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Amazonia in crisis

The Amazon rain forest is in crisis, but Indigenous land-use practices offer a proven low-carbon model for food cultivation and economic development, said Brazilian Studies Center Director Susanna Hecht in a recent interview.

Amazonia in crisis

Amazon fires, August 15–22, 2019. (Photo: NASA Earth Observatory images via Wikimedia Commons; altered. Image by Joshua Stevens, using MODIS data from NASA EOSDIS/LANCE and GIBS/Worldview, FIRMS data from NASA EOSDIS and data from GFED.) Public domain.

By Peggy McInerny, Director of Communications

“We have a narrow corridor to get through the current crisis. It's a tough moment and will be a rough ride. But South America will always surprise you.”

UCLA International Institute, November 5, 2021 — “The Amazon rainforest is a vital organ of the planet that absorbs carbon and mediates large-scale water systems in Latin America. It’s one of the planetary tipping points for climate change that you really don’t want to see destroyed,” says Susanna Hecht, the new director of the Center for Brazilian Studies.

A professor of urban planning at the Luskin School of Public Affairs and the Institute of the Environment and Sustainability at UCLA, Hecht also teaches at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva, Switzerland.

 Political ecologist Susanna Hecht in the Amazon. (Photo provided by Professor Hecht.) A founding thinker of political ecology, a multidisciplinary approach to understanding the use and the politics of natural resources and their impact on the environment (a discipline in which history plays a large role), Hecht has written widely about Amazonia for over 30 years.

She has, for example, translated the Amazon writings of the great Brazilian author Euclides da Cunha and published widely on science and technology questions, especially Indigenous knowledge systems and regional ideologies of planning. Her work has won numerous awards, including the best book on environmental history from the American Historical Association, the Livingstone Medal and the Carl Sauer Award in Geography.

The Amazon rainforest and its global impact are among several programming themes that Hecht will pursue at the Center for Brazil Studies (CBS) in coming years due to its global economic importance, explosive urbanization and importance in planetary processes and climate change. Not to mention the reality that nine of the 13 countries of South America have Amazonian territories.

Hecht’s multidisciplinary educational background — she earned an undergraduate degree in biology and a Ph.D. in geography, during which she studied with foresters, soil scientists, agricultural economists and Latin American historians — makes her a natural fit for CBS and the Latin American Institute, where she found an intellectual home soon after joining UCLA in the late 1980s.

Greed, illegal practices and elite power struggles drive destruction

Amazonia — the name of the greater tropical forest that extends through Brazil, Peru, Colombia, Bolivia, Ecuador, French Guyana, Guyana, Suriname and Venezuela, together with thousands of Indigenous territories — is currently in severe crisis.

“We now have a dynamic of destruction of the forests — it’s a kind of arson on a planetary scale driven by terrible policies, land speculation, extensive clandestine economies and economies of simple plunder,” said Hecht, who is writing a book on the multidimensional threats the Amazon faces. The volume will be a follow-up to her widely acclaimed “Fate of the Forest: Developers, Destroyers and Defenders of the Amazon,” first published in 1989.*

Large swathes of rainforest are being converted to pasture for extensive cattle ranching, which is often a central step in claiming land by clearing it. “It’s a means of visibly showing ‘effective use’ which, through many illegal and legal machinations, results in vast land grabs, increasingly on Indigenous and protected areas, with the full support of current governments,” said Hecht.

Indigenous lands of Amazonia are hyper-diverse systems with dozens of species per acre that are used and managed by local people, but “invisible” to policymakers and planners, says Hecht. The latter prefer highly simplified, almost single-species systems of land use and are transferring formerly forested lands to outsiders.

In addition to cattle, deforestation is also driven by the cultivation of livestock inputs such as soybeans (Brazil one of the largest global exporters of beef and the top global producer of soy), primarily for export to the Chinese market. Together, both practices threaten imminent and devastating changes to river flows and global as well as regional climates.

An explosion of illegal mining (especially gold mining), illegal timber extraction and land seizures — which Hecht attributes to flailing Amazon countries embroiled in power struggles in their own national capitals, leaving them unwilling or unable to enforce their own land laws — is intensifying environmental damage.

“A kind of ‘state capture’ is being driven by powerful coteries from agribusiness to coca cartels to ruling cohorts in the countries of Amazonia, which are designing policies such as amnesty for illegal clearing and implementing practices that are rapidly degrading the rainforest,” related Hecht.

“Amazonia is now a major center for oil and gas extraction, as well as large-scale mineral extraction. Haphazard hydrocarbon extraction, coupled with agro-toxics and mercury contamination from gold mining, has made Amazonian waters a noxious stew, poisoning the largest freshwater fishery in the world.

“These processes of Amazonian change are often attended by violence, because the forests aren’t empty. It used to be that being a labor leader was to be targeted for murder. Now forest defenders are much more likely to be under fire, according to Amnesty International.”

Meanwhile, huge planned investments in infrastructure in the region — focused on the export of unprocessed minerals, timber and agro-industrial genetically modified organism (GMO) soy and palm oil — are threatening the viability of Amazonia. These projects are doing little to encourage local development and marginalizing significant sectors of the population, said Hecht.

September 9, 2019. Fire in the São Bernardo community in the Transacreana region, Rio Branco, Brazil.
(Photo: Mídia Ninja, Brigada Amazônia, Rota Chico Mendes, via Flickr.; altered.) CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

Narrow window for change

“We have a narrow corridor to get through the current crisis. It’s a tough moment and will be a rough ride,” said the UCLA professor. “But South America will always surprise you. You may think it’s all gone to hell in a handbasket, but then you can have moments of real transformation.

“This is what happened in Brazil when deforestation fell by 80% in the period 2004–2014 during the democratization under President Ignacio ‘Lula’ da Silva. Many things aligned, including political will, social movements, national and state institutions and the promotion of real forest-based economic alternatives — the so called ‘bioeconomy.’”

The activism and increased organization of contemporary Indigenous movements and the quilombo in Brazil (Afro-descendant communities of runaway slaves who have maintained large swathes of the rainforest) regarding land rights and reparations should not be discounted, she stressed.

In particular, the transnational activism of Amazonian Indigenous peoples has grown in direct response to the massive environmental destruction in Brazil under President Jair Bolsonaro, who famously announced that he would not protect one more centimeter of Indigenous or quilombo land, and is actively working with the Brazilian Congress to curtail their historic rights to land and protection. During the last week of August 2021, more than 6,000 Indigenous people marched on Brasilia to protest this latest iteration of dispossession.

Although the stakes of deforestation are much higher today, Hecht believes a window remains for Brazil and the world to restore the Amazon as an engine of carbon capture and storage, which she described as “one of the strongest and quickest tools that we have” for offsetting climate change.

“Trees have already been invented,” she points out, “and do a lot more than just capture carbon. They provide livelihoods, protect biodiversity and moderate regional climates. They also produce the ‘atmospheric rivers’ that are essential to rainfed agriculture in much of the Southern Cone, as well as the eastern Andes.

“The big droughts threatening Southern Brazil and Argentina, including the megacity of São Paulo, reflect the new dynamics triggered by deforestation.”

Amazonia: Repository of an alternative, Indigenous paradigm of cultivation

Hecht’s research has overturned assumptions about Amazonia and its Indigenous peoples, revealing the rainforest and its traditional land-use practices as a repository of Indigenous knowledge that offers an alternative, eco-friendly paradigm of land management, food cultivation and economic development.

“Amazonia is not a bunch of people running around painting themselves red in wild forests. It’s a place that has generated extraordinary gifts to the world,” said Hecht. “The creation and use of anthropogenic soils (i.e., soils modified by human activity, in this case, slow fires) in the rainforest is a technology that rivaled irrigation and terracing for overcoming soil constraint.

“‘Dark earths’ changed how Amazonian archeology, history and demography are understood. The artistic masterpieces and the vast productive forest landscapes were products of complex civilizations with intensive agriculture, capable of sustaining large populations on the scale found in the pre-Columbian Andes.

Geoglyph on cleared rainforest land at Jacó Sá site, Amazonia, Brazil. (Photo: Geoglyphs of Western Amazonia
Research Group, Conselho Nacional de Desenvolvimento Científico e Tecnológico (CNPq) /National Council for
Scientific and Technological Development of Brazil.) See Researchgate.

“One of the problems is that [an ancient Amazonian civilization] would have been written in trees and tubers and land engineering, not in stone. The built environment melted away — it was, as they say, recyclable — which we think of as positive today.

“What you see across Amazonia was a landscape domestication called hyper-dominance, where areas are less diverse than you would expect. If you look at those hyper-dominant areas, they are useful plants… We know from current ethnography that Indigenous groups create big groves of useful plants.”

In Brazil, most of those plants were trees — which can live for 400 years in the Amazon — and were the primary source of high-nutrition food, especially nuts (e.g., Brazil nuts and cashews), as well as an array of useful palms and latex plants

Geoglyphs on deforested land at the Fazenda Colorada site in the Amazon rainforest, Rio Branco area, Acre. Site dated c. AD 1283. (Photo: <a href=">Sanna Saunaluoma</a>, 2012, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.) <a href="">CC BY-SA 3.0</a>. “What you have is basically a large-scale agroforestry system that functions sort of by itself. There’s manipulation, such as keeping the vines off the trees, low intensity fires and various other kinds of management techniques, but the model is not of shifting cultivation, or constant replanting, but that of people moving through these perennial landscapes with very intensive production of mostly root crops on those fertile dark earths,” she explained.

“It’s a completely different way of structuring agriculture, agrarian landscapes and labor — one that stands in stark contrast to the European and American versions of agriculture, which are based on short-term annual crops such as wheat.

“Tree crops and tubers, the foundational crops of these societies, don’t need to be harvested all at once like rice or wheat, which require timed and mobilized labor. These products are stored in the ground or in the landscape, not in granaries that become sites of political control.

“With a vast fishery often maintained through flooded forests, the issues of animal domestication are also different. Land animals are managed through the landscape, that is, through plant products they like, and these animals (e.g., wild pigs, deer, tapirs, etc.) also manage the landscape itself as seed dispersers.

“It’s a different way of being in nature, even with high populations,” explained Hecht. “It’s being in the society of nature.”

Despite the intrusion of high-input annual crop systems, such as soy, Hecht emphasized that Indigenous legacy landscapes still supply livelihoods for more than half the Amazonian populations through fishing, exports of products such as acai and cacao, as well as a vast number of fruits, perfumes, oils, medicines and superfoods — even if many forest peoples spend part of their time in cities, a pattern described even by early chroniclers.

“Not only is it a different form of agriculture, it’s also a different form of urbanization and urban support,” observed Hecht. “Under conditions of significant climate change, Amazonian systems are more resilient, and clearly sustainable, without fossil fuel inputs. We need to rethink rural models for the tropics and more generally if we plan on adapting to climate change.”

“We need to understand that the some of the answers to our predicament may not lie with Teslas, but in exploring ways of rethinking the world and our relation to it. Euclides da Cunha described Amazonia as ‘the last unfinished page of Genesis.’ We will find out whether catastrophe or alternatives to apocalypse are written there.”

*In 1989, Hecht published what has since become a classic work in political ecology: “Fate of the Forest: Developers, Destroyers and Defenders of the Amazon” (Verso, 1989; with Alexander Cockburn), the fourth edition of which was published by the University of Chicago in 2011. The book has been translated into Spanish and Korean.

Her other major works include “The Scramble for the Amazon and the Lost Paradise of Euclides da Cunha” (Chicago, 2013; with Alexander Cockburn), which takes the exploration of a remote region of Amazon rain forest by a famous 19th-century Brazilian writer as departure point for examining of the historical dynamics and impact of rubber cultivation and exploitation in Brazil; and “The Social Life of Forests: The Past, Present and Futures of Wooded Landscapes” (Chicago, 2014; co-edited with Kathleen Morrison and Christine Padoch), a comprehensive look at the integration of forests, local knowledge systems and people —-that is, the “social lives of forests”— in multiple realms, from the impact of migrations and livelihoods on natural resources, agro-ecologies and small farm development.

Hecht’s more recent works have addressed the potential impact of massive planned infrastructure projects in Amazonia (“Priorities for Governing Large-Scale Infrastructure in the Tropics,” PNAS 117 (36), 2020,with multiple co-authors; renewed deforestation in Brazil (“The Fall and Rise of Brazilian Deforestation,” OCED, 2019); the dynamics of the corporate transnational soy agriculture (“Soy, Globalization and Environmental Politics in South America,” Routledge, 2019, with Gustavo Oliveira); and migration and forests (“People in Motion, Forests in Transition,” CIFOR Occasional Paper, 2015, with multiple co-authors). A forthcoming special issue of Anthropecene edited by Hecht will be devoted to the history of the environment.