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The US Southern Command's silent occupation of the Amazon

The military exercise (AmazonLog2017) held from 6 to 13 November 2017 in the triple border between Brazil, Colombia and Peru by multinational and interagency troops from Brazil, Colombia, the United States and Peru has created alarm among activists and researchers as to what its real goals are. Santiago Navarro F and Renata Bessi consider its implications.


BRAZIL, Colombia and Peru share a triple borderland separating north from south on the South American continent. Located deep in the Amazon forest, this is the theatre of operations in which more than 30 military companies test their services and merchandise. The multinational military exercise known as AmazonLog2017 was organised by the Armed Forces of Brazil. More than 1,500 members of the Brazilian military and military members from invited countries participated with high-calibre weapons and munitions, boats, aircraft, helicopters, information technologies, nautical and energy intelligent equipment, radars and sensors. The Southern Command of the United States - the Unified Combatant Command of the US Department of Defense with influence in the Caribbean and Central and South America - was also an AmazonLog2017 participant.

Activists and researchers were alarmed about this military exercise. According to Mexican economist and geopolitical specialist Ana Esther Cecena, AmazonLog2017 allowed 'the placement of troops that facilitate specific territorial incursions and rapid response operations, both of which imply the use of special forces, whether those be US forces, local or private on the triple borderland'.

While the exercise involved temporary military drills, many fear that it may presage larger future operations. According to Cecena, AmazonLog2017 created the conditions to allow future military operations of US troops, specifically in two strategic areas: the lower part of Venezuela and along the Atlantic coast, where Brazil will allow the US access to the Alcantara military base.

The AmazonLog2017 military actions were planned in three phases. The first, the industry's commercial phase, occurred between 28 August and 1 September in Manaus, the capital of the Brazilian state of Amazonas. Two thousand personnel participated in this event, which was comprised of military, government agencies and arms industry corporations.

Between 26-28 September, the second phase took place, focusing on ground operations organisation. This phase consisted of the Humanitarian Logistics Symposium in conjunction with the Military Employee Materials Exposition and preparatory activities for the triple borderland military drills.

In the third, most important phase, the businesses were to exhibit and test their products in jungle-based tactical humanitarian and war drills along the triple borderland with the Multinational Logistics Drill. This phase was scheduled for 6-13 November. More than 1,500 people were expected to participate, including military personnel and arms industry agencies from Brazil, the US and other countries.

'This exercise will bring a series of improvements in the logistics of the western Amazon [...] we are developing a humanitarian aid doctrine of exchange between neighbouring countries of interoperability between armed forces and civil agencies,' said Brazilian Army General Theophilo Gaspar de Oliveira. He was responsible for the logistical command of AmazonLog2017 and recently headed the negotiations between Brazil and the United States for the acquisition of four C-23 Sherpa aircraft in July.

In order to concentrate the logistical teams, the Brazilian government created conditions for mounting a provisional logistical base in the Tabatinga municipality in Amazonas state. There, armed forces from 16 countries, including Germany, Canada, Chile, the United Kingdom, Japan and Israel, were concentrated, as well as observers from the Inter-American Defense Board, the Conference of American Armies and the Council of South American Defense.

Laying groundwork for exploitation

Despite its military nature and origins, much of the publicity around the AmazonLog2017 exercise centred on hypothetical benefits for civilians. In a press conference, General Racine Lima, the coordinator of AmazonLog2017, argued that the army would be focused principally on training to support peace operations and humanitarian aid. Lima mentioned that the exercise would also support the creation of the Tabatinga Integrated Multinational Logistics Base, which would serve as the provisional base during the exercise.

The AmazonLog2017 organisers took advantage of the exercise to make infrastructure improvements that permit massive troop movements in remote Amazon locations. Smart energy grid, communication and water purification systems have been installed as well. For example, as part of the drill preparations, $15.8 million was invested in the micro-region of Rio Alto Solimoes in Amazonas state to create docking terminals.

Behind the humanitarian discourse, it appears that the organisers of AmazonLog2017 chose the theatre of operations for this multinational military exercise very strategically, to pursue natural resource extraction that threatens the territories of more than 300 Indigenous communities.

'As Pueblos [peoples] of the Colombian Amazon, we do not have information about this exercise,' said Alvaro Piranga Cruz, a communication adviser for the National Indigenous Organisation of Colombia. 'But we do know that there are vested interests in all of the Amazon. Interests of petroleum, mining and carbon-trading-based megaprojects. They come to deceive our Pueblos with environmental conservation projects, and we do not know [what] this implies. For example, there are mining agencies that are conducting seismic studies in our territories without anyone's consent.'

According to a 2012 report from the Amazonian Network of Georeferenced Socio-Environmental Information, within the larger Amazon region, there are more than 327 plots of land designated for petroleum extraction, comprising 14% of the land in the Amazon.

The report notes that the Amazon countries most affected by petroleum extraction are Peru, Colombia, Brazil and Ecuador. It further states, 'The mining zones occupy, today, 15% of Natural Protected Areas and 19% of indigenous territories in the Amazon.'

'To the Colombian national government, the reality that the Indigenous Pueblos of Colombia live ... is completely unknown,' said Piranga Cruz. 'There is a law about the Indigenous Pueblos, but in practice, it does not work. For example, Indigenous Pueblos in the Northern Amazon are demanding that these territories be titled as Indigenous territory and the government is not responding to these needs, but it is responding to the needs of megaprojects and smashing our rights.'

In February the Peruvian government announced the Peru-Petro reform based on the three pillars of new contracting models, incentive structures and a national hydrocarbon plan. 'This triple strategy seeks to attract investment in both the exploration and exploitation phases of petroleum development,' said Alvaro Rios, managing partner of the consulting firm Gas Energy Latin America. 'The principal corporate investors are Shell, Chevron, Total and the China National Petroleum Corporation,' noted Rios.

But not everyone in Peru is seeing the benefits promised by the industry. 'Petroleum activity has not brought us development; on the contrary, our lands and territory are contaminated and our subsistence resources are as well,' argued the Peruvian Quechua, Achuar and Kichwa Pueblos in an October press release issued by Pueblo traditional leaders. These groups have indicated their intent to maintain resistance against oil-based extractivism in the region.

Indigenous territories in danger

The Amazon region is an area of 7.4 million square kilometres and is inhabited by 33 million people, including 385 Indigenous Pueblos of diverse ethnic backgrounds. Some of these groups have been living in isolation; for generations, they have maintained themselves deep within the Amazon forest without any outside contact. These areas have been considered inaccessible until now and are of great interest to the Brazilian military.

The Indigenous Missionary Council (CIMI, from its Portuguese acronym) documented the murder of at least 118 Indigenous persons in 2016 and 137 in 2015. According to data from a 2016 CIMI report, the greatest number of victims lived in the Brazilian Amazon state of Roraima, where there were more than 100 murders of primarily Yanomami Indigenous persons from 2015 through the beginning of 2017.

The governmental organisation representing the rights of Indigenous peoples in Brazil, the National Indian Foundation (FUNAI, from its Portuguese acronym), was a participant in the events of AmazonLog2017. This may seem odd, until one considers that Franklimberg Ribeiro de Freitas, the current head of FUNAI, previously served as adviser on institutional relations in the Amazon Military Command.

Truthout (the website on which this article was first published) contacted FUNAI to clarify its role in AmazonLog2017 and the vulnerability of Indigenous peoples in the region, but FUNAI did not respond at the time of publication.

The Brazilian Institute of Environment and Renewable Natural Resources and the Chico Mendes Institute for Biodiversity Conservation also participated in the events of AmazonLog2017, serving as mediators between the government and corporations in order to foster the development and incursion of megaprojects in Indigenous territories.

Military agreement with the United States

With Brazilian society experiencing economic and political crises, the international military industry is taking advantage of the upheaval to test its equipment. AmazonLog2017 was a product of the arms industry and of powerful governments beyond Brazil, particularly the United States.

In 2016, the Brazilian Army signed an exchange agreement with the US military. This agreement involves cooperation with US ground troops in joint manoeuvres in 2017 and 2020. The two armies will end their activities in the US at the Joint Readiness Training Center in Fort Polk, Louisiana.

Lieutenant Colonel Alexandre Amorim de Andrade, head of the training division at the Jungle Warfare Training Center, affirmed that the US military had begun to train in the Amazon. 'Beginning in 2016, there was a specific training focused exclusively on foreigners: the International Practice in Jungle Operations. Now this practice is called the International Seminar of Jungle Operations, and the United States and Peru have confirmed the participation of their military,' said Amorim de Andrade.

Although Brazil has not declared war with another country for the last 100 years, its military has participated in UN peacekeeping operations. The current modernisation programme of the Brazilian Army is geared towards 'non-conventional' warfare, including operations against 'terrorism'.

'Humanitarian aid' in the south

In 2010, after 30 years without an established military agreement, the US and Brazilian governments signed a military cooperation agreement, but the agreement did not authorise the use of bases or cession of rights of passage for US personnel. However, since President Michel Temer took office in 2016, the US has been given greater latitude in Brazil. The US Southern Command received the green light for more activities in Brazilian territory with the AmazonLog2017 exchange agreements and military exercises.

Even before Temer took office, the groundwork was being laid for the Southern Command's presence in the region. In 2013, representatives from the US embassy and the regional government of Tacna, Peru, inaugurated the Regional Emergency Operations Center. The US government provided $600,000 'to support the Center as part of the Department of Defense Southern Command Humanitarian Assistance Program', according to a press release from the US embassy in Peru.

The US embassy noted that the centre was just one of the 15 Regional Emergency Operations Centers projected for Peru. The seven already-completed centres are located in Arequipa, Lambayeque, Pucallpa, Junin, Tacna, Tumbes and San Martin. Construction is also planned in Puno, Cuzco, de Huancavelica, La Libertad, Apurimac, Loreto, Ancash and Moquegua. In all, the US will provide more than $20 million for these projects, all part of the Southern Command Humanitarian Assistance Program.

'These Centers respond during times of natural disasters,' according to the embassy's press release, and 'they allow the integration of a complete range of public services required during an emergency, services like medical and public health services, police, firefighters, and military personnel.' However, member organisations of the Campana Continental America Latina y el Caribe, which promotes regional peace, declared in a press release that 'behind these compounds financed by the Southern Command exists a process of regional occupation'.

In February 2013, the Southern Command announced it would be opening another Emergency Operations Center, this one in Santa Rosa del Aguaray in the state of San Pedro in Paraguay. The announcement was made by the director of planning for the Southern Command, George Ballance, after a meeting with Paraguayan Defence Minister Bernardino Soto Estigarribia. These zones created by the Southern Command are in addition to the eight military bases already installed in Colombia.

For Marcelo Cero, a Brazilian sociologist and specialist in international relations, the objective of AmazonLog2017 was not simply to train troops to lead during humanitarian crises; it was to insert the Brazilian Armed Forces in the strategic orbit of the US, which has already taken steps to cooperate with Peru and Colombia. Furthermore, according to Cero, 'The participating armies, without a doubt, will put pressure on Venezuela, a regime that opposes US interests in South America.'

Meanwhile, in Ana Esther Cecena's opinion, this military exercise enforced the US military's dominant presence in South America.

'It is Chevron's war, a war of coltan, of uranium, of thorium, of gas, and of gold,' Cecena said. 'It is a US war to bolster their material conditions and hegemonic position.'     

Santiago Navarro is an economist, freelance journalist, photographer and contributor to the Americas Program, Desinform‚monos and SubVersiones. Renata Bessi is a freelance journalist and contributor to the Americas Program and Desinform‚monos. She has published articles in Brazilian publications including the Trecheiro newspaper magazine, P gina 22, Rep˘rter Brasil, Rede Brasil Atual, Brasil de Fato and Outras Palavras. The above article was first published on Truthout (http://www.truth-out.org/news/item/42542-the-us-southern-command-s-silent-occupation-of-the-amazon).

Copyright, Truthout.org. Reprinted with permission.

*Third World Resurgence No. 324/325, August/September 2017, pp 55-57


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