Ecological Genocide in the Amazon: Raphael Lemkin and the Destruction of Human Groups

| November 2020
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Satellite picture of the Amazon rainforest. A few decades back, these photos would’ve been dark green. Photo credit: Astro_Alex via Wikimedia Commons

For most people, the word “genocide” likely evokes mental images of concentration camps, killing fields, and mass graves. Deforestation, no matter how severe, would seem to be only tenuously related, if at all. And yet, as demonstrated by the prospect of reaching a deforestation tipping point in the Amazon, the destruction of natural ecosystems can in fact threaten the existence of entire human groups in much the same way as Hitler’s gas chambers or Stalin’s organized famines. These ecological genocides cannot be prosecuted under international law as it currently stands. But if we return to Raphael Lemkin’s original thinking on genocide, it may well give us a way to recognize them for what they are. Recognizing and naming the human cost of such destruction also requires that we prevent it.

 

Genocide’s Original Definition

 

When Raphael Lemkin first published the word “genocide” in 1944 in his book, Axis Rule in Occupied Europe, the concept he was working with was distinct from, and broader than, the legal definition that has become standard today.1  Although Lemkin was instrumental in drafting the UN Genocide Convention, years of negotiation resulted in a definition of the term that, while certainly better than no convention at all, contained only a fragment of his original project. Under the legal definition, genocide can only happen to certain types of human groups, be accomplished through a limited list of acts, and be said to take place only where there is specific intent “to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such.”2 Lemkin’s original conception was much richer.

Lemkin defined genocide most basically as “the destruction of certain human groups.”3 It was this objective destruction, something which could be observed through demographic data and historical accounts, that determined whether or not a particular set of events amounted to genocide. While some scholars today argue that special intent is constitutive of the crime, that was never the case for Lemkin. And while he did have opinions as to what level of intent should be required for criminal liability, that did not preclude him from listing and examining a wide range of motivations in the two books he was working on when he died: Introduction to the Study of Genocide and History of Genocide, a projected three-volume historical survey of the topic. The method he employs in his History of Genocide is also telling. He begins each chapter by narrating a particular historical case and then moves on to describe the methods of genocide used and the motivations of the parties involved before covering intent, which in most chapters he addresses only briefly and sometimes omits all together. In Lemkin’s schema, intent was simply not a central concern.

Lemkin’s focus on objective destruction, as opposed to subjective intent, also allowed him to account for a wider diversity of genocidal acts. While he initially listed eight “fields” of genocide in Axis Rule, his thought developed in the post-war years to include three umbrella “methods” of genocide under which a wide variety of techniques could fall. Lemkin’s three methods were physical, biological, and cultural. The physical method of genocide included any attempt to destroy a group by visiting physical harm upon its members, including but not limited to mass killing. The biological method of genocide referred specifically to attempts to interfere with a group’s ability to reproduce; examples included forced sterilizations and the separation of families. The cultural method of genocide included attacks on group leadership, symbols, and language, all of which Lemkin believed would result in suffering for group members and irretrievable cultural losses for humanity.4 He always considered the three methods of genocide to be mutually complementary, describing genocide as both a “gradual process” and a “synchronized attack on different aspects of life.”5

 

Killing Ecosystems, Killing People

 

Arguing that ecological destruction might be considered a method of genocide is not as radical as it may seem. Human groups are, after all, reliant on certain ecological conditions for their survival. Indigenous peoples and subsistence societies are particularly vulnerable in this regard. This idea also has a history. When the UN Sub-Commission on Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities considered revising the Genocide Convention, first in 1978 and then again in 1985, on both occasions they considered and debated including ecological destruction as a prohibited acts.6 More recently, a small but growing body of scholarly literature has begun to develop around the “genocide-ecocide nexus”—the idea that ecocide, the large-scale destruction of natural ecosystems, can in some cases amount to genocide.7 Even the Genocide Convention itself prohibits “deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part,” although it is of course quite rare that ecosystems are destroyed with this level of genocidal intent.

Ecological destruction fits well within Lemkin’s framework, and using his definition of genocide allows us to better understand the human cost of such destruction. His three methods of genocide (physical, biological, and cultural) are really more about how different techniques of genocide interfere with group life than they are about what measures are taken. To the extent that any action or series of actions destroys a group in whole or in part by disrupting the group’s physical, reproductive, or cultural continuity, it can be described as genocidal. Ecological destruction is capable of damaging group life in exactly these ways. It can threaten a group’s physical existence by compromising food and water security and spreading disease; it can disrupt group reproduction by increasing infant and child mortality and separating families when resource scarcity forces children to leave home; and it represents a cultural attack wherever a group’s relationship with their natural environment is constitutive of their identity.

 

Ecological Genocide in the Amazon

 

Ecological genocide is not just a theoretical possibility; deforestation and climate change in the Amazon are set to make it a reality. The Brazilian Amazon is home to over 400,000 indigenous people along with millions of others who, while not indigenous, are members of communities that survive through subsistence fishing, farming, and hunting. The ecological threat these groups face is severe and appears to be approaching a point of no return.

In December of last year, two leading scientists, Thomas Lovejoy and Carlos Nobre, published a letter warning that the Amazon is “teetering on the edge of functional destruction.”8 According to them, the combined effects of climate change and deforestation have brought the region dangerously close to a tipping point, which, if reached, will cause much of the forest to disappear and be replaced by dry grassland, even if no further manmade deforestation takes place.  The mechanism is simple but dramatic. When rain falls in the Amazon, each drop is recycled and falls again somewhere else in the forest as many as six times. The forest thus sustains itself, effectively providing the majority of its own moisture. However, as deforestation accelerates, fewer trees are available to retain water, and the cycle is interrupted. Below a certain threshold, the cycle cannot continue at all, a tipping point is reached, and the forest disappears. As the forest dries out and begins to die, the animals living in it, some of which are key to Amazonian communities’ livelihoods, will also die. Floods and droughts will likewise become more frequent and severe.

Reaching a tipping point in the Amazon not only would have disastrous implications for climate change but also would amount to genocide as Lemkin conceived of it. The  Ribeirinho people, for example, a group of approximately seven million floodplain residents of mixed indigenous and European ancestry, are particularly vulnerable as their livelihoods are entirely predicated on a functioning ecosystem.9 Each year, when the Amazon river system floods its banks, Ribeirinhos use watercraft to access upland areas and (selectively) harvest timber. In drought years, the waters do not rise high enough, and they are not able to transport the trees; their work is wasted. In these same years, fish populations, which provide Ribeirinhos with their primary source of protein, experience high mortality rates as a result of low oxygen levels and overfishing by commercial operations. When the floods fail to come, these communities see their income and their food drying up simultaneously.

Alternatively, extreme flood years, in which the water rises higher and stays longer than usual, are also threatening for Ribeirinhos. Fish are much harder to access during high water and most families already experience severe seasonal food insecurity under normal circumstances.10 They can compensate to some extent by fishing harder and hunting for bushmeat, but both of these options are set to become much less promising as the ecosystem deteriorates. As the tipping point is reached, causing further loss of forest cover, many Ribeirinhos will soon have no trees to harvest, no bushmeat to hunt, and no fish to eat. While not all will die, some will, many will be forced to migrate, and the communal bonds and social practices that hold them together and provide for their basic needs will be crippled or lost. To the extent that this happens, we might say, to borrow Lemkin’s words, that the Ribeirinhos will “have lost that . . . which, in short, made [them] a nation rather than a mass of people.”11

*

As extreme droughts and floods become more frequent and more severe, as forest cover disappears, and as customary food and water sources cease to provide what they used to, it is likely that Ribeirinhos, indigenous communities, and other groups whose lives and livelihoods directly and immediately rely on Amazonian ecosystems will be destroyed in whole or in part. Within Lemkin’s framework, this destruction of human groups through ecological means amounts to genocide. But while the human cost of the Amazon tipping point will be tragic, it is far from inevitable. Lemkin was not alone in hoping that articulating a concept of genocide would help to prevent it from ever happening again. In this case, preventing genocide means reversing both deforestation and climate change immediately and decisively. Anything less would be to admit that the profits and lifestyles these activities support are more important than Amazonian peoples’ right to exist.

—Bryan P. Galligan, SJ

Bryan P. Galligan, SJ is a Jesuit scholastic studying social philosophy at Loyola University Chicago. His research interests include genocide studies, environmental justice, and marine ecology.

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  1. Raphael Lemkin, Axis Rule in Occupied Europe: Laws of Occupation, Analysis of Government, Proposals for Redress (Washington: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 1944).
  2. UN General Assembly, Resolution 260 A (III), Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, A/RES/3/260 (Dec. 9, 1948), https://www.un.org/en/genocideprevention/documents/atrocity-crimes/Doc.1_Convention%20on%20the%20Prevention%20and%20Punishment%20of%20the%20Crime%20of%20Genocide.pdf.
  3. Raphael Lemkin, Lemkin on Genocide, ed. Steven Leonard Jacobs (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2012), p. 8. This book contains the incomplete and initially unpublished work Lemkin did on his Introduction to the Study of Genocide and History of Genocide, both of which I rely on quite heavily.
  4. A. Dirk Moses, “Raphael Lemkin, Culture, and the Concept of Genocide” in The Oxford Handbook of Genocide Studies (Oxford: Oxford University Press, April 2010), 10.1093/oxfordhb/9780199232116.013.0002.
  5. Lemkin, Lemkin on Genocide, p. 35. Lemkin, Axis Rule in Occupied Europe, p. xi.
  6. Damien Short, Redefining Genocide: Settler Colonialism, Social Death and Ecocide (London: Zed Books, 2016), pp. 42-48.
  7. Martin Crook and Damien Short, “Marx, Lemkin and the Genocide–Ecocide Nexus,” The International Journal of Human Rights 18, no. 3 (April 3, 2014): pp. 298–319, https://doi.org/10.1080/13642987.2014.914703.
  8. Thomas E. Lovejoy and Carlos Nobre, “Amazon Tipping Point: Last Chance for Action,” Science Advances 5, no. 12 (December 1, 2019), https://doi.org/10.1126/sciadv.aba2949.
  9. Javier Tomasella et al., “The Droughts of 1997 and 2005 in Amazonia: Floodplain Hydrology and Its Potential Ecological and Human Impacts,” Climatic Change 116, no. 3–4 (February 2013): pp. 723–46, https://doi.org/10.1007/s10584-012-0508-3.
  10. Daniel Tregidgo et al., “Tough Fishing and Severe Seasonal Food Insecurity in Amazonian Flooded Forests,” People and Nature 2, no. 2 (2020), pp. 468–82, https://doi.org/10.1002/pan3.10086.
  11. This quote is taken from a speech Lemkin gave at the 1953 Ukrainian Famine commemoration in New York. It has since been republished by Roman Serbyn as “Lemkin on Genocide of Nations,” Journal of International Criminal Justice 7 (2009), p. 129, https://doi.org/10.1093/jicj/mqp002.

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