The Unnatural Fate of the Forest

Against the Current, No. 26, May/June 1990

Marsha Rummel

The Fate of the Forest:
Developers, Destroyers and Defenders of the Amazon
By Susanna Hecht and Alexander Cockburn
London and New York Verso, 1989, 266 pages, $25 hardcover.

THE U.S. LEFT has begun to grapple with questions about the environment, and an emerging Green movement offers itself as the new force for social transformation. Many Greens argue that the Left’s focus on the working class as the primary agent for social change is outmoded, that industrial “progress” has escalated environmental degradation to the point where we face extinction and not the promised prosperity and leisure of a better world.

Many Marxists have tended to accept the exploitation of nature without considering the carrying capacity of air, land and water. State-managed economies have not protected the environment any better than capitalist ones. But we should be equally wary of romantic solutions that idealize the beauty and purity of the natural world and seek to protect wilderness from despoliation by preventing human access.

Our relationship to “nature” and how we perceive the obligations of this relationship are central questions in Susanna Hecht and Alexander Cock burn’s book It is a fascinating introduction to the history and ecology of the Brazilian Amazon, one of the world’s most famous and mythologized rivers, and essential reading for anyone seeking to understand what socialist ecology offers.

Pitted against one another, rubber tappers, petty extractors, colonist farmers and large landholders fight for control of the land of the Amazon. The consequences of this scramble, millions of acres of forest burned down, has led to the organization of rubber tappers and other forest dwellers to defend the forest and their livelihoods.

“The extinction is not only of nature but of socialized nature: what is also being exterminated in the Amazon is civilization.” (50)

Markets based on the extraction of forest products are behind this conflict and the destruction of the forest by development and fires. The authors trace the development of a mercantile elite enriched by “products dragged out from the forest by slave or peon.” Petty extraction is defined as “the removal of some part of an eco-systems material for commercial or domestic consumption” in a manner that guarantees their continued availability. Rubber, quinine, brazil nuts, cocoa and palm hearts are commodities that have been traded on regional and international markets for over 500 years.

From the 1770s onward, the state has intervened in the exploitation of the Amazon by providing incentives: cash subsidies, tax holidays, price supports and forced labor in order to lure prospective entrepreneurs and establish agriculture; For the past twenty-five years Brazil’s rulers have increased such incentives, hoping to stimulate expansion of their military and construction industries, resulting in massive, destructive forest burnings largely for cattle ranching.

“Those who made their livings out of sustainable uses of the forest were pitted against the ranchers and land-grabbers whose fortunes lay in clearing it.”

The Forest People’s Alliance

An alternative vision for the nation and the land is promoted by the rubber tappers, who held their first national meeting in 1985. The Rubber Tappers Council issued a manifesto demanding that they participate in the planning and execution of all development programs in the region. The rubber tappers and other rural unions urged the establishment of “extractive reserves?” “These reserves would recognize the use rights of the local population, but the holdings would not be privately owned.” (181)

In the manifesto, say Hecht and Cockburn, the forest dwellers,

“Called for popular control over the means of production and distribution of forest commodities, along with the provision of financial credits to producers rather than to middlemen. They also called for justice and legal protection of their rights to land and life. These are the concrete elements of a socialist ecology—the only strategy that can save the Amazon and its inhabitants.” (187)

Thousands of militant forest people, demanding agrarian reform and supported by international public opinion, pose a serious challenge to Brazilian elites. But the establishment of extractive reserves does not necessarily call into question existing social and political arrangements. As Hecht and Cockburn observe,

“The reserve can demobilize an aroused population which has been vehemently pressing for larger structural change. Here we come to the pitfalls that lie in the line of march staked out by the green movements in the First World. By de-emphasizing ‘old-fashioned concerns’ with political economy, property relations and distribution, they extol the reserves as environmentally sound solutions where the good rural life can continue.” (203)

One shortfall of The Fate of The Forest fails to acknowledge the role and experience of women in the Amazon. Presumably, women have played a major role in agricultural production. Perhaps there are even women who are petty extractors. Women’s contribution is an essential component of socialist ecology.

But overall, the analyses and solutions posed by Hecht and Cockburn are persuasive. The forest people will continue to demand reforms. Sustainable uses—as opposed to rarified isolation or all-out exploitation—of the forest have a long history and offer the best hope for an economically and ecologically sound future. The struggle in Amazonia contains rich lessons about agents of change and ultimate aims that the U.S. left and ecological movement should heed.

May-June 1990, ATC 26

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