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The Amazon is not what it seems. As Hugh Raffles shows us in this captivating and innovative book, the world's last great wilderness has been transformed again and again by human activity. In Amazonia brings to life an Amazon whose allure and reality lie as much, or more, in what people have made of it as in what nature has wrought. It casts new light on centuries of encounter while describing the dramatic remaking of a sweeping landscape by residents of one small community in the Brazilian Amazon. Combining richly textured ethnographic research and lively historical analysis, Raffles weaves a fascinating story that changes our understanding of this region and challenges us to rethink what we mean by "nature."
Raffles draws from a wide range of material to demonstrate--in contrast to the tendency to downplay human agency in the Amazon--that the region is an outcome of the intimately intertwined histories of humans and nonhumans. He moves between a detailed narrative that analyzes the production of scientific knowledge about Amazonia over the centuries and an absorbing account of the extraordinary transformations to the fluvial landscape carried out over the past forty years by the inhabitants of Igarapé Guariba, four hours downstream from the nearest city.
Engagingly written, theoretically inventive, and vividly illustrated, the book introduces a diverse range of characters--from sixteenth-century explorers and their native rivals to nineteenth-century naturalists and contemporary ecologists, logging company executives, and river-traders. A natural history of a different kind, In Amazonia shows how humans, animals, rivers, and forests all participate in the making of a region that remains today at the center of debates in environmental politics.
Honorable Mention for the 2004 Sharon Stephens First Book Prize, American Ethnological Society
One of Choice's Outstanding Academic Titles for 2003
"A new classic of the Amazon. . . . In a sweeping panorama of the history of the Amazon . . . Raffles impresses with his enormous scholarship and lyrical language. . . . [T]he range of Raffles's knowledge is exquisitely broad. What we thought we knew of the Amazon and the reasons for its devastation will forever be changed by this rapturous soliloquy on the region."--Choice
"[It draws] upon a range of literature not typical of Amazonian studies. Specialists and general readers will appreciate the scope."--Stephen Nugent, Journal of Latin American Studies
"A central challenge in studies of the Amazon region is apprehending its social and natural diversity. This book is amongst the most readable and penetrating analyses we have. . . . The tension between being in a place and always on the move, between dissolution and creation, are ambiguities this book manages to capture with deftness and subtlety. It would have been enough to write about this in one locality, but to have done so connecting up various places and people, and across time transforms the argument into a major achievement."--Mark Harris, Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute
Dreams of Avarice—My Heart Goes Bump!—Landscape as Text ... and as Biography—Igarapé Guariba—Another Discovery—Environmental Determinisms and Narrative Acrobatics—Spaces of Nature—A Natural History—Collecting and Reflecting—Traces of Trauma—Sawdust Memories
Let's begin in 1976. It was late summer that year when a crew from the Companhia de Pesquisas e Recursos Minerais, the geological survey of the Brazilian Ministry of Mines, shot this infrared aerial photograph of the Rio Guariba, by then almost a river. They didn't find what they were looking for, at least not here, although there was plenty of gold and magnesium close by. But their image is worth treasuring anyway. Its tactility holds this book in place—exactly where it should be.
It was a famously hot summer in London. I was working in a gray stone warehouse in the East End docks, loading and unloading delivery trucks and stacking crates of beer and wine in tall towers on wooden pallets. That building is still standing, but like most of the warehouses down there it's been transformed: gutted, scrubbed, and converted into luxury condominiums. Back then, every Thursday, all the workers—transients like myself and those hoping for the long haul—formed a snaking line up a narrow, deeply shadowed stairwell to a battered doorway on the top-floor landing. Every week, as the person ahead exited, I would knock on the closing door, enter the cramped office, and say my name to the company accountant seated behind a desk piled high with tumbling stacks of papers. And every Thursday, with the same motions and with the same half-smile, the accountant would calculate my wages, shuffle the money into a new brown envelope, and, as if to himself, repeat the same unsettling phrase: "Beyond the dreams of avarice...."
That same summer, an ocean away, in a world of which I still knew nothing, the Brazilian dictatorship was chasing avaricious dreams of its own. Late in 1976, as I grappled with an irony beyond my sensibility, the generals were forcing convulsive inroads into their northern provinces, brushing aside Indian, peasant, and guerrilla resistance, creating fortunes, chaos, and despair. It was an aggressive territorialization, one that would radically change the dynamics and logic of regional politics and produce an unforeseen geopolitical re-siting that the military and their civilian successors have ever since struggled to disavow, a now-familiar ecological Amazonia subject to planetary discourses of common governance.
Meanwhile, between the contours of the military maps, people were making new worlds of their own. The survey image does not lie. Though we cannot see it yet, that river is growing, and in growing it transforms the lives that transform it. And the water that flowed past as I piled boxes by the Thames at Wapping Stairs where Jeffreys the Hanging Judge once attempted flight disguised as a sailor, that lapping water on which Ralegh was finally captured, his pockets stuffed with talismans of Guiana, and on which young Bates and Wallace, heading to Kew in 1848, talked of tropical travels soon to come, that murky water is the same rushing tide that washes in and out, a monstrous pump, sweeping the land out to sea and remaking this place I have called Igarapé Guariba.
I arrived in Igarapé Guariba in 1994 looking for oral histories. I was in the northern Brazilian state of Amapá and was captured by the landscape, its blatant physicality and its enduring imaginaries. It was especially thrilling to be in an airplane here on a cloudless flight and to be held by that iconic view of dense and boundless forest veined by sharply golden rivers, by a long-anticipated panorama that was already part of my experience well before I saw it for myself.
On the ground, of course, although the consciousness of vista never really dissolves, it all looks different—a matter of ethnography and the practice of history, and a rationale for this book. There is a passage in Walter Benjamin's One-Way Street about this, written in an age when commercial air travel was still exotic, a meditation on embodied experience, on the perspectival dislocations of new technologies and the traditions of Judaic scholarship. Benjamin, alive to the materialities of practice and to the liveliness of objects, compares the difference between passing over and walking through a landscape to the difference between reading a text and copying it. But it is the first term of his analogy that catches my attention:
The power of a country road is different when one is walking along it from when one is flying over it by airplane.... The airplane passenger sees only how the road pushes through the landscape, how it unfolds according to the same laws as the terrain surrounding it. Only he who walks the road on foot learns of the power it commands, and, of how, from the very scenery that for the flier is only the unfurled plain, it calls forth distances, belvederes, clearings, prospects at each of its turns like a commander deploying soldiers at a front.
Benjamin draws his European landscape with a mind's eye trained on the darkening horizon that presages his own suicide. His country road leads inexorably to 1940 and his death at the Franco-Spanish border. And the mood of detachment affected by his passenger is also of a time and place. When the clouds part unexpectedly to reveal a glimpse of the deep green forests of Pará receding to a haze, my heart goes bump—just like that!—and a visual lexicon I hardly knew I possessed takes over. Laid out below is the Amazon as seen in a thousand picture spreads, an entity already grasped whole, a planetary patrimony, about which I have no sense of what I bring and what I find.
In Igarapé Guariba, I asked people about where they lived—the rivers, trees, and mudflats, the fishes, birds, and mammals—searching for signs of the potent environmental Amazon of contemporary imagination. In answer, as conversation turned to the past, their memories called up another place situated right here in this same geographical location but unmistakably different, another place entirely; a place distinct not only in its sociality but also in its physical characteristics. Slowly, through the months of talking, a biographical landscape, at once material and fantastic, one born from the politics of history and molded out of everyday life, began to take shape.
When the four founding families of Igarapé Guariba sailed across the endless expanse of the Amazon delta in the late 1950s, passing between islands and hugging the shore, they found only a stream running out of the forest to meet their boats and announce their new home. The water from which the community took its name was, as Pedro Preto put it, a "besteira," a joke, a silly little thing. A creek not a river, an igarapé not a rio, it must have been no more than a mile long, narrowing from about 50 yards where it met the open sea of the Amazonas to less than 20 yards at its headwaters in the rocks of a shallow waterfall.
They were soon followed by Raimundo Viega, the owner of forest and savanna that stretched between three rivers and the boss for whom they had crossed the estuary from the islands of Afuá. Raimundo built a sawmill, and he hired men in Macapá, the state capital, to come out and work it for him. The settlers, meanwhile, collected timber and seeds and they planted fields of banana and watermelon. And they sold it all to Raimundo, always the Old Man, in his white-painted store on the bluff at the mouth of the stream.
Igarapé Guariba was a beautiful place, with a magical abundance of wildlife and trees. In that twinkling time, the fish found their own way into your nets. But how could it last? Soon any wood worth cutting was gone. The closest now was in the distant forest lining the horizon above the waterfall, the same area returning hunters reported rich with game and forest fish, and with truly fertile bottomlands. To get there meant pushing and dragging a canoe for hour after hour, opening the heavy curtain of tall papyrus grass that closed behind as you went forward, camping upstream for weeks on end.
It was Raimundo Viega who ordered the streams cut and the channels dug. It was Pedro Preto, Benedito Macedo, and the others who pushed themselves day after day, summer after summer, and year after year through the fields and swamps, hacking and digging, opening waterways, engineering what would turn out to be a whole new world.
Using canoes and motorboats to navigate Igarapé Guariba, traveling this impressive and mercurial river along which the village straggles, emerging on the broad, often choppy lake into which its waters empty, following the disorienting tracery of channels and creeks that vanish into the upstream forest, it was impossible for me to believe this landscape had existed for less than thirty-five years. It was so massive. So perfect in its limpid beauty. So complete in its deep surfaces and crowded banks. So resonant in its towering buriti palms, its lazy flocks of pure white egrets. So deeply green and forested. So natural.
Yet, time and again people told the same story: when we arrived, there was just a little stream, so shallow children could wade its mouth. It ended at a waterfall. Beyond, there were only fields. Then we cut the channels. Now look at it!
Such a simple story. But astonishing nonetheless. There had been no warning of this in the scholarly or popular literature. The accounts of manipulations of rivers and streams in Amazonia were scattered, minor, and largely unknown. I wouldn't find them until I returned to the United States and dedicated myself to the task. It was not just that nothing of such a scale had previously been reported: the idea that the rivers and streams of the region were subject to systematic human manipulation had never been seriously entertained. Here was something new. Yet the story presented an awkward irony, and telling it placed me in the very tradition of European discovery I had intended to challenge. For, in many places, despite the drama of their scale and emotional resonance, these streams would be fairly unremarkable. But because they were made in Amazonia, they have a special status. In Amazonia, they immediately run up against sedimented histories of a primal nature, histories that have circulated and multiplied ever since Europeans first came here in the sixteenth century, situated their geographical imaginations, and returned home with wide-eyed accounts of their adventures. In Amazonia, visitors have struggled to locate new experiences on old intellectual maps, returning again and again to discover the region, as if for the very first time.
From those initial early modern accounts, European travelers offered northern South America as a place of excessive nature, and they began to imagine a region in which lives were dictated by the rhythms and exigencies of their surroundings, and where emotions, moralities, and technologies were subject to a natural logic. It was a region where social conditions could be explained according to a fiercely hierarchical notion of the relation between people and their landscapes, a notion that became more stable as the distinction between culture and nature secured its footing in European thought.
By the time nineteenth-century naturalists found their way across the Atlantic, they were able to interpret what they saw as social stagnation and agricultural backwardness in terms of the indolence-inducing effect on race of an over-fecund nature, of the corruptions of a land where the fruit falls ripe from the tree. More than 100 years later, by the middle of the twentieth century, archaeologists, anthropologists, and natural scientists were describing the apparently identical social effects of an environment that they saw as having the opposite characteristics: a harsh setting of nutrient-poor soils and inadequate protein. For Victorian explorer-scientists, Amazonians were seduced into decadence by the ease of the tropical life; for post–World War II cultural ecologists, the harshness of the tropics imprisoned Amazonians in the primitive. It is no accident then that the transfigured landscapes of Igarapé Guariba and others like them have only recently begun to appear in accounts of Amazonian realities. It is no surprise either that their history is so hard to fully comprehend. We are entering a space of nature: nature pristine, nature overwhelming, nature violated and in danger.
A Natural History
But neither Amazonia nor its nature is so easily contained. The natures I describe in this book are dynamic and heterogeneous, formed again and again from presences that are cultural, historical, biological, geographical, political, physical, aesthetic, and social. They are natures deep within everyday life: affect-saturated affinities, unreliable and wary intimacies.
It is difficult to write densely constituted worlds filled with things that can, without naïveté or reductionism, be termed nature. Such nature calls for a natural history, an articulation of natures and histories that works across and against spatial and temporal scale to bring people, places, and the non-human into "our space" of the present. This is less a history of nature than a way of writing the present as a condensation of multiple natures and their differences. And such natures, it should be clear, resist abstraction from the worlds in which they participate.
As the foregoing suggests, I am caught up in the reworking of scale through attention to the entanglements of time, space, and nature in particular sites. This is all about the specificities of Amazonia—its regions, localities, and places—and the ways these spatial moments come into being and continue being made at the meeting points of history, representation, and material practice. At the same time, I am preoccupied by a range of questions in the politics of nature that draw me to explore the fullness and multiplicity of nature as a domain marked both by an active and irreducible materiality and by a similarly irreducible discursivity—a domain with complex agency. In addition, this is a book of intimacies, an account of the differential relationships of affective and often physical proximity between humans, and between humans and non-humans. Such "tense and tender ties" are themselves the sites and occasions for the condensations I examine here. Indeed, they are the constitutive matter of these locations. And, in the intimacies of memory and on-the-ground complicities and yearnings, affective relations encompass the work of fieldwork and writing, making this book an extended reflection on the ethnographic.
I have grounded this study in the practices through which particular categories and subjects (Amazonia and Amazonian nature) are formed and enacted, and I have drawn from four broad sets of sources. From the sixteenth-century nature experienced by Sir Walter Ralegh (Chapter 4), I take the logic of embodied intimacy, the unstable engagement with a world of correspondences, and a resistance to classificatory hierarchy. From Henry Walter Bates and the natural historical explorations of the mid-nineteenth century (Chapter 5), I hold onto a dialogic, vernacular nature that encompasses multiple local knowledges, and I rediscover the politics and agency of even the humblest of animals, the insects, alive and dead. Paul, Ana, Moacyr, and the forest ecology research team at Fazendinha (Chapter 6) show me that nothing stands still in a forest, that trees and people create each other, that the histories produced in nature are biographical, unpredictable, and deeply affective, and that, as a location for modern managerial science—for a traveling governance—nature is extraordinarily generative. From the people of Igarapé Guariba and elsewhere in the region (Chapters 2, 3, and 7), I learn that nature is always in the being-made, that it is indissoluble from place, that it is multiply interpellated in active and vital politics, that its brute materiality cannot be denied, and that it resides in people as fully as people reside in it. Out of all this I have written a natural history grounded in micropolitics and power, one that I offer as a supplement to contemporary interventions in Amazonia—those of the social sciences, the natural sciences, and of "development"—interventions that too often segregate and diminish both the natural and the social.
Excerpted from In Amazonia by Hugh Raffles. Copyright © 2002 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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