Capital and the Amazon

Submitted by martin on 29 April, 2019 - 10:08 Author: Mike Zubrowski

A report by Amazon Watch released on 25 April 2019 indicts the role of global commodity traders and financiers in the destruction of the Amazon rainforest.

The Amazon – the world’s largest rainforest – provides 20% of our oxygen, houses 10% of the planet’s biodiversity and 20% of its flowing freshwater. It stabilises global climate through driving weather patterns, and is home to many indigenous peoples. Preventing its deforestation is crucial in curtailing global warming and other world-wide climate catastrophes.

A huge amount of carbon is stored in soil, and is released in the process of soil degradation, which also limits the ability to grow plants in that soil. Deforestation is a significant contributor to soil degradation, as are over-watering and bad farming practices.

Deforestation has steadily risen since 2012, and is set to rise further under Bolsonaro. Hard-fought for environmental and human rights protections are under severe attack, having already been significantly weakened from 2016, under the government of Michel Temer.

The current attack is “led by cabinet members serving as political operatives for the country’s agribusiness and mining sectors.” They are a “dominant, conservative faction of the country’s powerful agroindustrial sector”, linked with and supported by international commodity traders and financiers.

Brazil is a major exporter of beef, cattle and leather; soy; timber and paper; and sugar. Production of these goods generally come at the expense of widespread deforestation, especially, in the Amazon, cattle ranching and soy production. Ranching alone causes around 80% of Amazon deforestation. The prospect of a US-China trade war has significantly boosted the value of soy.

In response, Brazil’s National Indigenous Mobilization (MNI) has called for a global boycott of Brazilian commodities associated with human rights abuses and environmental destruction.

As socialists and environmentalists, offering serious solidarity against these attacks is vital.

However, consumer boycotts are severely limited. They generally gain very little traction compared to the overall size of the market, and so have very little impact. What individuals buy and consume is driven significantly more by prices, availability, and marketing, than by such supply-chain moral considerations.

Expecting huge numbers of people to put in the money and time to pursue such wide-ranging boycotts is unrealistic. It is also unnecessarily moralising and exclusionary to many working-class people who we most need to engage with over environmental issues.

Fundamentally, consumer boycotts look to our agency as consumers, rather than as workers, or more broadly political agents, to bring about change. This is the opposite of the approach we need to bring about the kind of systemic change which will halt climate change.

Building connections and offering material support to the working-class and social movements in Brazil which are opposing these attacks and the Bolsonaro regime is the most important way we can offer solidarity.

We need not however be inactive when it comes to the ways in which international trade and finance supports the destruction of these vital ecosystems.

China, the European Union, and the United States are Brazil’s three largest trade partners respectively. The majority of the EU and China’s imports from Brazil are agricultural commodities. In 2018, 41% of the EU’s beef imports were from Brazil.

Currently pursued free trade policies by the EU with Mercosur trade-bloc countries would likely benefit Brazilian big agribusiness. In itself this is not a reason to oppose such policies. However, the EU could enforce certain standards and ensure they are part of these agreements, to limit the destruction of the Amazon.

Amazon Watch advocate that the EU introduce laws to ensure that products sold in the EU aren’t produced through destroying the Amazon rainforest or Cerrado savanna, or through human rights abuses. Part of this is making it mandatory for companies to trace the source of products. They also advocate the EU puts direct political pressure to prevent such abuses.

The EU, as a bureaucratic capitalist institution, will not voluntarily do this simply because a report makes a persuasive case for it. Sustained pressure, in part on the limited democratic levers which do exist, is necessary to bring in such policies. Likewise, such policies only have any real weight when coming from a large trading bloc like the EU, providing another plank of an environmentalist case against Brexit.

Likewise, the similar recommendations made to financial investors and institutions will not be brought about voluntarily by institutions concerned fundamentally with short term return on investments. To bring about such changes requires expropriation of the banks and the wealth of the ruling class, under democratic control.

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