The Amazon in the XNUMXst Century

Image: Nabil Nahas


Organizers introduction to newly released book

To think about the Amazon is to think about the immensity, the superlative and much more to think about and learn to ask. Millennial, multiple and complex living space, which continuously takes us from the continental scale to local, everyday and sectorized problems, which also constitute the life and politics of the region. Far beyond stereotyped images of fragility and incommensurability, the Amazon occupies the center of contemporary global controversies about development, democracy, the rule of law and the disagreement between the human and more-than-human dimensions of nature.

Instead of being a world apart, the Amazon has always been loci privileged in the history of capitalism and an area of ​​greed of foreign societies that dedicated themselves to exploiting local lives and riches. Although defining events that go far beyond the region itself, such legacies, their scales and complexities have always been misunderstood and generally taken for granted. In addition to a precariously reconstructed past and associated violence, too often accepted in the name of a supposed 'civilization', there are reductionist and utilitarian interpretations that continue to inspire processes of privatization, proletarianization and speculation.

The Amazon therefore needs to be thought over again, questioned, perceived and invoked in new ways and ways, especially with regard to the impacts of modernization and (perennial) coloniality. To this end, we need new questions and more attentive approaches to the non-linearities of the Amazon. A task that becomes even more urgent given the need to understand the synergy created by the interaction between the old and new challenges posed by the XNUMXst century.

Far from being homogeneous and predictable, the Amazon is made up of breathtaking animal, plant and socio-ecological diversity, in addition to an infinity of endemic landscapes, languages, practices and social compositions. For tens of thousands of years, the socionatural interactions of different human societies in such an extensive territory (about seven million square kilometers) helped to shape, to a greater or lesser extent, the biological and spatial characteristics of the region, promoting the impressive multiplication of species and the varied composition of sociocultural configurations.

It is, therefore, necessary to have the humility to recognize that in order to account for such a complex and extensive singularity, there is no way to do without an engagement that is not only intellectual, but also ethical and even political, in its broadest sense. This is because what is called the Amazon is actually the interaction of dynamic, ever-expanding processes. The final and primordial product of these dynamics is that the Amazon is intrinsically and ontologically a politically constructed reality. In fact, the Amazonian space itself is the result of constant and countless disputes and collaborations that are always deeply politicized, something that, under the influence of a predatory and reckless capitalism (as capitalism always tends to be), branches out into multiple, multifaceted and stubborn.

There is, therefore, no way to think about the region without considering the growing and recurrent socio-environmental injustices and the constant politicization of its socio-ecology (Ioris, 2020). A vast and contested universe, the Amazon biome occupies about half of the South American continent, spreading across nine countries and inhabited by about 30 million people in countless ecosystems, urban areas and river basins. What happens in the Amazon matters to the world and it is, likewise, a big world to be collectively and critically interrogated. But despite so much relevance, the intricate Amazonian complexity has not been properly decoded by most disciplinaryly constituted approaches, many of them still anchored in various forms of positivism, data fragmentation, essentialism, empiricism and the binarism of Western rationality that tends to to dissociate society from the rest of nature and scientific knowledge from knowledge anchored in historical experience and community practices.

The Amazon does not even seem to fit in the official academy, much less in the bureaucracy offices and in the boards of directors of corporations, even though these are some of the main actors deciding on its future. Clear evidence of this logic, most of the academic work published in recent decades is based on short-term studies, disinterested in political-ecological causes and responsibilities and often without the authors even having gone to the region (but conducted by means of satellites, use of megacomputers and abstract references to an environmental governance that should, according to the reigning ideology, follow market signs and designs).

And although perhaps paradoxically, for too long the Amazon has tended to be simultaneously celebrated and praised, even if ignored, misunderstood, when not even despised by pioneers and so-called experts that try to give meaning to the socio-ecological configuration without any concrete opening for the daily life, the lived space and the concrete needs of the local populations (to be defined by themselves). Hence our intention in this work to reconsider, as far as possible in a book with limited size and scope by definition, the multiple lived and contested realities of the Amazon.

The book thus reflects an inter- and trans-disciplinary effort that brought together complementary views from scholars with diverse academic backgrounds, but converging research interests, working in diverse geographical and professional contexts, united in a joint effort to analyze not only specific aspects of the Amazonian immensity, but also of critically reflecting on how the Amazon is and should be today and in the future.

In fact, if we all live today in a global context that is increasingly controversial, interconnected and disturbing, (re)thinking the Amazon, a reality that has always been defined by these same characteristics, is a necessary and urgent task not only for the perspectives of the region, but for the planet as a whole. In this book, we sought to reiterate the importance of new forms of analysis and questioning. As demonstrated by the wisdom of the original peoples, neither history nor knowledge are one-dimensional processes, since they advance in multiple directions, recurrently and resulting from shared realities. It is necessary to seek, within critical and innovative interpretative experiences, to understand, scrutinize and heuristically reconstruct the multiple axes of interaction and local dynamics being violently permeated by the growing and continuous invasion of new processes dialectically connected to socioeconomic, ideological and political-ecological dynamics that unfold at multiple scales (Ioris and Ioris, 2020).

At the heart of the controversy and at the junction of many disputes is the chimera of economic development at any price. As initially conceptualized in the post-war period, and still emphatically defended today by politicians and dominant business sectors, the pedestal of development justifies the intensification of the production and distribution of goods and services according to consumption (and waste) patterns. of western societies (Arndt, 1987; Escobar, 2012). Following this definition, which was tacitly but not naively established in the international community, development in the Amazon Region has historically been represented by the construction of large projects for plant exploration, infrastructure and business activities, most often linked to the export sector, carried out directly or indirectly. via planning, coordination, support and subsidies from government agencies.

This trajectory of supposed development has always depended on the enormous appropriation of ecosystems and the commodification of territorial resources. This universalist matrix, with an authoritarian bias, sustained and sustains conventional development platforms that tended to ignore local circumstances and consistently sought to produce homogeneous human and ecological spaces according to exogenous values, aesthetics and needs.

Within such dynamics, markedly contradictory and risky, the more the Amazon is inserted in the conventional path of development, the more restricted and exclusive the political-economic opportunities to effectively make the region more autonomous and with fair and sustainable activities. The development process in the Amazon resides not simply in the profit extracted from production, but also in the appropriation of different sources of income (in the Ricardian sense) in the areas of forests, land and rivers. Likewise, given that conventional development has increasingly and antagonistically associated the Amazon Region in global markets through the appropriation of territorial resources and exclusionary policies imposed on its inhabitants, these destructive dynamics have accelerated and, thus, proved to be increasingly misleading and exclusive over the last few years.

In fact, the apparent availability (once those who live there are ignored) of large portions of land and resources have always led to the expectation of a rapid accumulation of capital on the part of cattle ranchers, prospectors (and mining companies), agribusiness entrepreneurs (companies), loggers, construction companies (large-scale works such as roads and hydroelectric plants, as well as civil construction), with a minimal participation of the rest of the regional society.

Before being intrinsically, by definition, anti-nature, the most harmful attribute of the traditional development process is its modernizing imperative according to a homogenizing and hierarchical configuration of modernity and industrial capitalism. This means that the dominant model of development depends on the conversion of portions of land in the Amazon rainforest whose management and ownership are collective, into private properties and the relationships arising from this new model. The advance of western modernity even combined cultural estrangement and estrangement and a narrative of fascination, as originally analyzed by Holanda (2000).

This combination of imaginaries that guided the conquest and territorial exploration accelerated even more, also becoming much more complex throughout the XNUMXth century, especially in its last three decades. In contrast to colonial times and the beginning of the post-colonial period, when the riches of the region were exploited and taken away, contemporary development required the consolidation of private property in the region and the reorganization of social relations in terms of the political power arising from the private properties, mining, and industries, or else in function of works and state programs that served – and serve – for the expansion of extractive capitalism.

With its restricted focus on an exogenous definition of efficiency, according to utilitarian molds, today presented as 'entrepreneurial', of Western rationality, translated into anti-common goods theories [commons], the dynamics associated with the development process deliberately exclude traditional uses and practices, perpetuating inequality and fostering poverty, regardless of the level of forest conservation and restoration. Using a new vocabulary of power, the transformation of the region under the influence of recurrent development policies unfolds in permanent ethnic-racial-ecological disputes, with a class base and repercussions, which propagate and reinforce a geography of the recurrent production of exclusion and injustice.

Due to pressures against traditional peoples, the forest is brutally transformed (both in symbolic and material terms) from its dynamic, long-established condition, which leads to the emergence of socio-environmental impacts and exploitations. The new poverty generated by the advance of the dominant form of developmentalism in the region is perpetuated by the new cycles of capital circulation and accumulation arising from the private appropriation of forest ecosystems. And given that traditional peoples are no longer so protected by their relative historical isolation, stronger competitors and opportunists of all kinds are capable of excluding them from access to resources made scarce, but previously shared.

This dynamic of denial of traditional peoples (and their practices) in the development of the Amazon is an expression of a larger phenomenon in which human beings are alienated from their previous activities, together with their social context, collective imagination and socio-natural condition. Their traditional survival strategies of communities living in (and of) forest ecosystems typically combine the sharing of forest resources with small strips of land for use and family property and the area of ​​residence. But with the advance of neoliberal developmentalism, the Amazonian ecosystems are being increasingly transformed and not through the interaction between human beings and the rest of society, but according to the imposition of economic rules that mobilize resources and people for the immediate accumulation and transfer of capital.

The devastating impact of the growth of private property is even more evident in the increasing erosion of community livelihood practices originally based on complex management of the forest and its ecosystem. It should be noted that one of those most responsible for the institutions of private property and associated attacks against traditional peoples (and their practices) has been the National State itself, especially the agents in Brasilia who control the eastern and most impacted fraction of the region. State actions, in general, have contributed to the creation of institutions and perverse logics that tend to perpetuate processes of creation and deepening of social, political, cultural exclusions, etc. All this is evident, throughout history, in the clear contradiction between the interests of agribusiness and mining, seen as vehicles of national integration and a supposed economic viability of the region, and the real needs of the many local communities directly impacted (Ioris, 2017).

It should also be noted that the recurrent attempt by hegemonic forces to promote a privatist logic of development does not resolve such conflicts either, having its responsibility in the genesis of a new regional poverty, as well as in the distortion of eventual conservation policies. In the same sense, government economic incentives (such as credit, subsidies and the concession of land to companies and large farmers) and investments in infrastructure (in the form of roads, ports and warehouses), deepened in recent years, have played central roles in spatialization. continuation of environmental and human inequalities.

Such benefits, selectively distributed, sought primarily to attract different contingents of people to the Amazon, who, once there, have benefited only marginally from agribusiness development initiatives, especially in recent decades. And largely thanks to new technological capabilities, political arrangements and global economic flows, this path of continuous incorporation of the Amazon into increasingly capitalist lines of development has significantly accelerated and become immensely more complex as the Brazilian economy and in other countries in the region have become more organically embedded in global networks of production and circulation of goods [commodities].

Spoiling dynamics of hegemonic modernizing development persisted in governments with different electoral orientations. Both in administrations considered progressive, such as Lula and Dilma (2003-2016), and, even more, in the post-2016 reactionary and proto-fascist administrations that have been promoting an increase in the exploitation of resources and the intensification of agribusiness and mining in the region. And through the increasing action of the State, new impactful strategies have become an increasingly crucial part of the logic of socioeconomic development, concentrating even more in the hands of state power most of the decisions about the pressures to fall on socioecological systems. The State's commitments to such an ideology, essential for the success and expansion of capitalist society, are eminently antagonistic to the discourse of poverty reduction and socio-environmental justice that the State itself attributes in modern democracies, thus increasing the growing contradictions of such logic. .

With such controversies in mind, in the pages that follow, we present a critical reflection, with a historical, geographic and conceptual background, on what we perceive as central elements necessary for a more attentive understanding of the complex, multidimensional and ever-changing Amazonian reality. Our perspective is guided by what we understand as the historical experience of what we define as the recurrent activation of multiple socioeconomic and environmental frontiers in the Amazon, namely, biophysical and human spaces always subject to cumulative transformations due to the rapid and intense migration of peoples and the openness of new economic opportunities that occur in different contexts and power structures, where authorities and forms of governance are disputed and reconfigured (Ioris, 2018). In the same way, considering the many and growing socio-environmental needs of the region, we review some development experiences revealed throughout the process of transformation of the Amazon by logic and exploitation networks of capitalist matrix, nationally and globally.

*Rafael R. Ioris is a professor in the Department of History at the University of Denver (USA).

*Antonio AR Ioris is professor of geography at Cardiff University.



Rafael R. Ioris & Antonio A. Rossotto Ioris (eds.). The Amazon in the XNUMXst century: trajectories, dilemmas and perspectives. São Paulo, Alameda, 2022, 542 pages.


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