Necropolitics in the Amazon

Photograph Source: Neil Palmer/CIAT – CC BY-SA 2.0

During these pandemic times, everything seems to indicate that the socio-environmental crisis is getting worse in Latin America, especially in regions like the Amazon. This is not always recognized or adequately addressed, as the Covid-19 emergency takes center stage and other problems are put on the back burner.

Governments, the private sector and many other actors are using the pandemic as an excuse to justify harmful practices.  These actors are pushing extraction strategies, such as mining and oil concessions and agricultural expansion, in order to re-start economic growth.

As usual, the Amazon is on the frontlines of the war for the appropriation of the natural world. Most people when they hear ‘Amazon’, think only of Brazil. And while the situation in that country certainly is alarming, the battlefields of the Amazon region span northern Bolivia, various departments of Peru, several areas of Ecuador and southern Colombia and Venezuela.

In all parts of the Amazon, the indigenous populations are the first to be affected. The Amazon region is not empty space; it is their home. Extractive activities destroy their environment, pollute their food supply and cause additional suffering and violence, ranging from displacement, to persecution or assassination. Some groups, like the Yanomami in Brazil, face risk of genocide, fueled by both legal and illegal extraction activities.

This is how the extraction of natural resources operates, especially in virgin areas and protected lands, affecting indigenous territories or reserves, environmental protection areas, or high biodiversity sites.

Multiple interlinking factors exacerbate this dynamic. Pressures imposed by national companies or local subsidiaries of foreign corporations, aligned with discourse from local politicians, academics and even trade unions, reinforce the usual narrative that the Amazon region is either empty space or an area to be exploited for export.

International pressures determined by factors such as the global demand for raw materials, international prices, or investors’ interests also determine what happens to the Amazon. These conditions are the result of globalization dominated by transnational corporations and are much more intense than national or local factors.

For example, as the international price of gold increases, mining spreads across the Amazon and up the slopes of the Andes. In some cases it is formal, carried out by transnational corporations or even local cooperatives (as in Bolivia), but in others it is informal or illegal, feeding contraband networks (as in Colombia or Peru). Its consequences include the deforestation of the forest and mercury contamination in rivers. This environmental degradation destroys the livelihoods of indigenous peoples.  These situations are rampant where extraction activities occur.

The pandemic has only aggravated the situation. Many countries in the Amazon region have redoubled their extraction strategies in hope of increasing exports of their natural resources as a response to the economic crisis. They have reduced social and environmental controls, leading to extreme measures to ease agrochemical regulation  in Brazil and new threats to protected areas in Bolivia. There is no difference between the extractive activities carried out by Jair Bolonaro’s extreme right in Brazil, and the progressive governments of Boliva and Argentina.

This situation can be characterized as ‘necropolitics’–the policy of letting people and the environment die off. Sadly, this phenomenon is becoming normalized for a growing number of citizens. The Covid19 crisis, along with the accompanying diminishing health of people, has caused a vast majority to live with death on a daily basis.

Necropolitics has now reached the Amazon region. By the end of 2020, there were already more than 1.5 million indigenous people affected by Covid19 in the Amazon region, with an estimated 37,747 deaths. In Brazil alone, an estimated 26,000 died.

Human rights defenders, who already were facing many restrictions, were further weakened under these necropolitics.  Governments applied all kinds of restrictions and abused military or police controls already in place. They failed to adequately deal with the pandemic, and left indigenous populations to face the crisis alone.  Jair Bolsonaro shamelessly declared that faced with the health crisis, Brazil’s indigenous people would be fine if they just drank tea.

While all the world’s attention was focused on Covid19, violence increased in the Amazon. The Coordinator of Indigenous Organizations of the Amazon Region (COICA), representing more than 500 indigenous people, stated it would declare a violation of rights emergency.  In 2020, on average, one indigenous leader was assassinated every two days.

Concurrently, citizens’ distrust of politics and elected officials has deepened. Peru presents arguably one of the most extreme cases, facing a succession of political crises that has been going on for years and has led people to believe this is  the country’s institutional norm.  The recent national elections revealed the level of mistrust: about half of Peru’s voters either rejected all candidates outright, or were simply not interested in voting at all.  Of the slightly more than 25 million eligible voters, about 10 million either submitted blank, null or absentee ballots.

Politics as an exercise in dialogue and deliberation is quickly fading away. This only serves to benefit the imposition of more extractive activities, as this retrenchment circumvents the processes of disseminating information and collaboration. Channels for addressing complaints or criticizing impacts are disappearing, and human rights are being violated. If politics crumble, alternatives to these extraction activities will not have a way to be presented or discussed.  It is as if necropolitics has devoured what politics truly used to be.

While it is true that prior to 2020, indigenous peoples’ rights were repeatedly ignored, marginalized and violated, after more than a year of this pandemic, the situation has become even more dire. This is true for indigenous populations and for the environment as a whole.

Today, the Amazon region is in the center of the battle between the policies of death and alternatives that emphasize  health and life. Even at this difficult time, this contrast deserves to be highlighted and addressed.

Translation by Gabriela Paige-Lambert.