Sometimes just a brief visit to a place is enough to make one feel deeply emotionally invested in it – in love, even, or at least rivetted with admiration or awe. This has been the case with my own fleeting sojourns in southern Patagonia and in the Amazon forests. In the latter case I wasn’t even in especially deep jungle – a tourist camp not so far from the million-soul city of Manaus, not far beyond the edge of logging operations. But I was instantly, sensuously, in love with the flooded varzea, the sounds of howler monkeys, and the extraordinary sun-patterns of leaves, even with the forbidding spiders and the taste of piranha fish and the military columns of vicious ants.
So it’s with increasing dismay that I read article after article warning of threats to the integrity of the Amazon basin and its astounding diversity of both human and non-human denizens. Some warnings are embedded in global reports, such as that of the World Wildlife Fund, which details how some 60% of non-human biodiversity has been destroyed by human activity in the last few decades. Another report, drawing on extensive satellite-generated data, reveals that only five countries hold some 70% of that biodiversity. One of those countries is Brazil, in which the Amazonian basin largely lies.
A second wave of more sharply localised reports has accompanied the recent presidential election in Brazil, which to the world’s general horror has brought to power a fascistic lunatic, Jair Bolsonaro. He compares himself to the aggressive and ignorant Donald Trump (who himself has spent the last two years rescinding some 76 Clinton- and Obama-era laws designed to protect the US environment – which is also to say, protecting citizens against their own unthinking destructiveness). Bolsonaro has lost no time in expressing support for expanding Amazonia’s agribusiness – in whose financial pocket he nestles – and infrastructural projects into the Amazon. Between the two of them, these leaders constitute a veritable ecological Antichrist.
Bolsonaro and Trump, and their supporters, are of course only the latest spearhead to a long-evolving process. If you thought that Trump was transparently biased against environmental health in appointing an Exxon oil exec to head the Environmental Protection Agency, recall that the two Bush presidents did so, too. And it’s not only hard-right leaders at fault: recall that Brazil’s leftist president Lula da Silva, now in jail for corruption, had also approved a massive hydroelectric dam project on an Amazon tributary – just one of dozens either under construction or planned. (If there is any slowing down of this, it may ironically be because of the revelation of the so-called “Car-Wash” corruption scandal that did for Lula.)
The Amazon has been under siege for a long time, particularly in the so-called Arc of Deforestation, a two thousand-mile swathe from the lower south-western edge of the basin to the north-eastern regions abutting the Atlantic coast. Dam building is just one threat: Brazil has touted itself as the nation of clean hydroelectricity for several decades. This is despite the now manifest problems with such grand, pride-driven nationalistic projects which, from the Colorado to the Ganges, have proven short-lived, destructive and economically inefficient. The US and India have started walking back from big dams, and in January this year an undertaking was made by Brazil, then under Temer, to also slow down on the dams. I am not so confident that Bolsonaro will honour that pledge, whatever the dire ecological effects will be on the basin’s ecosystems, its dependence on annual flooding, its tens of thousands of displaced indigenous people, and its wildlife. The latter can no longer be regarded as merely a frosting of interesting animals for tourists to gape at: they are vitally functional elements in complex ecosystems which constitute one of the world’s greatest carbon sinks and therefore a crucial stabiliser of global climate.
Other threats are just as important, especially agrobusinesses: not only logging and mining, sanctioned and otherwise, and not only conversion to pasture for cattle to supply the hungry northern fast-food chains, but also more nominally benign plantations, especially soybeans, manioc and rice. All involve deforestation, desiccation of wetlands, and human displacement on a huge scale: in one estimate, 52 000 square miles per year.
The fate of the indigenous peoples – groups of whom have remained sheltered from the invasion of modernity until very recently – is central to the trauma, and they are also central players in such resistance as can be marshalled. In the environmental impact studies supposed to mitigate new projects’ effects, Amazonians are routinely simply ignored, the integrity of their lifeways dismissed as irrelevant, their knowledge of their environment either exploited without compensation or derided. Reserves intended to protect them or wildlife comprise a tiny proportion of the whole basin. This is despite Article 225 of Brazil’s Constitution, which states that all citizens have a right to an ecologically balanced environment.
The depth of indigenous knowledge comes across strongly in Wade Davis’s extraordinary account of ethnobotany in the Amazon, One River. As Davis and his ethnobotanical predecessors ranged across the Amazon in tireless searches for – and ‘discovery’ of – literally hundreds of plant species “new to science”, they found tribe after tribe with profound and intricate, both practical and myth-enriched, knowledge of the forest’s plants. Here is just one passage of many:
The children appeared to know everything about plants and were somewhat taken aback by our ignorance. Shyly at first and then in great bursts of enthusiasm they explained that plants were like people, each with its own mood and story. Cacti sleep by night. Mushrooms grow when they hear thunder, lichens only in the presence of human voices. The solitary blossoms of the open field have no feelings for others. Delicate gentians fold up their petals in shame ... All plants have names and are useful ...
This is not just quaint: it is a saving pointer towards an ecology living itself out through us, not being controlled by its human components. Of course one can over-romanticise such lives – people who live in astonishing congruence with plants and animals and insects, all but immune to the physical ills of modernity from heart disease to blood pressure to diabetes, and simply not going anywhere – immune also to the myths of “progress” and “profit” that drive the world’s technological societies. including Brazil’s agro-industrial elites. Nor perhaps can they be preserved in amber; one of Davis’s interlocutors argues that Amazonians, being as intelligently curious about other worlds as any incoming tourist, should have the choice of what to embrace in modernity if they want to.
Fair enough – but most often they have no choice: their forests, and everything they have ever known, is catastrophically burned, cut or flooded away beneath them with neither understanding nor compassion nor compensation.
Davis also shows how profound outsiders’ misunderstanding can be. As it happens, he and his mentor Richard Schultes were mostly intrigued by Amazonians’ sundry use of hallucinogenics and their spiritualist associations. The most common of these is coca, which in its raw chewed form is a mild stimulant but also highly nutritive, and a crucial element in daily life, from mindset to nutrition, from origin myths to shamanic ritual. This fine-tuned and entirely harmless dependence on coca has been totally ignored because, of course, coca is also the source of cocaine. The US-led “War on Drugs” throws out the baby with the bathwater: in trying indiscriminately to destroy coca crops, especially in Colombia, the authorities are waging war on an entire cultural nexus which has been satisfactorily in place for millennia. Little wonder (quite apart from new global drugs-economics) the war is failing.
The short story, in a highly fragmented and conflictual situation (more environmental defenders have been murdered in Brazil than in any other country), is that a massive shift in governmental mindset, policy-making, financial dependencies and enforceable legislation is required. Though the seeds of more fruitful policies exist, such a turnaround seems unlikely. José Heder Benatti is a contributor to a massively detailed volume of essays, tables and maps, Biodiversity in the Brazilian Amazon (2004 - a book Bolsonaro should read carefully, alongside Wade Davis). Benatti makes a rare and gloomy foray into literary philosophy:
The expression “Man is a wolf to man” is well-known. This quotation summarises the ideas of Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679), who argued that man in his natural state was individualistic, profoundly selfish, and with insatiable desires for power, which would only end at death. ... Thus he did not naturally live by cooperation; he was not a social being by nature. Life in society was a pact, artificial and precarious, and insufficient in itself to guarantee peace. For the pact to be honoured and peace secured, it was necessary for individuals to renounce their right to everything and transfer it to a sovereign with absolute powers. ... Leviathan.
Even as indigenous Amazonians seem to prove Hobbes wrong in part concerning the first point, it is in modernity that we seem to have voluntarily given ourselves up to superior powers, whether these manifest as a Zimbabwean dictator, a democratically-elected set of idiots, or the mind-numbing addiction to Samsung and Apple. Benatti goes on:
Man and nature are unable to live ‘naturally’ in harmony – the former will always try to modify, change, or destroy the latter, disrupting the ecological balance and putting ecosystems at risk. Protected areas have to be created in order to ensure a ‘peaceful’ co-existence and the survival of nature. However such a pact of mutual respect can function only if there is a strong absolute State ... an ecological Leviathan.
Benatti might be right, even as globally we wrestle with unruly forms of democratisation that militate against precisely such absolutism – and therefore against sufficiently far-reaching moves to save nature, and our better natures. Perhaps the best hope, though it’s a slow-acting antidote, is a thorough-going re-education – an education that would teach Leviathan, like certain individuals, to fall in love with things strange and beautiful, to treasure something other than itself.