Capitalism rarely meets something it can’t put a price on. Goods and services, like cars and housecleaning, those have a price. Health insurance puts a price on your well-being—and worse, slavery puts a price on a human being. Exotic plants and animals have their own prices on the black market (or on Facebook).
The Amazon rainforest, though, defies commodification. The multitudinous species, interacting in ways that elude human understanding, the vast rainforest’s role in sucking up CO2—let’s just say the Amazon never sends us a bill. And what can’t be adequately priced gets destroyed: The Brazilian government of Jair Bolsonaro is essentially encouraging farmers to burn the Amazon to make way for agriculture, the only price of importance being that of cattle (Brazil is the world’s biggest beef exporter, providing 20 percent of global exports) and crops like soybeans.
To be clear, fires in the Amazon are nothing new—so long as humans have been deforesting, they’ve been modifying the rainforest to burn. But after years of progress to slow its destruction, deforestation is now accelerating, fueling more fires. It’s a stunningly clear example of how human behavior can shift with a change in political whims, in this case the arrival of Bolsonaro. What’s different this year is that a lot of the fires have been set by people who were emboldened by Bolsonaro’s rhetoric, says University of Florida ecologist Emilio Bruna, who studies the Amazon. “They’re illegally setting fires as a means of clearing land, and using it to intimidate indigenous activists or environmental activists.”
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And it’s the indigenous peoples who stand to lose the most in the Amazon. They’ve coexisted for millennia with the rainforest without burning it to the ground, providing for themselves and their local trading partners. “Capitalism valorizes progress from destruction,” says Sonia Guajajara, executive coordinator of the Articulation of Indigenous Peoples of Brazil, speaking through a translator. “That’s not what we believe—we can take from nature without destroying everything.”
At the moment, capitalists value the Amazon for its agricultural potential, but that value is fleeting. When an agribusiness clears a forest, it fells the vegetation, lets it dry out, then burns it. Problem is, the vast majority of the nutrients in the Amazon are sequestered in those plants, not the soil, so the dirt quickly ends up lacking nutrients. “You go from a really lush tropical forest to a completely unproductive cattle pasture almost immediately,” says Bruna.
It’s simple economics on the surface—clear a forest, make money, exhaust the soil, move on, repeat—but in the Amazon, nothing is simple. The rainforest is responsible for 20 percent of rainfall in the region, the vegetation itself providing the moisture. Cut down the trees and you cut down on rain, which means less water to support agriculture and more parched vegetation, which means more fires. “You have a fire, you lose trees, you lose precipitation, you put particulate matter in the air, which is also going to alter the hydrological cycles and the regional climate cycles,” says Bruna.
For the good of Brazil and the planet as a whole, the deforestation of the Amazon must stop, because the region may be approaching a tipping point in which it transforms into a woody grassland. And we’re only at the beginning of this year’s fire season in Brazil—26,000 blazes have raged just this month, the highest in 10 years.
Farmers in Brazil are starting these fires not because of some vendetta against the rainforest, but because they need to feed their families. Monitoring forests and slapping deforesters with fines simply isn’t enough to fix this problem, even if the Bolsonaro administration had any interest in doing so. As long as there’s money to be made in destroying the Amazon, and so long as a complicit government is in power in Brazil, the Amazon will burn.