Amazon – a threatened realm of life and stories

Image: ColeraAlegria


It is necessary to understand the tropical forest, not as a virginal paradise devastated by capitalist progress, but as an ancient human habitat

On April 24, 2023, the Barcelona Center for Contemporary Culture (CCCB) held a public panel discussion entitled “The Lives of the Rainforest” on the three largest existing rainforests, in the Amazon, Congo Basin and West Papua , which were taken to represent all of the world's rainforests and their peoples. Part of a much larger project on the advent of ecocide, the event was also the prelude to a major exhibition on the Amazon to be held at Barcelona's Center for Contemporary Culture next year.

A brief overview of the history of the Amazon gives an idea of ​​how essential the rainforests are. Occupying 12% of the world's surface, they are part of the solution to the planet's current climate catastrophe; moreover, their stories illustrate much about how this happened. In addition to confronting the horrors of the past, inflicted by the “enlightened” West, history also shows how secular crimes against small groups in local places, justified by “us and them” thinking (which includes human exceptionalism towards all other species ), have long-term global consequences.

Often hidden behind other facts and figures, the single statistic that most tragically and shockingly defines the wonder of the Amazon is this: “Over a 400-year period, the indigenous Amazonian population has shrunk from around six million to perhaps 200. today". Everything we see in the current climate catastrophe relates in some way to that disaster. They were interconnected, but once the set formed by people, animals, birds, plants, habitats, rivers, soil, air, heat, winds, rain were damaged, their vital interactions were also cut and, consequently, the entire planet was affected.

Ursula Le Guin sums it up with her 1972 title: The Word for World Is Forest. But the plight of tropical forests is not science fiction. If the inhabitants of the terrestrial forest have always understood their habitat as a world, a cosmos, a well-ordered whole, they also know that damaging the forest means damaging the world, perhaps beyond repair.

With the history of names one often gets down to basics. With the term “amazonas”, which can refer to the river, the general watershed area and the rainforest, a story of indigenous peoples and colonial intrusion is told. The name refers to much more than one entity, each often having multiple names. Roughly speaking, several names refer to pre-colonial times and the single name to colonial and post-colonial identity or, in other words, to internal and external histories, the detailed intimacy of the habitat and the rough voracity.

Before western intruders reached the shores of South America, the river, area and rainforest did not have a general name. Each tribe had its own name(s) according to the area it occupied and its cultural and linguistic traditions. The Tupi-Guaraní tribes called the great river Paranaguazu (Great Relative of the Sea), while for the Amara Mayu it was called “Mother Serpent of the World”. Conquistadors had another idea: the total conquest of a territory and everything in it.

In 1500, the Spanish commander Vicente Yáñez Pinzón named it Río Santa Maria de la Mar Dulce (Santa Maria River of the Freshwater Sea), thus imposing the Catholic – and virginal – religious motif, thus referring to the large size of the course. of water. In 1515, it was known as Río Marañon, a name believed by some to derive from the Spanish word “maraña” (tangled mess), now referring to the hidden roots of the river that put up resistance to heavy boats (but not small indigenous craft).

In 1541 Francisco de Orellana made the first descent along the river from the Andes to the sea. It is believed that after a battle with a Pira-tapuya tribe in 1542 in which the women fought alongside the men, he began to refer to the “river of the Amazons”, thus evoking the mythical warrior tribe of the Amazons, as described by the Greeks Herodotus and Diodorus. The word may be derived from the Iranian “ha-maz-na” (to fight together) or, more popularly, from the Greek “Amazōn” (a- 'without' + mazos [masts] 'chest'), because the Amazons supposedly cut the right chest so they could handle the bow better.

The “wonderful female warriors” were described by the expedition's priest, Friar Carvajal: “the women fought on the front lines, in the role of leaders or captains encouraging the men, and (...) “they fought so courageously that the Indians did not dare to turn their backs , and whoever turned his back killed with truncheons right there in front of us”.

The virginal and rapturous trope reappeared half a century later, when, Walter Raleigh, writing to his London backers, described Guyana as a “country that still has its maiden, never plundered, turned or forged; the face of the earth was not torn…never conquered or possessed”. As Ed Simon puts it, "There is a connection between Raleigh's rhetoric of paradise and its vocabulary of gendered conquest - both types of language postulate the land in idealized terms, and both envision a privilege on the part of the settler to exploit that land." .

However, some scholars believe that “Amazônia” comes from the Tupi word “amassona” transcribed into Portuguese (shipwrecks for the invaders and intertwined root systems of hydrophilic plants for the local population). Be that as it may, the nomenclature suggests different ways of thinking about the Amazon: conquest, outside of quantitative values, homogenization and wholesale plunder versus living with the particularities of its different places and species. Now, as before, the name of Maior Rio has been appropriated for what is being listed by Slate as the “#1 tech company”, Amazon.

Archaeological evidence from the Caverna da Pedra Pintada in Monte Alegre, Brazil, suggests that there were human settlements based on a rainforest economy and riverine foraging in the region for at least 11.200 years. Foraging tribes were replaced by fishing villages in the early Holocene (around 9700 BC), after which horticulture was practiced, pottery use spread, and about 2.000 years ago populous agricultural societies and complex.

Recent studies suggest that prehistoric settlements included farmlands, wetland structures, roads, and public works such as plazas, moats, and bridges, combined with agricultural and parkland landscapes. Extensive social formations included chiefdoms, especially in interfluvial regions and even large towns and cities.

Thus, current soil and biotic distributions, often coinciding with the dispersion of archaeological features, are mainly the result of pre-Columbian land management strategies. Human settlement was much more widespread than previously thought, not only near large rivers but also closer to small streams, suggesting that the pre-Columbian population was much larger than previous estimates.

It is even believed that the first inhabitants of the jungle created a “mosaic of natural forests, open fields and sections of forest managed in such a way as to be dominated by species of special interest to humans”, so that almost 11,8% of the Amazon forests are anthropogenic.

An example of the impact of early human settlement is the terra preta do Índio, the black anthropogenic soil that pre-Columbian peoples used to improve areas of low soil fertility. It is believed to have originated between 450 BC and AD 950 in locations across the Amazon Basin and its color comes from the intemperate charcoal content derived from bones, broken pottery, compost and dung, added to low fertility tropical soil. Many areas of terra preta are found around old sambaquis, in addition to being intentionally manufactured on larger scales.

Thus, one of the first signs of indigenous knowledge appears in the soil itself. Contrary to hypotheses such as the one presented in the influential book Amazonia: Man and Culture in a Counterfeit Paradise (1971), by archaeologist Betty Meggers, stating that it was impossible to sustain large populations through agriculture due to the poor soil, the indigenous use of terra preta or dark Amazonian soils created areas of high fertility.

This is important because the ways in which indigenous peoples harnessed natural landscape-forming processes could transform current understanding of human influence in the Amazon, opening up new frontiers for the sustainable use of tropical landscapes now almost terminally damaged.

But European conquest soon destroyed and decimated these ancient societies. A recent study estimates that, in the first hundred years, European settlers, explorers, conquerors, missionaries and pioneers killed or caused death from disease to around 56 million indigenous people in the Americas. Surviving populations were forced into poor lands in new peripheries where, surrounded by outsiders, they survived by changing cultivation and foraging, while still maintaining some traditions of their settled ancestors.

For 350 years after the arrival of the first settlers, much of the previously nourished Amazon was left unmaintained. The outage was not just local or temporary. All this dying changed global climate because so much cleared land was abandoned that the resulting afforestation and terrestrial carbon uptake affected both atmospheric CO2 and global surface air temperatures in the two centuries before the Industrial Revolution.

The genocide was one of the main factors in the intensified effects of the Little Ice Age (XNUMXth to XNUMXth centuries) and, indirectly, caused changes in European society, geography, economy and history, when natural resources, looted and sent from the New World, allowed As population and cities expanded, people left subsistence farming to work for a wage in early industries and buy new goods in markets that relied on massive looting.

Perhaps more than any other plant, the rubber tree, and especially Hevea brasiliensis, shows the devastating local (but also geopolitical) effects of external incursions into the Amazon in the name of “progress”. From the last quarter of the XNUMXth century, this change was linked to the origins of the automobile industry – whose numerous consequences in the current climate catastrophe have been well documented – and to the formation of a small and ruthless elite that, in addition to cars, prospered fabulously by supplying tires. for the transport needs of the military in World War I. The other side of the story is the exploitation and genocide of the indigenous people, who used latex hundreds of years ago, making vases and waterproof sheets, and simply playing, as witnessed by Columbus who saw the Arawaks playing with strange balls that bounced and flew.

Growing demand and rising prices for rubber led to the uneven concentration of activity in some Amazonian regions where rubber was extracted and to the unbridled growth of nearby cities. Cities such as Belém and Manaus, in Brazil, and Iquitos, in Peru, were endowed with the first public services and ostensive buildings such as the Amazonas Theater and the luxurious Palace of Justice, in Manaus, and the “Iron House”, designed by Gustave Eiffel in Iquitos. The extravagance included brothels with teenagers flown in from Paris, Baghdad and Poland, while the rubber barons had their laundry shipped to London or Lisbon to be washed as the Amazon waters were too muddy.

In 1921, Henry Ford decided that he would not depend on rubber controlled by the British and convinced the American government to pressure Brazil to give the Ford Motor Company an area delimited by 120 km of the Tapajós River for its “Fordlândia”, and to finance the operation. This megalomaniac dream consisted of two million hectares of straight rows of trees, separated by 4 meters, and a “self-sufficient”, “model” community of 5.000 inhabitants whose children would be the “future conquerors of the Amazon” was planted in the jungle.

And the “cultural icon” Walt Disney made a propaganda film, The Awakening of the Amazon, about the bright new dawn this supposedly represented for the world. But nature countered. A plague of fungi and insects destroyed the dream. Without being intimidated, Ford repeated the madness with three million rubber trees in Belterra (PA). Nature won again. Needless to say, indigenous peoples paid the price of misery, subjugation, forced labor, debt bondage, rape, torture, maiming and murder, crimes that are detailed by Norman Lewis in his famous 1967 article entitled “Genocide“. To give an example, in 1910, after a two-month investigation into the Peruvian Amazon Company, diplomat Roger Casement concluded that seven indigenous lives were lost for every ton of rubber extracted since 1900.

The decline of the boom came with killer global ramifications. An important factor was an early case of biopiracy, when the British took hevea brasiliensis and planted them in Malaysia, Ceylon, Indonesia and sub-Saharan Africa. Thus, the exploitation of Hevea brasiliensis began to have other effects on the world stage, especially after the United States began to copy British repressive measures.

In Malaysia, rubber plantations played a large role in the “Emergency” (1948 to 1960), where Britain sent 40.000 troops to protect the business, pioneered the use of “Agent Orange”, used widespread saturation bombing, incendiary weapons and internment camps (“New Villages” for the British, “Strategic Hamlets” for the US in Vietnam) to imprison an estimated 500.000 peasants.

In the West, the story of rubber is often remembered as in Werner Herzog's tale of the insanely "heroic" deed of an opera-loving visionary in Fitzcarraldo (1982). However, the documentary about the making of this film, Burden of Dreams, shows how arrogance and ignorance still dominate the conceptions and representations mainstream of the Amazon and its exploitation.

The rubber era was so violent that it lives on in the myths of Amazonian oral traditions. Daughters and granddaughters of women who were raped by rubber workers are also sometimes raped when they work as domestic servants for the wealthy descendants of today's rubber barons. Modern derivatives include human trafficking, child sex tourism, oil spills and habitat destruction. Another aspect is that the border zone between Peru and Brazil has the highest concentration of isolated indigenous peoples.

 This is not by chance. Many are descendants of people who fled into the deep forest to escape the violence. An intergenerational story told today by the Kukama people of the lower Marañon River in Peru is about a jaguar-like being who put rubber tappers to sleep, then entered the camp to kill them all, slitting their throats and sucking their blood.

But the jaguar is a selective predator and takes only the prey it needs, so the animal that slaughtered humans and drank their blood was not an Amazonian creature, but the rubber baron, who lives vividly in local memory. These histories tend to be non-linear, not so much concerned with telling exactly what happened, but trying to “socialize the events of the past so that they can be placed in the collective memory in ways that make sense within the indigenous worldview” – sustaining, thus cultural identity.

The indigenous cultures of the Amazon are inseparable from all their environments and ways of life. It is clear that indigenous knowledge is not homogeneous. In the world's different rainforests, people interact with their environment in historically diverse ways, which means that quick fixes are to be avoided. Due attention must be paid to specific ecosystems which in turn will benefit biodiversity. Recent studies have shown, with statistical evidence based on 245 communities, that indigenous peoples in the Amazon are the most effective forest guardians, but only if their full rights over their territories are officially recognized and protected.

Protecting the Amazon and its creatures automatically means respecting human rights. It is necessary to understand the tropical forest, not as a virginal paradise devastated by capitalist progress, but as an ancient human habitat. Those outside see trees, birds and rivers, but the indigenous people also perceive a universe of stories, dreams and whispers of ancestors. Trees are sentient beings full of spirits, memories and history. The Amazon is a repository of stories and songs, passed down from generation to generation.

Thus, essential values ​​of reciprocity, care and peaceful coexistence guide the morals, the acts of human beings and other beings, who are also sentient, in a form of traditional sustainability that is very different from Western understandings of the word, for example, the of the World Wildlife Fund, who is accused of colluding in evicting, torturing and killing villagers with "fortress" conservation methods, in ways not unlike the methods employed by the rubber barons when they "conserved" their trees. In short, in the Amazon “it is impossible to have a life if one is separated or separated from other human or non-human agencies”.

Different ways of knowing and valuing systems “play a crucial role in shaping indigenous ideas of sustainability throughout the Amazon”. Cosmological understandings on which many indigenous communities are based and which do not accept human domination over nature are at the heart of their notions of sustainability.

Thus, “notions of relationality with non-humans play an important role in creating or blocking incentives for sustainable wildlife management (…) indigenous peoples is therefore critical to ensuring their long-term sustainability… Indigenous peoples must be part of any conversation or debate about policy options around sustainability issues.”

Perhaps, in response to the dire situation now facing the entire planet, humans could – would need – to learn from anthropologist Roy Wagner and his groundbreaking work. The invention of culture. If indigenous culture is considered “traditional” and concerned with ensuring continuity, permanence and conservation, Roy Wagner conceives it as oriented towards transformation, improvisation and innovation. In this sense, culture is not normativity or external coercion, but conceptual creativity or, in other words, an exercise in invention. And right now, for the rainforests to keep living, we urgently need this kind of dedicated invention.

*Julie Wark is a journalist, writer and translator. Author, among other books, of The Human Rights Manifesto (Zero Books).

Translation: Eleutério FS Prado.

Originally published on the portal counter punch.

the earth is round exists thanks to our readers and supporters.
Help us keep this idea going.

See this link for all articles


  • João Cândido and the Revolt of the Whipwhip revolt 23/06/2024 By PETRÔNIO DOMINGUES: In the current context, in which there is so much discussion about State reparations for the black population, the name of João Cândido cannot be forgotten
  • Fear and HopeJoao_Carlos_Salles 24/06/2024 By JOÃO CARLOS SALLES: Against the destruction of the public university
  • The collapse of Zionismfree palestine 80 23/06/2024 By ILAN PAPPÉ: Whether people welcome the idea or fear it, Israel's collapse has become predictable. This possibility should inform the long-term conversation about the future of the region
  • Franz Kafka, libertarian spiritFranz Kafka, libertarian spirit 13/06/2024 By MICHAEL LÖWY: Notes on the occasion of the centenary of the death of the Czech writer
  • A look at the 2024 federal strikelula haddad 20/06/2024 By IAEL DE SOUZA: A few months into government, Lula's electoral fraud was proven, accompanied by his “faithful henchman”, the Minister of Finance, Fernando Haddad
  • Return to the path of hopelate afternoon 21/06/2024 By JUAREZ GUIMARÃES & MARILANE TEIXEIRA: Five initiatives that can allow the Brazilian left and center-left to resume dialogue with the majority hope of Brazilians
  • About artificial ignoranceEugenio Bucci 15/06/2024 By EUGÊNIO BUCCI: Today, ignorance is not an uninhabited house, devoid of ideas, but a building full of disjointed nonsense, a goo of heavy density that occupies every space
  • The society of dead historyclassroom similar to the one in usp history 16/06/2024 By ANTONIO SIMPLICIO DE ALMEIDA NETO: The subject of history was inserted into a generic area called Applied Human and Social Sciences and, finally, disappeared into the curricular drain
  • Theological manual of neoliberal neo-PentecostalismJesus saves 22/06/2024 By LEONARDO SACRAMENTO: Theology has become coaching or encouraging disputes between workers in the world of work
  • Chico Buarque, 80 years oldchico 19/06/2024 By ROGÉRIO RUFINO DE OLIVEIRA: The class struggle, universal, is particularized in the refinement of constructive intention, in the tone of proletarian proparoxytones