The nature of Nature

NOV amazon searchIn Search of the Amazon: Brazil, the United States, and the Nature of a Region
Seth Garfield
2014, Duke University Press
343 pages, plates, paperback


ENVIRONMENTAL history remains nascent when it comes to regions such as Latin America – a product both of the relative novelty of global sensitivities to the environmental theme and the emergence of discourses on sustainability that are only now still penetrating political culture, but also of the lack of scholastic momentum behind this topic.

That is clearly changing, however, not least because of the gowing number of titles taking as their point of the departure the construction of “nature” in history that is a peculiar byproduct of what Seth Garfield describes as the “nature-culture divide grounding Western ontologies”.

In some ways that may give environmental history advantages that more “traditional” history has not enjoyed – its point of departure from the outset being that discursive approach that can be so valuable if applied using the kind of incisive and cross-disciplinary rigour with which Garfield has proceeded. Indeed, the Amazon as a sub-region lends itself particularly well to this method, given how it has been understood and reinvented since the arrival of the Portuguese as a realm upon which so many non-Amazonian narratives have been built.

Indeed, the “Amazon” is an idea as much as it is real flora and fauna, and that idea is constantly in motion, determined by the social struggles both within and outside this fascinating landscape. The author writes:

“Amid the so-called nature-culture divide grounding Western ontologies, the Amazon’s academic banishment to the former realm has further deterred, or detoured, historiographical exploration. It is not for nothing that the natural sciences and the social sciences – particularly geography and anthropology, with their disciplinary origins in the colonialist study of the ‘organic’ rootedeness and ‘primitive’ mores of rural populations – have long claimed, and given rise to, the study of the Amazon.” [pp. 4–5]

The focus of Garfield’s work is the Amazon during the second world war which – because of the US need for rubber after the loss of its Asian markets – was a period of intense activity in the sub-region. The US pumped investment into the area to revive the rubber trade while Brazil itself began to launch programmes to undertake its tranformation into a developmental hub. A key outcome of this focus was to put in place the building blocks of subsequent ideological perspectives on this vast area, whose “nature” would thereafter be the linchpin for all subsequent struggles over resources and power.

Nowhere has this been more so than since the early 1990s, when the Amazon as an idea has been globalised through its symbolically loaded role in debates about environmental change and the imperative of sustainability. As the author writes, transformations in the Amazon during Brazilian military rule from 1964–85 and its aftermath – and in particular deforestation, as a form of shorthand for the complex mosaic of changes in the region’s flora as a result of human activity, and the consequent changes to social relations – collided with the popularization of the environmental movement in the northern and southern hemispheres, pushing public policies and local conflicts in the region to transnational fields.

The meanings that have subsequently been projected on to the Amazon both from outside but also within Brazil and locally to the region, speak loudly about how nature can be a conceptual device and ideological haven for political elites or indeed entire societies confused about their own destructive legacy. Garfield asks:

“But does concern with the Amazon in the Northern Hemisphere not also build upon an old tendency of its residents to view tropical landscapes as wilder, purer, and demographically emptier than their temperate counterparts? Is the very denomination of ‘deforestation’as shorthand for the multifaceted socioenvironmental changes in the Amazon that have been prompted by massive land enclosures revealing of Western hallowing of trees – whose size, ‘prehistoric’ origins, and self-generating energy embody the dignity and transcendence that the romantic tradition cherishes in nature? Or the affirmation of life in death-denying, industrial cultures?” [p. 219]

In short, the writer points out, the Amazon encompasses both distinct tropical ecosystsms but also fundamental debates about the meanings of modernity. It is a sub-region as abundant in its contribution to the human imaginary as it is in its biodiversity.