This is a blog post based on an earlier text from September 2019. It was published here as an engament with the contributions by COUPLED fellow Tiago Reis on his fieldwork in Brazil.

Cover photo: NASA Earth Observatory images by Joshua Stevens, using MODIS data from NASA EOSDIS/LANCE and GIBS/Worldview, Fire Information for Resource Management System (FIRMS) data from NASA EOSDIS, and data from the Global Fire Emissions Database (GFED) [Public domain]

Written by Finn Mempel

The news coverage on the Amazon fires clearly demonstrates: If we panic, we lose sight of the big picture. What can we learn and what needs to be discussed?

“There’s a fire!” If you hear this exclamation, usually you are advised to act quickly. This was also the reaction of the global village after the first reports on the fires in the Amazon. It didn’t take long until social media, blogs and newspaper columns all over the world were flooded with reports and comments. Initially, there was a storm of dismay, panic and anger. When the media coverage finally began to look at the bigger picture, the interest seemed to have faded. But a critical and honest engagement opens up many uncomfortable questions.

Facts and contexts in the age of Bolsonaro and Trump

It is clear that in the first wave of media reporting, many mistakes were made. Firstly, many reports used emotional and dramatic images without any connection to the recent fires as well as completely unfounded statements on the Amazon. But even when reports got some of the facts right, they often distorted the events by failing to put them in context, in order to ensure sensationalist and alarmist headlines.

The recent increase in deforestation was often wrongly characterized as an all-time high or as unprecedented because monthly data from 2019 was only compared to the same period in 2018. However, deforestation rates and the extent of the fires had been much more severe in previous decades and final data for deforestation rates between August 2018 and July 2019 from the satellite-based PRODES system were only released much later, in late November. They show an increase of 29.5 % compared to the previous year. This is significant and gives reason for concern, but it is far from the often reported 88.4%, which were only based on monthly averages from the real-time DETER monitoring system.

As the founder and CEO of the environmental news platform Mongabay, Rhett A. Butler, already warned in a commentary in early July, this kind of reporting potentially plays into Bolsonaro’s agenda. The controversial Brazilian president seems to pursue a strategy of dismissing the entire issue as some sort of conspiracy between international news outlets, NGOs and the Brazilian Institute for Space Research (INPE). The latter is responsible for creating datasets on deforestation and forest fires. When it released a warning on a relative increase in deforestation for the month of June compared to 2018, Bolsonaro accused the institute of manipulation. After a public dispute between Bolsonaro and the Institute’s president, Ricardo Galvão, the latter was dismissed from his post in August.

When some media outlets began to back-paddle and analyze the entire time-series over the past decades, Butler’s warning seemed to have materialized. Forbes published a commentary by Micheal Shellenberger, co-founder of the Breakthrough Institute, who rightly criticized parts of the new coverage, but in his rage over the headlines completely downplayed the role of Bolsonaro as well as the socio-ecological consequences of further deforestation. Shellenberger based his commentary mainly on an interview with Daniel Nepstad, a well known scientist and expert on the Amazon. Nepstad later distanced himself from the article on Twitter.

Just as the progressive media in the US seemed to have built up some false expectations ahead of the Mueller report, so did the international media in the first wave of coverage on the Amazon fires. This is dangerous, since it fits into the conspiracy-theory-laden anti-media narratives of the right-wing populist Bolsonaro. And it is unnecessary, because there is absolutely no need to warp or misrepresent information in order to lay bare the cruel and shortsighted nature of the Bolsonaro administration, its contradictory discourse and its implications in driving deforestation, violence and expulsion in the Amazon basin and elsewhere.

Anti-colonial discourse from the far-right

Bolsonaro in the White House. Credit: Alan Santos/PR [CC BY (]
Bolsonaro in the White House. Credit: Alan Santos/PR [CC BY (]

A peculiar feature of the international debate has been Bolsonaro’s denouncement of concerned or critical comments coming from European governments as some type of neo-colonial interference in Brazil’s domestic affairs. According to him, European countries were better off reforesting at home, rather than telling others what to do. It is difficult to find an adequate response to this rhetoric. Critical voices from social movements in the Global South have also often criticized a tendency of Western countries to compensate or offset emissions through reforestation projects elsewhere, rather than reducing the embodied emissions and resources in their consumption and assuming responsibility for the emissions already accumulated for hundreds of years. How then, can we deal with this anti-colonial discourse from the far-right?

Left-leaning politicians in Brazil have also denounced the rather extreme calls of turning the Amazon basin into some sort of international protectorate as a common global heritage, which reappear every now and then in the debate. In 2001, the former PT politician Cristovam Buarque ended his opinion piece for The Globalist with the words: “as long as the world treats me as a Brazilian, I shall fight for the Amazon to remain ours. All ours.”

What distinguishes Bolsonaros discourse from these voices are his own attacks against the existing legal and constitutional arrangements in Brazil. His aggressive denigration of indigenous communities and his repeated calls for the plundering of their lands are much closer to a new form of colonial project than the interference coming from Europe. In a similar fashion, as Trump hides his anti-poor tax policies behind a discursive curtain of the forgotten working class, Bolsonaro sweeps his violent colonial project under a rug of anti-colonial rhetoric.

Instrumentalizing “nature” and indigenous peoples

The news coverage also often engaged in a very dualist notion of society and nature. It is important to clarify that the Amazon rainforest is coproduced by humans and the rest of nature. It is no pure nature void of civilization. Indigenous communities have introduced many tree species and the famous “terra preta” is a result of pre-colonial soil management practices involving the use of fire. The fact that the rainforest plays an important role in the global carbon cycle does not justify reducing it to that use value, just because the international community finally begins to take global climate change seriously. This would instrumentalize the region in a similar fashion as the agribusiness lobby does. Some seem to see the Amazon only as a site of commodity expansion, while others see it only as piles of inanimate carbon stocks, which can potentially be converted into exchange value through global carbon credit markets.

This also reflects an instrumentalization of indigenous communities in different narratives. On one hand, the racist image of the noble savage essentializes these communities as wild, uncorrupted, romantic-primitive beings with idealized qualities and thereby denounces any type of intensified land-use or resource extraction as an impurity caused by the encroachment of Western modernity. On the other hand, any example of indigenous communities practicing commercial extractive activities, such as mining, is used to claim that the linear model of development, progress and modernity has no alternative.

However, the Brazilian legal framework very clearly states that, on indigenous lands, these communities have exclusive usufruct rights and that they are allowed to engage in both reproductive and commercial activities. Instead of the general outrage on fires in the Amazon basin, there should have been an outcry on where, why and by whom some of those fires were started: In many cases this was on indigenous lands, strategically placed to challenge these legal rights, encouraged by Bolsonaro’s aggressive rhetoric and often accompanied by deadly violence. The Bolsonaro administration has to be pressured to acknowledge the existing indigenous territories and to continue with the process of demarcation, which was started in the 1970s but has not been concluded to this day.

Global entanglements of justice, power and responsibility

In a second wave of media coverage, starting in late August, the focus finally shifted from Bolsonaro’s rhetoric and the responses from Europe towards Brazil’s agribusiness, transnational corporations, global consumption patterns and the workings of global finance capital. The expansion of soybean mono-cultures and cattle ranges in Brazil was linked to consumers in the West and the multinational corporations who operate in these value chains. What question do we have to ask and which debates do we need have in the future?

Similar to the yellow-vest protests in France, these recent debates illustrate how struggles towards global environmental- and climate-justice are often portrayed as being in conflict with concerns for distribution of material wealth within Western countries. An example for this is an interview lead by the German newspaper “taz” with the German minister for agriculture, Julia Klöckner, in 2018. Asked about a potential tax on meat and other animal products, Klöckner dismissively responded that these products should not become “something only for higher earners” [own translation]. Hidden within this statement lies an extreme form of denial towards the real political imperative: If the rising inequality of income and wealth makes it impossible to use taxes on consumer items as steering instruments, then this is just another argument to finally seriously tackle this inequality. To defend artificially low prices for extremely resource-intensive products instead can only be a sign of political short sightedness and denial.

Does this mean that we can understand the reliance of imported “Cheap Nature” – natural resources and sinks, which are appropriated in frontier regions on the limits of territorial control – as intrinsically tied to the decades-long stagnation of real wages, neoliberal austerity politics and increasing inequalities in large parts of the West? And does this constitute an opportunity to address several overlapping injustices at once? This is questionable, since the relative inclusiveness of economic growth for working classes in the era of post-World War I Fordism also relied on Cheap Nature from the South, for example in the form of rubber from the Amazon basin and later from South-East Asia. Rather, different layers of (in)justices are entangled and mutually reinforcing in different ways.

The philosopher Nancy Fraser demands that questions of (in)justice have to be re-framed in a globalized world, in which global value chains connect us in a myriad of ways through semi-permeable national borders. While John Rawls had insisted on the nation-state as the relevant territorial unit for his theory of justice, Fraser suggests that new institutions have to deliberate and decide on issues of distribution, participation and recognition in a globalized, “post-westphalian” world. Non-binding footnotes in trade agreements or private initiatives will hardly live up to this demand. The French Corporate Duty Of Vigilance Law however, which holds companies legally accountable for social and environmental impacts in their supply chains, can be seen as a step in this direction.

How can we understand power in these contexts and which countries or actors bear responsibility for ecological and social impacts of consumer items? Should we focus on the new agribusiness powerhouse Brazil, where federal and regional governments can directly influence work conditions and the dynamics of soy expansion? Or do we have to scrutinize countries or regions, which import these soybeans, such as the European Union, where the consumption culture based on cheap imported resources has been described as an “imperial mode of living” by the political scientist Ulrich Brand. Or is it more appropriate to examine those specific actors, which control the most important segments of the value chain and generate the largest revenues, such as land barons, grain-traders, biotech corporations or investment management operations?

The late Iris Marion Young took up these questions when she examined sweatshops in the global textile industry. With respect to structural injustices she demanded that each actor should bear a share of responsibility according to their level of influence over the existing structure, their privileges within that structure and their interest in change. But how could these reflections be translated into concrete institutions, given the complex mesh of national legislation, multilateral treaties, international conventions and multi-stakeholder-initiatives?

Optimism and pragmatism or structural change?

The ruins of Fordlândia in the legal Amazon. Credits: Wikimedia User: (WT-shared) Amitevron at  wts wikivoyage [CC BY-SA (]
The ruins of Fordlândia in the legal Amazon. Credits: Wikimedia User: (WT-shared) Amitevron at wts wikivoyage [CC BY-SA (]

As has been mentioned in many news reports, there had already been significant changes in the dynamics within the legal Amazon. After increasing until 2004, annually deforested area had shown a negative trend in the past 15 years. But what can we make of these developments? Is there reason for optimism? On the one hand there is a controversial debate on whether the decrease in deforestation rates in the legal Amazon had simply shifted the problem towards the Cerrado and Gran Chaco biomes, which have also seen many cases of violent expulsion of rural communities and ethnic minorities. And even if there are successes, who can we attribute them to? Some will emphasize the work of large international conservation NGOs and their cooperation with business stakeholders as in the “Roundtable of Responsible Soy”. Others will point to large governmental programs like the Action Plan for the Prevention and Control of Deforestation in the Legal Amazon (PPCDAM) implemented by the Lula administration. And then there are those, who highlight the decades-long grassroots mobilizations by social movements and indigenous communities.

Scientists often stress the fact that deforestation in the Amazon could be ended by closing yield gaps in other regions with bad management practices or limited investment. The push of the agricultural frontier into the Cerrado savanna region, which was long seen as barren and unattractive, has often been seen as a great success story. But these narratives have a bitter taste to them ever since the land-grabbing debate after the 2009 food crisis. One very common feature of these cases was that entire regions were presented as barren, idle, under-producing or empty through reports and maps to attract investment. However, critics have long pointed out that these areas are hardly ever empty, but used in different ways by local communities, who are often displaced through land-acquisitions.

A further question is in how far the continued incursion of commodities into sensitive biomes is at its very core a structural phenomenon. After the debt crisis of the 1980s and the foreign-imposed structural adjustment programs, Brazil has built up an export-oriented agricultural sector as a means to equalize its trade balance. It was thereby also a base of fiscal revenue for the social-programs implemented by the Lula and Rousseff administrations. The decrease of deforestation between 2004 and 2014 also happened in a period of high commodity prices due to constantly increasing demand from China. When this demand leveled off and prices dropped in 2015, Brazil fell into an economic crisis, which was emotionally exploited by conservative forces to form the basis of the impeachment process against Dilma Rousseff. A close look also reveals a slight increase in annual deforestation rates since 2015. The economic crisis thereby pushed small producers into poverty and in the longer term gave political power into the hands of forces closely aligned with big agribusiness. The importance of agricultural exports for Brazils economy therefore result in a situation, in which the expansion of commodity frontiers can be a political tool to gain important allies and to strive for short-term economic stability.

Different interpretations concerning the root causes of these phenomena are also mirrored in different approaches and visions for the future between pragmatism and systemic critique. On the one side, there are those calls for more efficient agricultural production, more traceability of commodities or more transparent institutions to tackle deforestation. On the other side there are fundamental questions on a global food system, which does not serve the needs of all, but the profits of a few, by circulating millions of tonnes of grains and oilseeds though infinite stomachs of tortured animals to deliver meat and eggs for those who can afford it. And while even many poor communities have directly or indirectly profited from the agricultural boom in Brazil, this can also be read as a painful and slow trickle-down effect with enormous socio-ecological impacts. And did the sudden end of the rubber boom not prove how fast a bubble of Cheap Nature can burst? The remains of Fordlândia still bear witness to this. The ruins of this failed rubber-community are a ghost of the past haunting the present soybean boom, right from it’s very heart.

When we look back into the fire, we have to open our eyes and learn from the past. If we are willing to honestly engage with the multiple crisis facing us in the Anthropocene, we have to look beyond sensationalist headlines and face those questions, which uncomfortably sit in our stomach and we tend to ignore.

The author

Finn Mempel


Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona, ICTA – Institut de Ciènca i Tecnologia Ambientals

UAB Campus, 08193 Bellaterra (Cerdanoyla del Vallès), Spain

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