The fires in the Amazon rainforest in August of last year revealed a great deal of information that was often clouded in the smoke arising from Jair Bolsonaro’s bonfires. While Bolsonaro’s land clearance policies were undoubtedly responsible for the environmental catastrophe that echoed around the globe and he was rightfully criticised for that fact, the entirely avertable tragedy also revealed a newly emerging and disturbing trend — that of green imperialism.
Make no mistake, Bolsonaro is a far-right demagogue, a racist, misogynist and potentially a serious criminal. The tragedy that befell swathes of the rainforest was neither exaggerated nor the outrage unjustified. Yet our distaste for his regime and recognition that rampant and toxic capitalism is the root cause of the issue shouldn’t allow the left to begin sanctioning and supporting a new form of western imperialism against emerging and developing states. Anti-capitalism, environmentalism and anti-imperialism go hand in hand, they are not opposing forces.
The imperialistic rhetoric that was seen from the likes of Britain and France had alarming echoes of age-old ideas of colonial and cultural superiority. If we in the West can have our Green New Deals and be woke to our impact on the world, then why can’t Brazil? The consideration that the West can enact these policies only through their place of privilege and wealth on the international stage, a benefit that is mostly a hang-over from colonial expansionism in the first place, is ignored.
Such is the depth of the imperialist rhetoric surrounding Brazil that Tony Blair once gave severe consideration to annexing the rainforest.
It was in 2006 that then British environment secretary David Miliband proposed the plan to “privatise” the Amazon, a project that would have seen private individuals and corporations able to buy the rainforest itself. The program, which is jaw-dropping in its imperial arrogance, was endorsed by Prime Minister Tony Blair and officially “to protect the region’s biodiversity while mitigating greenhouse gas emissions”. Nobody, of course, had decided to ask the Brazilians their opinion on the matter.
The idea, however, wasn’t a new one. It was the late French President Francois Mitterrand who once stated at the Ozone Conference in the Hague that an international body with the global responsibility for tackling environmental issues should be created, a noble idea that most right-thinking people would have supported. There was one catch, however. Mitterrand believed that this body should have the power to curtail state sovereignty “for the benefit of humankind.” These ideas of green imperialism and global sovereignty over state sovereignty were mostly responsible for the failure of the Earth Summit in 1992.
This new imperialism relies on the ignorance of celebrities and campaigners, blinded by the new insidious vein that has been injected into the fundamental cause of fighting climate change. This subversion, from a neoliberal standpoint, is genius, allowing western states to co-opt millions of activists and influential celebrities into disseminating propaganda while fully believing in their righteousness.
The argument that the rainforest belongs “to the whole world” is profoundly dangerous. What are the criteria? If the Amazon is considered as belonging to humanity, then why not the Pyramids of Giza or Great Wall of China? Why not the Grand Canyon or Serengeti? Who gets to make such a designation? And, on what authority do they have to declare those entire areas of a sovereign state don’t belong to the people of that state at all?
The problem arises that once these ideas of western superiority on green issues take hold, the imperialistic overtones won’t stop at the likes of the hideous Bolsonaro. Tomorrow it will be Russia, China, the Islamic world and every other enemy of Western interests. Tomorrow green issues will be used as justification for sanctions against Western enemies. Tomorrow they will be used as justification for war.
Just last year, British Green Party co-leader Jonathan Bartley decided to call for the banning of halal meat, singling out Muslims for criticism while highlighting his own Christianity and ignoring identical issues surrounding kosher meat. Subverting issues surrounding animal welfare to denigrate Muslims has been a favoured tactic of the far-right, and there were accusations that Bartley was dog-whistling to populist and base rhetoric while espousing his cultural superiority.
Meanwhile in Germany, the Greens have taken a hawkish position on China, Parliamentary Leader Goering Eckardt stating that “Germany needs to emancipate economically from China and pursue other markets” while calling for German companies to disengage from Chinese cooperation. Conservative MP Tom Tugendhat described the move as “a welcome and interesting development”, showing a new understanding between the Greens and the political right.
The attempted realignment of neoliberalism and neocolonialism toward compatibility with a green future hasn’t stopped at rhetoric, and the ideas of green imperialism played a role in the Bolivian coup d’etat in October on 2019.
It was that August, just three months before the Bolivian coup that would overthrow the democratically elected Evo Morales, that Novara Media would publish an article by Claire Wordley that was highly critical of Morales and the Bolivian government. The coming coup would end in a series of massacres and human rights abuses by the far-right backed coup government of Jeanine Áñez.
Environmental campaigner and activist Wordley describes herself as an “eco-socialist” and is a favourite speaker for Extinction Rebellion. Despite the claims toward socialist solidarity, the article equates Evo Morales with Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro and accuses the now-former Bolivian President of engaging in a campaign of arson in the rainforest.
The article treats protests in the country as grassroots activism against Morales from within the indigenous community while ignoring prominent warnings that the CIA were agitating for a coup. Whether this stance comes through ignorance of geopolitics, blinkered promotion of environmentalism or willful blindness, it was an adverse claim to make considering that the indigenous community in Bolivia continues to be under assault from their illegal and racist government.
The claims made in the article are startling similar to those espoused by Jhanisse Vaca-Daza, a key figure in the coup d’etat against Evo Morales three months later. She has been accused of being the “spearhead of a network of Western organisations that trained and advised the leaders of regime-change operations from Venezuela to Eastern Europe to the ongoing anti-China protests in Hong Kong.”
Extinction Rebellion has an admirable intention in terms of their activism against the real and urgent threat posed by climate change. They have successfully mobilised vast amounts of young activists and brought the issue firmly into the public consciousness. However, they must be equally mindful not to become a tool of neoliberalism and western imperialism.
Following the campaign by the Bolivian opposition, backed by the U.S. who were plotting imminent regime change, Extinction Rebellion staged protests at Bolivian embassies around the world in August and early September. XR supported the position that people were freely “protesting every night” against Morales and stated that “people in the country are still fighting fires and are protesting in the streets every night. We stood with them!”. Alarmingly, those involved in organising similar protests have been revealed to be further critics of Evo Morales and socialism, with many sharing videos and propaganda online that features the far-right “street activist” Luis Fernando Camacho.
The environmental criticism of Evo Morales was an organised attempt to swing international left-wing opinion against Evo Morales after the international outrage that Bolsonaro and Brazil received that same month. Groups like Extinction Rebellion, who have little experience or knowledge of international relations, espionage or geopolitics, enthusiastically leapt on the claims of the Bolivian opposition without more in-depth investigation or thought. They allowed themselves to be used as a tool to advance the agenda against Morales.
The attempt to subvert the climate movement against Bolivia likely had little impact, left-wing opinion solidly standing against the coup. However, the fact remains that with the fall of Evo Morales and the ascension of the new government not only did indigenous communities come under immediate threat of violence but international capitalism has since found an abundance of opportunity to exploit the natural resources and rainforests of Bolivia.
For centuries the old imperial empires such as Britain, France, Spain, and Portugal plundered the natural resources of countless nations while seeking to expand their territorial control to exert global hegemony. It was a game of chess played out by the powerful against the weak. Over time, these ideas and policies of colonialism became unacceptable to the international community and unacceptable amongst many within these old empires themselves. So too has corporate imperialism begun to be seen as improper, with the exploitative policies of western multinationals under increasing scrutiny and regulation in the developing world.
Green imperialism allows rich nations and corporations to retain control under an illusion of human interest, basing their arguments around the inability for native citizens to effectively run their own countries, denying agency to indigenous populations. It is a matter of supreme hypocrisy for the West to dictate the terms of environmental policy while being the primary supporter of the capitalist ideology that allows the exploitation and destruction of the environment in the first place. This replacing of blame onto the victims of toxic capitalism is a smokescreen to enable these abusive practices to continue, with green imperialism only one facet of this “woke washing” subversion of liberal values.
The question is one that is far more complex than blind adherence to a mantra of “green or nothing” or indeed a commitment toward prosperity at the expense of ecology. States must balance the need for improving the economic circumstances of the poor and protecting the planetary ecosystem. The best way to ensure that these twin interests advance in unison is not a program that allies with the imperialistic interests of the West, rather it is challenging and confronting the toxic capitalism that is the root cause of these issues. The West must redirect international funding from the imperial budgets that fund the overthrow of socialist progressives such as Evo Morales and instead fund programs of development to allow poorer nations to raise their populations out of poverty while adhering to the need to fight climate change. An International Green New Deal presented on corporate taxation, offered without demands in return, is the correct way forward, not a step backwards into the era of colonial arrogance and adventure.