Capitalism Set the Fires in the Amazon Rainforest

The deforestation that led to the fires that recently raged across the Amazon is driven by the imperatives of capitalism. To halt the fires, we have to fight those imperatives.

In this aerial image, a fire burns in a section of the Amazon rain forest on August 25, 2019 in the Candeias do Jamari region near Porto Velho, Brazil. (Victor Moriyama / Getty Images)

Fires in the Amazon basin have provoked international outrage over the destruction of one of the world’s most important tropical forests and the seeming unwillingness on the part of Brazilian authorities to do anything about it. President Jair Bolsonaro, whose term began in January, has frequently been singled out as playing a key role in the Amazon’s deforestation, but the fires ravaging Brazil’s rainforest are nothing new. What these fires vividly illustrate is how global dynamics of economic development have propelled processes of deforestation for the narrow purpose of securing global supply chains and maximizing the profits of transnational corporations.

Nearly half of the world’s tropical forests can be found in the Amazon basin, a huge expanse of territory encompassing eight states, mostly Brazil. More than 2 million square miles (roughly two-thirds the size of the continental United States) is covered by dense rainforest, where hundreds of thousands of animal and tree species thrive, making it the most biodiverse ecosystem on the planet.

The Amazon is also an important regulator of atmospheric CO2 in the global carbon cycle. About 25 percent of carbon emissions are absorbed by terrestrial ecosystems, and the Amazon, being one of the world’s largest carbon sinks, plays a critical role. If deforestation increases past a speculated “tipping point,” and that terrestrial sink is weakened or lost, the rate of global warming will accelerate, threatening the fabric of human civilization on a planetary scale.

While Brazil seems to be the focus of the recent fires making headlines, unhelped by Brazil’s reactionary, far-right leader, who has so far been unwilling to accept international assistance, there are currently fires raging all over the world. In every region where tropical forests are under threat — in Peru and Bolivia, and in the Congo basin, in Angola and Zambia — fires are burning, many as big or bigger than the ones in Brazil. Fire season across equatorial regions will continue until next spring, and similar fires will burn across Southeast Asia in Cambodia, Laos, and Indonesia, as they do every year.

Most of these fires are started by smallholder farmers or ranchers who are either clearing new tracts of jungle for pasture or re-clearing their previously deforested plots for continued use, employing slash-and-burn agricultural techniques. Some of those burns get out of control, resulting in the widely reported wildfires. In Brazil, the most intense fires are concentrated in the state of Rondônia, which borders Bolivia in the southwest portion of the Amazon forest. Like much of the Brazilian Amazon, Rondônia was settled by the Brazilian state relatively recently.

Smallholders began migrating to forested regions like Rondônia in large numbers in the 1970s, when Brazil’s military dictatorship (1964–1985) began taking a much more systematic approach to economic development in the Amazon by supporting road and dam construction, and by subsidizing large corporations in extractive industries. Today’s deforestation can be traced back to these domestic policies as well as to international pressures to further develop infrastructure in order to boost foreign investment in profitable export sectors. From the frontier regions to the heart of the rainforest, this intervention — guided by global market demand for commodities like iron ore, copper, gold, soy, sugarcane, coffee, cocoa, corn, palm oil, and beef — has resulted in permanent land-use change.

As these development efforts were underway, rural agricultural workers were being expelled from the land all across Brazil due to increased agricultural modernization, whereby large-scale mechanized production of a few cash crops replaced traditional practices that were smaller scale and more labor intensive. The reduced demand for agricultural workers, combined with the high price of land that was increasingly concentrated in fewer and fewer hands, left the rural poor with no choice but to leave. This process came to be known as the “rural exodus” and resulted in the swelling of populations of major cities throughout Brazil. As the favelas on the peripheries of cities rapidly expanded and social strife skyrocketed, the military regime sought to redirect the migrations of displaced agricultural workers into the Amazon.

Deforestation across the Amazon basin followed domestic and international financing of highway infrastructure, which systematically penetrated heavily forested areas for development. Brazil constructed several highways into the jungle, including the Trans-Amazonian Highway (BR-230), which runs from the Atlantic coast west across the Amazon, terminating in Porto Velho, the capital of the state of Rondônia. From Porto Velho, another highway (BR-364) was constructed that runs southward, cutting directly through the state of Rondônia and connecting that portion of the Amazon forest to more populous regions of Brazil to the southeast. Along with these new roads, the national government provided various financial incentives to migrants willing to resettle in the Amazon, including land ownership.

Highway BR-364 has been the subject of numerous scholarly studies because of its clear relationship with deforestation in Rondônia. Although not initially paved and remaining virtually impassable during the rainy season, in the late 1970s the military dictatorship sought international financing to pave and extend BR-364 as a means to further exploit the region’s resources. The idea was to attract smallholder farmers to Rondônia, thereby settling the Amazon, increasing its economic output by dramatically escalating agricultural production for export, and simultaneously relieving population pressures in the densely populated cities. Given the fiscal crisis of the Brazilian government, however, the project would have been impossible without the assistance of the World Bank, which provided nearly half a billion dollars in loans. By 1980, Rondônia’s population quadrupled, and by the late 1990s over a quarter of Rondônia’s forest had been cleared.

Globally, all deforestation occurs within five kilometers of a road or waterway. Before the construction of BR-364, primary forest loss in the Brazilian Amazon was under 1 percent. According to the World Resources Institute, deforestation in Rondônia is slightly down from its peak in the 1990s, but since 2001, more than 4 million hectares of tree cover has been lost there, concentrated most highly along the BR-364 corridor. Although it is widely understood that road construction in forested areas inevitably leads to land-use change, likely the desired outcome, the World Bank funds similar projects all over the world, with comparable results in terms of deforestation and impact on indigenous communities.

Every year the World Bank and other international financial institutions collaborate with countries to develop forested territories in order to boost domestic production for export, and this development requires a reliable road network. For fiscal year 2018, the World Bank Group committed more than $3 billion to the transport sector, much of it to Latin America, where rates of tropical deforestation are the highest in the world. Besides leading to increased tree loss by provoking agricultural expansion, this activity fragments fragile, biodiverse ecosystems and displaces indigenous communities. Controversial World Bank road projects have been identified in Bolivia, Mozambique, Indonesia, and Vietnam. Often, the rationale provided by World Bank officials is that these regions require improved road infrastructure in order to develop their economies, which is true — but they need not pave the way to deforestation.

The process whereby “less-developed countries” are guided into an integrated position within the global economic system consistently leads both to deforestation and to the chronic underdevelopment of these countries, which are locked into a tutelary relationship with the “advanced” countries of the global economy. Eminent sociologist Immanuel Wallerstein, who died on August 31, 2019, theorized this relationship in his scholarship on world-systems.

According to Wallerstein, the unequal relationship between “core” and “periphery” countries is a structural feature of global capitalism that cannot be overcome by pursuing the kind of economic development that caters to the world market as it is currently organized. By maximizing the production of primary commodities extracted from tropical forests around the planet, the prices of these non-value-added goods are driven down, fortifying global supply chains despite the environmental and social harm effected. This is good news for so-called advanced economies the world over, which rely on these inputs for the production of a variety of value-added goods that are then sold to the “developing” economies for a profit.

In short, those countries that are described as “less developed” or “developing” by World Bank technocrats are unable to escape their position of dependence by merely leveraging their comparative advantage, i.e., by producing primary commodities for export and importing expensive goods manufactured elsewhere. This situation is further exacerbated by the increasing dominance of information technologies and services by powerful nations in North America and Western Europe.

Focusing on Rondônia, we can see the intersection of the imperatives of the World Bank (acting in its role as global rule-maker and financier), the exigencies of the national government, and the demands made by the dispossessed poor who migrate to newly accessible regions in hopes of a better life. The outcome has been the wholesale deforestation of huge tracts of the Amazon and the displacement of indigenous communities.

Incidentally, indigenous communities throughout the Amazon have traditionally been the best stewards of the forest, protecting it from the ever-rapacious processes of global economic development. While many of these communities are engaged in sustainable land-management practices, they do not yield profits for giant agribusiness firms with connections to investment banks.

What is to be done? In confronting this crisis, we must address the underlying dynamics that are driving the processes of deforestation. In Brazil, the highly unequal distribution of productive agricultural land is one of the principal factors that has driven dispossessed migrants into the Amazon. Egalitarian agrarian reform — a long-standing, unfulfilled demand of rural populations — would be an important means of restructuring the social system in a way that would enable smallholder farmers to produce goods on productive land that doesn’t border the Amazon.

More broadly speaking, the hegemonic norms of economic development, constantly reinforced by the projects and policies financed by international institutions such as the World Bank, positively encourages the continued destruction of all rainforests, not just the Amazon. When production of primary commodities at the lowest possible price is the overriding imperative guiding the global economic system, roads will continue to be paved through the planet’s pristine wildernesses — roads that connect new paper mills and mines to markets, that service oil and gas pipelines, and, above all, that facilitate agricultural development in and around forests, the single most important activity driving deforestation. Profound pressure must be brought to bear on the basic structure of our global economic system if these fires are to be squelched.

In place of conventional market-based development schemes, community-based institutions would go a long way to guarding against continued deforestation and the fires they bring. Securing land rights for indigenous communities and allowing for their self-governance, community-based forestry has long been understood to be one of the best land-management regimes, successfully leading to decreased deforestation in places like Nepal and Indonesia.

Although Bolsonaro is no friend of the Amazon, and his rhetoric and policies have emboldened many to transgress legally codified limitations on deforestation more brazenly, this problem runs much deeper than the events of the past eight months. Indeed, the dominant institutions and norms of the global economic settlement of the past seventy-five years lie at the root of this problem; but thus far, international press coverage has been largely unwilling to adopt a structural perspective. The process of deforestation is driven by economic imperatives of global capitalism that are bolstered by the very Western states whose indignant populations and leaders are currently calling on Brazil to clean up its act.

Blaming Bolsonaro is easy, and he is certainly part of the problem. But stopping the proliferation of these fires (which are burning in every rainforest across the planet) and truly reversing the process of deforestation that is helping to drive our civilization off a cliff requires a much more self-critical stance. Rather than heaping the blame upon a single villain outside our sphere of influence, we ought to transcend this Manichean worldview and apply our criticism to institutions that we can actually influence. The World Bank is one place to start.