The Complex Web of Environmental Devastation in the Amazon

The New York Times recently ran a story on the issue of piracy on the Amazon River. It offers glimpses into a lot of issues pertinent to the region and to Brazil more generally – ongoing poverty and inequality, and its role in the expansion of violence; the international nature of the drug trade within South America; the shifting (and not always clearly-defined) role of the police – but this passage in particular stood out:

Galdino Alencar, the president of the Union of River Navigation Companies of Amazonas State, said that pirates were increasingly targeting ships carrying large cargoes for the growing population of the Amazon, including cooking gas, electronic devices, cement and dried beef. But the most coveted cargo for pirates, he said, is fuel.

“It’s a product they can steal and go on to sell to gold miners operating illegally in the forest,” Mr. Alencar said. He added that pirates were also stepping up attacks on ships docked in large cities like Manaus, spurring calls by his organization to create a federal river police force.

When we think of environmental devastation, we tend to think only of deforestation, typically for ranching. Certainly, ranching is a major and highly-visible threat to and cause of Amazonian destruction, but it is far from the sole issue – illegal mining and the drug trade also have direct and indirect effects on the degradation of the environment int he Amazon. And these are not merely environmental issues; they are social issues as well, for the rapid demographic growth in the Amazonian basin and the ongoing inequalities within the region, and the national inequalities between the poorer North and Northeast (vs. the wealthier Southeast and South) of Brazil contribute to the causes of this deforestation.:

Huederson Paulino, a pirate who used the nom de guerre Mohican, confessed to killing and dismembering two men on a boat selling ice and salt. He led a gang that stole cash and fuel from the victims, and said his aim was to get spending money for Christmas.

“I needed the money, so I did what was best for me,” Mr. Paulino, 24, told reporters.

Those who cannot find well-paying jobs resort to piracy, stealing goods that they then sell to those like the illegal miners who need fuel for transport into the forest, where their open-pit mining furthers environmental destruction in the Amazon. Without greater infrastructure, socioeconomic equality, and opportunity for the majority in the Amazon, the incentives for such extralegal means to wealth will persist (much as they do in the urban centers of the Southeast, with very different causes and effects), and so too will the environmental destruction. Ranching is a problem, yes, but at the end of the day, without addressing the socioeconomic issues facing the region and Brazil as a whole, the probability of halting and reversing environmental degradation in the Amazon seems unlikely.

About Colin M. Snider

I have a Ph.D. in history, specializing in Latin American History and Comparative Indigenous History. My dissertation focused on Brazil. Beyond Latin America generally, I'm particularly interested in class identities, military politics, human rights, labor, education, music, and nation. I can be found on Twitter at @ColinMSnider.
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