What does China’s investment in Latin America mean for the Amazon?

Indigenous peoples are typically the principal line of defense against the crimes of globalization and environmental destruction, primarily because they stand to lose the most.

Colonization is still big business, and in Latin America, both foreign and domestic businesses are reaping the awards.

Indigenous peoples are typically the principal line of defense against the crimes of globalization and environmental destruction, primarily because they stand to lose the most. The ongoing process of colonization of indigenous lands continually threatens these communities with the prospect of increasing dispossession.

The new ‘Cold War’ is over resources

While the original Cold War between the Western and Eastern Blocs was considered politically ideological and backed by military threat, the current competition between East and West is more blatantly economic: who will benefit from and ultimately control the resources of what was once known as the Third World?

While Russia concentrates on oil and natural gas markets in Europe and Asia, China is investing heavily in Africa and Latin America, viewing them as both sources of commodities and new frontiers for its massive construction-related industries. The United States, of course, continues to maintain a heavy presence — whether military, diplomatic or economic — throughout the world, especially in Latin America.

While China’s involvement may not be immediately recognizable as colonization in the traditional sense, in terms of human rights, nature conservation and environmental issues, it hardly matters which country is funding the destruction of indigenous lands.

An Amazonian railroad runs through it

Chinese loans, investment and trade are warmly welcomed by many Latin American governments. For instance, China has been Brazil’s largest trading partner since 2009, with the value of trade between the two countries increasing 13 fold between 2001 and 2013. However, since 2014 the growth in trade between China and Latin America has nearly stopped (although loans have greatly increased).

China and Brazil are determined to change this slowdown in trade growth. On Monday, as a first stop on an eight-day tour of Latin America, China’s Premier Li Kequiang arrived in Brazil in order to push a $50 million trade and investment deal. Also on the table is a 5,500-kilometer trans-Amazonian railway, financed by the China Development Bank, which would connect Brazil’s Atlantic coast with Peru’s Pacific coast.

Naturally, environmental and indigenous rights groups are concerned about the proposed railway.

Christian Poirier of Amazon Watch is quoted in the Guardian:

“Past mega-projects suggest that far from consulting the indigenous communities that lay in their path, the government is more likely to steamroll their rights while paying mere lip service to environmental protection. As with road projects, railways open access to previously remote regions, bring a flow of migrant workers inevitably followed by deforestation mafias and cattle ranchers, creating a perfect storm of pressures upon the forest and forest peoples.”

Indigenous peoples, as the perennial holders of the short end of the stick when it comes to the development and exploitation of their traditional lands, are on the front lines of global environmental and social justice.

When governments and big business fail to protect the Earth and uphold human rights, time and time again indigenous communities are there to remind us, often giving their lives in the process. The least we can do is notice.

Latin Correspondent | By Graham Land   

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