By Max Wilbert
The Amazon Rainforest is on fire. But the fire is merely a symptom of deeper problems, not root cause. Therefore, simply putting out the fires does not solve the problem. To protect the Amazon rainforest, we need a deeper understanding of threats to it. For this, we turn to the indigenous people, the guardians of the Amazon, to learn from them.
The Kayapo Nation
The Kayapo (or Xingu) are an indigenous nation in the northwestern Amazon rainforest, who live on roughly 27 million acres of rainforest and savannah territory claimed by Brazil and currently subject to the rule of American ally and genocidal fascist Jair Bolsonaro.
The Kayapo, who are split into many different groups, live a largely traditional lifestyle, hunting and gathering and practicing small-scale agriculture. They use at least 900 species of plants as food an medicine. They live in small villages which are periodically abandoned to return to forest. Beauty is highly valued in the Kayapo culture, as is oratory. Each tribe has different colors, and leaders often wear a headdress made from the birds of native feathers.
The Kayapo are threatened by mining, logging, and hydroelectric dams which are rapidly destroying their way of life. This conflict has simmered for decades as a clandestine war, with farmers, loggers, miners, and ranchers murdering Kayapo people and the Kayapo protesting, lobbying, and violently fighting back in self-defense of their forests, rivers, and people.
The Altamira Conference
In 1987, the Brazilian government announced plans to dam the Xingu River, the largest tributary of the Amazon. As Survival International explains, this project was “a central part of Brazil’s Accelerated Growth Programme, which aims to stimulate the country’s economic growth by building a huge infrastructure of roads and dams, mainly in the Amazon region.”
In response, 26 indigenous nations led by the Kayapo organized the Altamira Conference in 1989, in what was then the small frontier town of Altamira.
“Some of the tribes present at the meeting had not encountered each other previously while others were traditional enemies,” wrote observer Jeff Gibbs. “Each tribe could be identified by their unique body paint and beads, distinct feathered headdresses, particular chants and songs, and even their weapons of choice (ironwood clubs, machetes, bows and arrows). Some arrived in small chartered bush planes from far-flung dirt airstrips while others had traveled by river in canoes for days or weeks.”
Representatives from government, industry, and indigenous nations spoke in front of the crowd. Engineer José Antônio Muniz Lópes (later president of Eletronorte, the state power company in charge of the dam) addressed the room, arguing in favor of the dam and the “benefits” it would bring—jobs, electricity, civilization.
As he finished speaking, a woman named Tuira Kayapó rose to her feet, brandishing a machete. Kayapo women are powerful and direct, and do not defer to men. As Gibbs writes, “The tension in the room was immense as Brazilian military officers with automatic weapons watched on, along with arrow-clad indigenous body guards charged with protecting their people.”
Kayapó walked towards Lópes, and running the blade of her machete three times over his cheeks, then slapped him with the flat of the blade. She proclaimed his act on her people and on the entire Amazon as an act of war. She then stated in Kayapo:
“You are a liar – We do not need electricity. Electricity is not going to give us our food. We need our rivers to flow freely: our future depends on it. We need our jungles for hunting and gathering. We do not need your dam.”
Another chief brought his daughter with him. Embracing her, he said “What I am saying is not for me – it is for her, and for my grandchildren. We want the waters of the Xingu to be clean, and full of fish.”
After the Altamira Conference, the World Bank cancelled a $500 million loan and the Xingu Dam proposal was shelved.
The Undead Wetiko Returns
However, capitalist and colonial forces of civilization wouldn’t be thwarted that easily. In 2011, permits were again granted and construction began shortly thereafter on the Belo Monte Dam on the Xingu River, over the protests of the Kayapo and countless others.
The Belo Monte project, which is the fourth largest dam in the world, is largely completed now. The dam has been built, flooding some 6500 km² of rainforest and destroying more forest with roads, building construction, worker housing, transmission lines, supply dumps, and more.
The result is devastation. Hundreds are species are now committed to extinction as a result of this dam. Greenhouse gas emissions from the dam and the reservoir are estimated to be at least 110 million metric tons. Twenty thousand indigenous people are now refugees from the land their ancestors have lived on for a thousand generations.
It is expected this project is bringing 100,000 migrants to this area, triggering a wave of “development” that will utterly destroy the intact rainforest that remains.
Civilization’s War Against the Planet
The electricity from the Belo Monte Dam will be largely used to power aluminum smelting, an extremely energy intensive industry in which one smelter can use as much energy as a small city. Aluminum production is dependent on bauxite mining, which is it’s own atrocity.
Across the Amazon, we see the same story. Iron ore and gold mining. Logging. Grain and soy agriculture. Factory farming. Industrial production. Pollution, destruction, despoiling. The greatest rainforest in the world is being murdered before our eyes.
The Belo Monte Dam is one battle in civilization’s war on the planet. The dominant culture is murdering all life for economic profit. It is a death cult perpetuating a murder-suicide of the entire world.
In his book Columbus and Other Cannibals, the Powhatan-Renapé and Delaware-Lenápe writer, scholar, and activist Jack D. Forbes expanded on the ancient idea of the wétiko.
Now, were Columbus and his fellow European exploiters simply “greedy” men whose “ethics”were such as to allow for mass slaughter and genocide? I shall argue that Columbus was a wétiko, that he was mentally ill or insane, the carrier of a terribly contagious psychological disease, the wétiko psychosis. The Native people he described were, on the other hand, sane people with a healthy state of mind. Sanity or healthy normality among humans and other living creatures involves a respect for other forms of life and other individuals, as I have described earlier. I believe that is the way people have lived (and should live). The wétiko psychosis, and the problems it creates, have inspired many resistance movements and efforts at reform or revolution. Unfortunately, most of these efforts have failed because they have never diagnosed the wétiko as an insane person whose disease is extremely contagious.
The wétiko disease is a defining characteristic of modern civilized culture.
It is long past time that we gave up our illusions and understood reality. We are living in a time of war. To stand on the sidelines is to remain complicit. Once we know the truth of this war, it’s our responsibility to fight back on behalf of the living world and sanity.
The destruction of the Amazon rainforest is thousands of miles away. But the system that makes that destruction possible is global, and it is vulnerable. We must work to expose these vulnerabilities and call all warriors to arms in defense of the planet. It is time to fight and dismantle the economy of destruction by any means necessary.