The Scramble for the Amazon and the Lost Paradise of Euclides da Cunha by Susanna B. Hecht

The interwoven tale of the fight over rubber and a visionary surveyor captivates Robert Mayhew

June 6, 2013

Why read some 600 pages dedicated to Euclides da Cunha, a Brazilian surveyor of whom you have never heard? Although this sounds like a tough question, Susanna Hecht fortunately has all the answers in a brilliant book that grips the imagination and the intellect in equal measure. Those answers can be arrayed under four headings.

First, da Cunha’s life as retold by Hecht reads like a real-life venture into the magical realism of Gabriel García Márquez. Born in provincial obscurity, a sickly but brilliant child, da Cunha would rise via military training to join the ranks of the Brazilian elite as it forged a national identity in the closing decades of the 19th century. And yet, despite marrying into that elite, da Cunha would eschew many of its European values, coming to see in the cultures of northeast Brazil and then in the western depths of Amazonia the true Brazil of the future. Here was an indigenous, hybrid culture of tough resilience and adaptation to the tropical conditions that gave European imperialists fits (literally and metaphorically).

Da Cunha encoded this message in his first masterpiece, Os Sertões (Rebellion in the Backlands), a 1902 work that led to his literary lionisation. And being feted for his prose skills led seamlessly, in da Cunha’s career, to political elevation under the cultivated tutelage of José Maria da Silva Paranhos, the Baron of Rio Branco, “the most skilled diplomat in Brazil’s history”. In 1904, the Baron sent da Cunha to survey the Purús River in Amazonia. It was a task that should have set the seal on his reputation, bringing together as it did his skills as a surveyor, his nationalist vision and his literary brilliance as he projected an Amazonian magnum opus, Um Paraíso Perdido (Lost Paradise). Instead, the Purús venture became a Heart of Darkness-esque experience and Lost Paradise got no further forward than a few fragments as, with tragic inevitability, da Cunha’s turbulent personal life came to destroy him. For in his absence, da Cunha’s wife Ana Emília began a passionate affair that would lead to his death in 1909 at the hands of her lover. Da Cunha’s son sought to avenge him seven years later, only to be shot by the same hand.

For da Cunha’s life and work were inextricably interlinked with the period in which the Brazilian monopoly over the production of rubber and latex led the global economy to descend on the remotest extremities of Amazonia

And yet da Cunha’s life, fascinating as it is, is not Hecht’s core concern: the focus is on “rubber realism”, not magical realism. The second achievement of the book, then, is to narrate a neglected moment in economic, environmental and political history, the “scramble for the Amazon”. For da Cunha’s life and work were inextricably interlinked with the period in which the Brazilian monopoly over the production of rubber and latex led the global economy to descend on the remotest extremities of Amazonia in search of one of the most valuable products on the planet, an “elastic gold” that drove, connected and stretched the Industrial Revolution.

Da Cunha was not sent up the Purús merely to fill in a blank on the map for its own sake, but to stake a claim to the territories of its basin against the rival interests of Peru and against the gunboat-diplomatic incursions of the Americans and the British. And to build Brazil’s claim, he mapped the area, showing it to be a dense tangle of local settlements of predominantly Brazilian indigenes and creoles, not the empty luxuriance of natural tropical abundance that Europeans such as Alexander von Humboldt imagined. He also gave the area a history, showing that the dense habitational tangle revealed by his surveys was the outcome of centuries of treaties and piecemeal settlements. As da Cunha’s employer, the Baron, put matters in an earlier diplomatic context, surveys and historical analysis were at the heart of the “savage tournament of historical geography” that was the scramble for territorial sovereignty, quite as much in South America as in the more celebrated contemporary wranglings in Africa and Europe.

His geographical joustings were successful: in a twist of timing typical of his remarkable life, some three weeks after he was shot, the boundary commission for Peru and Brazil adjudicated on his work, carving the modern map of Amazonia and making that area become something that had by no means been inevitable when he set out in 1904, a space almost synonymous with Brazil.

The third reason the book is such a success rests with its author. Hecht writes not only with extraordinary historical assurance about her remarkably complex subject, but also with great passion and literary elegance. The book is, like da Cunha’s own work, the product of years of mediation, and brings together Hecht’s political-ecological research on and in Amazonia with a lot of archival spadework. There is also elegance of characterisation: not all academic authors would dare to describe their subject as having “the lambent eyes of a nocturnal animal”. Hecht does, she is right and the reader is grateful for her authorial courage. At times, the book can feel a little self-indulgent and in need of pruning as one wades through dozens of pages about the treaties that carved up Amazonia centuries before da Cunha ventured into the forest or as one traverses chapters composed entirely of translations of da Cunha’s own words; and yet by the end the reader recognises that herein lies one of the strengths of the book. Da Cunha’s remarkable fusion of the scholarly and the literary with all its acuity and also its eccentricities is matched by Hecht’s; style mirrors subject.

Finally, just as da Cunha always had present-day political purposes in his literary and historical work, so does Hecht and this is the fourth reason the book is such a fascinating one. For in the present day, as Hecht is acutely aware, the Purús River region is a national park, celebrated and preserved as a slice of pristine nature. In short, the area has reverted to the imagining of von Humboldt, the densely settled depiction of the area da Cunha developed a century ago dropping off the radar. In part this reflects global economic realities: once latex and rubber could be produced in Asia - something pioneered a decade after da Cunha’s death - capitalism could bypass the tangled terrors of the Amazonian interior and so global circuits of capital took different geographical loops. The tropical rainforests fell quiet and were ripe for reinvention. And yet it is the inevitable burden of both da Cunha’s work and Hecht’s that this is a fantasy; Amazonia is still being reinvented in the global economy, but now as a reservoir of biodiversity and an imperilled green lung that allows a planet menaced by climate change to breathe. This is, as Hecht makes clear, another of the Baron’s “savage tournaments”, dependent on historical and geographical remembering and forgetting to build the image of a pure Amazon. Above all, such an image of a pristine Amazonia relies on forgetting da Cunha and the scramble for Amazonia. If we want to think about planetary futures in informed and intelligent ways, we need to dispense with geopolitical fantasies and think more precisely about the historical trajectories that have built places: da Cunha and Hecht invite us to undertake just this adventure for the mind through this remarkable book.

The author

Professor in the School of Public Affairs and the Institute of the Environment at the University of California, Los Angeles and an upper-level dressage rider, Susanna Hecht “was born and raised in Salt Lake City, Utah, which is a Mormon theocracy. The place is lovely, though, and I spent much of my youth in the mountains hiking with my dogs, a sort of pre-board for later Amazonian work.”

Utah’s “doctrinaire religiosity”, Hecht says, “gave me my love of science. But it was also place of cowboys and Indians, and southern Utah still had a very Old West feel with lots of great storytellers and a rich and gorgeous native culture. It was also home to a lot of biological agent testing and fallout from nuclear tests, so southern Utah was one of the throwaway places of the Cold War. Like much of the Amazon, it was assumed to be empty, and at the margins of history. The Utes, of course, are the ancestral Aztecs, so…it was a place that gave rise to many processes in Latin America. It was also full of gorgeous landscapes with lots of human traces visible on it, but nonetheless categorised as ‘untrammelled’ by man, even as the pueblos dotted the cliffs and you could find arrowheads everywhere, and as nuclear radiated particles drifted invisibly down.

As a child, she recalls, “it seems I was always reading and botanising and practicing childish natural history”.

Hecht lives in Topanga Canyon, “one of the bohemian canyons in the Santa Monica Mountains that surround Los Angeles. It’s a place of about 3,000 people and many of them are artists and writers and other creative types, some associated with the film industry. It has a lot of open space, wild life (coyotes, cougars, bobcats wild parrots, ravens) so it’s got an un-urban feel even though it is quite close to Santa Monica and ‘the Valley’. I live embraced by a community of friends and neighbours. And, as they say, I live quietly. I have a dog named Ramon and an upper-level dressage horse named Bolero.”

Los Angeles itself, she observes, “is complex: it is like living in several countries, and it is one of the largest Latin American cities. It has great food, great music and art, and the landscape from the beach to the mountains is dazzling. As a city where more than 113 languages are spoken, it always feels both exotic and like home. It’s great for people watching, and more places are walkable than one might imagine. It has tons of sidewalk cafes and places to sit outdoors and have coffee and drinks. It’s a place of neighbourhoods, and these are often illegible to outsiders who mostly see the nightmare of its traffic. Some of its most delicious dining establishments are hole-in-the-wall places in nondescript and inauspicious strip malls. LA teaches you to see differently in this urban form. Traffic is the least agreeable thing about LA, except possibly for its propensity for fire.”

Among her favourite places is “Belém, Brazil in Amazonia where I lived a lot over the years. A huge tropical port, with mango trees lining the street and Amazonia in all its humour and complexity right at the door.

“When I first arrived in Belém at 4am it seemed like stepping into a large wet sock. I was soon ensconced in the Goeldi Museum. Emílio Goeldi [its founder] had an important and very little-known role in the Amazon scramble - he also selected the first woman head of a Brazilian national scientific institution, Emilie Snethlage, as director of the museum when he retired.”

During Hecht’s time at the famed institute, she recalls, it was “home to a bunch of young grad students from everywhere who basically lived in a zoo and natural history and anthropology museum. One was always exposed to new finds and the treasures of the old collections: staggeringly complicated pottery from the Santarem civilisation, Marajo burial urns that look like extraterrestrials and featherwork by modern-day groups that were exceedingly beautiful, and spoke to a material aesthetic I’d never imagined before. But also one awoke to the sounds and noises of the forest - macaws, jaguars - and it had both the plant perfume and the caged animal funk that made living there wonderful and unusual. And, yes, it had the usual interdisciplinary crowd of botanists, anthropologists, ornithologists, each bringing back amazing tales from the new frontiers of this Amazon time. And lots of romances and the very pleasurable gossip that goes with it.”

Hecht took her undergraduate degree at the University of Chicago and her doctorate in geography at the University of California, Berkeley; she has been a resident fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies at Princeton University and at Stanford University’s Center for the Advanced Study of the Behavioral Sciences.

Asked for her thoughts on these institutions, she says that she found Chicago “amazing for the esteem it holds for knowledge and the intellectual discipline that it develops in young students. UC Berkeley was much more of an interdisciplinary place and awash in the applied sciences - forestry, soil science, agricultural economics, and in the integrative anthropology and of course geography that provided a great background for looking at the way that cultures create landscapes, and provided the technical tools to carry out and evaluate the dynamics of tropical development. I was lucky that there were always tropical ecologists around at both Chicago and Berkeley.

“Princeton and Stanford were great, too, in their insistence on interdisciplinarity, and the exposure to ways of thinking that were much different than my own, and especially to historians. Often they were scholars looking at the ‘secret’ histories of places, like Richard White. Social historians of peasantries, of the Cold War, and social anthropologists of many types, were quite central to my intellectual formation, and helped me think through a lot of my questions about the scramble for the Amazon.

These institutions are also, Hecht adds, “places that let nothing slide. UCLA, my home institution, has had the virtue of leaving me alone. I am in a planning school and I do carry out a lot of contemporary development analysis in the American tropics, but most of my colleagues are sort of confused by my work and interests. Many are transportation planners, so they have rather different concerns. But UCLA has great geographers and Latin American historians and, if anything, my intellectual home has been in the Center for Latin American Studies. UCLA came very late to what we take as modern environmentalism, but now it has an Institute of the Environment that has also become very interdisciplinary, and a real intellectual haven. It has begun a very dynamic programme in environmental humanities. I’ve been fortunate to get to work in lots of institutions - always migrating to the most interdisciplinary venues. And I’ve been lucky to be able to do this, since each was quite unique, and always pulled me in new directions. I’ve also worked in the best libraries in the world for Latin America.”

She first became interested in Euclides da Cunha when working on her doctorate on cattle ranching in Amazonia.

“I had read his Rebellion in the Backlands in my Latin American history courses, but - like most of his readers - had no idea that he had any presence in the Amazon. At the time, everyone had pretty much stopped thinking about him, his life and adventures and placed him in an amber-like literary world associated with his great book. But he was, at the end of the day, a revolutionary, and a formidable explorer as well as one of Brazil’s greatest writers.

“His Amazon work was to be a sequel to his Backlands book, and it would show the triumph of his bronzed titans as they created a new Amazonian (indeed Brazilian) geography. There was a collection by Leandro Tocantins, one of Amazonia’s major historians, of his Amazon snippets, which mostly didn’t make any sense but the writing was - well, it was Euclides writing about Amazonia, with all his scholarly skill and his fantastic prose. At first I was just taken by his writing about Amazonian environments - no one is better, by the way. But later, as I worked more in the state of Acre, the scene of major scrambles over centuries, and explored the references that pepper his writing about which I knew absolutely nothing, it seemed like a small task (ha!) to just familiarise myself with the context of his time.”

Hecht continues, “Soon this remarkable Amazonian social and geopolitical history emerged. Amazonia is often seen as a ‘land without history’ and ‘the last unfinished page of Genesis’, partly because its contemporary conservation politics regularly denied any history other than that of a sort of charming sparse indigenous presence, and the modern-day cult of wildness and emptiness that infuses the conservation dynamics has so shaped our understanding of the region. That, and modern development catastrophe on the other. But the idea about the place being regularly transformed as difference phases of globalisation washed over it, of having had a major geopolitical history where the US, as well as France, Britain, Holland and Belgium as well as the other Amazon countries had significant agendas, I think, helps us to see the Amazon very differently from a region at the ends of the earth and the beginnings of time, as a place only now arriving on the world stage. And it helps us to frame global geopolitics not as something novel, but as a continuation of processes of place that had a major role in global politics, and today this is true of its environmental and energy/carbon politics and its development politics. What Euclides said of it is true: Amazonia’s history is like the river - always turbulent, always insurgent.”

Hecht is co-author of a landmark 1990 work, Fate of the Forest: Destroyers, Developers and Defenders of the Amazon, recently republished in a revised edition.

Asked whether today she is optimistic about the region’s future, she observes, “Well, in 2000 no one would have taken a bet that deforestation would drop to levels below those of 2004 by the end of the decade. There is a lot going on - this is the subject of my next book! - and there have been enormous structural and institutional changes. What is critically defining the region has a lot to do with the carbon and energy economies (including carbon in the ground, namely gas and oil) as well as hydro power, biofuels and climate change; there are new and interesting markets for legal tropical commodities, like the forest based acai and the deforested soy economy. There are huge clandestine economies of prized timbers, drugs and gold.

Hecht adds: “As usual, I defer to Euclides da Cunha, who remarked that only when they faced the great forest would Amazon countries come into their own histories. Amazonia and its people surprise everyone all the time. There’s that turbulence, that insurgency. And just as it has a deep history of scrambles, it also has a long history of Utopias.

“When The Fate of the Forest was first published, the Amazon was on the cusp of its new politics shaped by conservation in inhabited environments stimulated by the work of the Forest Peoples’ Alliance and [the environmentalist and trade union activist] Chico Mendes, the new constitution that permitted historical claims for ancestral lands and thus claims could be ratified by means other than clearing, the rise of environmental institutions at the national level, the globalisation of environmentalism. There were also two big - perhaps equally defining - technical events: Jim Hansen’s 1988 congressional testimony on the implications of carbon and climate change models, and the rise of continuous monitoring of deforestation. These set new parameters in the debates over Amazonian development and also stimulated a ‘big science’ effort focused on the region. Social movements, globalised economies, technical change, transformative institutional change…well, Amazonia has experienced this before, so we’ll see what this round has in store. But Amazonia is, in very profound ways, the hinge of the world, and what happens there has planetary implications.”

Karen Shook

The Scramble for the Amazon and the Lost Paradise of Euclides da Cunha

By Susanna B. Hecht
University of Chicago Press, 632pp, £31.50
ISBN 9780226322810
Published 10 June 2013

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