Political Latinxs United for Movement and Action in Society organized an event Monday night in the Multicultural Student Center to discuss climate politics in Brazil and Bolivia surrounding the burning of the Amazon forest. Anthropology Professors Sonia Alconini and George Mentore were joined by History Professor Brian Owensby and members of PLUMAS. Around 20 people attended the event.
The event started with the speakers introducing themselves before Owensby began a brief presentation of the Amazon fires.
“One of the broad frames for what we’re seeing in the Amazon right now, I think we have to understand, is that there is a renewed race for resources that is beginning to play out in a variety of places in the world,” Owensby said.
The primary drivers of the Amazon fires are the clearing of lands for pasturage and soy production. According to Owensby, due to the ongoing trade war between the U.S. and China, China has turned to Brazil for soybeans, resulting in soybean production skyrocketing in Brazil. Bolivia contains one of the world’s largest deposits for another crucial resource — lithium — and will become an epicenter for a lithium rush in the coming years. Rich in resources, the areas around the Amazon are becoming subject to even more exploitation that will further drive the fires.
Ever since Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro took office in January 2019, the number of fires has increased. He rejected foreign intervention, telling the UN General Assembly that “the Amazon isn’t in flames but burning with riches” and even enabled people in the Amazon to undertake burnings of their own.
According to Owensby, this has enormous implications for the climate. From January to August of this year alone, the fires have been responsible for the release of 228 megatonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. The fires have primarily been coming from the south, areas subject to agriculture, and are impinging upon indigenous land.
“[Bolsonaro is] beginning to try to fold [indigenous groups] into a discourse of commerce and capitalist exploitation by suggesting that they are being denied freedom to make use of their own land as though it fell into the category of private property,” Owensby said. “The indigenous movement is pretty [solid] and quite strong and so they are trying to resist this, but nevertheless the pressure is enormous.”
The event was not only a discussion of the Amazon fires, but of the broader political and social context of the areas affected by them. Alconini followed up with an overview of the history of Bolivia, where she was born and raised.
She described the country’s history of oppression and gave a background of the indigenous former president Evo Morales. Under his administration, strategic resources were nationalized and there was an economic boom during the first decade of his tenure. His “buen vivir” program encouraged decolonization, indigenous empowerment and land reforms favoring indigenous groups. However, support declined after Morales approved the construction of a massive road that would cut through Isiboro Sécure Indigenous Territory, an Amazon biodiversity hotspot home to many indigenous people. After a combination of events including a corruption scandal in which his former girlfriend obtained $500 million in government contracts for a Chinese firm, he was forced by the military to resign.
Law 741 and Decree 3973 passed during Morales’ term allowed deforestation in newly colonized areas and legalized controlled fires, contributing to extensive fires in the region and protests by indigenous groups. As a result of the fires, 6 million hectares of land have been burned. This has affected not only the Amazon rainforest but also indigenous territories, cultural heritage and biodiversity. The number of animals dead ranges from 2 to 23 million, and thousands of plant and animal species are put at risk.
Rather than lecturing students in attendance, the presenters encouraged discussion of the complex ideas that had been discussed. The professors were available to answer any questions the audience had afterwards.
Second-year College student Carolina Campos was one of the main speakers at the event on behalf of PLUMAS. Born in Brazil, she encourages people to acknowledge the complexities of the Latinx identity and its history grounded in colonialism. In addition to explaining the social, political and cultural contexts surrounding Bolivia and Brazil, Campos wanted to frame the event around transnational movements and how they relate to bigger, structural issues. The event was not solely focused on the Amazon fires, but the broader political issues affecting African Americans, Latinx and indigenous people that are applicable to the University.
“Something that was brought up in this event is the whole concept of memorializing,” Campos said. “While we are memorializing the University’s history of slavery, we must not forget that a lot of these issues that were produced from the institution of slavery still continue today.”
Just this past weekend, the Charlottesville City Council voted in favor of removing the Lewis & Clark and Sacagawea Statue, which depicts Sacagawea cowering behind the two explorers. The George Rogers Clark statue, owned by the University and located near the Memorial to Enslaved Laborers, depicts an attack on a Native American family. The University has not offered a comment on whether it plans to remove or contextualize the statue.
“Here, this is colonized land — this University was built by enslaved people,” second-year College student Melinda Hicks said. “These conversations are important to have because we exist in this world solely because of colonization and capitalism and exploitation and everything that we have, everything that we benefit off of, comes from the expense of others and I think it’s important for us to really think about that.”
Campos has wanted to organize this event ever since the election of Bolsonaro in 2018. She said it is important to acknowledge that the University was built on stolen Monacan lands and to address the disparities faced by African American and indigenous students at the University. She believes that events like these can continue that conversation.
“I think at the end of the day these events are put in place to kind of complicate what is seen in normative news media,” Campos said. “We talked about these problematic depictions of these political events in Bolivia and Brazil. They’re very monolithic and homogenous and there’s no real complexity to it. That’s something that we’re trying to do here, bring a lot of complexity to these conversations. These aren’t just conversations, these are things that we have to actively build into our daily lives.”