In 1888, Brazil became the last country in the Americas to abolish slavery – a profound moral stain for a nation that prides itself today on being a multiracial democracy.
During the long 19th-century struggle against slavery, at a time when abolitionists in Britain were protesting the forced transfer of millions of Africans from their homelands, Brazilian leaders denounced the global abolitionist movement for interfering in the country’s internal affairs.
More than a century later, the same right to noninterference in internal affairs is again being invoked, this time by the agribusiness interests defending Brazil’s right to strip and burn what remains of the planet’s tropical rainforests.
Brazil did not ban slavery for moral or ethical reasons. It did so because the emergence of capitalist manufacturing made slavery more expensive and inefficient than wage labor. But today, there is no attempt to rethink an economic model based on destroying forests – and emitting greenhouse gases – to produce and export livestock and minerals.
On the contrary, Brazilian agribusiness, thanks to powerful congressional representation and the neglect of the executive branch, is pushing for a new forestry law that would condemn vast areas of rainforest to extermination.
The law, currently under consideration by a committee in Brazil’s Senate, would represent an ecological calamity.
The Amazon region, which seemed infinite only a few decades ago, is now facing the prospect of extinction. Grim scientific prognoses have come to pass in the form of disasters like the unthinkable droughts of 2005 and 2010 and the great floods of 2009. And in the last two years, the country has been plagued by a record number of forest fires, which not only reduce the forest area but also dry out the air and expose even more areas to the risk of fire.
That’s what happened with the Xingu National Park, in the state of Mato Grosso, in the center of the country, where more than 10,000 forest fires were recorded in 2010. Preliminary statistics indicate that as much as 10 percent of its forest area may have been destroyed in the last two years.
In only a few minutes, one such fire completely destroyed the Kisedje village where, a few years before, the supermodel Gisele Bündchen and the actor Leonardo DiCaprio explored the rainforest and showed their support for river preservation.
When Xingu National Park was established in 1961, its founders placed the headwaters of the rivers outside the park’s boundaries. At the time, nobody suspected that the forests could be destroyed. But in only 50 years, the impossible has come to pass: almost 20 percent of the Amazon rainforest has been destroyed and even more has been severely degraded.
The park, home to Brazil’s first large Indian reservation, was meant to project an idealized image of a nation able to protect ethnic diversity; today it is evidence of the country’s incapacity to protect its natural heritage.
Xingu has become a green island surrounded by soybean farms and cattle ranches. The process has made the area’s climate hotter and drier. This has created fires incomprehensible to the Indians, whose ancient culture depends on agriculture by means of controlled fires. But they no longer have any control. “Fire escapes now. It doesn’t stop,” Chief Auaulukumã, the leader of the Waura Indians, one of 16 ethnic groups who live in the park, told me in September.
The burning of the forest has a profound impact on the Indians’ lives. “The forest is our supermarket, where we find everything: wood for building our houses, thatch for our roofs, sticks to make arrows, fruit and animals for our food,” Chief Auaulukumã said. “And it’s all getting farther and farther away because the fires are killing the forest near our village.”
Projections that seemed apocalyptic at the end of the 1980s – that the forest would disappear by 2030 – are now coming true. According to the World Wildlife Fund, at current rates of deforestation, 55 percent of the Amazon rainforest could be gone by 2030.
Meanwhile, government officials in Brasília are on the verge of slashing government programs to recover damaged forests and preserve existing ones. The congressional majority, representing the agribusiness elite, accuses the environmental movement of being subservient to foreign interests and of trying to reduce the competitiveness of Brazilian commodities.
Like the attacks on abolitionists more than a century ago, the criticism of outside interference in Brazil’s affairs is today being cynically used to protect an immoral law.
The confrontation is paralyzing the country and delaying the adoption of laws and practices that would permit sustainable development and economic growth.
Back then, political paralysis delayed the end of slavery by decades. Now it is allowing the destruction of the last great equatorial forest on the planet, with consequences for Chief Auaulukumã and the Indians of Xingu but also for temperatures and rainfall throughout Brazil and across the region.
It’s history repeating itself, the second time as tragedy.