If the Amazon burns, we burn (1)
In girum imus nocte et consumimur igni (2)
Why a palindrome? In order to point out the interdependence of the reasons and the circularity of the causes in a world in global crisis (all its domains and territories are affected) and systemic (all the crises are linked). « We run around in circles in the night, consumed by fire »; this means both that we run by combustion, which is indeed the characteristic of our thermo-industrial civilization, and by fear of combustion, of collapse, of the scalded climate, of the Arab terrorist, of the Russian barbarian, of the Chinese octopus, etc. This corresponds very precisely to the disastrous dialectic of consumerism, which is itself only a form of addiction; the drug is the ideal product in The Naked Feast: no need for a sales pitch to seduce the buyer; he is willing to crawl through a sewer to beg for the opportunity to buy.(3)
Some people believe they can ignore the suffering of distant peoples; others resent any violation of humanitarian and other principles that seem rational and reasonable to them. But blindness reigns: to what the first will never notice, answers what the second will not understand, even if the facts are served to them on a silver platter… Undoubtedly they will see the platter, and even so? By definition, economic freedom is political freedom. What could be more normal than that it has a price? The case of the Amazon, its indigenous people, and its primary forest is exemplary in this respect as well.
To go to Brazil when you can’t afford a « sailboat » with carbon emissions (4) requires to take a plane. This gives the opportunity to listen distractedly to the ecstatic lyricism of a Portuguese-speaking captain, singing the praises of his « magnificent, splendid and very charming team(5) « We wonder if he is not putting a little too much in the cone to make the crossing on one eye. The border crossing is, on the other hand, unequivocally positive: the reception of the policeman is of a very touching courtesy, an experience that is exceedingly rare, Canada being the only known exception.
The Brazilian reality is plural. Its cartography (the country is divided politically and administratively into 27 federal units and geographically into five regions: Central West, North East, North, South East and South) can be simplified as follows: the Southeast is the most urbanized and industrialized region, and therefore the richest and the one with the highest crime rate; the Northeast is the poorest agricultural region in the country; the Amazon (which covers the states of Acre, Amazonas, Rondônia, and Roraima), especially what remains of the primary forest, is the site of major social and ecological tensions; Brasilia has a special status: Brasilia has a special status: a capital region with a mainly political and administrative life, it is rich but relatively peaceful socially. Despite regional disparities, this simplification could itself be variously reduced, for example by noting that all regions of the country are stabilized in their inequalities, with the exception of the Amazon, where the resources to be exploited, i.e., to be plundered in a hurry, are still immense.
In the cities (mainly in the Southeast), Western non-values, botox and implants on credit(6), fitness, and mass depoliticization reign. Brasilia is no exception. Its construction, decided in 1956 by President Kubitschek, and planned by the architect-urbanist Lucio Costa with the help of Oscar Niemeyer, was carried out with great speed (the first infrastructures and the first buildings were built in only 1,000 days, with the official inauguration taking place on April 21, 1960).(7) His message is clearly Saint-Simonian: the golden age is before us; all we need to do to reach it is to substitute the machine for the slave, and the administration of things for the government of men. The city’s « Pilot Plan », inspired by the motif of the cross, exploits two main road axes: the residential axis « Eixo Rodoviário », North/South, and the ministerial axis « Eixo monumental », East/West, structuring the major federal and national facilities.(8) This cruciform plan, symbolically powerful and aesthetically appealing, is nonetheless a transportation calamity. The city, which was designed for the automobile with a double urban freeway that in some places operates in five lanes, can make short trips excessively long and tedious. They don’t stop pedestrians, like in California, they run them over.
What about rural areas, in general, and the Amazon, in particular? Apart from the roads and highways that are built to expedite the exploitation of goods and people, and which readily collapse as a result of poor earthworks, landslides and floods, there is little local evidence of the territory’s wealth. Racial inequalities are, however, always present: it is the color of the skin that generally determines social status. And the indigenous « Indians » are at the very bottom of the ladder. Their scandalous indolence certainly has an atavistic dimension, but it is also the sign of their ostracisation. In the small towns that populate, if one dares to say, the Amazon, the houses, hastily built in wood on stilts, resist the bad weather only by weariness. As soon as a family is better off, they build with bricks and barricade themselves behind wire fences and walls three meters high with sharp barbed wire or electric fencing.
In these small towns, the Indian cultural identity is undermined by the structures that are supposed to protect it. FUNAI (« Fundação Nacional do Índio », created in 1967 to replace the « Serviço de Proteção ao Índio », dating from 1910) apparently no longer plans to integrate indigenous peoples. Rather, statutorily, it seeks to defend indigenous communities, to help them manage their heritage, and especially to claim title to the lands they have always occupied (!). Consequently, it is also about advocating the Indian cause to the national society, and preventing predatory actions by foresters. No one is supposed to be unaware of the mass killings, torture, slavery, sexual abuse and land grabbing of the Indians that were revealed in 1967 by the Figueiredo Report.(9)
What does that mean, factually? We must promote the same rights and duties for all and, in a market democracy, this is more like invoking the pragmatic rights of the consumer than the very relative rights of the voter. Protecting the ownership of land, not just its usufruct, confers the ability to rent and sell it, and this is tantamount to acknowledging all past spoliations and opening the door to taxation. Providing access to basic education further uproots oral cultures and empirical life learning. The criteria are the same as in the cities, and the aim is to ensure the potential employability of all, and the unemployment of others. Besides, no education without school, no school without electricity, and electricity means radio, television and other wonders of communication. Very remote areas now have access to the electrical network and to mobile telephony, and one can watch the reassuring spectacle of obese children wallowing in front of a stupid television show. But how to buy these consumer goods without a pension or salary? It is feared that only illegality will allow this. Finally, in the field of health, the establishment of makeshift hospitals (no pun intended) diverts people from traditional medicine. In this respect, we should update Illich’s analysis, according to which Western medicine only surpassed the effectiveness of bonesetters between 1913 and 1955. Whatever the chronological details, common sense itself forces us to recognize that in the West, one has to be very rich to afford the luxury that everyone in a poor country enjoys: being assisted on one’s deathbed. Or that schools standardize instead of individualizing, that cars immobilize instead of transporting, that medicine makes people sick, that the media isolate and manipulate, and so on.(10)
Of course, many, many actors in FUNAI are well meaning, but their premises are not axiologically neutral. For example, when Davi Kopenawa was working for her, he himself tried to become white.(11) Of course, FUNAI’s action has been decisive in curbing the savage exploitation of the Amazon, but it is now bound hand and foot by the Bolsonaro regime. No sooner had he assumed the presidency than he made FUNAI dependent on a new ministry (« of human, family and women’s rights ») and removed its territorial responsibilities to the Ministry of Agriculture. Although Congress has since overturned this dual decision, it gives a sense of the struggle underway, and it sheds a very harsh light on the fires that were strongly encouraged, along with other genocidal actions, by the president. In July 2019, Bolsonaro finally appointed Marcelo Xavier da Silva as head of FUNAI, a figure linked to agribusiness, and without any consideration for indigenous life. As you can see, everything is moving very fast since then.
Let’s get back on track. We have talked about Brasilia and the urban reality of the provinces. It is of course elsewhere that we must look for the authenticity of the Amazonian community life. As such, it only survives in villages that have not yet been contacted by « civilization » or by FUNAI. They are the privileged place of anthropological research and its sometimes hazardous presuppositions. However, it is possible to go to villages that offer, when the opportunity arises, the possibility for people outside the community to follow a diet. Dietering a plant requires several things: a wise choice of plant, a certain amount of isolation, and the benevolent attention of a medicine man (the « pagè », called elsewhere « shaman », « curandero » or « ayahuasquero »). It is then a cultural immersion which paradoxically does not imply an integration in the life of the village (one lives in the forest), which offers (un)expected advantages. Let’s take the case of a small Huni-kuin village in the Tarauacá region.
On the one hand, the traditional community and its autarky have already suffered a lot from official and unofficial goodwill. Between the ravages caused by consumerist temptations, and those caused by missionaries of all kinds, it is estimated that 10 percent of the indigenous people continue to observe traditions, sometimes in a syncretic way, always recreating ways of thinking and songs that have been damaged by centuries of Portuguese and federal domination. It has already been noted that mobilophony antennas accompany deforestation. It remains to be stressed that the sale of alcohol and evangelization precede it: next to the Catholics and the innumerable churches (or sects(12)), a new local religion emerged in the 1930s: Santo Daime. Its specificity is twofold: on the one hand, it integrates Catholicism with local animism; on the other hand, it uses ayahuasca, renamed « daime », and sometimes cannabis, which it calls « santa maria ». There is much to be written about this recent development; let us note two things. First, the new cult has been officially recognized in Brazil since 1972, after a double study by the Federal Narcotics Office and the Ministry of Public Health concluded that ayahuasca was safe and had a positive social impact. Secondly, the use of cannabis, probably as a result of a visit of hippies, in the 1960s-1970s, to Mestre Irineu (Raimundo Irineu Serra, 1892–1971), introduces a cultural and economic dissonance. Used, like tobacco, for both social and priestly purposes, it induces a divergence that, at the very least, raises questions.
On the other hand, the diet, its rituals and ceremonies, constitute the heart of the Amazonian culture. According to the great huni-kuin narrative, language, writing, symbols, songs, ritual use of plants, eschatology, etc., are all derived from the foundational experience that is acquired in the womb of the giboia. The giboia is the creator of the world; it is in her that one dives when drinking ayahuasca, which they call « nixi pae » (in the physical world, the giboia is an anaconda). This brings up the question that was raised about cannabis: are we dealing with a drug? It is easy to answer by contrasting drugs and medicine (« medicina »).
A drug, like a medicine, is manufactured in a factory and its effectiveness is paid for at a high price: toxicity (physical and mental), addiction (physical and mental), social and professional de-integration. Epicureanism, always implicit in recreational practice and sometimes explicitly destructive, is accompanied by hallucinogenic virtues and a monetary transaction (see Burroughs, cited above). On the contrary, a medicine (i.e. a plant whose roots, bark, leaves are used for psycho-corporal purposes…) is derived from nature and the constraints on its use are totally different: used correctly, it is without toxicity, addiction or dependence; it produces a social insertion (to heal oneself is to heal the community); epicureanism gives way to asceticism (its first principle is purgation); it can certainly cause visions, but without being entheogenic or requiring a cult for all that; in the end, it is not an economic good in the strictest sense, although it comes under the Maussian gift/counter-gift.(13) Moreover, not everything can or should be said about it: like all initiatory practices, it implies the silence that weighs on what, ineffable, cannot be expressed (« arrheton »), on what it is forbidden to reveal (« aporrheton »), and on what is lost in theillo tempore (« alogon »).(14)
From this point of view, while the Westerner prides himself on living old, but crazy and patched up, the Indian humbly seeks to preserve the gift of life by remaining in harmony with his loved ones and in unison with the forest. To adore, to venerate, to worship are categories that are foreign to him. Purging, intention, ritual and community are, on the other hand, natural to him. Traveling with the spirits, entering into trade, that is to say, in negotiation, with them, allows one to remain alive, in body and spirit. Destroying the forest is a genocide as well as an ecocide: the ideal of short-term profit exposes us to the loss of ancestral knowledge about the conditions of possibility of an authentically human life, the nature of consciousness, the virtues of autarky, and what is pompously called ethnobotany. Moreover, respect for all forms of life — and a primary forest not only abounds in life, but is itself, in its undivided, living and communicating totality — should be the fundamental ethical principle, well before all the recent gesticulations on the rights of man, woman, child, animals, war…
However, one should not fall into the epinal (and Rousseau’s) image of the good savage: travelling in the Amazon means accepting to be plucked, in one way or another, and to have to deal, according to one’s lexicon, with either the insects, the predators and the infections, or the spirits of the forest, which are definitely not our chimeras. But this does not change the stakes. At the very least, Illich’s call (c. 1971) for a convivial society where the tool is at the service of the person integrated into the community, and not at the service of a body of societal specialists, could not be more current. A maximaThe genocide of the Indians that is taking place before our eyes — and we have every reason to believe that women are also targeted by new forms of eugenics — should, by itself, justify the most energetic reactions of all the fine thinkers who roam our media, while the Amazonian ecocide, if it were understood, could open everyone’s eyes to the nature of the power that technocapitalism exercises over our lives.
- De Michel Weber, philosophe. Dernier ouvrage paru : Contre le totalitarisme transhumaniste : les enseignements philosophiques du sens commun, Limoges, FYP éditions, 2018. Ses publications sont échantillonnées ici : https://chromatika.academia.edu/MichelWeber.
- Guy Debord, Œuvres. Édition établie et annotée par Jean-Louis Rançon en collaboration avec Alice Debord. Préface et introductions de Vincent Kaufmann, Paris, Éditions Gallimard, 2006, pp. 1761 sq.
- « Junk is the ideal product… the ultimate merchandise. No sales talk necessary. The client will crawl through a sewer and beg to buy… The junk merchant does not sell his product to the consumer, he sells the consumer to his product. He does not improve and simplify his merchandise. He degrades and simplifies the client. He pays his staff in junk. » (William Burroughs, The Naked Lunch , New York, Grove Press, 1991, p. xxxvii).
- En amont et en aval du voyage transatlantique de Greta Thunberg, on trouve les vols de son équipe et tout le reste…
- « Beautiful, magnificent and very nice crew. »
- Il n’est pas rare que les Brésiliennes, grandes consommatrices de chirurgie esthétique, contractent un emprunt afin de financer une intervention cosmétique…
- Les plus anciens lecteurs se souviendront des images saisissantes de L’Homme de Rio (1964).
- Cf. https://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brasilia.
- Cf. https://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fondation_nationale_de_l%27Indien
- Ivan Illich, La Convivialité, Paris, Éditions du Seuil, 1973.
- Davi Kopenawa [Yanomami] & Bruce Albert, La Chute du ciel. Paroles d’un chaman yanomami. Préface de Jean Malaurie, Paris, Éditions Plon, 2010.
- Cf. Anne Morelli, Lettre ouverte à la secte des adversaires des sectes, Paris, Éditions Labor, 1997.
- Marcel Mauss, Essai sur le don. Forme et raison de l’échange dans les sociétés archaïques, Paris, Presses Universitaires de France, 1925.
- Les catégories permettant d’interpréter les cultes à mystère ne varient guère depuis Eleusis. Cf. Mircea Eliade, Le Sacré et le profane, Paris, NRF Éditions Gallimard, 1965.