A Tale of Ruination: Amazon Forest Peoples and the Deadly Synergistic Effects of the Pandemic

From the Series: Firestorm: Critical Approaches to Forest Death and Life

Fires burning across the North American West send smoke pouring into the Pacific, September 10, 2020. Image by the Cooperative Institute for Research in the Atmosphere.

“Land Grabbers, Loggers, and Prospectors Make No Home Office”
Greenpeace Amazon campaign op-ed headline, March 31, 2020

The 1988 Brazilian Constitution established the Amazon Forest, alongside other biomes, as national heritage. The liberal representatives that wrote this section did not anticipate that, per se, it would help protect these biogeographical systems, but that it would have, at best, beneficial symbolic effects.

Anchoring nationality in these biomes reflects a longstanding and somewhat conservative Brazilian trope: the naturalization of territory as a combination of diverse and nationally representative ecosystems with luxuriant and freely available natural endowments. This is the other side of the coin of the historically rampant predatory behavior of Brazilian elites toward the nation’s resources, in which the Amazon Forest has constantly been a warehouse. This pattern of behavior led Brazilian scholars to define the relation of the rest of the country to the Amazon as one of internal colonialism.

The concept of heritage, however, makes us look at the passing of time and its effects on the Amazon: what forest have we (materially and symbolically) inherited and what legacy will we bequeath to future generations?

As a high school student in the 1970s during the dictatorship, I learned that the Amazon was a monotonous plain; a uniform tropical forest; an environment hostile to civilization; of relatively recent occupation; sparsely populated; a habitat favored by small, isolated, and dispersed peoples (due to scarce natural resources); culturally dependent on more developed regions; and thus permanently under threat by foreign interests. During my graduate training in anthropology in the 1990s the archeological, ecological, and ethnographic records displayed a completely different picture: an originally populous and sociopolitically complex region and a biome composed of different landscapes in which the plasticity of human action played a fundamental role, making them today more or less suitable for different human endeavors. This novel scholarly knowledge barely percolated up to political and economic circles. The former representation still holds in national common sense and has underlied much of the authoritarian and technocratic planning schemes that have targeted the region and its forest and peoples, producing bruises, scars, and fragments.

Thus, we Brazilians inherited a fragmented and impoverished rain forest, despite all the socioenvironmental struggles since the 1980s that fought the totalitarian development follies of the military and the ensuing development plans of the so-called democratic period. Large fragments (but fragments nonetheless)—bounded by rivers converted to waterways, more or less (un)finished roads, open pit mines, dam infrastructures with their artificial lakes, and large export monoculture ranches—transformed the Amazon’s eastern and southern reaches into a fire-prone deforestation “arc.”

This incites us to see the whole forest as in an ongoing process of ruination. Ann Laura Stoler (2013, ix) invites us “to treat [ruins] as symptom and substance of history’s destructive force,” and “to attend to the force of these fragments and the traces of violence left in its wake,” thus “shift[ing] the emphasis . . . to the ongoing nature of imperial process.”

As for the Amazon, ruination as a destructive force expresses itself in the guise of internal colonialism, as evidenced through the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic in the region. At first, it came as a surprise: why would deforestation increase during an international public health emergency, entailing social distancing, isolation, and thus deceleration of economic activity? A closer look helps solve the riddle.

When the pandemic hit, deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon was already on the rise. According to the National Institute for Space Research, between February and June 2020 deforestation alerts increased 49 percent compared to the average of 2017–2019, and 25 percent when compared to 2019, which had already been a record! These figures include new mining sites—opened due to the recent 35 percent increase in the price of gold in the wake of the pandemic's uncertainties.

In particular, invasions of Indigenous Lands (ILs) have grown exponentially during the pandemic. Between March and July 2020, deforestation increased 827 percent, 420 percent, and 238 percent in the Trincheira-Bacajá, Kayapó, and Mundurucu ILs in southwestern Pará, respectively. Through the onset and growth of the pandemic, 2,400 hectares of forest were destroyed in the seven most invaded ILs with completed demarcation processes. These data reveal that most of the deforestation was illegal, due to gold prospecting on public land.

Notwithstanding the relative isolation of Amazon Forest peoples and the voluntary isolation measures that Indigenous peoples in particular adopted early on, the spread of COVID-19 among these groups has been deadly, mainly impacting elders. They could not avoid their multiple social and market relations with urban areas and, together with regional populations, have been severely affected by the critical structural limitations of the region’s Primary Health Care Network. Furthermore, as predicted early on, deforested areas were burned by ranchers and land grabbers throughout the Amazon dry season, releasing heavy smoke and further burdening the region’s health system with—guess what?—people with respiratory diseases. No wonder the Amazon healthcare system was the first in Brazil to collapse.

The epigraph to this text recaps it all and bluntly. Land grabbers, loggers, and prospectors—part of the devoted political constituency of Bolsonaro’s government—remained in full swing with their criminal activities of clearing and burning the forest during the pandemic. Enticed by the government’s promises to favor mining and agribusiness activities in ILs, the environmental minister’s explicit promise to deregulate environmental controls while the country was distracted with the pandemic (see Jeremy Campbell’s essay in this series) and the attendant weakening of local-level enforcement, land grabbers, loggers, and prospectors have been the main drivers of deforestation and vectors of COVID-19 into ILs and the lands of other traditional peoples. One can say that in the Amazon, they are the spearheads of the institutional strategy to spread the virus promoted by the government. Internal colonization, thus, currently proceeds through the synergistic processes of resource plundering, deforestation, and complicity with COVID-19’s spread, with all their violent and deadly consequences.

Through their organizations, indigenous and other traditional communities have had to go to court to compel the government to adopt protective measures against COVID-19, judicial decisions with which it has not yet fully complied. Beyond this important step, the question remains as to the kind of political action that will lead forest peoples to survive and regenerate their precious heritage. It seems that only a structural reversal of the relation of the country to the Amazon Forest(s) and their peoples can change courses in the long run, bringing internal colonialism to a halt.


Stoler, Ann Laura, ed. 2013. Imperial Debris: On Ruins and Ruination. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.