of destruction?”

Over the last couple of years the Amazon has reached a sort of critical mass in the imagination of the First World, in the same way that three or four years ago, Ethiopia did. Suddenly, it comes to a boil, everyone thinks about Ethiopia. Then, last year, you saw a great deal about the Amazon. I think for a couple of reasons.

A couple of really hot summers induced a lot of talk about the greenhouse effect. Then the murder of Chico Mendes really captured people’s attention to a degree that certainly amazed the Brazilian government and the murderers of Chico Mendes. They thought, “One rubber tapper? Who cares? We’ve killed a lot.” And suddenly there it is on the front pages of the First World press. Here’s Hollywood trying to make a movie.

But what is the nature and range of that concern? Has it had any effect? I think there have been a lot of illusions. What is the relationship between a wave of First World concern and the Third World, which is there all the time, and is still there long after the First World concern has ended? You’ve got the First World concern and the Third World people at the center of it in the Amazon, which is where we return to what I was talking about at the very start: a view of the Amazon as a place where the forest and the people are related.

What people are we really looking at? Indians, rubber tappers, settlers, gold miners, backwoods people and so on. Some three or four million people. And who are you looking at on the other side? You’re looking at large-scale developers, most seriously construction companies, whose entire being and perspective revolve around roads and dams. The army still has a major role in the Amazon. You’re looking at Brazilian government strategy and the development strategies of the World Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank A formidable array.

Indian and Worker Resistance

Do the people in the forest really have a chance? What have they done?

For much of this century Indians were spoken for by the Brazilian Indian agency, a deeply corrupt body that often actively participated in the extermination of the people it was meant to protect. There were anthropologists speaking for tribes. In fact, in the back of our book, there are some quite entertaining remarks about anthropologists by Indians, who have a different view than you often hear in the First World. One of them said, “It’s amazing. These anthropologists come. They ask questions, write their books, give nothing in return. Finally, we got fed up. We charged them a dollar a question. You wouldn’t believe the answers we gave to some of their questions.”

But recently the Indians there evolved extremely adroit, sophisticated leadership. The Indians are forming alliances. This summer the Kayapo said that they would come to the aid of the Yanomami brothers and sisters up in the Northern Amazon, who were experiencing encroachment by 30,000 gold miners. There are coalitions being made that have never been made before.

Then there are the rubber tappers who, as I said, for over a hundred years have led lives of onerous exploitation: always in debt to the petty traders, always being cheated on the price of the rubber. By the 1970s, the rubber barons had thought there weren’t big bucks to be made in the forest and had mostly left. At this point the developers and speculators began to arrive, and the rubber tappers saw their livelihood going up in flames. For the rubber tapper, the forest is the job. The tree is the job. A tree up is a livelihood. A tree down means that the rubber tapper has to go live in the city. Chico Mendes was one of the rubber-tapper leaders who began to organize.

Now there’s again a certain First World illusion about Chico Mendes. He’s often depicted as a St. Francis of the forest—one hand on the tree and the other on Bambi. Soon to be acted by Robert Redford, darkened up a little. But Chico Mendes, if you look at his life, was a socialist, an extremely militant socialist Chico Mendes and the rubber tappers talk about organizing, labor rights. They’ll talk about the forest, but when they talk about the forest, they’re talking about their livelihoods, control over resources, the right to know. They’re talking in a very radical way.

Here we come back to this relationship between the First World and the Third. Very often environmental organizations in the United States are rather conservative. I saw a letter from the president of the Audubon Society the other day in the Wall Street Journal. Some maniac in the Journal had accused the Audubon Society of being a left-wing organization. The president wrote in, saying, “For a hundred years we’ve pursued non-partisan policies and sought solutions within the framework of our economic values.” What is the president of Audubon going to say to Chico Mendes, who’s calling for the socialization of resources in the Amazon? There’s not going to be a profound meeting of minds. This happens very often.

Chico Mendes and the rubber tappers, as they saw the cutting crews coming in, evolved a technique called the empate, the standoff. They and their families would stand before the cutting crews who were about to cut down and burn off forest. This tactic was very effective. They saved many a substantial stretch of forest. Next, in the middle 1980s, they began to say, “We want security in the resource we’re working. We want it to be recognized that we’ve worked these trees for over a hundred years, and this has got to be taken out of the speculative land market. We want them to be designated as extractive reserves.” Meaning, “So long as we sustain the forest, and don’t start chopping it down and burning it off ourselves, we have the use right to this on a long-term basis.”

This actually cost Chico Mendes his life. What got him killed was the formation of the first two extractive reserves in the Amazon last year. Earlier this year, the forest people’s alliance was formed. Here again was an amazing moment. Over the years, rubber tappers and Indians were often deadly foes. Rubber tappers had driven Indians off land. They’d organized Indian hunts. There was tremendous enmity between the two. Yet, in Rio Branco in the state of Acre, they formed the forest people’s alliance.

You can see that the manifesto they issued, which is printed in the back of our book, is very radical. They were talking about the common supervision of a resource, holding it out of exploitation. They were talking about the right to know—very important in the Amazon, when suddenly they can wake up in the morning to an announcement that a dam complex is going to flood 10% of all indigenous land, as the Xingu dam complex is scheduled to do. There are many familiar clauses in that manifesto.

What is the state of affairs? There was a major disappointment, lam sad to say, yesterday. Lula, the candidate of the Workers Party, lost the race for the Brazilian presidency. The Workers Party was pledged to land reform and to debt repudiation with the First World banks. Lula narrowly lost to a business-as-usual sort from a very rich family in Alagoas, which is a very poor state in the northeast. Chico Mendes was one of the founders of the Workers Party in the Amazon. Had Lula won, I think one could perhaps be a little more optimistic about the shape of events in the near future in the Amazon.

That’s the reality on the ground: a struggle for social justice in the forest, having a sustainable forest which is supporting people. Now we come back to the relationship of First World people to that forest and the fight for the forest. Very often people say we should internationalize it. But what would the French say if a Brazilian politician called for the internationalization of the French Pacific, which of course they’ve been poi-luting with their nuclear testing for years?

Mrs. Thatcher has gone on about the Amazon and the greenhouse effect. What would happen if you went and told Mrs. Thatcher to stop polluting the Irish Sea with nuclear waste? How long would a Brazilian visitor last? What would happen if a Brazilian activist came up here and started lecturing Senator Hatfield about the politics of clearcutting? How far would they get?

Frankly, the Brazilians have a point. You can see why they get mad. There is a great deal, not so much of hypocrisy, but of displaced concern, which should be repatriated. Let’s go back to the three theories about the burning of the rain forests: first, the hamburger connection. Well, as far as the Amazon’s concerned, the hamburger connection doesn’t really hold. But where the hamburger connection really should be a source of concern is right here in the United States. Beef, largely fed on soybean, is industry-intensive agriculture, water-polluting. If you’re going to worry about a hamburger connection, worry about it right here, as well as in Central America.

What about the greenhouse effect? I’ve noticed going across the country, and particularly on talk shows, that people say, “Why should we care about the Amazon?” And you say, “You’re burning up the world’s genetic library.” They say, “Yeah, yeah. But why should we care?” You say, “Well, people are being exterminated.” They say, “I know, I know.” Then you say, “You mean you’re not worried that you might fry tomorrow.” They say, “Oh, wow. Now that is something to be concerned about.”

It’s true. If you want to get people’s attention, very often you’re made to say, “Well, look. It does concern us. What they do down there is going to add greenhouse gases to the atmosphere, trap radiation, the temperature’s going to go up, the water’s going to rise, property values on the coast of California are going to go through the floor… “Faces turn white: “I see what you mean.”

Actually, I think this is all nonsense. I think most people are capable of lifting their noses from the trough of self-interest quite a lot, whatever the talk-show hosts may say. And they do. And there’s a slight trap in selling the greenhouse effect as the major thing to worry about, because a lot of the greenhouse models are a bit speculative. A lot of them are computer-driven and don’t factor in things like clouds. Clouds are erratic. “I wandered lonely as a cloud.” You never know quite where a cloud’s going to go, so it’s difficult to crank it into your computer model. Fifteen years ago it was global freezing models. Someone was arguing with me today that you could have them simultaneously. Freeze on one side, burn on the other .The danger is that suddenly people will say, “Well, the greenhouse effect was greatly exaggerated. Let it burn.” That’s the trap.

Anyway, if you really are worried about the greenhouse effect, where should you be looking? The Amazon or right here? The answer is, obviously, the First World. This is where most of the greenhouse gas additions are being made. Traffic right here in Portland, or Los Angeles or New York. So once again, you’re sent back right here.

Or deforestation, for that matter. Here we are looking at deforestation right here in the Northwest: clear-cutting of old growth. We’re looking at deforestation of tropical rain forest in Puerto Rico and Hawaii. What are we looking at elsewhere? Eighty percent of Vietnam’s rain forest gone, and who did it? The United States did it. Central America: How many environmental groups have actually said, “We’re concerned about destruction of rain forests and look at Central America. We’re doing it.” If you look at El Salvador and the environmental destruction there, the U.S. is sustaining in El Salvador a power elite that is responsible for some of the severest ecological devastation in the Americas. How many environmental organizations come out and say that on a regular basis? Some do, but many don’t.

So a lot of the lesson—and it’s one of the reasons that Susanna and I became interested in doing a book on the Amazon—is that it’s a very good way not only to become clear about the processes of destruction, but it also becomes a political lens through which you can test the validity of an environmental movement.

Does it see the fight for the rain forest as a fight purely for species, like flora and fauna but non-human? Does it retain the human in its consideration? And if it does, is it prepared to make the links joining destruction of the rain forest in the Amazon with the forces driving that, and environmental destruction elsewhere with the forces driving that? Once you make those connections, then I think you see the outlines, first of all of the movements that will save rain forests and preserve the environment, but you see them within the larger context of social and political movements, which I am convinced are what we should be deeply involved with.

The fight to save the Amazon is specific. There are specific things you can do. You can send money to rubber tappers. You can send money to Indians. You can buy Ben and Jerry’s forest crunch ice cream. Not a bad thing to do. You can buy Brazil nuts. All of this will help sustain the forest. Throw away the walnuts when you make pesto. Buy Brazil nuts. Put them up next to the Nicaraguan coffee.

If Brazilians came up here to the Northwest and said, “What can we do to save the old growth?” You’d say, “Great. Well, come on a few actions with us, lobby, help us write leaflets, help us organize.” But in the end, you’d probably say, “You know, you have a lot of forest to save there, too, don’t you?” They’d say, “Yes, we do.” What you’re talking about then is movements in solidarity with each other, informing each other, but you’re talking about a fight that must take place both there and here. Any First World movement concerned with the Amazon that isn’t also looking at home at least half the time in my opinion is making an incorrect analysis.

There’s a battle in Europe going on for a humane, democratic socialism. There’s a battle in the Americas being fought and inscribed in blood in El Salvador and the Amazon. A lot of the questions of the environment, ultimately, are questions of the word with which we end the book—and that word is justice.

[This abridged talk was given at a fundraiser on December 1990, based on Cockburn and Susanna Hecht’s book, The Fate of the Forest: Developers, Destroyers and Defenders of the Amazon (Verso, 1989) and was transcribed by Christopher Phelps.]

March-April 2020, ATC 25

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