The social networking company Facebook is under fire yet again, after an incriminating report made by the BBC found that plots of the Amazon rainforest were put up illegally over Facebook Marketplace, a popular platform where users can buy and sell items from other members. As Facebook Marketplace is conventionally utilized to exchange furniture, clothing, or to rent out rooms and properties, the discovery of illegal land sales on the site is incredibly alarming. In response to the BBC’s findings, Facebook told the news source that they were “ready to work with local authorities” but they would not open an investigation to stop the illegal sales.
The plots of land were mostly found in the state of Rondônia, located in northwestern Brazil. Rondônia is one of the most heavily deforested areas in Brazil due to population growth, as well as logging, mining, and ranching activity. The illegal land sales are disproportionately impacting Indigenous communities that reside in the region, namely the Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau community.
This situation begs some important questions: How responsible is Facebook for the actions of its users? How do we navigate a highly influential multi-billion-dollar social network, which seemingly has no concern for its impact on local Indigenous communities in Brazil? With these questions in mind it is helpful to first examine the political conditions which have paved the way for this dilemma.
The Recent Rise in Deforestation
From August 2019 to July 2020, deforestation rates in Brazil rose 9.5%, as 11,088 square kilometers of rainforest were destroyed. This increase is in part a result of the leadership of President Jair Bolsonaro, who has ramped up deforestation to promote resource-based economic activity since taking power in 2019.
Bolsonaro has made many statements indicating his lack of concern for the environmental impacts of deforestation or the protection of Indigenous territory. Before taking office, the leader was infamously quoted saying, “where there is Indigenous land[,] there is wealth underneath it,” indicating his intentions to exploit Indigenous territory for natural resources. Under Bolsonaro, fines for illegal logging and farming activity fell 20% from 2019 to 2020. This is partly attributed to major slashes in funding for the Brazilian Institute of Environment and Renewable Natural Resources (IBAMA), which is responsible for environmental regulations in Brazil.
Some see the rise in illegal sales of Indigenous land as a direct result of Bolsonaro’s aforementioned behaviour. The non-governmental organization Kanindé is dedicated to assisting the Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau community in protecting the environment in Rondônia. Its founder, Ivaneide Bandeira, believes that President Bolsonaro’s speech has made “some people feel empowered [to] safely invade and destroy [the Amazon] because the government is backing [them].”
Impacts of Illegal Land Sales on Indigenous Communities
Higher rates of deforestation and illegal sales of land in the Amazon have caused serious repercussions for Indigenous groups in Rondônia. Communities in the Amazon rainforest are incredibly reliant on the forest, as their livelihoods depend on fishing, hunting, and collecting fruits. One such community that relies on the land for economic and cultural purposes is the aforementioned Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau. Located in Rondônia, the Indigenous land of the Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau is 1.8 million hectares, and houses over 200 Indigenous groups. The territory contains six Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau villages, as well as three other villages of uncontacted tribes.
Illegal land sellers seem to be unfazed by the protected status of Amazonian land plots. When speaking of illegal land sellers in Rondônia, the Pacaás Novos National Park Manager Joao Alberto Ribeiro says, “[They] know this is a reserve, but after [they] destroy the forest[,] politicians will change [the reserve] as it happened in the Pardo River.” The Pardo River is another National forest in Brazil subject to illegal deforestation. Ribeiro remarks that most of the land invasion in the area has been recent, from 2016 onwards.
The Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau people have been defending their territory from land invaders since their first contact with settlers in the 1980s. In response to Facebook posts that advertised the illegal sale of Amazonian land plots, community leader Bitaté Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau stated, “I don’t know these people. I think their objective is to deforest the Indigenous land, to deforest what is standing. To deforest our lives, you could say.” The Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau community continues to defend their land as Bolsonaro removes environmental protections for Indigenous territory.
The Brazilian Government Responds
In response to the BBC’s findings, Brazil’s Supreme Federal Court Justice, Luís Roberto Barroso, has ordered an investigation on the illegal land sales. Under the current legal system, interested parties are able to lobby the government to remove protected status for the land. There are also only a few repercussions for those illegally selling Indigenous land. It is unclear how long it will take for the Brazilian Supreme Federal Court to make adequate changes to halt illegal land sales of the Amazon rainforest over social media platforms, such as Facebook Marketplace.
There are systematic and bureaucratic failures within the Brazilian government to protect the territory, health, and safety of Indigenous communities. Furthermore, it is necessary to acknowledge and consider Facebook’s degree of responsibility in the illegal land sales. This matter relates to an important concept of ‘digital colonialism.’
Digital colonialism is a new kind of imperialism, where Big Tech corporations, like Facebook, are used for “profit and plunder” in the Global South. Internet access has become a vital piece of infrastructure in many countries. Technology companies, such as Facebook, have immense power in providing these services. While American tech corporations are “concentrating power and resources in [the U.S.,]” poorer countries are unable to create their own industries and their citizens are unprotected from exploitation.
Regarding the responsibilities of social media companies, Executive Director of Internet Sans Frontieres (ISF), Julie Owono, states, “[it cannot be] possible that [these companies] want the profit, but don’t want the political responsibility that comes with that.” This statement leads to an important point: when Facebook decides not to take immediate action in regard to the illegal sales of Indigenous land, it is taking a political stance in an effort to remain neutral. Its decision results in vast repercussions for the environment and for Indigenous communities, such as the Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau.
Facebook’s founder, Mark Zuckerberg, painted Facebook as a “neutral platform” after public outcry that the circulation of fake news on the social media platform directly impacted the 2016 U.S. election. In reality, Facebook garners billions in advertising revenue and holds immense amounts of power and influence around the world. At the end of 2020, there were 2.8 billion active users of Facebook worldwide. It is an understatement to say that there needs to be much more regulation to reduce the potential political consequences of social media platforms.
It should be made clear that even if Facebook did not exist, illegal land sales and deforestation would still occur. What is problematic is how easy it is for sellers to post and advertise illegal plots of land on Facebook Marketplace without any proof of ownership or repercussions from the site. When Facebook refuses to take action, they are aiding and abetting the illegal sales, damaging Indigenous communities in the Amazon.
Next Steps for Facebook
There is always a catch. Facebook is not providing its services ‘for the greater good.’ They are a money-making platform with an incredible reach over the world. But as stressed by Greenpeace, it cannot be forgotten that “Facebook [has] the power to immediately ban and disable all sales of protected Amazon land on their platform,” as well as “the power to block and remove users involved in this criminal and harmful activity.” As tech companies, such as Facebook, continue to run full steam ahead, lawmakers need to adapt quickly to the changing landscape of today’s world. This is vital in order to regulate and hold these companies accountable for the repercussions of their actions. Facebook cannot remain neutral in this case, as lack of action is harmful to land defenders in the Amazon region.