Saturday, June 11, 2016

Over the Ruins of Amazonia: At the Frontiers of Climate Change

The indigenous population of the Amazon are key chess pieces in the current 'game' of climate change. Located mostly in Brazil but shared with neighbouring countries, and representing over half of the world's remaining rain forest (!!!), what happens in the contest between protectors of the Amazon rainforest - including activists, some scientists, some NGOs, and indigenous populations - and those neoliberal multinationals and government forces which would want to exploit it in the context of Brazil's emerging economy, will play a large role in determining to what extent irreversible damage is done to this particular pivotal area, and have a reverberating effect on similar conflicts. As with many contested sites: the battle-lines are increasingly clear, the stakes are global, and those defending the Amazon are in a position of increasing weakness against well-resourced, in a way unbeatable, global machine of capitalism. As hopeless as it is to struggle against this overwhelming force, it won't stop soon.

Brazil's 'coup' (parentheses only for technical definition reasons, I am happy to call it a coup) last month has not exactly helped the situation, although as architect Paolo Tavares points out in his comprehensive lecture, part of HAU's curated Brazil-focused program called The Sky is Already Falling, it's just another complicated political event in a long tradition of Brazilian political history. The leftist governments of the 1980s, he points out, actually accelerated the forced relocation of indigenous populations in the Amazon, in the name of forest clearing and cultivation. The impeachment will have an effect, and yes that would appear to be largely negative in terms of the aforementioned conflict, but it's not necessarily a large change from what was already occurring anyway. This is a bipartisan project of colonial violence propelled by capitalist interest.

About half way through the lecture, it began to dawn on me that this was one of the most informative lectures I had ever sat in. Not only is Tavares specific in his scientific focus - the identification of former indigenous sites through employing forest-age calculating technology - he also contextualizes it politically, and offers some speculative, but grounded, positions extending from the quantitative conclusions. The political violence, he posits, is equaled by the physical violence: murders of activists along the frontier of the forced relocations of indigenous populations exactly match the multinational-led push for territory. Such a trend also occurs historically, especially during the military government of the 60s, motivated differently but with the largely the same outcome, and continuing after that in various forms. Questions from the audience were a combination of detailed, informed, and technical enquiry. The talk lasted 150 minutes in total.

The common agenda, states Tavares, is one of development - which, in a post Cold War context, has its own ideology. Different political leadership simply dresses up an almost identical objective: the clearing of rain forest for different types of economic exploitation (mono-cultures, timber plantations, crops and so on), and the 'unavoidable' forced relocation of indigenous populations. What was previously a matter of Marxist nation-building is now being 'open for business'. The postcolonial narrative continues in Brazil, a legacy of Portguese colonisation this time internalised to become a violence against indigenous populations.  No reparation occurs, because to do so would mean stopping the current violence.

It's all sadly familiar to an Australian who is vaguely acquainted with these issues domestically, and indeed, the situation is being reproduced globally in post-colonial societies. Within the development/anti-development paradigm, leftist governments just provide a feel-good alternative means to carry out the same exploitation. Indigenous populations are no more or less addressed - both the victim and the key oppostional voice in such a political landscape, and not coincidentally, remaining unheard. Moderator and sociologist Regine Schönenberg's expert entry into the dialogue brought a story of indigenous leaders from widely disparate parts of Brazil invited to a UN convention on climate, traveling by car, then bus, then small plane, then larger plane, then even larger plane, then public transport, a total of 3 days, only to be told be the convention that they had 10 minutes to speak. '10 minutes each!' They cried. 'How are we supposed to represent our people and their issues in 10 minutes! Conferences in our community last 6 hours minimum!' The UN representative sheepishly corrects them: 'not 10 minutes each. 10 minutes in total. For the three of you'. Such a story is not an isolated incident: with such conferences giving symbolic lip-service to indigenous narratives which simultaneously dismissing their actual significance. Schönenberg's non-attempt to represent the stress of this situation can be put down to the feeling of hopelessness one encounters struggling against such forces: right through to struggles of scientific publication, where historical context is deemed irrelevant in comparison with utilisable strategies and data, and the scientist has research cherry-picked for convenient information, the broader argument ignored. A different type of mining.

We must believe this context will shift, and can do so without violence. But it requires much more education, and a sense of political willingness, and time is very clearly running out. The global west-led neoliberal project, which has built a context where there is no motivation for preserving Brazil's Amazon, nor listening to its indigenous narratives, must be shifted slowly, painstakingly, one by one. Indigenous narratives hold the key to this - as Tavares questions, 'What would an indigenous perspective open up for revolutionary activity?' - and the last-minute erasure of references to indigenous rights from the COP21 agreement in Paris should become a starting point for wider public consciousness about the key place such discourse holds in guiding policy and attitudes to the environment.

Over the Ruins of Amazonia: At the Frontiers of Climate Change
by Paolo Tavaras
Moderation:  Regine Schönenberg

This lecture is part of an ongoing program at HAU called The Sky is Already Falling, until 19.6 

No comments:

Post a Comment