Primitive accumulation in the Amazon

[…] the fraudulent alienation of the state domains, the theft of the common lands, the usurpation of feudal and clan property and its transformation into modern private property under circumstances of ruthless terrorism: all these things were just so many idyllic methods of primitive accumulation. They conquered the field for capitalist agriculture, incorporated the soil into capital, and created for the urban industries the necessary supplies of free and rightless proletarians.

–Karl Marx, Capital Volume I, Chapter 27

Last week marked a further grim development in capital’s onslaught against indigenous peoples of the Amazon, as illegal gold-mining operations murdered the chief of the Waiapi tribe and invaded its territory in the north-eastern Amapá province of Brazil. This kind of bloody expropriation, often aided by military-grade weapons, has found a significant expansion under new Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, whose campaign promises to eliminate “every centimeter of indigenous land” have been a great boon to the many timber mafias and mineral-extraction enterprises that infest the Amazon on all sides today.

Bolsonaro’s acutely explicit racism towards Amazonian tribes and his equally explicit promises to auction off every ounce of Brazilian rain forest are certainly a significant deviation from the previous rhetoric of Brazilian heads of states, and for this reason the bourgeois press have sought extensively to exceptionalize his presidency. This is an insidious erasure of the fact that similar state support for mining and logging on indigenous land have been a mainstay of Brazilian democracy for years, not just under the right-wing presidency of Bolsonaro’s predecessor Michel Temer, but also under the leftist administration of Workers’ Party politician Dilma Rousseff. Throughout her presidency, Rousseff publicly paid lip service to indigenous and environmental concerns, while privately making concession after concession to Brazil’s powerful agribusiness lobby. A comparable situation can be found in Venezuela today; President Nicolas Maduro claims to champion indigenous Venezuelan rights, but in the past year alone his military forces have been responsible for the murder of numerous Pemón activist protesting displacement by illegal gold-mining operations. Likewise, leftist Bolivian President Evo Morales – himself a indigenous Bolivian – has in the past few years revoked a slew of legal protections for native tribes to enable construction projects in the Bolivian Amazon. To understand why leftist regimes in Latin America on the one hand claim to champion the interests of indigenous peoples while on the other enable and even actively participate in ruthless violence against them, it is important to first understand the class character of this brutal expropriation.

In certain ways, the barbaric plunder of the Amazon is fundamentally anachronistic. Since the start of World War I, communists have recognized that capitalism has entered into its “decadent” phase, marked, amongst other things, by the solidification of capitalism as a world system. The old pre-capitalist modes of production have largely disappeared, swept away on a global scale by brutal colonial policies, and the world market permeates nearly every corner of the earth. Hence the character of imperialist policy has changed; it has moved from being solely the domination of pre-capitalist nations by industrially developed ones, to militarist competition and domination between industrially developed nations.

The Amazon today is by far the largest exception to this state of affairs. Sectors of the rain forest remain that are completely untouched by industrial development, and their “uncontacted tribes” represent the world’s only real remaining outposts of genuinely pre-capitalist society. This, coupled with an unrivaled abundance of natural resources – rubber, oil, iron ore, gold, timber, cocoa, and wide range of minerals – makes the Amazon fertile ground for imperialist primitive accumulation: the process by which pre-capitalist economies are subsumed into the world market.

Historically, imperialism arose as a means for capitalist nations to combat crises – particularly crises of overproduction. Capitalist economies exported excess capital to economically backwards regions, serving the three-pronged purpose of dumping their unsellable surpluses, building infrastructure (rail lines, roads, factories, and refineries) by which to strip valuable untapped natural resources, and creating a new source of dirt-cheap proletarian labor from the local population. What we are witnessing in the Amazon today is a textbook example of this. Since the 1960s, tens of thousands of miles of roads and highways have been built in the Amazon by its surrounding nations. This has enabled the epidemic of logging and mining operations in the region, to the extent that 95% of all deforestation has occurred within fifty kilometers of these projects. In turn, this deforestation has required the bloody expropriation of indigenous lands, causing the mass displacement and proletarianization of native peoples – thousands of indigenous refugees have been forced into cheap labor either within the forest, or in nearby urban centers. All in all, we are faced with a clear example of imperialist primitive accumulation.

It is therefore not a coincidence that the recent Brazilian state support for nominally “illegal” development projects in the Amazon were first initiated in late 2012 and 2013 – the start date of a Brazilian economic slump that persists to this day. The situation is similar in Venezuela; despite its “socialist” pretentions, the Bolivarian petrostate remains thoroughly capitalist, and like all other capitalist nations is subject to the whims and contradictions of the world market. Thus, when the international oil market began to collapse in 2013, the Venezuelan economy fell with it, leading to the well-reported crisis we see today. This is the context for Maduro’s sudden willingness to enable expropriation of Venezuela’s indigenous lands; it’s a desperate attempt at mitigating the country’s crisis, with horrific consequences for regional native peoples.

It is also for these reasons that blood-and-soil calls for indigenous sovereignty – popular on the left – are a utopian vision under capitalism. As we have argued, brutal imperialist policies – from endless war to vicious expropriation and primitive accumulation – are an inevitable consequence of capitalism’s crises, and the situation in the Amazon is no different. Regional policies of preservation of indigenous land – long fought for by on-the-ground activists in Brazil, Venezuela, and Bolivia – were abandoned on a dime as soon as it became necessary for the bourgeoisie, as no elected politician or legal regulation can hope to overcome capitalism’s contradictions and the corresponding demands of bourgeois rule. National self-determination as a slogan – which attempts to combat imperialism without combatting capitalism and would seek to liberate the Amazon’s native peoples by merely by demarcating land on ethnic grounds – is therefore a futile errand, and offers no solution to capital’s vicious onslaught. The only way out lies in the solidarity of the entire international proletariat, united with indigenous workers in a revolutionary struggle against capitalism.

Indeed, the ongoing atrocities against the native peoples of the Amazon are bound to only worsen as the global capitalist crisis deepens. The equally horrifying dimension to these imperialist ventures is their potential for catastrophic ecological consequences; the Amazon – which ranges over 2 million square miles – is by far the world’s largest rain forest, and thus plays a pivotal role in regulating the planet’s weather systems and carbon dioxide levels. Deforestation by logging and mining operations is hence responsible for a tangle of dire consequences, ranging from its own hefty carbon emissions to large-scale freak weather, droughts, and famines. The magnitude of these effects cannot be underestimated, and in conjunction with similar international developments poses a serious existential threat to the human race. Between this and the mass displacement and oppression of native tribes, in the Amazon, as everywhere, the choice remains socialism or barbarism.