Can death metal help save the Amazon?

Gojira - a huge French death metal band are fusing music and activism to help protect the Amazon rainforest

Operation Amazonia, Gojira's campaign to support Guarani and Kaiowa indigenous communities in the Amazon

Picture the scene: you are floating over the trees, an expanse of green in every direction. White clouds of mist join you, flowing along the tributaries of topographic relief. Below, a mud-brown river with loose hips slowly makes its way out to sea. This is not a dream. It is a vision of the Amazon rainforest, like some vast, breathing organism. Music begins and folk instruments weave through the rising ambiance. Images gradually shift from people and animals to conflict and conflagration. The change is jarring. A mashup. Unsettled. The impression is at once beautiful at the same time as it is terrifying. Glimmers of culture and nature are juxtaposed by scorched earthscapes. The screen flashes with the carcasses of charred creatures. Land on fire. A forest reduced to logs, like so many bales of hay, lined up from horizon to horizon.

The music video for Gojira's single, Amazonia, off the 2021 album Fortitude

These are the sights of a terrain in epic flux as depicted in the music video for Amazonia, one of the latest releases from French death metal band, Gojira. One cannot help but to feel the implications reflected in the music that plays, which becomes heavy and unrelenting along with the subject matter. Together, the message is the same as that echoed by so many of the Amazon's environmental activists in an age crisis.

“The Amazon is being burned,” says Sonia Guajajara, who in addition to being a professor, presidential candidate, and indigenous activist from Brazil, is also a recent Gojira collaborator. Her words express what the band’s music screams. “Her defenders are being assassinated.”

A recent Vox production highlighting current deforestation and destruction in the Amazon rainforest

Sonia’s message is dark and the reality they herald is darker still. But within them, there is a hidden light. Beneath her words, beneath the trees of rainforests itself, lies a vital element of the Amazonian landscape which, while often overlooked, speaks most clearly to the connection between the indigenous peoples and their land. It is a piece of this landscape that tells a story as old as human history in the Americas, a history that far predates any European fantasies of colonization or conquest. It tells a story of how we might live within the increasingly complex landscape of the Anthropocene. But like many stories of the Amazon, including those that Gojira and Sonia are trying to tell, it is not always happy. It is full of life and death, light and dark, but such a duality is fitting for the terras pretas, the black earth soils of Amazonia.

Gojira are (from left to right): Mario Duplantier, Jean-Michel Labadie, Joe Duplantier, and Christian Andreu

The black earth’s of Amazonia

Despite their infinitely humble appearance, the Amazon's black earth soils are equal parts natural and unnatural. Though containing nothing we might label as artificial—no synthetic compounds, chemical or industrial pollutants—these soils are nonetheless anthropogenic, meaning they were formed by humans. This fact alone is fascinating, revealing a vast feature of the Amazonian landscape to be the direct result of pre-industrial human activity, but it is outstripped only by the sheer scale at which the black earth deposits occur. Contemporary researchers now estimate that these terras pretas cover up to 10% of the Amazon, a size relatively equivalent to Great Britain. Though debate still percolates as to exactly how these black earths were formed, it is undisputed that the progenitors of these remarkable soils were the indigenous people of the Amazon basin who, over millennia, collectively reshaped their native ecosystem both above and below ground.\-rMew

Another recent Vox production, this one on the lost cities of the Amazon, featuring the terras pretas, or Amazonian black earth soils

Amazonia’s black earths derive their distinctive coloration and properties from large quantities of biochar, an organic compound formed by burning vegetation through a process known as pyrolysis. As a soil amendment, biochar is truly transformative. On one hand, it creates an ideal soil structure while also providing an incredible density of dead organic material. This imbues the soil with an abundance of nutrients that are readily available for plant uptake. On the other hand, this nutrient abundance makes possible a massive amount of microbial activity, fostering a subterranean ecosystem with a biodiversity to dwarf that of the tropical forests above. As a result, these soils are a unique fusion of both life and death. Such is the power of the interplay between these two forces within the terras pretas that they are not only capable of regenerating barren, exhausted soils, but have also managed to retain their own incredible fertility for many thousands of years.

To really grasp how monumental of a revelation these humble soils really are, it is first important to understand something of the ecology of the Amazon. Perhaps ironically, the lush and hyper-productive environment of the tropical rainforest is actually considered a very nutrient-poor area. Due to the excessive rainfall and extensive seasonal flooding, both of which leech vital compounds from the ground, Amazonian soils are characteristically acidic, thin, and want for both nutrients and organic matter. This paradox was first described by archaeologist Betty Meggers in her 1971 book Amazonia: Man and Culture in a Counterfeit Paradise. In the book, Meggers argues that these ecological dynamics placed strict environmental limitations on indigenous populations prior to colonization. According to these ideas, therefore, the people of the Amazon were only ever hunter-gatherers living in simple societies, capable of wielding stone-aged technologies and little more. At the time, such a theory was very influential, confirming many of the biases latent within the Western sciences, but eventually, the terras pretas would change all of that.

Far from a counterfeit paradise, modern research has shown that in pre-Columbian times the Amazon may have been home to upwards of 10 million people living in complex societies—cities—capable of organizing and engineering on a truly monumental scale. At the center of these settlements, we have come to learn, were the anthropogenic black earths, which made agriculture and therefore civilization possible in an otherwise nutrient-poor environment. So sustainable was this ecological technology, in fact, that it was only the plagues from Europe that spelled the end for the cities of the Amazon. So abundant and fertile were these soils that they gradually created a forest which, rather than the pristine Amazonian wilderness of Western imaginations, is perhaps more accurately described as a vast garden the size of an ecosystem, or what anthropologist William Balee calls “cultural forests”. All that was needed for such a radical, sustainable transformation was a little old fashioned terraforming.

The campaign video from Operation Amazonia, launched in 2021

Indigenous activism in an age of crisis

For Sonia and other indigenous activists in the Amazon, such scientific revelations hardly register as breaking news. Rather, the notion of intimate socio-ecological connectedness is one long embedded at the heart of many indigenous cosmologies both in the Amazon and elsewhere.

“Our lives are inextricable from the natural world,” observes Sonia in a New York Times Op-ed in October 2020, her words resounding with the same sentiment.

A recent Al Jazeera profile of Sonia Guajajara looking at her 2018 campaign and other work

In a terrible irony of history, many of the same forces that are currently decimating the Amazon are also revealing the truth of this fundamental axiom of indigenous belief. As deforestation continues to uncover increasing amounts of anthropogenic black earths, it is becoming ever more clear how integral indigenous people have been in the Amazon’s environmental history. As part of her work as leader of the Association of Indigenous Peoples of Brazil (APIB), which represents some 300 indigenous tribes in Brazil, Sonia is a vocal proponent of not only the rights of indigenous people, but also of the value of indengous stewardship over the Amazon.

“We are the only buffers protecting our thinning forests.” Sonia goes on to say in the article. “Our battle is not just for the future. It’s for the present.”

Through countless generations of indigenous knowledge and ecological practice, the Amazonian socio-ecosystem has been nurtured into the global resource that it is today, an idea that has taken hold in the popular zeitgeist of the Anthropocene. The value of the Amazon, however, has long been understood by the people whose ancestors created and sustained the terras pretas. While research has increasingly shown the importance of the Amazonian rainforest to global climate through its ability to sequester massive quantities of carbon, foster biodiversity, and regulate atmospheric water vapor, it is also increasingly showing that building alliances with indigenous peoples to recognize and conserve traditional lands represents one of the most effective and vital methods for protecting the Amazon writ large.\-Ld\-xc6PY

Understanding the Amazon rainforest and its relation to climate change and other earth systems.The music video for Gojira's single, Amazonia

Still, as is equally clear to Sonia and other activists, the prospects for indigenous peoples and environmental defenders in Brazil these days are bleak. The same 2018 presidential election in which Guajajara stood as a candidate for the Socialism and Liberty Party (PSOL) would eventually produce Jair Bolsonaro, a far right leader with dangerously authoritarian tendencies, cut from a truly Trumpian cloth. In addition to a bungled COVID-19 response, which has had a disproportionate impact on indigenous peoples in Brazil, as well as his efforts to erode indigenous political power, Bolsonaro has also thrown open the door to commercial exploitation of the Amazon.

These intersecting forces have culminated in increasing persecution and targeted assassinations among indigenous leaders and advocates to the point that Brazil is currently one of the most dangerous countries in the world for environmental activists. At the same time, as indigenous lands are being threatened by commercial farming and ranching interests, wildfires as the result of climate change and human activity are becoming an increasing threat. In 2019, unprecedented burns served to turn over 9,000 square kilometers of forest to ash, an area roughly the size of Puerto Rico. In total, deforestation in the Amazon has today reached its highest point in fifteen years. Collectively, the impact on the Amazon has been as profound on the ecosystem as it has on indigenous people. As of 2020, Bolsonaro has been officially accused in front of the Intnernational Criminal Court (ICC) for incitement to genocide.

The music video for Gojira's single, Another World, also off their 2021 album Fortitude

Nurturing unusual alliances

Since Bolsonaro’s election, Sonia’s has been just one of many indigenous voices raising the alarm about the scale of the threats now facing the Amazonian forests and its peoples. In these efforts, Sonia and the Amazonian indigenous community have recently found an unusual international ally in the French heavy metal outfit, Gojira.

It was a moody Monday afternoon when I finally got the chance to speak with Joe Duplantier, Gojira’s lead singer and guitarist. Outside, the wind whipped at a steady spring rain as we both sat, separated by the Zoom prism that has defined so many of our lives for the past few years. Another sign of the times. Joe was in France having released a new album a few weeks prior, seemingly a million miles away from the Amazon, which was the topic of our conversation. He wore a New York Yankees cap and plain green shirt and sat forward on the couch, animated and eager to discuss.

When I asked what drew him and his bandmates into this new cause in the Amazon his response struck a familiar chord. He told me that in addition to discussions with friends and fellow artists, it was the sobering images of the 2019 wildfires, which were taking place during the initial writing of the new album, that really galvanized the band.

“Initially, we were going to release the song and plant trees to replace the ones that were burned,” Joe revealed, “but some Brazilian friends explained to me that it's not planting trees...what we really need to do is to reinforce and empower these [indigenous] communities.”

His perspective was earnest and thoughtful though not surprising. Any fan of Gojira’s music would recognize recurring themes, ones that have been woven into the band’s sound and message for over two decades. While a progressive death metal band by trade, Gojira is distinctive among the larger metal community for dealing in a more subtle currency. Their musical success has offered them a platform that many activists would envy and in recognizing this, they have put that platform to work. Their latest album Fortitude, released in April 2021, focuses their artistic spotlight on the current plight of the Amazon and the indigenous peoples that protect it.\-SVkSJFTg/?hl=en

The single Amazonia is perhaps the best example of how the band blends both music and activism. While the song itself incorporates indigenous instruments, lending a misty atmosphere to the driving chords and pounding drums, the music video features film from the critically-acclaimed 2018 movie Híbridos: the Spirits of Brazil, which traces the county’s indigenous and Afro-Brazilian heritage. Proceeds from the single, as well as a fundraising campaign titled Operation Amazonia, are being donated to the Kaiowa and Guarani communities in the state of Mato Grosso del Sur in southern Brazil. There, the funds will be used to build fifteen healing houses, or traditional medical clinics, to help fight COVID-19, support women’s health, and protect traditional healing practices. Additional proceeds from the campaign will be donated to the APIB as part of a growing partnership between the band, Sonia Guajajara and indigenous communities, more broadly.

“We understood that the best way to protect the forest was to collaborate with indigenous tribes,” says Joe in the promotional video for Operation Amazonia as he explained how direct, ongoing consultation with indigenous leaders including Sonia helped them develop their campaign. “They are the only ones that can protect the forest because they know the forest...they know the emergency and the priorities of the region.”

Balancing life and death

In one sense, it may seem strange for a death metal band to take their environmental activism so seriously. After all, what is so metal about actually trying to give a shit? In realiy, however, Gojira represents just one of the most influential in a growing subgenre of heavy music known broadly as eco-hardcore. The subgenre includes the likes of viscerally-named bands such as Cattle Decapitation, Earth Crisis, Polluted Inheritance, To The Grave, and others. Music styles vary from punk and hardcore to death and black metal, but the message of eco-hardcore music is generally focused on the themes of environmental destruction, animal rights, ecocide and increasingly, global climate change.

In this context, however, what sets Gojira’s music apart is its departure from a wholly dystopian outlook. While not shying away from the themes of death and devastation, Gojira nevertheless seems intent on contrasting these elements of their music with more optimistic notes. Despite being unforgivingly heavy at times with thrashing guitar, heady bass lines, and relentless drums, their lyrics consistently turn towards a deeper, more life-affirming message, one that reminds us that we are not just living in the ruins of the past, but also in the shade of a potential future of abundance.\-Vwnco

The music video for Gojira's single, Silvera, off of their 2016 album Magma

Take, for example, the single Silvera off of their 2016 album Magma. The song begins with blasting, open-handed guitar and bass riffs along with commanding cymbal work and double-bass from drummer Mario Duplantier. After a groovy bridge, Joe launches into an earth-quaking verse: “Dead bodies falling from the sky / We are the ape with the vision of the killing / A rain of shame that fills the mines / No other blood in me but mine” Just then, as the tension seems ready to snap, the song is vaulted into the soaring heights of boundless potential: “Time to open your eyes to this genocide / When you clear your mind you see it all / You're receiving the gold of a better life / When you change yourself, you change the world.”

The effect is startlingly powerful, producing a sonic whiplash that pulls the listeners along these tightly braided threads of possibility and despair. It’s an aesthetic that reveals the intimate interplay of struggle and hope that comes with the territory of being an artist and an activist in a truly dystopian era.

“I choose to be hopeful for the future,” explained Joe as he leaned in, our interview taking one of several dives into more vulnerable, existential waters, “because I don’t know what is going to happen. But it’s more of a decision...I choose to believe in my fellow humans.”

Much like the terras pretas of the Amazon basin, the essence and power of Gojira’s body of work is a carefully struck balance between the forces of life and death. It is this dynamic which, while surprising, nevertheless makes the partnership between the band and indigenous activists like Sonia all too fitting. Both seem to have an estimation of the truly profound challenges that we all face, whether at the hands of a hostile regime or global climate change, and yet, both seem insistent upon a vision of some future world in which there is no longer a need for such struggle, neither against each other nor against the earth.

A campaign poster from Operation Amazonia

The black earth’s of our demise

In Gojia’s music, as in Sonia Guajajara’s activism, as in terras pretas themselves, we find an expression of the inherent duality of existence on our planet, a duality to which we are all inextricably tethered. And it is in this sense that, should we choose to listen to any or all of these many voices, there is important wisdom for how we might all survive—even thrive—within the cratered landscape of the Anthropocene.

But then again, no matter what humans do to this planet, something will always grow, whether in our gardens, in our forests or in the black earths of our demise. In that, at least, there is always some element of hope, regardless of whether or not there is anyone left to listen.