The fires in the Amazon throughout Brazil and Bolivia reveal the inability of environmental activists, climate change organizations, and worker groups to forge effective alliances. Most of these fires started around logging, mining, and ranching operations—big money industries that extract billions in natural resources. Their imperative is to make more money, not to preserve the basics necessary for human societies. They want forests cleared and pay poor people to do their illegal work.
These operations of extraction have roots that trace to the early 1500s, when Europeans started to divide and industrialize the natural resources in South America. The Portuguese and Spanish arrived, followed by the English, Dutch, and French. They viewed the colonies as places for extracting gold, silver, sugar, coffee, and other returns on land investments. That model depended on slave labor. When indigenous peoples refused to work and disappeared due to a variety of causes (running to remote regions, epidemics, cruelty and massacres), the Portuguese and Spanish built an Atlantic African slave trade. The English and French intensified that slave labor regime.
Current situations with logging, mining, and ranching have to be understood as the legacy of colonial extraction as well as a modern practice of global corporations. So they have to be understood in terms of labor. These sprawling industrialized operations reach far beyond and destroy ecosystems faster than what anyone could have imagined 50 years ago, let alone 500 years. But some basic principles are consistent—the labor remains exploitative, cruel, and serves remote investors far more than the local communities. Cut off two sources of that labor: the desperation of poor people to survive and the drive of working people to have stable jobs.
Poor working people need income if they do not have arable land or other access to resources. They will take jobs with regional managers for these massive operations, often men of a similar ethnicity who appear to offer good things. Environmental activists and climate change organizations that press for immediate fire control and industrial bans cannot fight the illegal and widespread destruction until they create viable and meaningful options for the working poor. They do the hard labor, including the burning and cutting of the Amazon forests, for these immense extractive corporations with investors from around the world.
Residents can understand the catastrophe; global outcry can condemn the industries; political elites can obstruct Brazil’s president; climate change scientists can expound on the data; governments with revenues can pay for firefighting. All necessary in the short term—then working poor people need sustainable economic development. The indigenous peoples understand and assert these interconnections, so they block industrial equipment, demand government oversight and protections, and actively preserve their social and cultural practices that give their communities sustenance and survival in all ways.
We cannot mimic or appropriate the ways of indigenous peoples. But we can shift our organizing to their model, with its sustainable living practices for everyone. That includes reliable ways for working poor people to have meaningful existence. Not temporary training, not random grunt work or Sisyphean cleanup jobs—sustainable meaningful work in local farming, renewable energy, public transportation, environmental conservation, ecosystem rehabilitation. Such efforts will take a massive coalition that encompasses unions and worker groups, a substantive plan, relentless outreach to rural villages, a platform to oust the current right-wing Brazilian government, and increased taxes as well as private fundraising. Corruption will happen, as it always does—then correct and move forward with decades of consistent efforts to sustain the links between jobs for working poor and nurturing the Amazon rainforests.
The goal of a designer is to listen, observe, understand, sympathize, empathize, synthesize, and glean insights that enable him or her to make the invisible visible.Andrew Grove