Climate Change International Sam Pizzigati

Does The Amazon Now Have a Shot at Survival?

Photograph Source: Amazon rainforest – CC BY-SA 4.0

By Sam Pizzigati / CounterPunch

The Amazon rainforest, our scientists tell us, essentially works as our world’s lungs. If those Amazonian lungs ever stop breathing, so will we.

This simple relationship just may make Gustavo Petro, the newly elected progressive president of Colombia, one of our planet’s most significant heads of state. If he succeeds over the next four years, the Amazon has a shot at survival — and so do the rest of us.

Petro and his environmental activist running mate Francia Marquez have pledged to work with their fellow progressive Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, the odds-on favorite to win Brazil’s presidential race this coming October, to save the Amazon rainforest. With leadership from Petro and Marquez, that effort may well succeed. Both these veteran activists deeply understand the core reality — economic inequality — that’s left the Amazon rainforest so catastrophically vulnerable.

Colombia currently rates as the world’s second-most unequal major nation by income, notes a World Bank report published this past fall. The only major nation more unequal than Colombia: Brazil.

Colombia’s richest 10 percent are now taking in 11 times the income of the nation’s poorest 10 percent, the World Bank details. In the Slovak Republic, by income our globe’s most equal nation, the top 10 percent only average triple the income of the poorest 10 percent.

The control over Colombia’s land mass tells an even more top-heavy story. The nation’s top 1 percent of private landholders own 81 percent of Colombia’s acreage.

Taxes in Colombia do precious little to alter this striking maldistribution of income and wealth. The nation’s personal income tax only kicks in at about four times Colombia’s median income, a rate structure, the World Bank points out, that leaves most all of Colombia’s rich paying no more than 10 percent of their actual total income in tax.

Colombia’s social welfare programs, meanwhile, “suffer from large leakages to high-income households,” and the nation’s public pension system generates “subsides that accrue mostly to recipients of high pensions.”

Dynamics like these have left Colombia’s inequality the world’s most entrenched. No nation scores worst on the “intergenerational persistence of earnings,” a tag researchers use when they compare what parents earn to what their kids end up making. In a nation with persistently unequal earnings, parents who make over five times what average parents make will have children who make over five times average earnings.

Last fall’s World Bank analysis of Colombia’s deep-seated inequalities argues that reducing those inequalities makes eminent sense on both moral and economic grounds. Greater equality in Colombia, the World Bank analysts stress, would boost growth and promote social cohesion.

What these analysts don’t stress: Greater equality in Colombia would also help save the Earth. The Amazon rainforest will never be safe as long as the key nations of the Amazon basin remain so unequal.

Why does inequality in Colombia matter so much to our climate future? The increasingly concentrated ownership of Colombia’s best agricultural land is driving poor farming families ever deeper into the rainforest. That same concentration has created a labor force desperate enough to take jobs with hustlers getting rich off of cattle-ranching, logging, and various other assaults on the rainforest.

Past presidents of Colombia could have, of course, addressed this desperation with programs to help the nation’s most destitute. But paying for those programs would have required higher taxes on Colombia’s most affluent, and, until this year, these affluents haven’t had to face that particular prospect in quite some time.

In fact, the rich in Colombia haven’t faced a national leader interested in seriously taxing them since Jorge Eliécer Gaitán Ayala — the last serious progressive candidate for Colombia’s top office before Preto — died in a broad-daylight assassination during his 1948 presidential campaign.

Gustavo Petro and Francia Marquez will now be taking office after running on a platform that places the well-being of Colombia’s poor and our global climate above the interests of the affluents who’ve dominated Colombia for so long. Their proposed agrarian reforms will guarantee rural families the right to land. Petro and Marquez have also pledged to phase out fossil fuels — including oil, Colombia’s current top export — and protect their nation’s incredibly rich biodiversity, one of the world’s most expansive.

On taxes, the Petro government will be upping the ask on Colombia’s “4,000 largest fortunes.” Petro’s initial prime targets include the dividend income that currently goes largely untaxed and wealth transfers abroad. Preto is promising, for instance, to deny government resources to individuals who maintain financial accounts in “tax haven” nations.

“Transfers abroad,” notes Nick Corbishley, a British analyst who’s traveled widely in South America, “make for an interesting target, given the propensity for wealthy Latin American businesses and families to move their money overseas, particularly to Miami, whenever a government of even mild left-wing persuasion comes into power.”

Opposition from the affluent to Preto’s environmental and equity agenda has, predictably, already begun to congeal.

“Petro’s critics fear that his ambitious plans, including his redistributive policies and his proposal to ban new oil exploration, could ruin Colombia’s economy,” observes the Washington Post’s Samantha Schmidt.

A good many Colombians, Schmidt reminds us, are already experiencing a ruined economy. Almost half of all Colombians are currently “experiencing some type of poverty and struggle to find enough to eat.”

Yet Preto’s critics, the Post analyst adds, can only see Preto’s interest in declaring “an economic state of emergency to combat hunger” as evidence of “his willingness to work around democratic institutions to push through his agenda.”

This sort of bogus “concern” for the rule of law has in the past regularly greased the skids for U.S. interventions that have helped topple left-leaning governments in Latin America that have refused to  genuflect before their traditional national elites.

But those traditional elites have never faced the broad challenge they face now. If Lula takes the Brazilian presidency this fall, as polls indicate he will, progressives like Preto will be running Latin America’s six largest nations.

The Amazon is cheering. We should be too.

Sam Pizzigati

Sam Pizzigati writes on inequality for the Institute for Policy Studies. His latest book: The Case for a Maximum Wage (Polity). Among his other books on maldistributed income and wealth: The Rich Don’t Always Win: The Forgotten Triumph over Plutocracy that Created the American Middle Class, 1900-1970  (Seven Stories Press). 


  1. I really hope that you are right, and I really, really hope that Petro succeeds.

    Unfortunately, I have zero confidence in him. He is an ex-guerilla, he’s associated with and backed by most narco-terrorist groups in Colombia. He led an extremely dirty and even at times illegal presidential campaign. He has made it clear that he will stop at nothing to achieve power. He sounds and acts like a would-be dictator and he admires Chavez and Castro. He made countless false or impossible promises and his plan to help the Colombian people doesn’t add up.

    So I hope he will do well for his country (where I live), but I predict that it will be a disaster for Colombia’s economy and democracy.

    1. From what I’ve just read Colombia’s economy is already ion the tank. Let’s see happens.

  2. Economic equality is not the root of this problem, far from it. This leftist tripe gets repeated everywhere, regardless of what the problem is. In the Amazon, the problem is CIVILIZATION, period. The traditional native people there, almost all hunter-gatherers, don’t harm the rainforest. It’s civilized people, with their damn cattle, plant agriculture, and mining who are doing the harm, and it’s both rich companies and poor peasants causing the problems. All Lula did when he was president was decrease the destruction of the Brazilian Amazon, he never stopped it.

    What’s need is an absolute prohibition of any further encroachment of civilization or civilized people into the Amazon for any reason, unless explicitly invited by the traditional indigenous people. THAT might save the Amazon if it’s not already too late (some scientists say it’s already too late). All else is political BS that will do little or nothing to stop the Amazon’s destruction at the hands of civilization.

    1. I had just been thinking about how anthropocentric Scheerpost is. It is a supremely western, intellectual perspective here, a perspective that is laden with false presuppositions, like how we are “losing” our (nonexistent) “democracy” in every other article.

      Then, I saw the title to this article. I got a little excited, thinking they might pay attention to the only issue that matters, the environment.

      Then, I read the article.

      It may be a new day, but it’s still groundhog day. I learn from the article that equality and prosperity for all is the only way to put a stop to our omnicidal madness. You know, make the top share more with the bottom in a system that itself is unsustainable. Yeah. That makes a lot of sense.

      It’s such a workable answer because not only can we not continue this way even if we do share, we never share. We talk about it all the time, but we NEVER do it.

      We might as well be asking for Jesus’ second coming, which also has never happened.

      The powerless adopt madness to cope. Terence McKenna is famous for saying, ” . . . the cost of sanity in this society is a certain level of alienation.”

      I think what’s truer is that the cost of *functioning* in this society is a certain level of dissociation with reality, a certain level of insanity that causes us to embrace nonsense and profound psychological isolation.

      We aren’t going to do what is needed. We are nowhere close to doing what is needed, case in point the supremely capitalism court of the country just said that we have no right to clean air. We are so far removed from what is “needed,” we aren’t even going to competently articulate what we need to do.

      This stuff is about to get seriously heavy, too.

      1. @Tupe
        I just read an excellent book called The Myth of Human Supremacy by Derrick Jensen. Doesn’t really tell people like us anything we don’t know generally, but he offers some different ways of looking at the problem. For one thing, Jensen posits that the biggest power in a society is its unquestioned assumptions, in this case the assumption that humans are superior. He also notes that while people can’t imagine living without things like electricity, they can easily imagine living without other species or ecosystems.

        Industrial humans are so disconnected from real life and the natural world that they might as well be from another planet, as Douglas Adams pointed out. In many ways, we live in a different world than they do, even though we’re all in the same physical one. The only people to whom I’ve really connected regarding life in general are traditional indigenous people, and this article is a perfect example of why.

  3. @Jeff,
    I like Jensen. I’ll check out the book.

    We don’t come from different planets but we sure live on different planets.

  4. @Jeff,

    p.s. – Jensen discusses something that is core to our twisted hierarchical worldview. We shouldn’t even be discussing what is superior and what is inferior. We always should have been discussing what we rely upon, what we depend upon.

    It doesn’t matter that we’re smarter than other animals. It doesn’t even matter that we’re much, much smarter than insects if we need them to live, if we die without them. Comparative intelligence is irrelevant. Thinking that it matters is proof of how not smart we actually are.

    1. @Tupe
      I fully agree that comparing ourselves to other species is wrongheaded. But humans ARE NOT smarter than other species. There are many types of intelligence, and humans excel in some, just like all other species do. When I had horses, I used to tell people that I could just let them go in the country and they’d be just fine, but if a modern human tried to do that, they wouldn’t survive a week. So who’s smarter?

      There is no “smarter.” All life is intelligent or it wouldn’t have survived.

      1. I agree, Jeff. That’s a hard sell in this culture, however.

        Have you seen Nicholas Money’s new essay, The Blessing of Extinction?

        It makes me ill reading it, even though it is one of the best essays on near-term extinction so far in one regard. It’s the only one that says the end of the suffering we cause will be a blessing.

        Everyone else does nothing but screech about saving humanity, and worse, saving civilization, with no thought for the other beings in the world. How can we power all this death and destruction greenly so we can keep doing it, is the burning issue for most humans in this country.

        Money (the writer), at least, turns that one on its head, and that is rare in this society,

        But, he goes on to promote the idea that all humans have been every bit as murderous as Western Europeans have been for the past 1200 years, they were just too incompetent to kill everything in such a short time the way we did. Human caused planetary extinction was inevitable, he says, baked in. He even uses the human-caused megafauna extinction theory to support his scientized original sin belief.

        Because, of course, if humans are violent at all, if they don’t hang like monkeys from the trees without ever affecting anything else in the world, then it was “inevitable” that we kill the entire planet. It was never possible for humans to stop themselves, even though plenty of humans had stopped themselves for tens of thousands of years all over the world and had developed sophisticated Nature cultures that literally saw a different planet than we do.

        We put a stop to that nonsense, didn’t we? We took it all. Now we slander those people constantly trying to feel good about our monstrous society and our ghoulish, parasitical lives.

        Personal extinction will be the blessing of never having to encounter that white man cultural supremacy bullshit again.

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