Dozens of scholars, researchers, activists and policymakers from institutions across the globe arrived at UC Santa Barbara for a three-day international conference from Oct. 25-27, aimed at discussing the crucial questions at the heart of geopolitical, economic and environmental futures across the “Global South,” with an emphasis on the Amazon region.

The conference, titled “The Future of the Amazon: A New Era of Indigenous Activism, Post-Carbon Environmental Models, and Latin American Partnerships with China and the Global South,” was hosted by the UCSB Orfalea Center for Global & International Studies, which strives to foster discussion of and research on important current events and issues in the Global South/East.

Aside from being the first of its kind with regard to the subject matter and international participation, this conference is also the culmination of the efforts of a group of people, many of whom took part in the conference, who for the last five years have been working on a book about China’s extensive influence on the Global South, particularly in the Amazon. Titled “The Tropical Silk Road: The Future of China in South America,” the book includes 30 short essays from the perspectives of various Amazonian stakeholders. The book officially launched at the opening of the conference and served as the focus for many of the conversations taking place. 

The conference consisted of panels, roundtables, film screenings and several breakout sessions and other opportunities for conference participants to mingle and discuss topics, including Indigenous activism, feminism and queer sovereignty, “rights of nature,” extractivist capitalism and eco-structural futurism, among many other things. 

The first panel discussion on Oct. 25, called “Futures Intersecting: New Indigenous Leadership, Post-Extractive Development Models, and Shifting South-South Geopolitics,” opened with a speech by UCSB global studies professor and Director of the Orfalea Center Paul Amar. “I have no doubt that this research endeavor, the conference and the book will be making history through [the] combination of form and deep content as we engage in dialogue and debate about the issues at hand,” Amar said in his opening remarks.

The second roundtable discussion focused on “developmentalist contradiction” in the Global South. In introducing the second group of panelists and the subjects they would be discussing, Amar described the term “Global South” and acknowledged it as a contested term, saying it is “in some ways an air of the term the ‘third world,’ … meaning the people’s world [which] comes from the French.” He defined the anti-colonialist alliance between the Global South powers of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa (BRICS) and provided an overview of the “destructive development model” of extractive capitalism in the Global South which the conference would be critiquing. 

One of the speakers at this roundtable, and one of the co-authors of “Tropical Silk Road,” was Pontifical Catholic University of Rio de Janeiro professor Ana Saggioro Garcia, a specialist in international relations and political economy. In her opening statement, Garcia established a few main points she thought were crucial to mention in any discussion of the future of South-South relations, in particular, China’s role in Latin America, including the need to move beyond polarized views on supporting extractivist mega-projects. This includes mining and energy production with which China is involved in the Amazon region, versus fighting Western imperialism. 

Garcia’s own research, and the chapter of the book that she co-wrote, focuses on tracing BRICS investments in Africa and Latin America, the public policies around foreign direct investments (FDI) and public policies to facilitate, promote and protect FDIs, particularly bilateral investment treaties. 

“What are ideas and the narratives around bilateral or Continental relations between China and Latin America?” Garcia asked during the conference. “What we aim to show is that [the] attempt to build consensus on the narratives of South-South solidarity … face also contradictions when you look at the impacts caused by Chinese multinationals and their investments.” She went on to describe various ways of looking at these conflicts, including a top-down view of interstate relations and a bottom-up view of what happens in the individual territories. 

The last panel of the conference, on Oct. 26, was titled “Projects and Partnerships between China and the Amazon Region: Challenges and Opportunities.” The panelists, hailing from universities and organizations across the world, focused their discussion on the future of Latin American cooperation with China. The first speaker was Cynthia Sanborn, a professor of political science and political economy at the Universidad del Pacífico in Peru. Sanborn’s research centers on the political economy of mining, as well as the challenges of natural resource governance. 

In the last 14 years, Sanborn has been studying Chinese companies and investors in Peru’s mining sector, and how they fit into the larger sector and interact with other multinational firms. “The increased presence of China and Chinese actors in [mineral acquisition] sectors has generated considerable debate about what this means in terms of opportunities and challenges for development, especially for the most vulnerable communities within our countries,” Sanborn said. “One of the things I’ve been focusing on is there are numerous initiatives globally in our region, in our countries and in China, to try to establish standards and limitations on these investments, particularly the extractives initiatives related to transparency and accountability, to our consultation of Indigenous communities, and other environmental and social safeguards.” Regarding the relevance to the Santa Barbara community, not only are the world’s rainforests simply vital to human existence, but California uses almost half of all of the oil drilled in the Amazon rainforest, according to a recent study, with 1 in 9 tanks of gas in the state coming from the Amazon.  

Claudia Melim-McLeod, the second speaker, is the principal advisor of sustainable finance and China at Rainforest Foundation Norway and the former Senior Climate and National Planning Advisor for the United Nations Development Program. Melim-Mcleod’s current work involves being in dialogue with the Chinese financial sector in order to try and reform it in ways that “go against the very principles of Capitalism,” as well as trying to foster discussion on the environment and rights of Indigenous peoples in China. “My work is not exactly easy, but there are lots of opportunities, and that’s what I would like to talk about,” Melim-Mcleod said. 

Claudia Melim-McLeod speaks at UCSB’s Orfalea Center’s October 2023 “The Future of the Amazon” conference. EMMA HOLM-OLSEN / DAILY NEXUS

She went on to talk about COP-15, the United Nations Biodiversity Conference, the Global Diversity Framework that they established and their relevance to her own work in China — including her discussions with both the Chinese government and private companies in China about how they are working to keep the promises they have made with regard to environmental protection and climate change. “I’m helped by a methodology which was developed at [University of Cambridge] which seeks to quantify nature-related financial loss,” Melim-Mcleod said. 

She explained that when talking to potential investors, it is important to take into consideration where the companies in question are located geographically, in which ways they might be impacting the environment, whether their company is “climate ready” and whether they depend on things like fertile soil or water. “This is when you start to look at the things that companies need to operate and continue to make money,” Melim-Mcleod said during the conference. “Then you have the investors’ attention because they understand that if they continue to operate in ways that are going to impact the ecosystem’s ability to provide services, in 10 years, their shares are not going to be worth very much.”

The second day of the conference concluded with a screening of the documentary “Stepping Softly on the Earth” in the UCSB MultiCultural Center. The film, released in 2022, was directed by Marcos Colón, who held a Q&A after the screening. The film touches on Amazonian extractivism, particularly its impacts on the Indigenous groups of the region. Colón documents the daily lives of three protagonists — Kátia, chief of the Akrãtikatêjê people in Brazil, Manoel, chief of the Munduruku people in Brazil and José Manuyama, a teacher of Kukama origin in Peru — as they work to maintain their traditional ways of life despite the encroachment of Western capitalism in the region, specifically the soybean, oil and hydroelectric industries. 

In the final few minutes of the film, Brazilian journalist and narrator of the film Aílton Krenak emphasized how diverse groups of people have and continue to live with little impact on the land. “Just as there is citizenship, there is forestship,” Krenak said. This is what he calls “stepping softly on the Earth.” 

One of the last events of the three-day conference was a screening of the short film “Terra Vista,” produced by Brazilian newspaper and radio agency Brasil de Fato, in conjunction with the Orfalea Center. The film highlights cacao growers in Bahía, a region in Eastern Brazil, and the agroecology work that Brazil’s Landless Workers Movement is doing to address poor working conditions and the remnants of colonialism. A conversation with one of the filmmakers, Noa Cykman, a Fulbright scholar and doctoral candidate in UCSB’s Department of Sociology, followed the screening.

A version of this article appeared on p. 15 of the Nov. 2, 2023 print edition of the Daily Nexus.