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Our Lungs Are Under Attack—We Must Protect Them to Stay Alive

Deforested land in the Brazilian Amazon. (Photo: João Laet)
Deforested land in the Brazilian Amazon. (Photo: João Laet)

Indigenous peoples are calling for an immediate moratorium on extraction from the Amazon.

(Common Dreams) Since I was a child in the 1980’s I have heard calls to protect the Amazon. I remember watching videos of massive trees being cut down, soil washed away, and areas of lush forest burnt and cleared. I was told McDonalds was the villain, as the land was being destroyed for cattle farming, soy monoculture and fast-food burgers. As a six-year-old I decided not to eat McDonalds, but that only lasted until my teen years when my determination wavered – in my mind the Amazon became ‘just some far-away trees’. After all, could a few burgers really make a difference?

As an adult I am increasingly expanding my awareness about the impact I have on the world around me. I’ve researched the connections between the food I eat and the agricultural & economic systems that produce the food. After years of inquiry I have concluded that yes, my dietary choices make a difference. I’ve investigated the connections between how the patterns of thought and behaviour in one area of my life affect other areas – by carelessly eating at McDonalds I actively reinforce patterns for carelessness in other areas of my life that ripple out in countless ways. A few burgers really do make a difference!

Unfortunately, this is no longer ‘just’ about burgers, nor even just about trees. Today, the life-system of the Amazon is at the forefront of my mind as I increasingly come to terms with the realisation that my survival is part of a system that depends on the Amazon’s survival. The life-system includes the trees, insects, Indigenous peoples, waters, plants, air, animals and soils. The Amazonian life-system is being killed, meaning that we are also being killed – or perhaps we should say, murdered.

Large forests create biotic pumps for rain systems that actively draw water from the ocean into the forests as clouds and rain, and these life-giving systems are being disrupted. The Amazon’s biotic pump cycles 20% of the world’s fresh water through the hydraulic cycle. However, within the next year the Amazon is predicted to stop producing enough rain to sustain itself as a forest.

This rich refuge, the most biodiverse and abundant area on the surface of the planet, which has survived for 50 millions years through massive planetary changes, may well be coming to its end. This life-system would be replaced by a dry and barren scrubland or savannah. Instead of sequestering 2.2 billion tonnes of carbon annually, acting as the “lungs of the planet”, the forest would be incinerated by fires over the coming decade, and hundreds of billions of tonnes of carbon would be released – heating the planet to such a degree that human life becomes nigh impossible.

My human life. And yours. And countless lives in the more-than-human realm. Without healthy planetary lungs we will die.

You may wish to pause for a moment to let that sink in.

However, all is not lost, yet. It is still possible to reverse this global dying, and the Indigenous people who live in the Amazon know how to do it. They’ve been doing it for several thousand years, at least. This isn’t just about protecting trees, it’s also about preserving those who know how to enhance the life of the forest. It’s been said that the most advanced technology is knowing how to live sustainably on the planet, and Indigenous peoples are the holders of that knowledge. We must learn from our planetary elders – those who know how to live on this planet without destroying life. They have valuable life-technology and they’re willing to share it, despite the West’s atrocious history of industrialised capitalism, extraction, imperialism, genocide, ecocide and forced religious conversion. However, in order to receive the help of Indigenous communities, we first have to stop the onslaught. They need the support of the global community.

Over the past two years Brazil’s president, Jair Bolsonaro, has launched an unprecedented assault on the land, waters and peoples of the Amazon. Bolsonaro has ripped apart environmental protections and Indigenous rights. Bolsonaro’s disregard for life is mirrored in his response to the Covid pandemic, with Brazil becoming the epicentre (alongside the US, the other epicenter of fascism and denialism). Indigenous peoples are being severely battered by the virus (you can check out the Amazon Emergency Fund to find out more information and how to support).

Mercenaries indirectly employed by multinationals have intentionally set forest fires to destroy the land and the people who live there, exposing it for extractive industry (mining, agribusiness and logging). Now that the dry season is starting, the fires are starting to rage. And the smoke of the fires further imperils those infected by the pandemic. Amazon defender Chief Paulinho Paiakan recently died of Covid, probably contracted through interaction with miners and other workers in the extractive industries. Bolsonaro’s racist disdain for Indigenous peoples is inciting further violence, including murder. And if this all wasn’t enough, Bolsonaro has recently tried to legalize crimes against the Indigenous peoples.

Yet this isn’t all about a rogue dictator in a distant land. The extremist neo-liberal policies that Bolsonaro is implementing are driven by Western states, the military-industrial complex, and multinational companies that have headquarters in the UK, EU and US. Companies like Blackrock, BNP Paribas, Bayer/Monsanto, and Johnson & Johnson are responsible for the ecocidal trajectory of the Brazillian state, as well as the global economy of industrialization and extraction in general. It’s our responsibility to stop these companies from fueling the fires and bringing about planetary ruin.

As a co-founder of Extinction Rebellion (XR), I’m proud that the movement has stood in solidarity with the Amazon and the Indigenous protectors that live there. One of the first XR actions was outside the Brazillian embassy in London, and members of XR Youth sailed across the Atlantic ocean to build connections with Indigenous peoples deep into the Amazon. The fourth major wave of rebellion in the UK has just been announced for 1st September 2020. Yet while there have been some incredible actions, the fight for the Amazonian life-system needs to be even more central to climate & social justice movements.

Indigenous peoples are the immune system of the Amazonian life-system, fighting to protect its continued life, and the continuation of life on the planet. They are the front-lines of the struggle, and many of them are paying with their lives. In January 2020 Indigenous leaders published the Piaracu Manifesto to inform the international community of the urgency of the threat facing them, the Amazon and the world.

For those of us who live in the midst of the major economic, political and military powers, it’s our duty to live in active solidarity. Yes, refusing to eat beef and soy could help, yet the situation is dire, and we are being called to do far more than that. Our actions in the middle of the empire must be disruptive enough to bring attention to, and dis-assemble, the immense economic and political forces of capitalist ‘growth-fundamentalism’ that are driving the momentum of destruction.

What passed as ‘normal’ life before Covid included the consistent destruction of the Amazon, massive species annihilation, societal-scale depression, systemic racism and other structural oppressions. It’s up to us to not slip back into the hyper-normality of destruction and violence – a path to our collective end.

Listening to what the Indigenous knowledge-holders are telling us is the starting requirement for any meaningful action. After all, they are the Cura Da Terra, the “cure of the Earth”. Right now, they’re calling for an immediate moratorium on extraction from the Amazon. We must do everything we can as active citizens to ensure this happens.

For each of us to move away from our norms will require our creativity, determination, devotion and love – to actively seek new ways of living, both individually and collectively. This will involve inner transformation as well as taking action in the world. No one has the answer as to what the life-systems of the world are calling you to do at this time. Perhaps for you living a meaningful life will involve taking action on the streets. Maybe it will involve writing, filmmaking, or creating crafts, arts, music and events. If it’s your thing, pray, and be part of collective ceremonies for the Amazon. Organise in community groups, starting from where you’re at. If you’ve got money, live in the spirit of the gift. You will need to find your own path, yet you’re not alone; we are living in through our defining evolutionary moment, the event horizon that will bring us together.

Simultaneously, we must start having a broader public dialogue about post-capitalism, de-growth economics (especially in the West), universal basic income, commons management approaches, regenerative agriculture & agroforestry, Indigenous stewardship of land and other alternatives that already exist. There is no shortage of ideas. It’s our responsibility to create the political will and cultural context to make these alternatives our shared, lived reality.

Stuart Basden

Stuart Basden is a co-founder of Extinction Rebellion and is a member of the Defend the Sacred Alliance. Stuart has been organising within liberation-oriented movements since 2012, and was previously the President of Toronto350.org. Stuart holds a Masters degree in Philosophy and is currently studying Worldwork group facilitation at the Research Society for Process Oriented Psychotherapy UK.

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