In Search of the Rain Forest / Edition 1

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The essays collected here offer important new reflections on the multiple images of and rhetoric surrounding the rain forest. The slogan “Save the Rain Forest!”—emblazoned on glossy posters of tall trees wreathed in vines and studded with monkeys and parrots—promotes the popular image of a marvelously wild and vulnerable rain forest. Although representations like these have fueled laudable rescue efforts, in many ways they have done more harm than good, as these essays show. Such icons tend to conceal both the biological variety of rain forests and the diversity of their human inhabitants. They also frequently obscure the specific local and global interactions that are as much a part of today’s rain forests as are the array of plants and animals. In attending to these complexities, this volume focuses on specific portrayals of rain forests and the consequences of these characterizations for both forest inhabitants and outsiders.

From diverse disciplines—history, archaeology, sociology, literature, law, and cultural anthropology—the contributors provide case studies from Latin America, Asia, and Africa. They point the way toward a search for a rain forest that is both a natural entity and a social history, an inhabited place and a shifting set of ideas. The essayists demonstrate how the single image of a wild and yet fragile forest became fixed in the popular mind in the late twentieth century, thereby influencing the policies of corporations, environmental groups, and governments. Such simplistic conceptions, In Search of the Rain Forest shows, might lead companies to tout their “green” technologies even as they try to downplay the dissenting voices of native populations. Or they might cause a government to create a tiger reserve that displaces peaceful peasants while opening the doors to poachers and bandits. By encouraging a nuanced understanding of distinctive, constantly evolving forests with different social and natural histories, this volume provides an important impetus for protection efforts that take into account the rain forest in all of its complexity.

Contributors. Scott Fedick, Alex Greene, Paul Greenough, Nancy Peluso, Suzana Sawyer, Candace Slater, Charles Zerner

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

In Search of the Rain Forest dissects the multiple meanings and the iconography of tropical nature in a very interesting way. It moves ‘rain forest studies’ into the realm of cultural critique in a manner that serves important scholarly as well as consciousness-raising ends.”—Susanna B. Hecht, coauthor of The Fate of the Forest: Developers, Destroyers, and Defenders of the Amazon

“This is an immensely thought-provoking and entertaining book. It makes a compelling case for an approach to the rain forest that eschews environmental fundamentalism in favor of a rich and multilayered understanding of the social complexities of rain forest practice and representation.”—Raymond L. Bryant, author of The Political Ecology of Forestry in Burma, 1824–1994

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780822332183
  • Publisher: Duke University Press Books
  • Publication date: 12/1/2003
  • Series: New Ecologies for the Twenty-First Century Series
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 328
  • Product dimensions: 5.90 (w) x 8.90 (h) x 0.80 (d)

Meet the Author

Candace Slater is Marian E. Koshland Distinguished Professor in the Humanities at the University of California, Berkeley. Among her books are Entangled Edens: Visions of the Amazon and Dance of the Dolphin: Transformation and Disenchantment in the Amazonian Imagination.

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Read an Excerpt

In the search of the rain forest

By Candace Slater

Duke University Press

ISBN: 0-8223-3218-3

Chapter One


"Save the Rain Forest!" Who hasn't seen these words emblazoned on a glossy poster of tall trees studded with monkeys and parrots and wreathed with majestic vines? The emerald allure of such calls to action is hard to resist. And yet, at the same time that these sorts of powerful slogans have fueled laudable rescue attempts, they have often done as much harm as good. A genuine source of inspiration, the idea of a single fragile forest has nonetheless tended to conceal the full biological variety of rain forests as well as the diversity of their human inhabitants. These same sorts of universalizing slogans have also obscured the specific local, global, and intranational interactions that are as much a part of today's rain forests as are their dazzling wealth of plants and animals.

The following pages lay out the search for a Rain Forest that is both a natural entity and a social history, an inhabited place and a shifting set of ideas (the capital letters indicate this overarching entity). Our goal is to contribute to the growing field of environmental discourse studies-how nature gets talked about by whom and to what ends-by focusing on particular portrayals of rain forests and their consequences for forest inhabitants as well as outsiders. In Search of the Rain Forest underscores the rich and varied-if oftencontentious-human presence that includes not just the easy-to-romanticize native populations who have shaped the land over millennia (solitary Indians, doe-eyed hunter-gatherers) but also all of the varied groups-miners, missionaries, tour operators, agro-industrialists, and small-time farmers-who live and work in forest areas today.

While our humanities and social science backgrounds led the seven authors of this book to stress the crucial role of rain forest representations in such apparently straightforward problems as biopiracy and the defense of endangered species, our firsthand work in separate forests has made us well aware of their distinct, material features. The notion that these forests could be totally imagined spaces strikes us as no more productive than the idea that "real" forests could be wholly divorced from human conceptions of what such forests ought to be.

In one sense, our quest for the rain forest is nothing new. Humid, canopied forests rich in diverse life-forms have existed for millennia, and outsiders' concern for and fascination with a tropical nature variously described as "jungle," "wilderness," or simply "forest" goes back for centuries. However, today's "rain forest" has different connotations from those surrounding forests of the past. A translation of the German word Regenwald, "rain forest" began to find its way into botanical treatises at the end of the nineteenth century. It then entered popular usage with the emergence of the global environmental movement in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Bountiful, biodiverse, and yet supremely fragile, this rain forest of the popular imagination is light-years from the hostile jungle of news reports and adventure movies with which it continues to coexist. Increasingly tropical, it is at once antithesis and direct extension of the temperate zone that is so concerned with its preservation.

To the extent that our title echoes a long line of travel adventure books and romances (In Search of the Lost Lagoon, In Search of Captain Zero, In Search of Dot.Calm, and so forth), it is decidedly tongue-in-cheek. Today, even schoolchildren can locate the green expanse of the Amazon, Pacific Northwest, or equatorial Africa on a map of the world. And yet, even though no one has to look too hard for present-day rain forests, the conceptual roots along with the symbolic and political dimensions of the threatened forest that inspires impassioned calls to action are far harder to pinpoint. For this reason, they demand a new sort of pursuit.

In focusing on the role and suggesting the practical effects of specific rain forest depictions in these interactions, the book raises a number of essential questions. When, for instance, we join in the cry to "Save the Rain Forest," what exactly are we trying to save? Why do we want to save it? From whom? And for whom? Because overly simplistic images mask the rich variety of real rain forests and the competing interests inevitably at play within them, our quest for answers to these fundamental questions begins in every case with these portrayals.


The author of In Search of the Rain Forest are seven academics from six different U.S. institutions who came together at the University of California's Humanities Research Institute in Irvine during the first half of 2000 for six months of collaborative writing and reflection on rain forest images and their consequences. We represent a half-dozen different disciplines: literature (Candace Slater), cultural anthropology (Suzana Sawyer and Alex Greene), archaeology (Scott Fedick), history (Paul Greenough), sociology (Nancy Lee Peluso), and law (Charles Zerner).

Conservation biologists Jack Putz and Claudia Romero joined us for an intensive three-week discussion of present perspectives on rain forests within the natural sciences. Because conservation biology and systematics, landscape ecology, ethnobiology, and biogeography still dominate the knowledge and policy field when it comes to rain forests, we were particularly interested in their views on current perceptions of rain forests and scientists' shifting ideas about their own role as researchers within specific forest settings.

David Baron, National Public Radio science correspondent, also spent a week with us in extended conversations about how best to present our ideas to a public made up of both specialists and more general readers including graduate and undergraduate students. We had already made the decision to make the essays as accessible as possible, but David pushed us harder. His insistence that we could draw in more general readers without sacrificing scholarly rigor encouraged us to try to write in unaccustomed ways.

Although all seven of us do fieldwork in tropical forest areas, our research sites range from the Amazon to the Yucatan Peninsula to India and Borneo. Because each of us came to Irvine already engaged in a separate writing project, our immediate subject matter-which includes tiger reserves in India, virus-producing jungles in Africa, hybrid healing traditions in Belize, and the figure of the Borneo headhunter-is notably diverse.

These real differences in interests and methods made our conversations an ongoing challenge. The struggle to find a common language with which to address the mingled practical, material, and symbolic dimensions of rain forests not only permitted but regularly forced us to question assumptions that we had come to take for granted. How could one explain the diverse trajectories of the word "jungle" in Africa, India, and the Americas? Why were depictions of forest peoples different in Borneo and Brazil? Likewise, we did not always agree on whether the iconic forest hurt or harmed rain forest peoples, in part because different rain forest peoples had been affected by, and had themselves employed, these icons in diverse ways. We also had different ideas about the present status of particular rain forest representations as well as their relation to specific forest settings.

At the same time, our colleagues' firsthand knowledge of different rain forests helped make these places immediate to us in ways that they had not been before. Recordings of Dayak storytellers in Borneo or snapshots of Maya ruins amid tall trees in Belize and Mexico made those of us who worked in other places reflect in new ways on forests we had known exclusively through books. Similarly, one person's familiarity with, say, the present plight of tigers in India would push us to rethink the place of jaguars or alligators in the Amazon-or cougars in a distinctly nontropical American West.

A series of informal exchanges extended and enriched the more formal conversations that took place around the seminar table at HRI all day every Tuesday. Our visits to state parks, botanical gardens, movie theaters, and the local Rain Forest Cafe also served as preparation for a longer exploratory mission. Instead of bringing speakers to Irvine with the research monies available to us, the seven of us decided early on to visit and interrogate an actual tropical forest.

We had no illusions about the limited amount we could learn on a short trip to an unfamiliar place. Nonetheless, we hoped that the encounter with a forest both like and unlike our own research settings would help us better see the latter's particularities. We also thought that the shared experience of being specialists momentarily thrust into the role of (admittedly self-conscious) tourists would give us much to reflect on. Our forest of choice turned out to be the central Yucatan Peninsula-an area that while clearly not dense-canopied rain forest, is increasingly billed as such by both the international tourist industry and a number of environmental groups. As the site of an intense spatial, political, and cultural reconfiguration brought on by tourism, ecotourism, and wide-scale development, the Yucatan struck us as a prime example of a twenty-first-century ecology.

Only archaeologist Scott Fedick focuses his essay on the Yucatan where he has been working for ten years. The rest of our pieces make only passing reference to the trip. However, as we had hoped, the months of planning for the intensive ten days that we spent together in Mexico, and our many subsequent discussions of the experience, had an impact on our thinking about our own areas of expertise. By making vividly apparent the larger questions that had initially brought each of us to Irvine, the trip furnished a number of the examples that appear in this introduction and provided our individual chapters with a unifying thread. Though our voices and approaches diver, we all speak of the uses and transformations of key symbols by particular groups. For this reason, In Search of the Rain Forest is both a series of essays on diverse forests and the record of a hard-won, genuinely collective quest.


Among the themes that reappear throughout this book is that of the rain forest as a series of "icons" and "spectacles." By no means original to us, these terms nonetheless acquired new and often quite particular meanings in our discussions of different rain forests. Above all, they helped us to describe and compare larger struggles for control over forest peoples and resources.

Both terms with long histories reflecting diverent scholarly traditions, "icon" and "spectacle" have multiple, sometimes competing meanings. The word "icon" has had a special resonance for art historians, scholars of linguistics, and communications theorists. It is especially important to semioticians, who continue to look to writers such as Roland Barthes and Umberto Eco for cues. Philosophers in particular have been quick to affirm icons' primacy or "firstness" in the communication of otherwise inexpressible ideas.

Logicians' concern for the relationship between readily identifiable icons and the more abstract conceptions that they embody contrasts with social theorists' interest in icons as key elements in the struggle for political power. Not infrequently, these theorists have treated iconic entities as embodiments of the contradictions of contemporary consumer societies.

Some theorists see iconic entities as fueling spectacles that function as pseudoworlds or negative inversions of lived experience (the impassioned celebration of untrammeled nature by apartment dwellers, for instance). Others speak of the "image events" (spray painting baby seals to destroy their fur's commercial value) that environmentalist groups use to sway public opinion. A growing number of political ecologists see battles for material resources as symbolic tugs-of-war in which one side's ability to appear as nature's true defender is often as vital as access to physical force.

"Icons" in the sense in which we use this term are, above all, vivid simplifications that stand in for a far more complex set of places and people, and the ways they interact. These icons inevitably have unspoken implications or "iconic shadows." (If green people are the best in the world, then orange, gray, or purple people are necessarily inferior.)

"Spectacles," in turn, are icons in motion. Multilayered performances that surround attempts to create and control particular representations of nature, spectacles employ simultaneously enacted, often competing narratives that we call "bioscripts." While the meanings of all these terms will become clearer as the book progresses, their usefulness in approaching a wide range of rain forest situations makes it appropriate to introduce them here.


Although iconic simplification can occur in many different contexts, the icons that concern us here are all stylizations of particular aspects of tropical nature, including forest peoples. The jade green forest full of monkeys and parrots that crops up on calendars, ice cream cartons, and the glossy covers of reports on corporate rain forest operations is one of the most common. Among the various other familiar depictions that appear in the following pages are the virgin forest that demands protection, the foreboding jungle forest that is home to wild beasts and dread diseases, the wild forest that alternately shrinks from or actively embraces violent humans, and the forest library rich in both commodities and encoded knowledge.

Simplifications such as the jade green forest resemble computer icons in their concrete quality (such as the hard-to-mistake postal carrier symbol for e-mail). Even though the forest suggests a whole range of larger and more abstract ideas-the purity of nonhuman nature or moral ambiguity of nontemperate places and peoples, for instance-it gives the appearance of something immediate and real. Deeply grounded in particular places with unique histories, these ideas of purity and moral ambiguity find expression in readily recognizable, easy-to-replicate images of exotic animals and lush vegetation. This grounded quality sets apart the icons and ideas we discuss here from more diffuse concepts such as truth, knowledge, or even biodiversity.

Iconic simplifications also resemble computer icons in their ability to create a conceptual link among potentially disparate entities by representing them as members of a common domain ("My Documents" or "Business Letters"). Much as the stylized file folder provides access to electronic documents that are apt to be diverse in length, style, and content, so the iconic forest serves as a convenient umbrella for tropical expanses that under scrutiny, reveal a myriad of dissimilarities. In both cases, the icon permits entry to a larger universe, which it also helps define.

And yet, if the iconic simplifications of which we speak resemble the shortcuts on today's computers, they also include something of the force of a gilt-encrusted religious icon. The rain forest is not just an abbreviation; it is a concentrated form of a nature in which very different peoples have long perceived religious meanings and which often acquires the force of the sacred in an increasingly secular world.

Every icon presupposes the existence of an iconic shadow-the logical extension or necessary flip side of ideas and qualities on which the icon dwells. I have already offered the example of how proclamations of one people's superiority contains within it an implicit judgment of their peers. In much the same way, the iconic shadow of the idyllic forest crammed with exotic plants and animals is the all-too-familiar urban jungle, whose polluted character presents a striking contrast to the purity of nonhuman nature. Conversely, the logical extension of the dark, wild, and disease-ridden forest is the light-filled world of civilization that it threatens to eclipse. While the iconic shadow of the ecologically harmonious past is an environmentally destructive present, the bright future promised by development conjures up a far dimmer past.


Excerpted from In the search of the rain forest by Candace Slater Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

About the series
In search of the rain forest 3
Fire in El Dorado, or images of tropical nature and their practical effects 41
Subterranean techniques : corporate environmentalism, oil operations, and social injustice in the Ecuadorian rain forest 69
The voice of Ix Chel : fashioning Maya tradition in the Belizean rain forest 101
In search of the Maya forest 133
Bio-ironies of the fractured forest : India's tiger reserves 167
Weapons of the wild : strategic uses of violence and wildness in the rain forests of Indonesian Borneo 204
The viral forest in motion : ebola, African forests, and emerging cartographies of environmental danger 246
Afterword : the ongoing search 285
Contributors 305
Index 309
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