At the conclusion of a two-year river voyage, which had begun from the volcanoes of Ecuador in 1541, the Spaniard Francisco de Orellana reported seeing female warriors next to the mouth of the river where he emerged after his long trip (Onis, 1992: p.37). He called them Amazons in reference to figures from Greek mythology. The name ‘Amazon’, which results from this supposed encounter, at the same time, refers to a river, a river system, a region and a forest.
One common definition of the Amazon is to consider it as ‘all the territory drained by rivers flowing into the Amazon system’, encompassing an area of nearly seven million square kilometers from the Andes to the Atlantic (Onis, 1992: p.13). Nonetheless, some scholars of the region, such as the archeologist Betty Meggers, find it unsatisfactory to limit the geographic extent of the Amazon to its watershed and point at ecological characteristics that extend northward over the Guianas: For Meggers, what makes the Amazon a distinctive ecosystem is the dominant vegetation below 1500 meters in elevation, where annual average temperature variation does not exceed 3° C., where rain falls on 130 or more days of the year, and where relative humidity normally exceeds 80 percent (Meggers, 1996: p.7-8).
There may be less complex ways of defining the Amazon, for example by drawing singly on the climatic aspect, relief, or dominant vegetation types. One might also trace the region’s delimitation by joining together the different administrative territories labelled ‘Amazon’ by the nine nation-states claiming them: Brazil, Peru, Colombia, Venezuela, Ecuador, Bolivia, Guyana, Suriname, and France (through its overseas region of Guyana). This territorial division matters, for it is the result of centuries of diplomatic maneuvers and/or military confrontations, first in the colonial period between the Spanish and the Portuguese Crowns—with French, English, and Dutch implications—then between diverse independent states in Latin America. Even during the 20th century, Peru fought three wars with Ecuador and another with Colombia over a disputed portion of Amazonia.
All in all, the multiple ways to define the Amazon correspond to projected ideas on a territory, whose limits vary according to the cultural background, economic interest, social imaginary, or political position of the actors naming it. Just as Orellana defined the river out of his own cultural and travel experience, the Amazon’s delimitation as a region is a varying product of manifold imaginaries. The circulation of legends have contributed to the construction of the Amazon as a geographical unity ever since. From the exotic animal gargoyles carved on the cathedral of Quito in Ecuador to the poetic strength of jungle landscapes in the Realismo Magico literature and arts, the Amazon has been an endless source of inspiration for human fantasy. In the context of capitalist globalization, this imaginary has become marketable and digital, to the point of inspiring its name to one of the world’s largest online retailers. At the same time, very concrete migration waves, human encounters, and human approaches to a selective dialogue with nature form part of the region's history. Thus, the Amazon is both a ‘virtual’ place on which various visions of nature are projected, and a space bearing the socio-ecological traces of a long history of agricultural experiments, adaptation of human communities to their—changing—environment, and strategies of natural conservation.
The many ‘visions’ of the Amazon sometimes converge into consensual representations: for example, that of a space dominated by exuberant vegetation, a high density of trees, a forest (Slater, 2002). Admittedly, even this idea is no satisfying synthesis. Metropolises like Belem and Manaus are often referred to as ‘Amazonian’, although the cityscape they offer is far removed from the common conception of forest (Browder, 1997). However, there is a consensus to consider the Amazon as the world's largest area of tropical forest. According to various estimations it contains between 25% and 40% of the world's species and up to 30% of its freshwaters (Pádua, 2009). To be sure, the Amazon is viewed not only as the richest, but also as the most puzzling ecological system on the planet, especially insofar as it combines very nutrient-poor soils with rich and dense forests, displaying an extremely high level of biodiversity.
The region's biodiversity and its resistance to homogenization have led Hecht to underline that the Amazon constitutes ‘a mosaic of forests of similar structure’ rather than a ‘uniform formation’ (Hecht, 1982: p.182). This mosaic is reflected in the many forest soil typologies, whose three main categories are the ‘terra firme’, which never experiences flooding; the ‘igapós’, where the water remains stagnant for a certain time after flooding; and the ‘várzea’, which are inundated over the entire rainy season and remain dry the rest of the year. As they do not display a uniform landscape, there are potentially different critiques regarding their exploitation by humans. Agricultural techniques, which are ecologically devastating in certain parts of the Amazon, might prove suitable in other parts. The Amazon has continental dimensions: While it is summer in its eastern half, intense rainfalls pour down on the western one. Needless to say, these ecological features are not pre-given, but result from a complex history over the longue durée, for example at the inorganic level. The rising of the Andes mountain chains between forty and seventy million years ago, which caused the formation of an extensive freshwater lake eastward, is for example an often cited element of geological history that led to the formation of the Amazon (Hecht and Cockburn, 1990: 19).
Humans before colonialism
Non-human life in the Amazon has stood in a dynamic of exchange with various human groups. This history is more nuanced than the widespread dichotomous chronology dividing it between a pre-Colombian era of harmony between 'primitive' peoples and nature on one side, and an ecologically devastating colonial era on the other side. Indigenous populations have lived there for over ten thousand years, most of them in riverine communities distributed in the várzea flood plains (Raffles, 2002: 37). Early reports of European travelers as well as archeological evidence point at a dense indigenous population at the arrival of the Europeans in the sixteenth century. The total number of human inhabitants could have reached about seven million for the entire Amazon watershed—a figure comparable to the region's population in the 1950s—and there were densities of at least thirty inhabitants per square kilometer in the várzeas (Bunker, 1984: p.1023). By coordinating hunting, fishing, and agriculture with the seasonal fluctuation of river water levels, the indigenous communities extracted resources in a relatively balanced and sustainable mode.
This is not to say that their activities did not produce transformations—including in a destructive sense—on non-human life. Various animal species disappeared due to intensive hunting. The Cipó, a patchily occurring forest vine in the eastern Amazon, might be a consequence of the extraction by indigenous populations of Babaçú and Brazil nuts, which required clearing and the formation of open forest gaps (Hecht, 1982: p.189-92). In other locations large ridged fields seem to point at prehistoric irrigation sites (so far not clearly dated), while throughout the Amazon basin there are also thousands of so-called ‘terra preta’ (‘black earth’) deposits, which, according to Cleary, are ‘the product of long-term mulching and composting of agricultural fields’ (Cleary, 2001: p.73-5).
Colonialism and its aftermaths
No massive waves of deforestation resulted from Iberian colonialisms from the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries. The new crops—mainly cocoa and sugar—as well as cattle-raising introduced into the region remained limited to reduced areas next to the river banks (Pádua, 2000: p.408). However, some serious ecological disruptions, due to colonial production, provided a bitter foretaste of the imbalances an enlarged colonial occupation might be able to engender. For example, the massive exploitation of turtle eggs for oil export nearly provoked the decimation of the species, broke the river's ecological chain, and deprived indigenous communities of vital fishing resources (Bunker, 1984: p.1027). Such disruptions, together with the enslavement of indigenous communities and the introduction by the Europeans of infectious diseases, led to a drastic reduction in the population of the Amazon. It partly explains why today dozens of so-called ‘uncontacted peoples’ have chosen isolation from ‘the modern world’ as the last chance to preserve their physical integrity (Bello, 2010).
At the same time, colonialism led to the formation of new identities, such as the Caboclo culture, mixing Indigenous and Portuguese influences. This culture developed into a riverine population of poor settlers, many of whom moved further in the direction of forest areas by travelling on the tributaries of the Amazon river. Some Caboclos practiced slash-and-burn agriculture on a reduced scale and, thus, provoked the transformation of portions of rain forest into areas of secondary vegetation. Many other groups have contributed to transforming the Amazon and its perception by humans. The forest's thick vegetation proved an ally for the black, fugitive slaves (quilombolas in Brazil, bushinengués/bosneger in French Guiana and Surinam) who founded independent communities dispersed over various parts of the Amazon in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, sometimes mixing with indigenous or Caboclo populations (Ribeiro, 1990: p.123). Mestizo, Mulatto (Racialized terms designating mixed-race people in colonial Brazil) and indigenous insurrectionists, after making war on the colonial elite in Belem in 1835-40, also sought refuge within the forest. The jungle even functioned as a hiding place and strategic basis in the following century for various leftist guerilla organizations, such as the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), founded in the 1960s. On the contrary, many of the hundreds of thousands of peasants, who came from the Brazilian Northeast to extract hevea during the two 'rubber booms' of 1880-1920 and the Second World War, lived in the forest as a place of captivity (Weinstein, 1983; Garfield, 2013). Middle-men contracted by rubber entrepreneurs maintained these workers in a state of financial indebtedness and physical dependence. The first rubber boom ended in a drastic impoverishment of the region as the British, out of seeds originally collected in the Amazon, managed to develop large rubber cropping farms in Malaysia (Merson, 2000: p.286). Nevertheless, other actors introduced new species, one group being Japanese settlers, which in the 1930s started to produce jute and black pepper (Smith, 1999: p.114).
A multitude of other human agents have played a role in fashioning the image of the Amazon. Religious missionaries, scientific explorers, prospectors of resources, adventurers—the most famous of them being the U.S. American President Theodore Roosevelt in 1913-1914—published reports of the extended trips they made through the region (Millard, 2005). They constructed a double image of the rain forest: on one side that of a place of submerging natural ferocity, on the other side the myth of an opulent El Dorado. This hybrid reputation set the basis for contemporary political representations of the Amazon. Perceived untamed, wild, and abundant nature provided fuel for dreams of human conquest because it appeared as a challenge to humans. The wild was seen as unoccupied space having to be converted to civilization. Its natural opulence implied economically exploitable resources. However, this perception ignored the historical experience of interaction with nature, which characterized the diverse human groups populating the area.
‘Modernizing’ operations that claimed to rationalize the region’s exploitation and ‘civilize’ its people were often unsuccessful in coming to grips with the Amazon’s ecology. The historical misfortune of Ford’s rubber plantations (1920s-1940s), or of the multibillionaire Daniel K. Ludwig, who failed to implement massive cellulose production through gmelina plants in the 1960s, illustrated the Amazon’s resistance to large-scale cultivation (Pinto, 1986; Grandin, 2009). The general move towards cattle-breeding in the last third of the twentieth century resulted partly from the hope that pasturing, as a very basic and adaptable form of cropping, would survive in the forest ecology with less difficulty.
The recent decades, marked by the claim of political and business actors to achieve the ‘economic integration’ of the region, have constituted an era of accelerated colonization, in which deforestation rates exploded and violent land conflicts proliferated. In reaction, socio-ecological disturbance in the Amazon began to worry actors from the areas of science, journalism, activism, and politics around the world. It also awakened numerous voices of South American nationalisms, created opportunities for constructing a major topic of identification for the environmentalist movement and gave rise to grassroots protest initiatives. Local interests still frequently collide with governments’ or multinational companies’ plans to tap valuable energy resources. The Yasuni National Park in Ecuador, where Waorani groups have been fighting against oil operations, and the Belo Monte Dam Project in Brazil, viewed as a major threat for the fishing stock of several indigenous communities, are famous examples of this tension. These groups have developed transnational strategies to oppose the misappropriation of resources. In 1984, they created the Coordination of Indigenous Organizations of the Amazon River Basin, which gathers organizations from seven countries. Charismatic figures like the Kayapo chief Raoni became regular media guests in (North and South) American and European media. In the manner of the Brazilian rubber-taper leader Chico Mendes, murdered in 1988, they have built on global concerns over climate change and popular eco-narratives—the Amazon as the ‘Earth’s lungs’—to publicize major social concerns of the forest dwellers. The lawsuits filed in Ecuador, the U.S., Canada, and The Hague, following accusations against Chevron-Texaco to have gravely polluted the rain forest between 1964 and 1992, show that there is also a form of juridical globalization of Amazon questions (Kimerling, 2006). The rain forest is now an international symbol of socio-ecological disturbance and the fear that it might disappear, one day, as an ecosystem has become a commonplace, making the Amazon a global political arena, on which crucial debates regarding the relation between humanity and nature are projected.
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