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Proletarian issue 77 (April 2017)
Destruction of the Amazon rainforest – a symptom of capitalism
Proof once more that you have to be red to be green!
It is no secret that the Amazon rainforest has faced huge deforestation and destruction in recent years. However, the scale of the deforestation is less well known, and the reasons why the Amazon must be protected are not that widely known outside of environmentalist circles. Why is the Amazon being destroyed? And why should we care?

The scale of deforestation

The Amazon rainforest stretches across areas of Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, Guyana, Peru, Suriname, Venezuela and Guiana (which is still under French colonial rule). According to the Brazilian National Institute of Space Research (INPE, 768,935 square kilometres of the Brazilian Amazon have been destroyed since 1970 (Brazil accounts for 60 percent of the Amazon). That’s nearly eight acres a minute in Brazil alone – and deforestation goes on at a similar rate in the remaining 40 percent of the Amazon.

Thousands of trees are cut down every minute in the rainforest. The number cut down since 1970 is incalculable.

Deforestation had, to some extent as the result of pressure from environmentalists and the genuine efforts of progressive Latin American governments to preserve their countries’ ecology, been seeing a downward trend in recent years. However, according to environmentalist website Mongabay, the amount increased in Brazil by 29 percent from 2015 to 2016 – the highest it’s been since 2008, which itself saw a significant increase from 2007.

In only one year the area destroyed has been massive: “The numbers, released by Brazil’s National Space Research Institute INPE on Monday, show that 7,989 square kilometres of rainforest were destroyed between August 2015 and July 2016. The loss is equivalent to an area 135 times the size of Manhattan or the combined land mass of the American states of Connecticut and Delaware.” (Brazil: deforestation in the Amazon increased 29 percent over last year by Rhett A Butler, Mongabay, 30 November 2016)

Tempting though it would be to blame the new pro-imperialist usurper government headed by President Temer, the renewed surge in deforestation in fact began while Dilma Rousseff’s government was still in office. It is not a question primarily of which government is in office, but of the health of the economy, and, as is well known, Brazil’s economy has been suffering badly of late:

“Brazil's economy is going through its worst recession in more than three decades following a drop in prices for Brazilian commodities such as oil, iron ore and soya.

“In 2015, the economy shrank by 3.8 percent, its worst annual performance since 1981.

“Inflation reached 10.7 percent at the end of last year, a 12-year-high.

“Unemployment increased to 9 percent in 2015 and economists predict it could go into double figures in the coming months.

“The forecast for 2016 does not look any rosier with GDP expected to decline by 3.8 percent again and inflation expected to rise.” (What has gone wrong in Brazil? BBC News, 31 August 2016)

When the Brazilian economy was booming as a result of high commodity prices, a government prepared to resist imperialist looting in order to use its wealth to benefit its people is able to work wonders. Not only did Lula and Rousseff’s governments lift millions out of poverty, but they were also able to take very effective measures to protect the environment.

But boom is ever followed by bust. Now, because of its present dire financial difficulties, the current Brazilian government (like its predecessor, despite the latter’s commitment to looking after the interests of the masses of people and of the environment) has had to row back and look for revenue to fund its projects wherever it can.

So long as capitalism exists, there is no escape from periodic crises of overproduction or the consequences of crisis, regardless of the good intentions this or that government might have. In Brazil, the main cause of the crisis is the precipitate fall in world demand for the country’s commodity exports, including oil, which has decimated the government’s tax receipts and therefore its ability to meet its obligations to the people.

Causes of deforestation

It is generally due to the systemic failures of capitalism that the Amazon being destroyed – now, as in the past.

It is capitalism that has always led to the destruction of the rainforest, and the worse the capitalist crisis is the more the Amazon is deforested. This is because, when faced with economic downturn, the capitalists abandon their ‘nice-to-have’ environmental policies.

We live in the era of imperialist capitalism, where not just profit must be extracted but maximum profit. The capitalist that fails in this regard is the capitalist that goes bankrupt. Huge areas of the Amazon are being destroyed in order to build capitalist mega-farms. The biggest cause is cattle farming, followed by logging, then other crops, such as bananas, palm trees for palm oil, and maize. (See Why are they being destroyed, RainforestConcern.org)

In addition, farms are being set up by the desperate poor, who would otherwise face starvation. Although nominally the self-employed ‘owners’ of the land, many farmers in the Amazon are not much more than subcontractors for the big agricultural monopolies. (See, for instance, Amazon deforestation, once tamed, now comes roaring back by Hiroko Tabuchi and Claire Rigby, New York Times, 24 February 2017)

It should be noted that it is only capitalism that makes it necessary for peasants to destroy rainforest in order to survive. Viewed from the standpoint of the people, neither Brazil nor the wider world need more farms in the Amazon. According to the Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) of the United Nations, the world as a whole produces 2,700 calories per person per day – 200 more than the average man needs and 700 more than the average woman needs. If society functioned on the basis of fair distribution, we certainly would not need more farms than we currently have. And yet, 800 million people in the world live in chronic undernutrition and want. (See Agriculture and food security, Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations)

The logging industry, on the other hand, is not run by poor farmers but largely by big business, owing to the initial expense of logging – though they would not do it if it did not reap a large reward. Naturally, logging requires continued cutting down of trees, as the wood it produces is consumed. It would be perfectly possible for this logging to be sustainable, if fresh trees were planted to replace the ones cut down and the loggers rotated around plots of land as the trees grew. But would the capitalists do this? It doesn’t make them maximum profit, so no, they will not do this unless they see it as the most profitable solution, which is unlikely, certainly until far more of the Amazon has been destroyed.

Why we should be concerned about deforestation

When they can no longer pretend that deforestation doesn’t happen; when the evidence is laid before them and they cannot discredit it, the capitalists often will then counter: “Why should we care? What does it matter to humanity if there are a few fewer trees?”

There are many reasons to defend the rainforest, but two very practical ones in particular stand out:

First, humanity needs the Amazon for medicines. Many important medicines are developed from plants that either mainly or only grow in the Amazon. For example, Quinine, for treating malaria, comes from the chicona tree, and colchicine, for the treatment of gout, comes from the colchicum flower. To this day, new medicine-producing plants are being found in the Amazon, such as cancer treatments from the Pacific yew tree, and d-turbocuarine from barks of certain trees, which is now being used to treat muscular disorders such as multiple sclerosis and Parkinson’s disease. (See Medicinal treasures of the rainforest, Adevnture-Life.com and Drugs derived from rainforest plants, Mongabay.com)

The importance of these medicines is so great that it’s hard to overstate the case; diseases that affect millions upon millions of people can be treated by plants that grow mainly or only in the Amazon. Deforestation is robbing us of these plants, and preventing us from making new discoveries from other plants that might one day be used to treat still more people.

Second, and even more urgently, we need the Amazon to fight against climate change. The Amazon accounts for over 20 percent of the world’s production of oxygen, which is produced from carbon dioxide by plants. (See Commonly asked questions and facts, RainforestFoundation.org)

Carbon dioxide is the most common greenhouse gas, which sits in the atmosphere absorbing sunlight and thus heating up the world. Global warming causes the melting of glaciers, which is raising sea levels and will ultimately cause mass destruction of human cities and a multitude of plant and animal species if not checked. Global warming causes mass expansion of certain species and the dwindling of others. A lot of the species that expand rapidly with the increase of temperature are pests (at least, from humanity’s point of view!), destroying crops and damaging the delicate ecosystem that allows our own species to survive and thrive.

The biggest obstacle to global warming is the massive conversion of carbon dioxide to oxygen in the plants and trees of the Amazon. Alongside making changes in how we produce and consume, we must also protect the Amazon in order to save our world from destruction.

The only alternative to capitalism is socialism – ie, the seizure by the proletariat of the means of production and using these on the basis not of profit but instead of economic planning to meet the needs and interests of the masses of working people. These needs of course include the most fundamental one of preserving an environment that is fit for human habitation.

The earth will certainly survive drastic changes in the climate that the actions of people have caused; the people themselves may very well not do so. Thus the fight for socialism is truly a matter of life or death for humanity, which is why our party continues to explain:

You have to be red to be green; only socialism can save the planet!
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