Where are our priorities? On the Amazonas fire and capitalism.

Originally published 22/08/2019.
Picture: Amazonas burning: Bruno Kellys/Reuters. Notre Dame Burning: Patrick Anidjar/AFP/Getty Images

The Amazonas is burning, and one of the most common analogies I have seen the last days is how fast the billionaires, media and governments acted when Notre Dame “burnt to the ground”, and now that 500 thousand hectares of rainforest have been burning for 18 days (4 football fields a minute, according to The Guardian), people are just getting to know about the extension of such disaster and seemingly, no one is doing anything about it.

Why is this? and why are we comparing the Amazonas to a fire in a building?

First of all, the comparison falls beyond short, The Amazonas is home to thousands of species, hundreds of millions of trees and comprising 10% of the world’s biodiversity (according to WWF), as well as being the dwellings of 35 million people, of which 2,6 million are indigenous people, Notre Dame was a beautiful church, but a building nonetheless. Having said this, I will continue.

The value of the rainforest is (wrongly) seen in terms of its exchange or market value, which values the land and its productive potential, in this case in relation to the yield of for example: soybean to feed cattle for human consumption. In comparison, the use value of the Amazonas is -in market terms- lower than that of production, therefore there is no major interest in protecting it under the current political scenario. As the economic value of agriculture is easier to ponder in short term, this is prioritized under the engrained Ordem e Progresso mottotaken almost literally by the Bolsonaro administration.

On a forced comparison to Notre Dame, it represented the crown jewel of Christian western culture in France, a seat of symbolic power, an example of the human capacities and a source of income due to the tourism it brings/brought to Paris, different to The Amazons, which is framed under the potential value of the land, Notre Dame’s value was literally set in stone. Here the exchange or market value, is limited and completely dependent on the conservation of the built environment. On the other hand, what the building was actually built for, its use value, was “mixed” or “confused” with its market valuation, where the religious ceremony was a secondary event, losing its actual “spiritual” significance becoming a mere spectacle which ensured a steady flow of international currency for the stakeholders.

Having developed this crude comparison, it is relevant to stress that nature does not strictly belong to humans, the land of the rainforest goes beyond the national borders of Brazil, occupying parts of Colombia, Peru, Venezuela and other national territories, becoming an ecosystem which by definition goes beyond the human imposed structures. The damage done in the Amazonas, is the conflation of western-centric understanding of it as a landscape for consumption, the need of compound growth of capitalist production and the recent rhetoric and policy approaches pushed by Bolsonaro, which ultimately articulated into this tragedy.

Indigenous firefighters in Arariboia Indigenous territory, Brazil. Source: Guajajara.
Indigenous firefighters in Arariboia Indigenous territory, Brazil. Source: Guajajara.

Therefore, the (de)valuation of the Amazonas is a combination of the aforementioned factors, as well is the valuation of Notre Dame. We must not forget that, the first is merely necessary for every form of life on the planet to continue, the second a symbol necessary for the perpetuation of what is understood as western cultural supremacy.

What to do in the Meantime: Public Spaces as ‘First Places’​

Originally published in Linkedin 17/07/2019
Featured image: Wenceslas Square, Prague.

At times when housing shortages are a rule more than an exception, several local governments have adopted ‘radical’ but effective measures to limit the influence of hedge funds or venture capital in the housing market, such as Barcelona and Berlin, fuelled by the organized discontent of the local population. Nonetheless, is to be seen in the near future what is the outcome of such approaches and how effective they are in the long run.

Outdoor Gym, Lund, Sweden.
Outdoor Gym, Lund, Sweden.

What do we do then, in an scenario in which housing shortages are still a reality and socialized housing is still several kilometers away? An answer could lie in public spaces, which are usually seen as the source of moral panic under outdated approaches such as the broken windows theory, in spite of that, the public holds the potential for alternative spatial practices, it has the essense to become a ‘first place’ more than a ‘third place’ (Oldenburg, 1989).

The existing public spaces might need to be revamped, but what they need the most is to be opened to their community, allowing them to create their sense of home, allowing uses -which are in the current paradigm- reserved to the private. Nonetheless when the private (house, apartment, etc…) is limited in size or simply does not exist, where do social reproduction, leisure, socialization or simply slacking take place? In my opinion, they should take place in public spaces, but for that, we need to ask again what are public spaces? who is the public? and what do we want from them?

Architecture museum, Oslo. Occupation of empty houses in the 80s
Piece of the Architecture Museum of Oslo.

In no way this seeks to take the attention from the fundamental struggle for housing rights, but seeks to open spaces for communal organization, politics, enjoyment and the improvement of tomorrow’s cities without missing the importance of the here and now.