The fires that ripped through the Amazon’s forests in 2019 brought new prominence to the challenge of balancing environmental and economic needs in this contested landscape. Often described as the “lungs of the planet,” the Amazon rainforest covers an area of over 7.5 million square kilometers and is a reservoir for biodiversity unmatched by anywhere else on Earth. The world’s largest hydrological system, the Amazon basin holds 20 percent of the world’s freshwater. With climate change picking up pace, there is a risk that the Amazon rainforest’s vast stores of carbon could be released as deforestation advances. Around ninety thousand forest fires were recorded in 2019, the highest figure for over a decade. The sight of the rainforest ablaze was met with international horror, prompting criticisms of the Brazilian government in general and President Jair Bolsonaro in particular. Already, the forest has shrunk by 20 percent in the space of just fifty years, according to figures from the World Wildlife Fund (WWF). Deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon has almost doubled since 2018, with industrial monoculture and mineral extraction making ever-greater inroads into the tropical belt.
These recent events warn us that the Amazon is now everybody’s concern. Historically brushed aside, this region has taken on a pressing strategic significance. Rich mineral resources and swathes of land coveted for agro-industrial development have propelled the Amazon to the top of the list as far as Brazil’s national priorities are concerned. Around 60 percent of the entire Amazon basin lies inside its borders. In 1953, Brazil introduced a political, administrative, and geographical framework for what it called Amazônia Legal, also known as Brazil’s Legal Amazon or BLA, which was to become a key focus for infrastructure and settlement programs.
The word “territory” typically evokes a space claimed and demarcated by an authority, on which a political jurisdiction is founded. In the face of the global ecological and climate crisis, a tension has emerged between the sovereignty of Amazon states and the argument that, in this special case, a set of international rules should apply. Some go so far as to advocate bringing the region under international control. Against this backdrop, what challenges and threats hang over the Amazon today, placing its ecosystems and populations at risk?
To fully understand what is at stake, we need to turn briefly to the historical dynamics that have played out in the Amazon basin over time. This background knowledge is vital for getting to grips with the region’s very particular social and ecological issues and their origins in the antagonism between developmentalist and environmentalist logics. It also allows us to comprehend how the Brazilian government’s recent geopolitical positioning has cast a veil of uncertainty over the conservation of the Amazon rainforest, potentially negating recent progress in multilateral governance on climate change.
The Brazilian Amazon: Nation Building and the Pioneer Mindset
The Amazon’s remoteness means that it has always been a terra incognita in the eyes of state power, first imperial and then republican. Nevertheless, it has proved a fertile ground for myth-making from the colonial period onward: the notion of El Dorado, a homogeneous, verdant oasis overflowing with inexhaustible natural resources, was especially persistent. Throughout human history, its occupation and economic development have occurred in cycles, linked to the extraction of forest resources (timber, ore, medicinal plants, and so on). The rubber boom, fueled by the burgeoning automotive sector, upended the status and economy of these old peripheral colonies, propelling them into the compass of the international capitalist system.
The government of Getúlio Vargas, Brazil’s populist authoritarian leader from 1930 to 1945 and again from 1951 to 1954, marked a watershed in the construction of a Brazilian national identity and the drive to bring the Amazon fringe into the national fold. Vargas launched the first Amazon Development Plan, part of an ongoing project to bring about the Estado Novo, or New Brazilian State. The close relationship between nationalism and developmentalism that we see today has its origins in theories put forward by the founders of Brazilian social science. During the Cold War—which had a special resonance in Latin America in light of the fallout from the 1959 Cuban Revolution—Brazil’s nationalist leaders gambled on their geopolitical control of the region, pursuing a strategy of import substitution industrialization.
In this context, the Amazon became a key piece on the board, both for its potential role in economic development and its importance to national security. Juscelino Kubitschek’s regime (1956–1961) has become emblematic of the developmentalist ideology. In 1960, it unveiled a new capital, Brasilia: a modernist ideal brought to life by state power and a determination to assert its absolute territorial sovereignty. The first arterial road to cut through the Amazon, linking Brasilia to Belém, testifies to the energy poured into opening up the region and transforming Brazil into a modern, industrial, and urban nation, right down to its remotest reaches. […]
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