The Fate of the Forest: Developers, Destroyers, and Defenders of the Amazon, Updated Edition

The Fate of the Forest: Developers, Destroyers, and Defenders of the Amazon, Updated Edition

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by Susanna B. Hecht, Alexander Cockburn

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The Amazon rain forest covers more than five million square kilometers, amid the territories of nine different nations. It represents over half of the planet’s remaining rain forest. Is it truly in peril? What steps are necessary to save it? To understand the future of Amazonia, one must know how its history was forged: in the eras of large pre-Columbian

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The Amazon rain forest covers more than five million square kilometers, amid the territories of nine different nations. It represents over half of the planet’s remaining rain forest. Is it truly in peril? What steps are necessary to save it? To understand the future of Amazonia, one must know how its history was forged: in the eras of large pre-Columbian populations, in the gold rush of conquistadors, in centuries of slavery, in the schemes of Brazil’s military dictators in the 1960s and 1970s, and in new globalized economies where Brazilian soy and beef now dominate, while the market in carbon credits raises the value of standing forest.

Susanna Hecht and Alexander Cockburn show in compelling detail the panorama of destruction as it unfolded, and also reveal the extraordinary turnaround that is now taking place, thanks to both the social movements, and the emergence of new environmental markets. Exploring the role of human hands in destroying—and saving—this vast forested region, The Fate of the Forest pivots on the murder of Chico Mendes, the legendary labor and environmental organizer assassinated after successful confrontations with big ranchers. A multifaceted portrait of Eden under siege, complete with a new preface and afterword by the authors, this book demonstrates that those who would hold a mirror up to nature must first learn the lessons offered by some of their own people.

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The Fate of the Forest

Developers, Destroyers, and Defenders of the Amazon

By Susanna Hecht, Alexander Cockburn

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 1990 Susanna Hecht Alexander Cockburn
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-32273-5


The Forests of Their Desires

Taking a close look at what's around us, there is some kind of harmony. It is the harmony of overwhelming and collective murder ... We in comparison to that enormous articulation, we only sound and look like half-finished sentences out of a stupid suburban novel ... And we have become humble in front of this overwhelming misery and overwhelming fornication, overwhelming growth and overwhelming lack of order.

WERNER HERZOG, Burden of Dreams 1984

It is for this that the region is so beautiful, because it is a piece of the planet that maintains the inheritance of the creation of the world. Christians have a myth of the garden of Eden. Our people have a reality where the first man created by god continues to be free. We want to impregnate humanity with the memory of the creation of the world.


The destruction in the Amazon forests is not unique. It happens elsewhere, in Central America, in the Congo Basin, in Southeast Asia, but without provoking the same tumult and consternation in the First World. What imbues the case of the Amazon with such passion is the symbolic content of the dreams it ignites. The prolixity that so overwhelmed Herzog poses a challenge that has fired the greed of generations of exploiters. It has also inspired the most heroic struggles to resolve the fundamental question underlying the destiny of the world's tropical rainforests: what is the relation of people to nature, how do people perceive the obligations of this relationship?

The mystery that is part of the Amazon's allure is not merely a function of the region's immensity and of the infinitude of species it contains. It is also the consequence of centuries of censorship, of embargoes placed on knowledge and travel in the region by the Spanish and Portuguese crowns, of the polite silences of the religious orders during the Amazon's colonial history. Spanish law in 1556 directed that judges 'shall not permit any books to be printed or sold which treat of subjects relating to the Indies without having special license by the Council of the Indies'. The chronicler-naturalist had to face the Inquisition, the Council of the Indies, the king and the Pope – a daunting set of reviewers – before he could publish his findings. Knowledge was accumulated, then kept under lock and key. The Portuguese were determined that Brazil remain subordinate to their eastern possessions. Royal edicts tried to impede even the first steps towards economic development. The colonial council permitted only the cultivation of ginger and indigo where sugarcane could not grow, thus hoping to protect the markets for their Asian spices. Until the end of the eighteenth century it was forbidden to breed mules or embark on almost any form of manufacture beyond the preparation of crude cotton stuffs for domestic consumption. Intellectual life was equally retarded by royal command. In 1707, the Portuguese viceroy closed a printing press in Rio and forbade others to be opened. The stifling of internal growth was matched by suspicion of foreigners, who were permitted to own property in the country only after rigorous scrutiny.

In part this was due to the fact that many of the region's explorations were carried out by boundary patrols and Jesuits whose superiors had ample economic and political reasons to keep information about the region quiet. Only in 1867, after much national and international pressure, did Dom Pedro II, emperor of Brazil, approve the law authorizing steam navigation in the Amazon. The newly independent state maintained a discreet silence about the region through the latter part of the nineteenth century, until the rubber boom and the demands of commerce with the world made such mystery impossible. Even today, great tracts of the Amazon are periodically designated as zones of national security, and entry without the government's permission denied.

With such silences came fantasies, of marvels unimaginable, of gold and diamonds, of political utopias, of Indians variously amenable or savage beyond belief. Early explorers, vastly outnumbered by the native inhabitants, viewed them as exotic and probably dangerous. As slavers began to penetrate the region, flotillas of natives increasingly menaced travel. Subsequent adventurers justified their slaving forays, proscribed by king and church, as the only possible recourse in the face of cannibalism. Here as elsewhere, the First World was projecting onto its victims the horrors it had itself engendered. The so-called tropas de resgate (rescue missions) plied through the far Amazon reaches raiding tribes and claiming that, as prisoners of other tribes, the Indians they seized faced certain death by cannibalism or other heathen forms of torment. As Portuguese slaves at least they would live, after a fashion, with the added benefit of receiving Christian salvation. The immense disruptions of native populations reflected the rampages of slavers on the Atlantic coast, slavers on the rivers, and missionaries everywhere. To avoid destruction, the indigenous people began to migrate through the neighboring territories, and intertribal warfare often ensued. The world the explorers called unfinished was above all a world becoming emptied of its original inhabitants, as imported diseases and social disruption prompted a demographic collapse unmatched in the history of the world. Some 200,000 Amazonian Indians remain today, as against the six to twelve million inhabitants of the Amazon in 1492. More than a third of the tribes extant in 1900 have passed from this earth.


The disordered world that so perturbed Herzog has been the one evoked by explorers for five hundred years. As they set their feet for the first time on the banks of the Napo River, or gazed on the pre-Cambrian rise of the Guiana Shield, they conceived they were seeing a world unfinished, only half minted from the hand of the Creator, a demi-Eden in which men could still be gods.

The early expeditions, whether military or religious, marched to the ends of the forests taking with them imperial naturalists and chroniclers to bring back documentation of a new world and to complete Adam's task of naming its plants and creatures. In 1535 the first natural history of the New World appeared. By Oviedo, it was a text on the natural and general histories of this new world. It was followed by similar scholarship, such as Acosta's treatise on the natural and moral history of the Indies. These relatively elevated works were nothing compared to the seamen's and slavers' tales. Even the Amazon female warriors and golden kings of the chroniclers were tame in comparison to the exotic creatures that inhabited wayfarers' lore.

In the wake of these reports came boats plying the rivers in search of slaves and the products of the great forests. The exploiting impulse was in part economic, to determine who would have the rights to the unfinished Eden, but it was mostly military. The European monarchs and ecclesiastical empires vied for a toehold in forests whose prospective riches would swell treasuries depleted by war. Plants used for drugs, for dyes (like indigo), for flavorings (like cacao and vanilla), medicinal plants like sarsaparilla, maritime provisions like turtle oil, and salted meat from wild game moved down the waterways, while missionaries and military men forged up them in search of unsaved souls, a labor supply, and uncharted lands.

The presumption that they were encountering natural chaos fired the ambitions of the invaders. That luxuriant and treacherous space was seen as 'the virgin soil which awaits the seed of civilization', as Baron de Santa-Anna Néry put it. Out of chaos could come order, mere space could come into the reach of human history and the realm of profit. Almost five hundred years later, construction magnates from São Paulo driving the Kalopálo Indians from their ancestral lands, or ranchers in northern Mato Grosso incinerating trees and species to create degraded pastures, similarly proposed that they were setting themselves the virtuous task of subduing raw, unprofitable nature in the cause of order and utility.


No sooner had the New World been discovered than the Old World began to fight over it. In 1493, Rodrigo Borgia, Pope Alexander VI, brokered an agreement between Portugal and Spain that the former take control of all territory west and the latter all territory east of the longitude running through the Cape Verde islands. A year later Castille-Aragon and Portugal signed the Treaty of Tordesillas in which the dividing line was moved 370 leagues to the west and the New World was formally claimed. The interest of the Portuguese was to keep the Spanish out of the south Atlantic, where their islands of Madeira and Cape Verde were important and productive sugar colonies and where, further east on the African littoral, they were positioned to control the market in gold, slaves and other extractive harvests. For their part, the Spaniards dreamed of mercantile bonanzas of oriental silks and spices, and a direct route to the East Indies by which they could circumvent the tightly controlled eastern Arab trade routes and the lock on Mediterranean trade maintained by the Venetians. Thus, a quarter of a century before Cortez and his conquistadores laid low the Aztec Empire, most of Brazil fell under formal control of the Portuguese, whose overriding imperative was to secure this vast space before someone else claimed it. And other claimants stood ready: the French, Dutch and Germans moved along the eastern coast and entered Amazônia via the Guianas, seeking a footing for trading outposts and possible colonies.

Thus was born the dream of Manifest Destiny: the Amazon as the venue for national aspiration. This dream has fired all the nations bordering the Amazon. Even as Pedro Teixeira roamed the headwaters of the Amazon in 1638, back in Belém his Governor, Geraldo Noronha, trembled in fear lest the Dutch or French attack the feeble Portuguese garrison. For their part, the Spanish viceroys of Quito and Lima, while greeting Teixeira with the pomp and graces appropriate to a conquistador, found his arrival in the upper Amazon profoundly disturbing, especially when he planted frontier markers in the name of Philip IV, 'King of Portugal'. Forts and missions sprang up in the confluences and important tributaries of the rivers, as invaders from Holland, Britain, France, Portugal, Spain, and the Holy Roman Empire scrambled to control the watersheds, and the precious medicines, woods, and slaves each would surrender. Rag-tag battalions of a handful of Europeans and their hundreds of captive Indian rowers, half-breeds and guides, played cat-and-mouse with each other in the hinterlands. Portuguese detachments coursed through the Amazon in an attempt to staunch the flow of northern European goods from the French, Dutch and the British, and to hamper the expansion of the meddlesome Spanish missionaries. Military topographers and engineers kept a firm eye on the flows of commerce and an open ear to the gossip from upstream.


Of all the myths pervading the history of the Amazon, El Dorado is the most hypnotic. In its original form it referred to a king with wealth so vast that each day he was anointed with precious resins to fix the gold dust decorating his body. The chronicler Oviedo recounts how the famous conquistador Pizarro who triumphed over the Inca, Quesada the conqueror of Colombia, and Sebastian Ben Alcazar the conqueror of Quito, not sated by such victories, all hankered for more gold and glory through the capture of the king and his possessions. In 1540, inflamed by this vision, Gonzalo Pizarro, brother of the conqueror of Peru, decided to launch an expedition with Francisco de Orellana to conquer the lands of El Dorado and the cinnamon forests. With four thousand Indians, two hundred horses, three thousand swine, and packs of hunting dogs trained to attack Indians, the expedition made its way laboriously through the tropical forests on the east side of the Andes. Hapless forest tribes encountering this army faced an inquisition. When they denied knowledge of the kingdom of El Dorado, they were promptly tortured as liars, burned on barbacoa, or thrown to the ravenous hounds. As the expedition descended the Coca watershed towards the Napo river, their provisions – and their Andean Indian bearers – gave out. Swimming the horses across streams became increasingly tiresome. Disheartened and starving, Pizarro ordered the construction of a raft, sending his second-in-command Orellana ahead to find food. Orellana and his fifty companions never returned. Instead they became the first white men to descend from the headwaters to the mouth of the Amazon. Incensed by the treachery of Orellana and frustrated in his attempts to seek out the kingdom of El Dorado, a furious Pizarro made his return to Quito.

Pizarro's was but the first of many attempts to capture this mythical kingdom and its resplendent ruler. The two became conflated as the story of El Dorado continued to fire the imagination, becoming more fabulous with each retelling. In 1774 an Indian described to the Spanish Governor, Don Miguel de Centurion, the features of the kingdom of El Dorado: 'a high hill, bare except for a little grass, its surface covered in every direction with cones and pyramids of gold ... so that when struck by the sun, its brilliance was such that it was impossible to gaze on it without dazzling the eyesight.' The myth of El Dorado also entered a more populist vein among the petty goldminers and less noble bandeirantes – rough-riders of Portuguese imperial expansion from the south, São Paulo. In seeking those magic mountains of emeralds and gold the luck of a poor man might change, and he could become master of the earth, beneficiary of a world unfinished, and therefore of a world in which such strokes of fortune were not absurd.

Both Portuguese and Spaniards were inspired by the entrancing stories of Orellana's chronicler, the Dominican monk Gaspar de Carvajal, who described the gold ornaments circling the wrists and waists of natives he had encountered. Tantalizing tales of inland Inca trading routes, where gold and silver were bartered cheerfully for iron, raised the hopes of the sons of the Portuguese Empire. The bandeirantes were no less interested than the rulers of the Grão Pará territory at the mouth of the Amazon.

By 1727 the Paulista bandeirantes, standard-bearers of the larger project of conquest, had discovered gold in the southern flanks of the Amazon. The region around Cuiabá, worked by black slave labor since the Indians nearby could not tolerate the toil and had either fled or died, saw river craft and mule trains arrive with jerky and manioc, then depart downriver, and on through savannah and forest, bearing their precious cargo. South from the Guianas, north from the Brazilian Shield, down from the Andes, and up from the river's mouth, rushed adventurers obsessed with these dreams of sudden wealth.

The bandeirantes were not only the archetypal frontiersmen, but also forerunners of the booty seekers who coursed across the region ever after, intent upon bringing undiscovered riches to light and untapped labor to heel (usually in the form of slaves), bestowing upon nature the first kiss of the mission civilisatrice. Sometimes financed by the state, such booty seekers were the scouts and pioneers of national integration. In a certain sense, the bandeirantes represented the coarse delirium of pioneering empire. The naturalists of the Enlightenment represented the first attempts to focus and direct the disordered exuberance of the pioneers, and here the hunt for El Dorado matured into its rational economic expression: development.


Excerpted from The Fate of the Forest by Susanna Hecht, Alexander Cockburn. Copyright © 1990 Susanna Hecht Alexander Cockburn. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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