Guardians of the forest, or carbon guards?
Territorial autonomy and conservationist heteronomy in the indigenous Amazon
‘Jesu!’ said the Squire, ‘would you commit two persons to Bridewell for a twig?’ ‘Yes,’ said the Lawyer, ‘and with great lenity too; for if we had called it a young tree they would have been both hanged.’
Henry Fielding, The Adventures of Joseph Andrews, from EP Thompson, Whigs and Hunters, the Origins of the Black Act. London, Allen Lane, 1975
The profound health crisis caused by the Covid-19 pandemic did not stem the continuing destruction of the Amazon. On the contrary, it only served to increase attacks on Amazonian peoples and their forests. Deforestation in the Brazilian biome grew by 67% between 2019 and 2021, the highest rate in the last 10 years (Imazon, 2022). This process relied on full support from the government of Jair Bolsonaro, which consciously encouraged the spread of the virus across national territory as part of a strategy to deepen its neoliberal and agro-extractive agenda (Vasconcelos & Alkmin, 2021). It is worth noting that since the 2016 parliamentary coup, no new indigenous lands have been demarcated in Brazil, and under the command of Federal Police delegate Marcelo Augusto Xavier da Silva, chosen by President Bolsonaro, the National Indian Foundation (FUNAI) has begun to work against Indigenous Peoples and in favour of logging, mining, agribusiness, and infrastructural interests.
Faced with this situation, indigenous resistance has taken a variety of forms. One of these has been the construction of territorialized, autonomous forms of political organization (Alkmin, 2020). These aim to overcome, in situ, the increasing territorial aggression and anti-indigenous posture of the Brazilian state. It is worth emphasizing that this phenomenon is common to various Latin American countries, occurring in different ways according to particular local conflicts and the nuances of the relationship between the State and indigenous organizations . In my PhD research in Human Geography, supervised by Professor Larissa Bombardi of the University of São Paulo, I am trying to understand how this process is unfolding in the Brazilian Amazon.
Indigenous Amazonian autonomy manifests in a variety of ways: in “retaking” territories, self-demarcation of territories; the organization of self-defence and surveillance groups; the creation of Consultation Protocols (in the context of Convention 169 of the International Labour Organization); and the setting up of autonomous political-pedagogical and productive projects self-managed by indigenous communities. The common denominator of all of these different experiences is the negation of the idea of state tutelage or state dependence, based on forms of life and political projects which are both territorialized and self-funded. As Raúl Zibéchi emphasizes, these experiences go beyond mere resistance: in a collapsing planet, Indigenous Peoples and their forms of autonomy show us other possible ways of living and of relating to space. They are “political projects for the transformation of the world” (2022, p.12).
While these autonomist strategies have strengthened indigenous organizations in the face of the anti-indigenous onslaughts of the Brazilian State, they have, in parallel, attracted the attention of big international players like the World Bank, the UN and USAID. In the midst of a grave global climate crisis, various political and economic organizations are interested in “financing” the conservation of the forest, and by extension the political autonomy, by indigenous peoples, through what are known as “payments for environmental services” (Hacon, 2018).
Nevertheless, within the neoliberal logic of “green capitalism”, such payments also involve a gradual process of financialization of the climate and of nature. Carbon, for instance, has transformed from an invisible and abundant chemical element into a commodity to be traded and speculated in a huge variety of markets. The creation of carbon credits (offsets), within the financial mechanism of REDD+ (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation), allows countries in the Global North to carry on polluting, and to transfer the responsibility for the climate emergency to forest peoples in the Global South (Moreno, 2018).
In the midst of so many crises, is it possible that we are going through an exceptional moment in history when the interests of indigenous peoples, large polluting industries and investment finance could converge around conservation and carbon? Could payments for environmental services finance indigenous autonomies by guaranteeing their ways of life, political agency and territorial protection? It sounds very strange, but this is the green discourse that envelops the idea of REDD+ and which has led me to expand my research by carrying out part of my doctorate in the United Kingdom, a country that projects itself globally as at the vanguard of so-called “green finance”. This research has taken place in the first half of 2022, at Queen Mary University of London, working with Sam Halvorsen and with the support of the Latin American Geographies in the UK Working Group (LAG-UK).
The research has shown that carbon markets are an extremely disputed field. They involve different countries and different sectors of society, often with diffuse and contradictory interests. Over a little more than a decade of implementation of REDD+ projects, it is increasingly possible to demonstrate the contradictions and inefficiency of this financial mechanism for combating deforestation and the climate emergency. The British researcher Chris Lang, who manages the REDD-Monitor site, has been accumulating information about REDD/REDD+ projects around the world since 2008. The site has published more than 2,000 posts with evidence about the mechanism. In short, REDD+ projects have been implemented without the agreement of indigenous communities, tend to cause inter-community conflicts, encourage expulsions and expropriations, restrict free access to the forest, and often do not deliver the promised financial benefits to the communities involved. In an interview he kindly did with me, Chris Lang said that the financialization of nature is a “terrifying” concept; we are now faced with the concrete possibility of the massive appropriation of Southern lands by large corporations from the North (Lang, 2022).
There have been two emblematic cases in the Brazilian Amazon. In 2012, the Paiter-Suruí people were the first Indigenous People in Brazil to apply REDD+ in their territory. They sold carbon credits in exchange for protecting the forest in the Sete de Setembro Indigenous Land (TI) in Amazonia. According to those involved, the funds obtained would be used to finance a Suruí plan for autonomous life which would last 50 years (Hacon, 2018). In spite of great expectations, the program was suspended by the Paiter-Suruí in 2018, due to intra-community conflicts and complaints that indigenous people were being prevented from accessing forest resources and reproducing their way of life.
Another situation in Pará demonstrates the contradictions – and confusion – involved in Redd+ policies. Also in 2012, an Irish company called “Celestial Green” signed a US$120 million contract with the Munduruku people, buying the rights to carbon credits in their territory for 30 years. The negotiation was carried out directly with a small group of leaders, without prior and informed consultation as required by the Munduruku Consultation Protocol and ILO Convention 169, and without intermediation by FUNAI or any other Brazilian federal body. After realizing that they could not plant, hunt, fish, or even extract firewood from the contracted area during the entire period, the Munduruku rescinded the contract, which was later invalidated by the federal government.
In this way, the “conservation strategy” of turning carbon into a commodity requires us to ignore the colonialism implicit in the financialization of the climate, which is, in David Harvey’s terms, a sophisticated form of accumulation by dispossession. Based on a complex “neoliberal regime of climate governance” (Hacon, 2018), the REDD+ mechanism cleverly combines the neoliberalization of nature (Castree, 2010) and neoliberal multiculturalism (Hale, 2005), while keeping intact the logic of using fossil fuels and existing power relations between the Global North and South – all while ensuring big profits for green investment funds.
From the outset, it is necessary to understand that this supposed convergence of interests in fact hides a new form of climate colonialism, in which public goods like carbon and water are privatized and appropriated by a neoliberal logic, becoming financial assets that amplify regional inequalities, environmental racism and the effects of the climate crisis.
The choices that the indigenous peoples of the Amazon are faced with are hard: subjection happens both through extractivist destruction and through neoliberal ‘conservation’. Continuing to expand their own autonomy and political control over territories will, therefore, be essential for them to resist both old and new colonialisms: external, internal, climatic and molecular (Bombardi, 2021). As the indigenous Zapatistas of Mexico say, “the struggle is like a circle, it can start at any point, but it never ends”.
 For a contemporary panorama of this phenomenon, see the “Boletín Autonomías Hoy: Pueblos Indígenas en América Latina”, organized by the “Pueblos indígenas, autonomías y derechos colectivos” Working Group of the Conselho Latino-Americano de Ciências Sociais (CLACSO). Available at: https://bit.ly/3xbCINa.
Alkmin, Fábio M. (2020). A autonomia indígena em defesa da Amazônia. Le Monde Diplomatique Brasil, São Paulo, [parte 1 e 2], mai.2020. Available at: https://bit.ly/3ApGjrs.
Araújo, Fabrício (2022). Menina Yanomami de 12 anos é assassinada depois de ser estuprada por garimpeiros. Amazônia Real. Available at: https://bit.ly/38a6Z6C.
Bombardi, Larissa M. (2021). Geography of Asymmetry: The Vicious Cycle of Pesticides and Colonialism in the Commercial Relationship between Mercosur and the European Union. São Paulo; Brussels, Belgium: University of São Paulo/ Commissioned by the EU Parliament. Available at: https://bit.ly/3MHj1Dv.
Castree, Noel (2010). Neoliberalism and the Biophysical Environment: A Synthesis and Evaluation of the Research, Environment and Society: Advances in Research 1, v.1, p. 5-45.
Lang, Chris (2022). REDD does nothing to address the crisis of endless economic growth.” Interview with Chris Lang, REDD-Monitor, by Fábio Alkmin, PhD student at the University of São Paulo, Brazil. Redd-Monitor, 20.Mai.2022 Available at: https://bit.ly/3wzF1e4
Hacon, Vanessa (2018). Governando o clima, florestas e povos indígenas: poderes transnacionais e território. 447 f. Tese (Doutorado em Ciências Sociais em Desenvolvimento, Agricultura e Sociedade). Universidade Federal Rural do Rio de Janeiro (UFRRJ). Rio de Janeiro.
Hale, Charles R. (2005). Neoliberal multiculturalism: the remaking of cultural rights and racial dominance in Central America. PoLAR: Political and Legal Anthropology Review, v. 28, n.1, p.10-28.
Instituto do Homem e Meio Ambiente da Amazônia – Imazon (2022). Desmatamento da Amazônia cresce 29% em 2021 e é o maior dos últimos 10 anos. Available at https://bit.ly/3G9qbOw
Moreno, Camila C. (2018). A Métrica do Carbono e as Novas Equações Coloniais. 183 f. Tese (Doutorado em Ciências Sociais em Desenvolvimento, Agricultura e Sociedade) - Universidade Federal Rural do Rio de Janeiro (UFRRJ). Rio de Janeiro.
Vasconcelos, Daniel & Alkmin, Fábio M. (2021) Genocídio e ofensiva anti-indígena durante a pandemia de covid-19 no Brasil. In: GEOGRAFIA E COVID-19: reflexões e análises sobre a pandemia. São Paulo: FFLCH/USP. Available at: https://bit.ly/3ukPV6O
Zibechi, Raúl. Prólogo. In: Guerreiro, Luciana G. & Mercado, Fátima M (Coord). Luchas territoriales por las autonomías indígenas en Abya Yala. Grupo de Trabajo CLACSO Pueblos indígenas y procesos autonómicos. Colección Abya Yala. Buenos Aires: Editorial El Colectivo, 2022. Available at: https://bit.ly/3Met95P.