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.

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