The coming resource war.

During my time in the Pentagon I had the privilege of sitting down with military leaders and defence and security officials from a variety of Latin American nations. Sometimes I was present as a subordinate assistant to a senior US defence department official, sometimes as part of a delegation that included people from the State Department and other agencies, and sometimes I was on my own or part of a small team exploring avenues of dialogue or negotiating details of bilateral and multilateral agreements.

One of the more interesting meetings I had was with small group of senior Brazilian military officers led by the then number two officer in the Joint Staff of the Armed Forces (which answers to the Brazilian Ministry of Defence, in an arrangement similar to that between the US Department of Defence and the Joint Chiefs of Staff but with a more vertical hierarchy within it based on officer seniority between service branches). In that meeting I asked the Brazilians what they considered to be the greatest threat to their national security. The answer was astounding: “The pattern of consumption in the North,” said the senior Brazilian officer. Sensing my surprise, he went on to explain that emphasis on economic growth in Northern capitalist societies was causing the rapid depletion of their natural resources along with a host of other environmental problems. He even brought up, at a time when the subject was embryonic, the issue of “global warming,” noting that Brazil was starting to see the subtle impact of climatic shifts in its maritime and terrestrial environments.

I should briefly note, as an aside, that one of the interesting aspects of the Brazilian high command is that many senior officers do advanced post-graduate degrees in France, and tend to focus on public policy and politics. This is a bit different that many countries that send their officers to US or UK War Colleges for professional development and prefer not to have them study politics rather than things like public administration. Like the US, Brazilian officers hold lower-level degrees in “harder” subjects relevant to their military disciplines, but then go on to study at places like the Paris Institute of Political Studies (commonly known as “Sciences Po”). There they receive a distinctly non-US type of political science training, to include the philosophies of people like Althusser, Poulantzas, Foucault, Derrida, Levi, Glucksman, Proust, Aron and others not usually associated with the military enterprise and certainly not part of the standard post-graduate curriculum of US (or NZ) military officers.

With this in mind it should not be surprising that the Brazilians had a slightly different take on what constitutes threats to their national security. But then the general went on. He advanced the notion that eventually Brazil would find itself at war with Northern powers over control of the Amazon. He pointed out that once unchecked economic growth led to the degradation of Northern environments and depletion of natural resources above the equator, the great Northern powers would turn on the Amazon (and elsewhere, like Sub-Saharan Africa) in an attempt to continue their pattern of resource exploitation.

At that point the US admiral sitting next to me turned and said “dang, boy, I have not heard that one before.”

The Brazilian general was not assuaged or convinced by my protestations that the US would never go to war with Brazil over its natural resources. He was not mollified by my attempts to explain that the US would more likely partner with Brazil to preserve its sovereign assets. He told me that although he had no doubt that I was a sincere young fellow and had the ear of the administration that I served, nothing I said would be binding once the next administration arrived and even then, should the US try to negotiate a partnership agreement/treaty with Brazil on control of the Amazon, Brazil would reject it on grounds of foreign interference in its sovereign affairs.

That was in 1994. But the Brazilian view continues to this day.

I write this to provide context to the current discussion of wildfires in Amazonia and the differences between Northern powers and Brazil (or more precisely, the administration of Jair Bolsonaro) when it comes to how to handle the situation now and into the future. Bolsonaro, who calls himself the “Trump of Brazil” and who campaigned as “candidate machete” in rural parts of the country, is a climate change denying homophobe with vulgarian tendencies and unsavoury links to both criminal gangs and extreme right-wing groups, including those operated by paramilitary organisations and and ex-military officers (Bolsonaro is a former Army officer and son of an Amazonian miner). During the campaign and once in office he promised to roll back environmental regulations and those that protected endangered indigenous communities in the Amazon basin, who were already under siege from logging and farming encroachment in their traditional homelands. His promise to bulldoze the Amazon in order to promote economic growth on the way to great power status resonated with nationalists as well as foreign and domestic agricultural and logging conglomerates, who poured both open and dark money into his campaign.

Once Bolsonaro assumed office the practices of clear-cutting and slash-and-burning accelerated dramatically, something that when combined with prolonged drought in Brazil’s north and west contributed to the wildfires that as of yet remain unchecked in many places. Bolsonaro has accused environmentalists of deliberately setting fires to advance their agendas, has rejected some types of international fire-fighting aid (such as from the EU) and has launched into a war of words with the likes of French Prime Minister Macron (including rude comments about the Macron’s wife) in defence of what Bolsonaro claims are assaults on Brazilian sovereignty by foreign powers wishing to gain control over its natural resources.

This is where things get dangerous. The Brazilian military has as one of its national security pillars defence of its natural resources against foreign efforts to seize them in the face of increased environmental destruction. The Bolsonaro government supports clearing large parts of the countryside in the quest for more arable land for commercial purposes and is determined to resist foreign entreaties to reign back the deforestation policy in the interest of global climate sustainability. The scene is then set for armed confrontations between the Brazilian military and any actors (foreign or domestic) that may seek to use direct action to protect the rainforest and pantanal (the southwestern wetlands that extend to the Paraguayan and Bolivian borders). The threats are unlikely to come from state actors over the short-term and certainly not from Brazil’s neighbours, but over the medium to long term the possibility that resource wars might erupt over Brazil’s intransigence cannot be discounted.

In fact, Brazil ultranationalists are already spreading rumours that the unexplored hinterlands are being “infiltrated” by foreign forces, and the Brazilian Army has suspended participation of several Northern militaries in jungle warfare exercises over concerns that it is gives forward intelligence about terrain and Brazilian war-fighting capabilities (the Brazilian Army operates a world-renown jungle warfare school–CIGS– in Manaus, the capital of Amazonas state. The battalion prayer includes the following phrase: “If we perish defending the Brazilian Amazon, O God, allow us to do so with dignity and deserving of victory. Selva!” (“Jungle!” in Portuguese).

What is worse, significant elements in the Brazilian defence establishment categorically deny that the Amazon is at ecological risk or that it serves as the much vaunted “lungs of the earth.” The vehemence and xenophobic tone of their views is well captured here.

The fact that the Amazonian region is huge and relatively lawless contributes to the Brazilian military’s concern with exercising control over it. Without significant foreign enemies, the Brazilian Navy has placed great emphasis on its riverine capability, while the Army uses the presence of drug, people and weapons smugglers as a justification for conducting counter-insurgency and low-intensity warfare exercises in the far reaches of the basin, especially the border regions adjacent to Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, Venezuela, Suriname, French Guyana and Guyana. Such an extended land border (which also includes Paraguay and Uruguay) makes Brazilian geopolitical strategists acutely focused on staving off intrusions of any nature, so it is not surprising that Brazil has closed its border with Venezuela in order to staunch refugee flows fleeing the Bolivarian kleptocracy that passes for a government in Caracas (it has also closed its borders to Venezuelans trying to enter Brazil from other neighbouring countries).

The combination of a traditional continental geopolitical focus within the Brazilian security establishment, military concern that resource depletion elsewhere will lead to foreign attempts to steal or capture by stealth Amazonian resources, and the presence in presidential office of a demagogic nationalist-populist fixated on untapping those resources for Brazilian gain regardless of environmental consequence may prove explosive down the road should any international moves be made to limit Brazil’s ability to exploit what it considers to be its God-given gift of natural resource endowment.

Or, as that Brazilian general said to me 25 years ago, “the developed world has destroyed its natural resources on the way to becoming modernised industrial societies and now wants to deny Brazil the ability to do the same. We will not let that happen.”

11 thoughts on “The coming resource war.

  1. How can the NZ Governemnt respond?

    Should we respond passively with press releases or something?

    What should the NZ Government be doing?

    Privatising Briazils public assets will certainly end in disaster if Bolsenaro is that infatuated with Chilean economics, and a disaster in waiting for New Zealand.

    There are still a lot of promises left unfulfilled by past and present kiwi governments. Perhaps it’s time to lift government spending, substantially.

  2. I know selva can mean jungle, but isn’t it much more likely the prayer ends with “Salve!” ? Almost certainly someone has been mislead by a typo.

  3. Nice, insightful post Pablo.

    To kind of angle an answer at Sam I’d say NZ should be much more focused on Indonesia than Brazil, it’s much closer and more relevant to us, we have better ties and could probably have a bigger effect. Plus Indonesia’s problems are probably worse than Brazil’s are.

  4. I stand corrected! In which case, it is a cute anagram of a much more typical forumulaic ending.

  5. @Pablo: As someone who is familiar with Proust and Derrida, I think these Brazilian Generals who study Proust and Derrida in Paris and then come away concerned about foreign grabs of Brazilian resources are either not studying Proust and/or Derrida that hard, or are not applying what they learned in Paris to their strategic thinking.

    @Sam: Thanks to the lack of strategic thinking on the part of both Labour and National governments, New Zealand’s leverage in Brazil is precisely zero. It didn’t have to be, but it is. Sadly we have to work with what we have, which means whatever happens (or doesn’t happen) in the Amazon, New Zealand will be sitting it out. Not necessarily a bad thing, given the alternating naivete and greed of the Labour/National duopology! However bear in mind, Pablo has always had a perspective that goes beyond the Aotearoa-centric (and quite refreshingly so I might add) so his blog posts should not really be considered in light of “what should New Zealand do”, at least not by default.

  6. Yes Mr Hreen and Mr Absalom. I agree, New Zealand is only in a position to influence the nearest parts of our region. Even if New Zealand leads, Brazil or even America and China can go there own way and most frequently do, particularly on the human rights front. Particularly into places where New Zealand for a variety of reasons can not follow. For me, that warrants a lift across the board in government spending to cushion as from endogenous shock. Yknow we could beef up the government and they might fall over anyway, but we must have the resources and planning in place to rebuild which is something that doesn’t inspire great faith from this governments Defence Capability Plan 2018.

  7. As an aside, the “lungs of the earth” phrase is incorrect. Here’s an overview:

    This isn’t to say that the Amazon isn’t of global importance – it is, but it has less to do with the oxygen it produces than with the fact that it is a giant mass of trees, and the carbon stored within the trees is released into the atmosphere if they die. So it is less of the “lungs of the earth” and more of a gigantic carbon bomb.

    It may seem like a quibble but I know this blog has a high reputation for factual information so I am trying to contribute to that. Very sorry, Pablo, if any offense is caused by my nitpicking.

  8. Thanks Absalom,

    For the contributions. Take a look at the link I provided to a Brazilian defense-connected geologist regarding the “lungs of the earth” argument. It coincides with what you have noted and elaborates on that thought (in rather stong terms). As for the Brazilian generals not using Proust or Derrida when formulating their geopolitical views and strategic policy, you are right. They are more likely to pick and choose what intellectuals they use depending on the specific context they are addressing, which includes domestic law and order and social concerns due to the responsibilities allocated to the Brazilam armed forces by the constitution.

  9. You were never anywhere near the Pentagon Buchanan, they don’t out Marxist anywhere near the place. My enquiries elicited that no one had ever heard of you. Paul Scott

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