Fighting for the World-Forest: Left movements and deforestation in South America

Until the impeachment and arrest of Peruvian President Pedro Castillo on 7 December, 2022 was looking like a successful year for South America’s electoral Left. Earlier in the year, Lula in Brazil and Gustavo Petro in Colombia had both won presidential elections, joining other regional leftist leaders such as Luis Arce in Bolivia (elected in 2020), Gabriel Boric in Chile (2021) and Alberto Fernández in Argentina (2019). For the first time in history, it appeared that the six most populous countries in South America—Brazil, Colombia, Argentina, Peru, Venezuela and Chile—would simultaneously be ruled by left-of-centre governments. However, Castillo’s downfall highlighted the fragile hold on power exercised by this second wave of ‘Pink Tide’ leaders. Other indications of instability include the failed constitutional referendum in Chile, the conviction on corruption charges of Argentina’s ex-president Cristina Kirchner and the spectacular invasion of all three branches of the Brazilian government by Jair Bolsonaro’s supporters in January 2023.

Questions also remain about the capacity of these governments to slow down the current, devastating wave of deforestation in South America. Due to its sheer size and hold on the global imagination, the Amazon rainforest receives most of the international media’s attention, but there has also been heavy recent clearing south of the Amazon, in the Cerrado savanna (Brazil), the dry Chaco forests (Bolivia, Argentina and Paraguay) and the last vestiges of the Atlantic rainforest (Brazil, Argentina and Paraguay). Due to the outsize role they play as carbon sinks, the fight for South America’s tropical forest biomes are a crucial front in the global struggle against climate change. Below I provide a summary of the electoral situation in each country in South America, excluding the Guianas, along with an overview of what these developments mean for South America’s forests. While the focus is on countries with territory in the Amazon rainforest, I also provide a synopsis of political and environmental conflicts in the southern cone of Argentina, Chile, Paraguay and Uruguay.


The return of Lula and the Workers’ Party to power in Brazil has been presented in some sections of the media as a return to state intervention in the Amazon after four years of negligence under Bolsonaro. Such a position ignores the fact that historically, the Brazilian state, in collaboration with regional and international capital, has itself been the greatest force for deforestation in South America. By the mid-twentieth century, after a 400-year-long barrage of sugar and coffee cultivation, gold mining and livestock raising, the majority of the coastal Atlantic rainforest had been cleared. At this point the Brazilian military dictatorship (1964–1985) turned its attention to the Amazon. Through a massive roadbuilding program, the authoritarian Brazilian state opened the south-eastern Amazon for cattle ranchers and soy farmers.

This set off an accelerating wave of deforestation that only began to slow during Lula’s first two terms in government, between 2002 and 2010. This commendable reversal was due not only to the efforts of Lula’s first environment minister, Marina Silva, but to a vast network of environmentalist and Indigenous organisations that successfully campaigned to extend the patchwork of protected territories covering the Brazilian Amazon. Simultaneously, the governments of Lula and his successor Dilma Rousseff subsidised the Brazilian soy and beef export industries, while also supporting the construction of the immensely destructive Belo Monte hydroelectric dam on the Xingu River.

While the Workers’ Party government was divided between pro- and anti-deforestation factions, Bolsonaro’s presidency was defined by unambiguous state support for extractive forces in the Amazon. Bolsonaro weakened the institutions defending environmental reserves and Indigenous territories while passing laws that supported garimpeiros—small-scale Amazonian gold miners—and strengthened ranchers’ property rights. The best hope for the Amazon is that Lula’s return to the presidency and the strengthening of the environment ministry will hinder the destructive powers of other branches of the Brazilian state. Marina Silva has returned as environment minister and Indigenous leader Sonia Guajajara has become the first head of a new First Nations ministry, countering the influence of the new agriculture minister, Carlos Fávaro, former president of the Soy Producers Association of Brazil. And there are other positive signs, such as Lula’s pledge to achieve zero deforestation and suspend the advance of the agricultural frontier by 2030.

The ongoing strength of the far Right also forced Lula into an alliance with ‘centrist’ figures such as Simone Tebet, who has become the minister of planning after presenting an alternative, feminist voice on the campaign trail. Tebet has been less keen to discuss her position as a major rural landowner in the state of Mato Grosso do Sul, in a region of the Atlantic rainforest that has been completely razed to make way for soy, sugar and other monoculture crops. There is a low-intensity civil war in this state between landowners such as Tebet and Indigenous Guarani-Kaiowá militants, who have been shot down and killed by police in helicopters while attempting to reclaim their land. Sugar cultivators in this area like to claim that their product is ‘environmentally friendly’ because it is not grown in the Amazon, quietly ignoring the other rainforest biome that they have destroyed along the way. Lula and Silva have now pledged to protect all biomes in Brazil, but they will need to confront allies such as Tebet to achieve this goal.

Even with the forces of the Left and centre Right behind him, Lula only defeated Bolsonaro in the second round of the 2022 election by 1.8 percentage points, or just over two million votes. While the Brazilian Left bounced back from the 2018 election, the centre Right has collapsed, with Bolsonaro taking over most of the vote of the Brazilian Social Democracy Party (PSDB), the previous main opposition party. The division that has existed since 2002 remains intact, running along two main poles: the tropical north versus the subtropical south and the older coastal settlements versus the inland agricultural frontier. The Workers’ Party retains its advantage in the long-neglected northeast, while the German, Italian and Polish settler colonies of the south have embraced the far Right. In the Amazon, colonists on the deforestation frontier support Bolsonaro, while Indigenous, Afro-descendant and other traditional communities within the forest support the Left.

With these regions balancing each other out demographically, the main battle lies in the southeast, in the massive urban centres of São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro and the mid-sized towns of Minas Gerais. São Paulo, Brazil’s industrial and financial hub, is the country’s most cosmopolitan city. From an Australian perspective, it also has the most familiar political dynamic—if one imagines Melbourne transformed into a subtropical sci-fi dystopia with over four times the population but a similar proportion of progressive bookshops. In the congressional elections that accompanied the 2022 presidential election, the stylishly radical city centre voted for the Socialism and Liberty Party (PSOL), which in a very rough analogy is equivalent to a merged version of the Greens and the Victorian Socialists. The affluent suburbs, which blossom out from the centre like four blue petals, voted Right, while the periphery voted for the Workers’ Party. Just as Victoria was once the home of the moderate wing of the Liberal Party, São Paulo is the base of the Brazilian centre Right. Incredibly, Lula’s pick for vice-president, Geraldo Alckmin, was his one-time rival for the presidency, running with the PSDB against the Workers’ Party candidate in 2006. This Merkel-style grand alliance paid dividends, with Lula losing the state of São Paulo but winning the city, where he gained millions of crucial votes against Bolsonaro.

Rio de Janeiro, the decaying former imperial capital, is more distinctively Brazilian than São Paulo, and at first glance more confusing. While the main class division in Rio is between the blue-collar North Zone and the wealthy beachside South Zone, the main electoral split in 2022 was between the west of the city, which voted for Bolsonaro, and the east, which supported Lula. This conundrum can be explained partly by the recent growth of militias in the west. Initially formed to combat the drug-trafficking gangs that dominate the city’s favelas, the militia have become successful paramilitary criminal organisations in their own right. Through violent coercion they have locked away millions of votes in Rio’s west for the far Right. In some sections of the west, left-wing parties can no longer campaign openly for fear of militia attacks.

Along with this antidemocratic repression, there is also a genuine mass base of support for Bolsonaro, spurred by the growth of evangelical Protestantism at the expense of Catholicism and Afro-Brazilian religions in Rio’s favelas. While there are exceptions to the rule, such as the left-wing pastor and newly elected federal deputy Henrique Vieira (PSOL), overall, evangelical voters and candidates lean heavily to the Right. This meant that in 2022, Bolsonaro, whose family has close ties to Rio’s militias, won both the city and the state. In the future, Rio’s Left will have to break out of the inner city and back into the western favelas to assist the nation-wide fightback against the far Right.

After Lula’s inauguration in January, Bolsonaro’s most fervent and least hygienic supporters launched a simultaneous attack on Brasilia’s Congress, Supreme Court and Presidential Palace, world-renowned for the communist architect Oscar Niemeyer’s sleek modernist building designs. Amidst a bacchanalia of vandalism and exuberant public defecation, there were some amusing historical ironies. In contrast to Paris under Robespierre or China under Mao, here the far Right played the role of cultural iconoclasts, denounced by the Brazilian Left for destroying, among other items, an antique clock that once belonged to Louis XIV of France. The mess left by these fanatics in Brasilia is symbolic of the broader legacy of structural and ecological chaos that Bolsonaro has bequeathed to Lula across the country.

Colombia and Venezuela

What latitude does in Brazil, altitude does in Colombia. The tropical lowlands lean leftwards, while the colder Andean highlands lean rightwards. However, this geography alone does not determine electoral results. Famously, until last year, Colombia had never elected a left-wing president, with executive power oscillating between conservative and centre-right liberal candidates since the country’s independence. In the twentieth century this dynamic, which contrasts sharply with those of neighbouring South American states, was perpetuated by the criminalisation of the Colombian Left during the civil war. The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and other guerrilla groups have essentially operated as armed alternatives to an electoral Left, with President Petro himself a one-time member of the M-19 urban guerrilla movement. In 2022, Petro and Francia Márquez, the first Afro-Colombian to hold the vice-presidency, broke the grip of the Right by winning Bogotá, the capital, along with the lowlands.

In simplified terms, Colombia can be imagined as a series of three concentric circles, with Bogotá in the centre, surrounded by the more conservative Andean cities, which in turn are ringed by the coastal and Amazonian lowlands. Like São Paulo in Brazil, Bogotá is the epicentre of both the centre Right and the academic Left in Colombia. An opening for the Colombian electoral Left emerged due to a split between ex-president Álvaro Uribe, who represents the ultra-right rural landowning class centred in Antioquia, and his centre-right successor Juan Manuel Santos, who was supported by industrial capital from Bogotá. Whereas Santos and the urban bourgeoisie pursued a peace deal with FARC to open up more economic opportunities for industrialists and the tourism sector, Uribe wanted to continue the war until the left opposition was completely crushed, maintaining the property status quo in the countryside. Since the 2016 peace deal, the Left vote has been steadily growing by activating the vote in both Bogotá and lowland areas that previously lay outside of state control, culminating in Petro’s 2022 victory.

Petro and Márquez, a former environmental activist, campaigned on a red-green agenda, pledging to both expand Colombia’s welfare provisions and ban new oil extraction projects. This ecological focus will be needed to counter another unfortunate trend: the rapid escalation of deforestation in the Amazon since the peace deal. During the civil war, FARC and other guerrilla groups unintentionally limited deforestation by cutting off outside access to large sections of rainforest. Since FARC’s disarmament, armed entrepreneurs have swarmed into these zones, opening new agricultural and logging fronts. As such, while the peace deal was an important social advance, on an ecological level the results have been more complicated.

Petro has also initiated a rapprochement with President Nicolás Maduro in neighbouring Venezuela, who has been subject to repeated attempts at removal from the United States, and more recently from the European Union. Venezuela faces a triple problem: economic destabilisation from the United States; ongoing corruption within the ruling socialist party; and a deep seated overdependency on a single volatile export, namely oil. The reopening of the 2200-kilometre-long Venezuelan–Colombian border promises to assist both states economically, though the effect of potential future integration on the Amazon is less clear.

While there has been some increase in illegal mining within protected areas in Venezuela, the recent economic crisis has reinforced the country’s low historical deforestation rates. The border conflict with Colombia over the last two decades has arguably assisted the rainforest by preventing the completion of the Carretera Marginal de la Selva. This highway was first planned in 1963 to create a unified transport network in the Peruvian, Ecuadorian, Colombian and Venezuelan Amazon. The failure to finalise it, due to a variety of social conflicts across the region, has prevented the runaway deforestation seen in Brazil, which has been facilitated by the dictatorship-era highway network.

Peru, Bolivia and Ecuador

The central Andean trio of Peru, Bolivia and Ecuador once formed the core of Tawantinsuyu—the Inca Empire. Indigenous groups continue to play a pivotal role in the politics of all three states, with their populations enduring a frenetic series of defeats and victories over the past four years. Peru and Bolivia hold up distorted mirrors to each another, with the key divide in both countries being between radical leftist Andean Indigenous populations and conservative mestizo lowland forces. In Peru, the Right currently has the upper hand after Congress orchestrated the removal of President Castillo, a one-time unionist and teacher associated with Free Peru, a successor party to the Maoist Shining Path movement. In the 1980s, Shining Path’s tactics were brutal enough to put off historian Eric Hobsbawm, which is a significant achievement considering that Hobsbawm remained loyal to the Communist Party after the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956. However, as in Colombia, recent decades have seen a gradual transformation of Peru’s guerrilla movements into electoral vehicles, with Castillo’s victory paralleling that of Gustavo Petro.

The key problem for the Peruvian electoral Left is the 1993 constitution installed by Alberto Fujimori. Fujimori oversaw the defeat of Shining Path alongside genocidal atrocities such as the forced sterilisation of over 200,000 Indigenous women. His constitution grants Congress significant powers to destabilise and impeach the president. In December 2022, facing an upcoming impeachment vote, Castillo attempted to dissolve Congress, but was then himself arrested for treason. Like all his recent predecessors, he lost his battle with the legislature. The new government led by Castillo’s vice-president Dina Boluarte, who has the backing of the Peruvian Right and the security apparatus, is now locked in a bloody conflict with highland protesters who are demanding new elections. This ongoing violence has been accompanied by a steady rise in Amazonian deforestation in recent decades, with successive governments seeing the colonisation of the rainforest as a way to defuse class tensions in the highlands and the coast.

In Bolivia, a contrasting conflict has played out: after fourteen years in power, the leftist Indigenous president Evo Morales was accused of electoral fraud and expelled from the country during the 2019 vote count, replaced by an ‘interim’ government of hard right extremists from the eastern lowlands led by Jeanine Áñez. Bowing to pressure from protesters, Áñez scheduled new elections in 2020, which promptly reinstalled Morales’ party—now led by Luis Arce—in power. Since the elections, the Bolivian supreme court has sentenced Áñez to ten years in prison, and initiated proceedings against Luis Fernando Camacho, the current governor of Santa Cruz. Camacho is a doyen of the lowland elite and former member of the Santa Cruz Youth Movement, an explicitly falangist paramilitary organisation, who openly thanked Bolsonaro and Brazil for their assistance while planning the 2019 coup. However, since his arrest he has been presented by both Bolivian commercial media and various overseas networks as a virtuous prisoner of conscience. While Camacho’s detention has prompted disruptive protests by separatists in Santa Cruz, at this point the highland Left continues to consolidate its hold on the Bolivian state.

Deforestation in Bolivia is a polemical issue, with blame for the recent spike in clearing often being laid at the feet of Indigenous coca farmers and small-scale agriculturalists from the highlands as they move into the lowland forest. More thorough surveys, such as those carried out by the Centre for International Forestry Research, indicate that above 80 per cent of forest removal in Bolivia is in fact driven by the mechanised agricultural and cattle ranching front spreading out from Santa Cruz. Investment from Brazilian agribusiness also plays a major role in this clearing process, along with the expansion of migrant Mennonite and Japanese farming communities. The Arce government, like the Morales government before it, is doing little to curtail this boom, facilitating Bolivia’s rising Amazonian deforestation rate, which is second only to Brazil’s.

Ecuador occupies an intermediate position between Colombia to the north and Peru to the south. This means that the Andean highlands of Ecuador combine both a militant, left-leaning Indigenous population (like Peru and Bolivia) and a more conservative mestizo population in Quito and other highland cities (like Colombia and Venezuela). Along with the volatility of politics on the Ecuadorian coast and in the Amazon to the east, this creates a scrambled electoral map when compared to neighbouring countries. The surprise election of conservative businessman Guillermo Lasso to the Ecuadorean presidency in 2021 came about due to infighting on the Left. The three major candidates in the election were Lasso, Andrés Arauz (the protégé of leftist ex-president Rafael Correa) and Yaku Pérez of the ecosocialist, Indigenist Pachakutik party. In the first round, Arauz and Pérez received 32.7 per cent and 19.4 per cent of the vote respectively, while Lasso received 19.7 per cent, sneaking into the second round ahead of Pérez.

With left-wing candidates receiving over 50 per cent of the vote in the first round, Arauz was expected to cruise to victory in the second. However, Pérez and Pachakutik did not offer support for Arauz due to his pledge to continue the oil extraction projects in the Amazon previously pursued by Correa to fund social programs. Pérez also claimed that electoral fraud had prevented him from reaching the second round, and along with the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (CONAIE) campaigned for his supporters to spoil their ballots. This pushed the second-round invalid vote up to nearly 18 per cent and helped Lasso achieve victory against Arauz. Noticeably, the Amazonian electorates that had supported Pérez in the first round now flipped over to support Lasso against Arauz.

Commentary from Jacobin magazine attempting to impose a US framework on the Ecuadorean context has characterised Pérez and the Ecuadorean Indigenist movement as representatives of the ‘liberal Left’, against Arauz and Correa’s ‘socialist Left’. This ignores the militant history of CONAIE, which has organised uprisings that have overthrown multiple Ecuadorean governments. In June 2022, CONAIE called a national strike against Lasso’s government, and after eighteen days forced the government to make a range of economic and ecological concessions. These included improved support for health services and the prohibition of mining in Indigenous and protected territories in the Andes and Amazon. This strike is just one example of how a narrow focus on electoral politics can erase the broader array of social militancy at play in South America. Through violent opposition on the streets, CONAIE has forced a right-wing government to accept environmental protections—protections that Arauz and the developmentalist Left were unwilling to concede.

The Southern Cone: Argentina, Chile, Paraguay and Uruguay.

While the countries of the Southern Cone do not possess territory in the Amazon basin, they still contain forested regions such as the Alto Paraná Atlantic forests (Paraguay, Argentina), the Southern Andean Yungas (Argentina) and the Valdivian temperate rainforests (Chile and Argentina). Uruguay, with its grasslands and wetlands, is the only South American country that does not hold any significant forested areas. In Chile, the failure of the 2022 national plebiscite on the constitution was a major blow to the parliamentary ecological and Indigenous movement. Political missteps by the left-leaning constitutional convention, alongside a well-financed misinformation campaign by the Right, resulted in 61.8 per cent of voters rejecting the new constitution. This document, which is now being redrafted, had promised the creation of a plurinational state recognising Indigenous autonomy and wide-reaching environmental rights.

Tellingly, the constitution was even rejected in various Indigenous Mapuche communities, with one Mapuche leader declaring that his community had no interest in negotiating with the Chilean state. For most of their five-century-long struggle against colonisation, Mapuche groups have maintained complete independence from both the Spanish Empire and the Chilean state, and many contemporary Mapuche militants continue to frame their struggle in these terms. These complexities indicate that the failure of the Chilean plebiscite cannot be reduced to a simple case of the Left overemphasising ‘identity politics’ at the expense of a campaign for economic redistribution.

In Argentina, Alberto Fernández’s government is struggling to deal with an inflation crisis, the aftereffects of the COVID-19 pandemic and the recent conviction of vice-president (and former president) Cristina Kirchner on corruption charges. With elections due this year, Argentina could easily swing back to the Right in what would be a major retreat for the second Pink Tide. Argentina’s governments, both left and right, continue a campaign of militarised persecution against Mapuche activists in the Valdivian Forest zones of Patagonia, in part to open further territories for tourism.

Uruguay and Paraguay, like Ecuador, both have right-wing governments. In Uruguay, current president Luis Lacalle Pou defeated the Broad Front in 2019, ending an unprecedented two-decade stint of leftist governance in the country. Paraguay is in the most hopeless state of any country in South America, with most of its forests destroyed by encroaching Brazilian soy farmers in the 1990s and its politics dominated by outside interests since the end of the War of the Triple Alliance in 1870. Since the impeachment in 2012 of Fernando Lugo, Paraguay’s only left-wing president since 1870, the country has been dominated by a series of drug-trafficking conservative governments which have financed the erasure of the country’s last remaining stretches of forest in the Chaco.

While at first glance the Pink Tide seems to have returned more strongly than ever in South America, closer analysis shows that the parliamentary Left faces enormous challenges in every country across the continent. The commodities boom that financed social programs during the first Pink Tide has faded, while the monsters that were fed and fattened during that period, such as the Brazilian farming lobby, have thrown their support behind the far Right. The Amazon is rapidly approaching a tipping point from which it may never recover, and only isolated remnants of the surrounding forests survive. The Brazilian agribusiness sector, the main driver of deforestation on the continent, has become so bloated that it is spilling over national borders and erasing the forests of neighbouring countries such as Bolivia and Paraguay.

The current situation is catastrophic, but not hopeless. Up until this point, the best guarantee of forest conservation in the Amazon has been the inability of national governments to open up these areas to outside capital through roadbuilding projects. Indigenous resistance, along with protracted civil wars—essentially, congealed forms of class conflict—have been key factors in preventing state access to these regions. The war for South America’s rainforests has been running for five centuries and, remarkably, stateless societies with a massive disadvantage in access to weapons and resources have held their own in many parts of the continent since 1492. The earlier struggles of Indigenous and Afro-descendant communities have laid the groundwork for the contemporary mosaic of protected territories across the Amazon rainforest today. As the Ecuadorean general strike has shown, it is possible for the Left to combine both economic and ecological goals rather than treating them as mutually exclusive. The current generation of Indigenous activists in South America consciously evoke both the cosmologies and the land struggles of their ancestors to frame their campaigns. These groups now need international support to push Lula, Petro and other national leaders to back up their election promises, confront the agricultural-mining complex and prevent planetary climate collapse.

About the author

Freg J. Stokes

Freg J. Stokes is a historian and artist from Australia working in Brazil.

More articles by Freg J. Stokes

Categorised: Arena Quarterly #13

Tagged: ,

Comments closed

Support Arena

Independent publications and critical thought are more important than ever. Arena has never relied on or received government funding. It has sustained its activities largely through the voluntary work and funding provided by editors and supporters. If Arena is to continue and to expand its readership, we need your support to do it.