There is no easy way to put it: the Amazon is on fire. The lungs of the earth, the great haven of biodiversity, and ancestral home to millions of people, is burning to the ground.
This is an environmental disaster of colossal proportions that will affect millions – if not billions – of people globally. The black smoke of this inferno is so thick and extensive that at one time in Sao Paolo it blocked out the sun.
Yet unlike the wildfires that ravaged California earlier this year, this is no natural phenomenon merely exacerbated by human interference. This is a purposeful and premeditated act, with specific and culpable perpetrators.
The burning is no less than a crime, quashing laws both national and international; given the global importance of the Amazon rainforest, this is an act that will affect the entire globe. This act is a crime, even a crime against humanity.
Manmade fires in the Amazon are nothing new, and in fact carefully controlled burns have existed since humans first began practicing agriculture in the region: a sustainable tradition extending back thousands of years. But with the coming of European settlement, ranching and intensive farming exacerbated the burns. This colonial pattern of land-use proliferated, and in modern times has reached huge proportions, with devastating consequences.
Even last year, vast swathes were being put to fire to make way for cattle farming, monoculture plantations and land speculation. But 2019’s burn represents an unprecedented event, with an 80% increase in fire frequency.
This burning is being purposely done and represents a culmination of corruption and violent ethnic cleansing. The primary brunt of this disaster is not only being felt by the native Amazonians, it is being targetedat them. Their biodiverse lands are coveted by agricultural oligarchs all over Brazil.
Jair Bolsonaro, the incumbent president of Brazil, is the prime culprit of the burning, having given broad license to ranchers and agri-businesses to pursue their exploitations in the Amazon basin. Much of this was legislative, with the stripping of many protections and gutting of various environmental departments. In these purges, the losers have consistently been biodiversity protection and the native Amazonians.
Although the legal changes have played a significant role, much of the real drive behind the current destruction was unofficial greenlighting. Though a longstanding issue in the country, violent assault upon natives, their lands, and environmentalists now go all but unpunished; not only tacitly encouraged, but actively ignored.
The president and his cadre of powerful allies deny involvement and continue unabated. Even going so far as to flagrantly lie and claim the fires to be the fault of an NGO-driven conspiracy against his presidency. The events taking place are both deplorable and harmful; a crime is being carried out amidst the administration’s brazen attitude. Could it also be considered a crime against humanity?
The United Nations crime against humanity definition is as follows: “Any of the following acts [forced deportation, murder, persecution of a group on ethnic, cultural, and racial grounds etc.] when committed as part of a widespread or systematic attack directed against any civilian population, with knowledge of the attack”.
Does the Amazon burning fulfil these criteria?
Whilst much of the outrage (justifiably) focuses on the burning from the loss of biodiversity, there is a much less attention payed to the plight of the indigenous people living there. But it is here where actionable legal responses could legitimately stem from.
In order for a legal proceeding to take place, it would need to prove a number of things. Firstly, that any of the described crimes are happening.
That ranchers, agri-businesses and corrupt state governments have been violently removing, murdering and persecuting native Brazilians is a matter of fact; the mass burning is just the latest incarnation. There is plentiful evidence that points to a “widespread...attack directed against...civilian population[s]”.
Whilst no known direct connection exists between the Bolsonaro government and the private violence, there is evidence to suggest he not only had “knowledge of the attack[s]” but may be actively encouraging them.
A recently leaked report specifically mentions the government’s desire to use Bolsonaro’s – to put it lightly – inflammatory rhetoric to “psychological[ly] oppress” native and environmentalist aspirations. This is in line with the president’s calls to “rip up” native lands and “give all the ranchers guns”. And according to one of the region’s Catholic missionaries, Gabriel Oloo, the ranchers are all too happy to use those guns against natives: a fact not lost on the president.
Brazil’s constitution specifically gives natives the inalienable right to reject any use of their land they do not desire, but the president has already broadcasted his desire to illegally violate this clause. Likewise, he has made a number of chilling comments that publicly encourage takeovers of native lands, including fantasies of a US-style native genocide.
Whilst none of this concretely proves Bolsonaro has been at the helm of crimes against humanity, none allude to his innocence either. The current fires in the Amazon are directly in line with what the Bolsonaro administration both desires and promotes. As the Amazon and its custodians are overwhelmed in the inferno, there is pertinent and urgent cause for further investigation.
If the accusations of natives, environmentalists and concerned Brazilians are not pursued, it will set a dangerous precedent. The international community will be shown to be impotent in stopping such violent destruction being carried out. Such impotence will only further embolden the Brazilian presidency, its backers and their criminal intentions. To sit by idly can only invite further disaster.
For the natives of the Amazon, time is running out.