Don’t look at trees

Greg Grandin

  • Scramble for the Amazon and the ‘Lost Paradise’ of Euclides da Cunha by Susanna Hecht
    Chicago, 612 pp, £31.50, April 2013, ISBN 978 0 226 32281 0

The Amazon basin is roughly the size of the continental United States and contains more than a thousand shifting tributaries. If it had been found at the edge of human settlement, it would have been more comprehensible to European colonisers. Frontiers symbolise limits to knowledge and boundaries to movement; their meaning is encapsulated in a simple injunction – push on. But Amazonia wasn’t on the frontier. It was right in the centre of the New World. The Europeans could peer down and imagine its swelter from the peaks of the Andes, observe the river’s massive flow from the Orinoco delta in the Caribbean, inspect its true mouth in the Atlantic, and map its southern reaches as they rolled into Brazil’s backland savannah. Nations could eye each other across Amazonia’s verdant expanse, manoeuvring to grab a bit more of the forest before national boundaries became fixed. The great forest was the ultimate terra nullius, a more intimate sort of nothingness than other blank spots on the map. It was like having a black hole floating in the living room.

Perhaps because it was encircled by colonial settlement, the chroniclers of Amazonia felt compelled to invest the forest with meaning. It has been described, often by the same writers, sometimes in the same sentence, as a fundamental truth and a great lie, as hope and despair, innocence and sin, heaven and hell, virginal and an ‘overwhelming fornication’ (the last by Werner Herzog). These oppositions were also applied to discussions about politics, race and economic utility. Hegel never set foot in South America but described the Amazon as ‘monstrous’ and compared it unfavourably to the Mississippi Valley, which had allowed a harmonious civil society to take root. George Kennan, who did visit South America, used what he imagined to be the natural violence of the Amazon basin as a metaphor for the dismal history of Spanish and Portuguese America, especially its disastrous racial intermixing: ‘The handicaps to progress,’ he said, ‘are written in human blood and in the tracings of geography.’

In The Fate of the Forest: Developers, Destroyers and Defenders of the Amazon, published in 1990 (and reissued in 2010), Susanna Hecht and Alexander Cockburn argued that capitalist development wasn’t the primary threat to the Amazon. The combined market value of Amazon-sourced beef, lumber, minerals, latex and crops doesn’t add up to much, at least not enough to account for the rate of clear-cutting. The real danger to the rainforest was the idea of capitalist development: the urge to overcome the existential challenge posed by the Amazon, or, as the Brazilian president Getúlio Vargas said in 1940, to ‘conquer and dominate the valleys of the great equatorial torrents, transforming their blind force and their extraordinary fertility into disciplined energy’. Starting in the 1960s, Brazil’s military government tried to execute Vargas’s vision, launching colonisation and road-building projects designed, in the words of one general, to ‘flood’ the Amazon with ‘civilisation’.

Hecht, who teaches political ecology at UCLA, has spent her career examining the war waged on ‘untamed nature’ by ‘civilisation’, and arguing that – contrary to what the warriors think – what we call nature and what we call society are fundamentally the same thing. She continues the argument in her new book, The Scramble for the Amazon and the ‘Lost Paradise’ of Euclides da Cunha. Da Cunha, a Brazilian writer and engineer, the grandson of a Portuguese slaver and a Kararí Indian, was best known for his 1902 work Os Sertões, an epic history of the interior that culminates in his account of a brutal suppression of a rebellion against the Brazilian government. But Hecht concentrates on his writings on the Upper Amazon, drawn from his time on a 1905 joint Peruvian-Brazilian cartographic expedition of the Purús, one of the forest’s longest tributaries. They comprise survey reports, field notes, essays, maps and letters.

Hecht, in her translation and editing, does her best to marshal their inconsistencies. Overstatement (‘Amazonia has everything but lacks everything’) is followed by an explanation of why overstatement is needed (the imagination ‘cannot adapt to the incongruity of the land’). Although da Cunha has often been seen as a propagandist of an expanding nation, Hecht shows that his writing is more complicated and interesting than that. He declares that the Amazon is the ‘least Brazilian of rivers’, ‘undermining its own country’ through perpetual erosion and flooding. Deluded observers might imagine ‘new lands’ emerging from the muddy water spilling out into the Atlantic, enlarging Brazilian territory. But da Cunha says this overlooks the fact that the flow continues north, ‘a river without banks’ reaching as far as the Carolinas:

In those places the Brazilian is a stranger, a foreigner. Yet he is treading upon Brazilian soil … The irony of a country without land counterposes itself to another irony, more rudely physical, a ‘land’ without land. It is the marvellous consequence of a kind of telluric disintegration. The land abandons man. It goes off in search of other latitudes. The Amazon river, translocating itself in an almost invisible voyage, constructs its true delta in distant longitudes and relentlessly diminishes, in an uninterrupted process of erosion, the vast areas through which it meanders.

Form here corresponds to content: da Cunha is constantly assaulting his own foundations. It’s in his willingness to double back and reverse his starting premises that Hecht finds an ecological radicalism, a ‘New World counterweight to white European imperialism’. ‘Such is the river,’ da Cunha writes, ‘such is its history: always insurgent, always incomplete.’

Da Cunha had been sent on the surveying expedition by his friend and patron, Brazil’s foreign minister, José Maria da Silva Paranhos, an aristocrat turned republican statesman. At the time, the Upper Amazon was convulsed by secessionist movements, rebellions, wars and annexation attempts. It was a Great Game played mostly by Brazil and Peru, though other border nations, including Bolivia, Colombia and Ecuador, also had a stake. Da Cunha’s mission was to establish a legitimate foundation for Brazil’s territorial claims, and to do so he contrasted what he described as the social cohesion of Brazilian settlement and the ‘lust for easy wealth’ that marked Peru’s forays into the jungle. At times, his history of Brazilian migration seems driven by a sort of biological or natural determinism. ‘The moral disintegration of those who move to the tropics is a remarkable and necessary component of any description of the climate’ of the Upper Amazon, he writes. ‘Nature becomes only a synonym for suffering and death … a permanent plebiscite imposed on outsiders: Who will live? Who will die?’ The Amazon culled the ‘unfit’, da Cunha said, but he didn’t use such terms the way the Social Darwinists of his day used them. Decades of scientific racism, validated by foreigners, had led coastal Brazilians to believe that the Amazon was largely empty, sparsely populated by enfeebled half-breeds rendered torpid either because the environment was too harsh, or too bounteous. All they had to do to survive was reach out and pick a cashew apple off a tree or pull a turtle out of the river. Da Cunha, by contrast, depicts mestizo migrants to the Amazon as physically and morally superior beings. It was, Hecht writes, ‘an extremely radical position’. White Europeans in Africa, da Cunha noted by way of comparison, moved into conquered lands backed with the full power of a militarised, imperial state: they were supported by a bureaucratic apparatus, and tended to by colonial doctors; even then they couldn’t complete the ‘systematic occupation of equatorial Africa’. Brazilian sertanejos had only themselves to rely on and their suffering was their strength: it conditioned them to adapt to the forest’s ecology.

Da Cunha admired his contemporary Frederick Jackson Turner, but his account of the settlement of the Brazilian wilderness seems an intentional inversion of what Turner describes for the western United States in his influential 1893 essay ‘The Significance of the Frontier in American History’. Rather than hardy pioneers moving out from crowded cities in a steady, vigorous stream, da Cunha describes an image that would become more and more common throughout the 20th century: wasted refugees on a death march. They were driven out of their parched homelands, ‘terrifying starvelings, burning with fevers and pox’, and first moved to coastal cities. But local officials cast the migrants out, shipping them to the Amazon. ‘Here was no crisis of growth,’ da Cunha writes, ‘no excess of population flooding towards the frontiers, marching to fresh horizons.’ Migration to the Amazon instead ‘reflected dearth and utter defeat by natural catastrophe. Its trajectory was one of stumbling, disordered flight. In the very inverse of natural selection, all the weak, the useless, the worn-out, the sick and the suffering were sent off willy-nilly to that wilderness.’ No government agent or doctor accompanied them. Their ‘painful mission was to disappear’, which is what, if the ‘vulgar clichés of climatic determinism’ were correct, would have happened.

They didn’t disappear, but they must have been hard to see. Travellers and explorers moving upriver could pass village after village of tappers, boat after boat carrying balls of latex bound for the industrial cities of Europe and the United States, and still notice only nature’s thick greenery; they depicted Amazonia as a place out of time. Da Cunha could wax poetic with the best of them. The forest, he said, was the ‘last unfinished page of Genesis’. But his real talent was his ability to look at a seemingly empty landscape and grasp its social as well as natural history, to spot an isolated rubber tapper and realise that his loneliness was a condition of production. Debt peonage enforced an ‘obligatory dispersion’, sending men out into the forest to tap wild rubber trees. ‘In the dreary round of his existence,’ da Cunha writes of the tapper, ‘he is completely alone.’


Hecht could have pushed her case for da Cunha’s radicalism further: his dissent was part of a larger Latin American challenge to European understandings of the relationship of sovereignty to territory. As she notes, da Cunha supported his friend Paranhos’s appeal to an old Roman law doctrine, uti possidetis, in his various diplomatic wranglings. Hecht translates the Latin as ‘he who has, keeps,’ which isn’t wrong but tends to associate the doctrine with realpolitik land grabs, scrimmages, occupations and conquests. The doctrine’s modern usage, though, has been the exact opposite: it is deployed by weaker nations to moralise the interstate order and by decolonising nations to pry themselves free from imperial control. Uti possidetis was first applied to republican rule by Spanish American jurists in the early 1800s, after their break from Spain. The United States was founded as a single nation, isolated on a vast continent, and its main theoretical challenge was to reconcile the ideal of republicanism, which many philosophers believed could only work in a small polity, with expansion. But independent Spanish America came into being as a collective of formally equal republics, which posed a different kind of conceptual problem: each nation legitimised the existence of the others but, under the protocols of great power diplomacy, each threatened the others as well. To resolve the contradiction, and prevent conflicts from destroying the continent-wide experiment in republican liberty, the region’s statesmen dusted off uti posseditis to argue that no part of Mexico, Central America or South America lacked sovereignty.

In reality, much of the New World was far outside administrative control, including the Amazon, which mocked the idea of sovereignty. Borders were vague and contested; valuable resources (like rubber) were found on one side or the other, leading to more than a century of episodic fighting and occasional full-scale wars. Yet every diplomatic effort to resolve these disputes appealed to uti possidetis, which led to its acceptance despite conflicting interpretations (as Hecht shows, Brazil defined uti possidetis as effective possession; Peru interpreted the doctrine to uphold Spanish royal treaties establishing territorial boundaries). By the end of the First World War the revival of the doctrine had escaped its New World origins and become the basis of a new international multilateral order. Uti possidetis served as the implied foundation for the non-aggression principle found in the charters of the League of Nations and the United Nations and the explicit legal framework for decolonisation in Africa, the Middle East and Asia.

A less literal translation, but one that gets at the doctrine’s subversive potential, would define uti possidetis as saying that there were no empty places left in the world, that all space was already always socialised. In the United States, representations of nature as existing prior to markets and state institutions, such as the one found in Turner’s frontier thesis, reinforced the notion that freedom exists independently of society, and that it is society’s role to protect natural liberties rather than administer economic justice. ‘Complex society,’ Turner wrote, ‘is precipitated by the wilderness … The tendency is anti-social.’ Latin America’s political tradition instead tends to recognise that there is no such thing as freedom without collective and governmental activism that can be a check to exploitation. Turner looked at an empty landscape and saw individualism; da Cunha recognised lonely humans captured by a brutal ‘social order’ masquerading as natural – a recognition reflected not only in Latin America’s strong state-centred social democratic culture but also in what Brazilians and Spanish Americans call socioambientalismo, a grassroots environmentalism that rejects the idea that unpopulated preserves are the solution to environmental degradation and insists that ecological politics is class politics, that nature is a place where people live and work.

In the Amazon, a kind of emancipation from what Hecht calls rubber’s ‘terror slavery’ eventually occurred with the collapse of the world latex market in the early 20th century. As global demand fell, migrant and indigenous tappers escaped their debt and fled from their patrões. They cultivated orchards, raised livestock, extracted jungle products, including latex, and established or reconstituted sustainable institutions – indigenous communities, free yeoman villages, peasant leagues, unions – centred not on the protection of private property in the service of a globalised export economy but on the administration of the wood, water, soil and other elements of the Amazon’s biomass as a shared commons. It’s these communities that Hecht and Cockburn celebrated in The Fate of the Forest.Indios, seringueiros, caboclos, quilombolas,’ they wrote in a new preface, ‘beautiful Portuguese words for natives, tappers, peasants and descendants of fugitive slaves’ who join ‘together to form that amorphous thing called civil society’. Today, more than 40 per cent of the Amazon is at least nominally ‘conserved’, and more than half that expanse, around eighty million hectares, is preserved as ‘inhabited landscapes’.

It may be the case, as many ecological socialists argue, that capitalism’s logic of accumulation and ceaseless technological innovation places unsustainable stress on the environment, generating an ever widening rift between humans and nature. Hecht is more interested in the way capitalism creates nature and the way participatory democracy can tame capitalism. Many Amazon communities, within and outside protected regions, survive by trading forest products in a global market. They don’t, in other words, exist outside capitalism any more than they exist in a pristine state of Ur-nature. But by deploying a wide range of preservation tactics – some which accept global private property standards, like corporate monitoring and cap-and-trade carbon markets, as well as boycotts and other practices that directly assault property rights, like the land seizures led by the Movimento dos Trabalhadores Sem Terra – they have helped slow the rate of deforestation over the last decade by a remarkable 70 per cent.

In da Cunha’s time it was the people living in the forest who were invisible. Today it’s the forest that is hard to see. Hecht also works in El Salvador, one of the most densely populated countries in the world. In 1999, the year she first visited the war-ravaged country, the tropical ecologist John Terborgh declared that ‘nature’ in El Salvador had ‘been extinguished’. Hecht therefore expected a ‘blasted landscape’ but what she found was green everywhere, ribbons of urban hedgerows, slum ravines planted with trees, backyard orchards, abandoned coffee and corn farms with dense, secondary forest, commercial tree plantations and wooded grasslands. She and the environmental scientist Sassan Saatchi began to collect data from land-use surveys, censuses and satellite images, resulting in a 2007 paper that confirmed a significant increase in El Salvador’s woodlands since 1992.

Two things, Hecht and Saatchi say, explain this recovery. More and more rural peoples, unable to compete with industrially produced imported food commodities that began to flood the country at the end of the Cold War, were abandoning their fields and letting their pastures return to forests. The process was supported by the dramatic increase in remittances sent home by migrants to the US and elsewhere, which were allowing peasant families to give the land a rest, to buy corn instead of planting it, and to experiment with sustainable forms of forest extraction. ‘For every percentage point increase in remittances,’ Hecht and Saatchi write, ‘there is a 0.25 increase in the percentage of land with 30 per cent or more tree cover.’ They also found a significant degree of biodiversity in the new forests as well as no correlation between tree cover and population density. Even in small, crowded El Salvador, you can have trees and people, and birds too.

Hecht argues that a similar dynamic is taking place in many other parts of the globe, with the hundreds of billions of dollars of remittances that flow to Africa and Latin America underwriting a vast informal carbon offset programme, resulting in a net increase in forest cover. Added up, the world’s underclass – economic refugees and displaced farmers, the heirs of da Cunha’s lost and invisible peoples – are creating an enormous amount of uncompensated value in the form of carbon absorption services. People kept saying there weren’t any forests,’ Hecht recalls about her first trip to El Salvador, ‘yet I’d seen them with my own eyes.’