Fear and Loathing in the Amazon, Part 3

All this perpetual petty corruption and mismanagement would be mere triviality, fuel for resigned traveller’s laughter, if the stakes here weren’t far more serious. Brazil is the country where the Amazon continues to be deforested – the very biological life of the Earth itself threatened – by this very same dynamic: repeated sky-high promises of change, then fraud, corruption, and resignment to blatant illegal activity while the law turns its head.

It’s a shock to the gut to realise that walking down the street, you’re looking at the face of the culture which holds within its grasp the power to literally destroy the Earth’s biosphere. And laugh and dance while doing it. Brazilian culture has many beautiful and joyous things to recommend it, but the relaxed tolerance – almost mandatory requirement – for institutionalised corruption and ‘little ways around problems’ is not one of them.

Doing favours, greasing the wheels, diversion of funds, taking care of your friends is a quiet little vice which all the same is literally a planetary death machine on the same scope as the United States and Russia’s nuclear arsenal. This is how the world could end, with a grin and a wink and a forged signature. Seriously. No joke. Blam, we’re all dead. No more trees. No more water. No more oxygen.

There’s an ambitious project which was announced last year and promoted at the World Social Forum: “One Billion Trees For The Amazon“. On paper, it looks great. It’s a mixture of hard-headed pragmatism and resigned acceptance of corruption. The government accepts that there is a huge amount of illegal land-squatting which is destroying the rainforest. So they’ll provide an amnesty for the illegal squatters, then pour money into incentive programs to help the newly-legal squatters grow renewable, loggable cash-crop trees. Which is not nearly the same as actually rejuvenating the lost genetic heritage of the Amazon, but well. It’s a rough, tough, realpolitik compromise. It’s a halfway sort of deal. It has a chance.

We planted seeds at the Forum in the name of this project.

It looks great on paper. But will it really fly, here in a land where corruption is so endemic? Money attracts fraud like dead things attract flies. How much of this cash will find its way even to the illegal squatters, let alone from them to the trees?

(By the way, the web link above is from a Chinese news site; Chinese and Indian sites seem to be the only ones Google can unearth. Very odd. One Billion Trees for the Amazon is an initiative of the state government of Pará, and a brief look at their website on www.pa.gov.br appears to show no listing for it at all, which seems odd given that the impressive paper brochure I picked up this weekend had that website URL on it. There’s a big glossy website, plantabillion.org/, for what appears to be a completely different One Billion Trees for Brazil initiative backed by the Nature Conservancy which is talking about the Atlantic Rainforest, a very different chunk of forest which while a very worthwhile project in its own right is a long way from the Amazon and way outside Pará state. And they talk a lot about raising money and very little about exactly which ‘local partners’ they will be giving the money to. Not that I’m suggesting anything has necessarily derailed this project already. I’m just saying it’s very easy for these initiatives to very quickly enter a maze of mirrors where nothing can quite be validated. If I said One Billion Trees, which initiative would you think I was talking about?)

I’m skeptical. Everything I’ve learned about this culture tells me that’s the best way to survive. Just shrug and accept that the system is rotten, and find your own hill to climb, build a house, put bars on the window, headphones in your ears, and let the devil take your neighbour.

And yet I’m afraid, terribly afraid, that that kind of skepticism on a planetary scale will itself become a death machine. If we don’t have people who remain angry and idealistic, who do rave, rant and rage against the dying of the light – who do stand up and complain about the small, petty injustices and corruptions which together make up the big, world-eating one – how can the human race live?

Worse: How do we stay human and loving while being fully aware of just how horribly death-dealing our race is? The rage inside me when I see the force that kills the Amazon right in front of my face, nearly overwhelms me. I can understand how revolutions start. I can understand why Brazil has had at least two military fascist dictatorships in the last century. In the face of such total systemic corruption, massive totalitarian force is at least a way of getting needed things done.

And the forces in evidence at the World Social Forum – the would-be Marxist revolutionaries inspired by Che Guevara, Fidel Castro (50 Years of the Cuban Revolution!), Hugo Chávez, combined with the massive militarisation of the favelas, could literally touch off such a real revolution here.

But that too is the wrong way, worse than doing nothing. It would be merely another one in a sorry history of revolutions, promises, and failures.

Brazil is an emotional rollercoaster, grief and rage and love. The death of the planet happening right in front of you. And no apparent sane way to stop it.

But somewhere – I hope desperately – there may yet be hope.

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