The future of the Amazon rain forest – Sonia Bone Guajajara
Host Chris Hedges talks to Sonia Bone Guajajara, leader of 300 indigenous ethnic groups in Brazil, about the future of the Amazon rain forest, its people, climate change, and the competing goals of agrobusiness, multinational corporations, and the policies of conservative Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro.
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CH: Welcome to On Contact. Today, we will discuss how the right-wing government in Brazil is making war not only against indigenous communities but the Amazon itself.
SG: [SPEAKING IN FOREIGN LANGUAGE] We need to understand that, to see nature and defend life itself. We need to defend life itself. And when you promote agribusiness at the forest, you are promoting death. So this is the difference, the democratic use of land and us, as indigenous people, fighting for the land demarcation which is collective use and when they sell it, it's individual use.
CH: The right-wing president of Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro, has vowed to slash the country's environmental regulations and laws, and in his words, open the Amazon for business. He proposes new vast deforestation projects that will accelerate the release of greenhouse gas emissions. His assault is not only disastrous for the climate but for indigenous communities and environmental activists, who are being harassed, silenced, jailed, and murdered. Bolsonaro is being aided not only by the Trump Administration, but by US agribusiness corporations, such as Archer Daniels Midland. As well as their investors, BlackRock, State Street, and Vanguard. These giant agribusinesses, engaged in soy and beef production, are responsible for 90% of the Amazon's deforestation. They now stand to make huge profits from Bolsonaro's pillaging and brutal internal oppression. The intergovernmental panel on climate change, it's most recent reports warns that we have about a decade left to save ourselves from climate catastrophe that will extinguish most life forms, including the human species. The struggle by indigenous communities and activists in Brazil is our own. Joining me in the studio to discuss the fight to protect the Amazon and restore Brazilian democracy is the activist, Sonia Guajajara. She was the socialism and Liberty Party candidate for the vice-presidency of Brazil in the 2018 general elections, and is the leader of Articulation of the Indigenous Peoples of Brazil, an organization the represents around 300 indigenous ethnic groups in Brazil. Thank you for joining me. Let's talk about the new president, Bolsonaro, and how his policies are changing vis-a-vis the Amazon, because there already was deforestation progress--projects. We already saw the silencing and even assassination of indigenous leaders, but from a distance, it looks like things are much worse.
SG: Yes. For sure Bolsonaro represents a threaten, a real threaten, a tragic, real threaten for the Amazon and the indigenous people and for the whole population of Brazil, because he's very destructive and he's taking human rights, social rights, and ambiental rights, and we, indigenous people, have been attacked since the first day of his mandate. That he put the provisory the 1st of January, he did number 870, the new law that dismantled the state policies that has the indigenous policies. So, he took the National Foundation of indigenous People from the Justice Ministry and put it in another ministry which is Human Right Ministries and family that is run by a very conservative lady and she's very religious. So he put the indigenous people through religious and moral bias and view, and he took the demarcation land from FUNAI the power to land demarcation and put it into the agriculture ministry, which is a ministry that's been run by the agribusiness. This is very serious because he wants to paralyze the land demarcation of the indigenous lands and some that have been already demarcated, he wants to shrink it. And so he wants to give away this territories for international exploitation, mining, agribusiness and for us, this is to deny our very own existence. To deny the indigenous territory is to deny our own identity.
CH: What do you think when he says he wants to open the Amazon for business? What's his end goal?
SG: It's very worrying because when he say he's gonna open it for business, it doesn't matter who is inside. In the Amazon, there's people living there as well and he doesn't care for the environment but only for the profits that he's going to take from this destruction and that's why he's making it more flexible about the rights that we have already conquered and it's, like, it's becoming genocide.
CH: I mean this, in many ways, is environmental suicide. You have only two huge rainforests left in the world, in the Congo and in the Amazon, and the Amazon alone generates half of its own rainfall. It holds 20 percent of the world's rivers. It covers an area two-thirds the size of the forty-eight states, the contiguous forty-eight states. There are more than 1,100 tributaries of the Amazon, 17 of them are longer than a thousand miles. In many ways, these are the lungs of the earth, and we are watching now thousands of species of trees, thousands of species of birds, species of fish in the Rio Negro alone being wiped out. For most environmentalists, what's been happening in the Amazon is catastrophic enough. Is it your opinion that figures like Bolsonaro, do they just not understand the consequences of the assault on the ecosystem? Do they not believe it? Or are they just consumed by personal greed that it doesn't matter?
SG: I think, first, he doesn't understand. It's--he's so--the ignorance is bigger. He doesn't understand that life in the planet is totally related to preserving the environment. And as he ignores that, he doesn't know that, he feels not responsible to take care, protect, preserve Amazon and what matters is the profit that you're gonna have. So for us, it doesn't--we're not going to solve the economical problem by leaving the people even more vulnerable. This is not going to solve the problem. We indigenous are speaking out that the consequences of destruction for a long time, we're fighting for land demarcation and it's not only for us, it's gonna benefit everyone including the agribusiness that depends on rain. So, they say we can do irrigation but to have irrigation, they need the water inside of the earth and what guarantees that is the forests, the protection of the forests. And the flying rivers that we all addressed as rains elsewhere, the people are so blind they wanted to prevail so they don't understand how much they are helping it to happen. Bolsonaro's president have already showed that he's not interested in the well-being of the indigenous, the poor, and the different people. He wants everybody the same. He addresses the society as everybody is the same. But for us, he needs to understand and accept that there's diversity in Brazil and our way of living needs to be respected. The policies that he's taken, it's literally killing these people. When he destroys the environmental, he's doing ecocide here. When he denies our land, he's making ethnic a murder, and when he makes agribusiness prevails, he's doing genocide. So, we're being attacked in every way from the Brazilian Government itself.
CH: Brazil, even before the election of Bolsonaro, had the highest rate of assassinations related to environmental and land agrarian reform in the world. By 2016, activists were being killed at a rate of nearly four people every single week, this is worldwide. But Brazil saw the highest rates with 49 killings, many of them in the Amazon where timber industry production has been linked to 16 of these murders as deforestation rates have risen by almost 30 percent. With the arrival of Bolsonaro, are there indications that this kind of extrajudicial killing will accelerate?
SG: I am not saying that the violence started right now. It comes. There is a long time it's been ongoing process. It's 500 years of fight in order to keep living, so the origin people from Brazil are fighting for a long time and it has never been priority but before, we at least had a place to dialogue. Right now, he denies the right to--our right to be because he's denying our rights for having our land. And since campaigning he said that we'd not have any more land demarcation for indigenous people. So right now that he is elected, he is making it real when he transferred the FUNAI from the Justice Ministry to the family and human right minister, it's a clear demonstration that he is going to do what he promised, that he is not gonna do any more land demarcation for indigenous people. And that is denying our right to be what we are. The territory for us is sacred, it's our life and without it, we cannot live our identity, our full identity. And also the indigenous territories, they harmonize the whole planet, the climate, the rains, and the whole world, the whole planet benefits from that. That must be understood by the whole society. Everyone must take the indigenous cause as everyone's cause because it's humanitarian.
CH: Most of the deforestation is done to plant soy, is that correct?
SG: Yes. Monocultures, not only soy but also eucalyptus, sugarcane. It's opening space to have monoculture and that really provokes a lot of conflict in the field. And this is the difference from this government to the other ones. The other ones, there were rights that we have already conquered and they were not respected but now he truly wants to vanish the rights. He wants to stop it. And he's--the way he speaks is very violent and people feel influenced so that they're--they feel that if the higher authority is--it's okay for him to speak like that. Everyone can just go ahead and do whatever they feel like. For the second year, Brazil is the one who kills the most activists for human rights and environmental rights and it keeps accelerating because the hate, the hatred speech, and when they stop the rights, so it increases because no one's gonna accept without reacting.
CH: Great. When we comeback, we'll continue our conversation about the fight to protect the Amazon with Sonia Guajajara. Welcome back to On Contact. We continue our conversation about the Amazonian rainforest with Sonia Guajajara, the leader of Articulation of the Indigenous Peoples of Brazil. So when indigenous communities are displaced by these large agribusinesses, what happens to these people?
SG: In Brazil, we have a situation that a lot of people are not aware of. When they say indigenous people in Brazil, people think indigenous in the forest, in the--in the tribes, but we have a lot of people now that have no place to live. Their own territories are not available for them anymore, in the north, in the center, in the south, everywhere. And so they live on the road, they camp, they try to find a place to--they try to regain the place that everyone knows that it used to be indigenous land. But it's been given away for farmers or they return there and try to regain it, but it's conflicts, especially at Mato Grosso do Sul and at the south of the country. At the northeast, it's happening a lot. They are already urbanized because the cities--some, because they intended to come and they--and some because the city's grew so much that it came to us. We are 305 indigenous different ethnics and we speak 274 different languages inside of the country. It's, like, it's huge. It's so much diversity and we are threatened by the state itself when they deny our place to live. The territorial right is very important for us to have our autonomy as, you know, ethnic people.
CH: It's also clear that unless these agribusinesses are stopped, the loss of the rainforest, which has increased by 62% from the 1990s to the 2000s, we'll at some point see the Amazon change from capturing carbon to emitting carbon. We've already seen wildfires often caused by droughts. And most climate scientist say at that point, it's, kind of, game over for the planet. What we're really--when we talk about the Amazon, what we're talking about is the ability of corporate power because Bolsonaro represents often foreign corporate power for short-term profit or corporate power, in essence, destroying the very system that sustains life for corporate profit. I--and it's only a few years away. We're not far away.
SG: Yes, it's scary and it makes us very worried to see that the Brazilian Government and the international affairs minister in Brazil are relating to it because they truly deny global warming and they associate it with Marxism. They say that it's a Marxist invention. So you see that the ignorance, it's making it even more dangerous because Amazon is beneficial for the whole world and the whole world should protect it. And it's not only the biodiversity of the species itself but also of the people who lives there and the cultures. So, we don't want to let this insane government destroy it so we indigenous right now are in the frontline defending it. We are fighting. This is a cry for help from Mother Nature because we are already feeling the signals from the earth and we are paying with our own lives. But I think the whole world needs to join in and understand those signals and join in, discuss. Communication, you, media, it's very important to sensibilize the whole society to connect and understand that the life of everyone depends on this daily struggle and fight that the indigenous people are doing to protect Mother Nature.
CH: Colonialism, as practiced by Europeans and Euro-Americans for five centuries, has not only been about the theft of natural resources and genocidal campaigns against indigenous communities, but it's also been about destroying a competing ethic that tells us how to live with each other and how to live with the earth. How much of this conflict is about that issue? They attempt to destroy another way of being an another vision of how to live.
SG: Last year, 2018, I was candidate for the vice-president, and what made me accept this candidate--to be a candidate was to make this subject, the indigenous and environmental subjects to the center of the discussions. The main point we did was address to disrupt this old model that is destroying the environmental, that is exploiting the people and the land, and exploit the waters with dams, and the studies show that if we go this way, earth is not going to take it, not even for 50 more years. It's not me who's saying these. The studies are saying that. So it's very urgent this change, this disruption of this model of developing. The same way that the few people have all the money, also few people have all the land, the private land so we tried to decentralize the use of the land. Now, the land is an object of dispute at the political fights. And the model that we showed, it was the one who would respect the demarcation of indigenous and Quilombola and traditional people and reform of the lands, give it to the small producers, be respectful to the water and also agriforest, which is much more ecological so we need to guarantee that monoculture is switched to agriforest so that they mix the different plants, different species in the same area. So it is possible to have a new model. It is possible to be aware of that and address that awareness and start making the change right now. So we need to understand that, to see nature and defend life itself. We need to defend life itself, and when you promote agribusiness at the forest, you are promoting death. So this is the difference, the democratic use of land and us, as indigenous people, fighting for that land demarcation which is collective use and when they sell it, it's individual use. One family is the owner of everything. So, the private lands in Brazil where we have here 12.5% of collective use with the indigenous and agribusiness, one percent of the population has 46% of the whole private land, private property. So you have one percent of the population as indigenous protecting a lot for everyone because it's collective. And the people who have more land, they are no protecting it. They are using it only for themselves.
CH: Well, President Trump has, in essence, given a green light to Bolsonaro not only in terms of the eco side, but in terms of the evisceration of democratic freedoms and liberties which is extremely perilous for people like you.
SG: Yes, it's very dangerous, dangerous time. Recently in Brazil, we had cases of crimes, ecocides like Mariana that killed--the sweet river, Rio Doce, and it's going on and on, and now we have Brumadinho that killed not only 200 people but also the river and the land and it's provoked by greed, by having the capitalistic interest before anything else. And it's not--we cannot face it as a tragedy, as a natural tragedy. It's not natural, it's been provoked by companies, companies that are not--don't care of the consequences. So they don't really care about people's life and they're aligned to themselves. They run over any social rights, any environmental rights. What is important for them is their profit and this is very dangerous in Brazil because it's very big, it's very rich in natural resources. America have already exploited the natural resources in north so they are going to do that in Brazil and Bolsonaro wants to sell so they are using us, indigenous black people, poor people, and the environment as an exchange for that so that they keep having profits. It's hard to realize that people are not understanding that. People are not seeing this happening. And a tactic that he is using right now that has been used before, colonialism and dictatorship is to provoke conflict of the--of the people. They are--they are putting us indigenous people to fight against our brothers to different tribes so they take some leaders, indigenous leaderships and say that, "Oh, this land now is yours. You can exploit. You can mine it. You can sell the timber. You can make money with that." So--and they got deluded and they put indigenous against indigenous. And so this tactic--tactics of the colon--the colonizer is making it more fragile and fragmented our own fight. It's happening right now in Brazil.
CH: Well, that's what the Spanish did when they arrived.
SG: In Brazil, this past is repeating itself and it's threatening the future.
CH: All right. Thank you. That was Sonia Guajajara, the leader of Articulation of the Indigenous Peoples of Brazil. Thank you very much.
SG: [SPEAKING IN FOREIGN LANGUAGE]