São Paulo – the largest city in the Americas – was recently plunged into darkness in the middle of the day due to smoke from the Amazon rainforest burning more than 2,700km (1,700 miles) away.
These fires have brought global attention to the forests of South America, but the crisis surrounding them has deep roots. To understand what is happening in the Amazon today, it’s necessary to understand how deeply exploitation of the forest, and the Indigenous peoples who live within it, are ingrained in the global economy.
The first Portuguese explorers arrived in Brazil on April 22 1500. The region didn’t at first appear to offer the gold or silver that was to make Central America a tempting target for colonisers, but it did present a more obvious asset: vast forests with a seemingly inexhaustible supply of timber.
The region’s Brasilwood trees produced a valuable red dye, and with the colour red in fashion in the French court, Brazil’s forests quickly became a target for profit-minded Europeans. Brasilwood was so prevalent before colonisation that it lent its name to the country. But after centuries of overharvesting, these trees are now a highly endangered species.
Indigenous peoples were initially incentivised to help harvest timber in exchange for European goods. But eventually the native peoples were enslaved and made to destroy the forests which had provided the wood for their homes and the game and plants for their diet.
Once cleared of trees, land was turned into plantations to grow labour-hungry cash crops such as sugar, encouraging the enslavement of yet more Indigenous people. When they proved too few in number, vast numbers of people were taken from Africa and forced into slavery alongside them.
Global economy, local cost
The Mata Atlântica, a vast tropical forest which stretched down the east coast of the country and well into its interior, was an obvious target for the seafaring colonisers, who needed to ensure the materials they harvested could be easily transported to overseas markets.
But the environmental cost of this process was massive. As much as 92% of the Mata Atlântica has been destroyed over the past 500 years, erasing the places in which hundreds of distinct cultures evolved over the preceding millennia. Vast numbers of species disappeared along with it.