Amazon Fire: Who Owns the Amazon?

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The current government of Brazil brings painful new dimensions to an old question.

By Catherine Seavitt Nordenseon, ASLA

Who owns the Amazon? In news reports about the unprecedented number of fires burning in this vast forest during the past several months, Brazil’s president, Jair Bolsonaro, has vehemently answered “Brazil”—punctuating that claim with the charge that any nation holding a different opinion is simply a colonizer, usually a European one. Yet defined in terms of the river’s massive watershed, the Amazon rain forest—the world’s largest such tropical biome—falls within eight South American countries: Brazil, Ecuador, Venezuela, Suriname, Peru, Colombia, Bolivia, and Guyana.

Those same eight polities have been embroiled in a seven-year legal battle with, Inc. and its CEO, Jeff Bezos, who would very much like to own .amazon—the domain name, that is. The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers—the independent body that vets global Internet addresses—has sided with Bezos. American corporate interests, once again, seem to have the upper hand over local cultural heritage and place-name identity, despite concerns voiced by Brazil’s minister of foreign affairs and representatives from other governments that share the watershed.

Certainly, “owning” the Amazon has always been bound up in questions of sovereignty. And sovereignty has long been caught up in authoritative claims of possession.An extensive history of self-colonization defines Brazilian attitudes toward the vast territories of the Amazon, long considered um vazio demográfico—a demographic void, a great emptiness to be filled. But this is a sense of place quite unlike the rich, biodiverse ecology of multiple actors we understand the region to be today. During the colonial period in Brazil, Portuguese-backed explorers known as bandeirantes slashed and burned their way through the vast hinterlands of Brazil in an attempt to both establish and defend territorial borders for the Portuguese crown. They copied the practice of coivara—the burning of forested lands to clear territory for settlement and agriculture—from indigenous peoples, though these nomadic tribes arguably managed much smaller lands and migrated often, allowing the forest footprint to regenerate. Even after Brazil’s 1822 declaration of independence from Portugal, the Brazilian Empire continued to think of the Amazon as an expansive territory to be mapped, defended from other national interests, and economically exploited for its resources. Upon the overthrow of the emperor and the declaration of the First Brazilian Republic in 1889, strengthening the connection of Brazil’s empty hinterlands to its burgeoning coastal population centers became an urgent nationalist preoccupation of the state, given the concern to protect the Republic’s sovereign borders. In 1906, the Rondon Commission was initiated by the Ministry of War in partnership with the newly established Ministry of Agriculture, Industry, and Commerce. The objective of the nine-year project was the implementation of a telegraph line and a series of telegraph stations between the Amazon cities of Cuiabá and Porto Velho, creating an infrastructural connection between the farthest reaches of the hinterland and the coast. After the Revolution of 1930, which would lead to the political dictatorship of President Getúlio Vargas, these infrastructural links to the Amazon were significantly strengthened. Vargas’s Marcha para o Oeste (March to the West) initiative, launched in 1937, encouraged agricultural colonization at Brazil’s sparsely settled inland territories by subsidizing the migration of the poor working class to the Amazon region. American business interests were never far behind, even then: The American industrialist Henry Ford was swift to establish a rubber-tree plantation at the company town of Fordlândia in the eastern Amazon state of Pará in the 1920s, seeking to harvest natural rubber latex for the Ford Motor Company. Later, in the context of World War II, Vargas agreed to supply the Allies with wild-rubber latex from the Amazon to support wartime mobilization. American finances were directed toward the relocation of thousands of Brazilian migrant workers for the labor-intensive task of tapping naturally occurring rubber trees in the western Amazon state of Acre. As the synthetic rubber industry developed in the United States in the 1940s, American investment in the Amazon Basin would shift toward hardwood logging and mineral extraction—and the deforestation required by both practices would cause significant environmental impacts.

During the military dictatorship in Brazil, which began with a coup (and the collusion of the United States government) in 1964 and continued for 21 fraught years, the empty Amazon again loomed large. In true military style, President Humberto de Alencar Castelo Branco launched Operação Amazônia (Operation Amazon) in 1966, an effort to strengthen the economy of the Amazon region as well as support the migration of poor landless peasants from Brazil’s arid northeast to the basin. Castelo Branco’s policy slogan, Integrar para não Entregar (Integrate or Surrender), exhorted a clearly nationalist position toward the territory—the Amazon region must be “integrated” socially, culturally, and economically through development, or Brazil would risk abdicating its territory to other international interests. Yet in the 1970s, under Presidents Emílio Médici and Ernesto Geisel, the regime would change course, with a developmentalist mission that shifted significantly toward international interests and funding sources for accessing and occupying the Amazon. The Rodovia Transamazônica (Trans-Amazonian Highway) project, initiated in 1970 with international funding from the World Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank, would provide infrastructural access and incentivize deforestation. State-owned and international corporations were encouraged to initiate new agricultural and grazing projects, including the Jari project in the eastern Amazon state of Amapá, a massive paper-pulp tree plantation masterminded by the American entrepreneur and billionaire Daniel K. Ludwig, and the Fazenda Cristalino, an experimental cattle ranch initiated in Pará by Wolfgang Sauer, the chief executive of Volkswagen do Brasil. But plantation efforts in the Amazon were fundamentally compromised by the nutrient-poor soils of the Amazon Basin: Despite the astonishing biodiversity of the forest, the region’s soils lack phosphates. Soil fertility is dependent on nutrients provided by the thick layer of fallen leaves produced by the dense tree canopy above. Ultimately, the forest’s ecology is negatively affected by large-scale clearing and cultivation.

Who, indeed, grasps the higher moral ground in the question of Amazon sovereignty? Enter a radical environmental advocate of the 20th century: Roberto Burle Marx (1909–1994), the modernist landscape architect and activist whose work was recently on view at a brilliantly curated show, with a strolling garden designed by Raymond Jungles, FASLA, at the New York Botanical Garden in the Bronx. His history was not uncompromised—for seven years, Burle Marx served as an appointed member of the military regime’s Federal Cultural Council, advising the government on cultural matters during an era of censorship and human rights abuses. But he used this platform within an aggressively developmentalist regime to advocate for environmental protection and advance policies that would protect Brazil’s natural landscapes as a unique part of the nation’s cultural heritage. In 1976, two years after stepping down from the council, Burle Marx returned to the Brazilian Senate to present a landmark deposition that advocated for the environmental protection of the Amazon region. He argued against the regime’s policies of agricultural colonization and economic exploitation. And he addressed an inherent problem within Brazil’s Forestry Code: the stipulation that a property owner could legally deforest 50 percent of the native trees on a site—often cleared with fire—and replant it with nonnative species for a harvesting profit. Burle Marx sought to recast the Amazon as a site of national ecological and cultural heritage, meriting both protection and preservation by the state. His speech attacked the regime’s ongoing support of international corporations that were profiting from the Amazon, and, not unlike the current Bolsonaro administration, he reframed the forest through a nationalist lens. But Burle Marx identified this asset as an environmental resource at risk of destruction; he argued for its protection as a point of national pride for Brazilian citizens. He specifically targeted Volkswagen do Brasil for ecological genocide, claiming that the company had intentionally set “the largest fire in the history of the planet, detected by satellites,” burning thousands of hectares of land to clear trees for its cattle ranch.

Burle Marx argued that Brazil’s progress and culture were fundamentally intertwined with the conservation of its landscape patrimony; he saw ecological protection as a significant element of the nation’s cultural heritage. But today, given the global scale of the climate emergency, we possess a new and even broader understanding of the relationships of fire and ice, of the equator and the poles, of the emission (or sequestration) of carbon and the influence of the atmosphere on the oceans. We must think differently of sovereignty and borders, with new post-territorial concepts of biomes and watersheds, of atmospheres and oceans, of pounds of carbon emitted or sequestered. Who, indeed, owns the Amazon? Who are the actors on this post-sovereign planet, and how can we govern to create a robust planetary ecosystem that might embrace a great parliament of things, both human and nonhuman? “Our sovereignty is nonnegotiable,” stated the Bolsonaro administration at the Group of 7 summit meeting in August 2019. Half a century ago, in reference to the Volkswagen do Brasil fires, Burle Marx wrote, “You have to understand that it is my obligation to oppose everything that I consider an ecological crime…. The sacrifice of nature is irreversible.” The Amazon territory is perhaps best managed by the eight countries that share the tropical rain forest’s watershed—the same countries that banded together to defend that domain name against Bezos’s company. Amazon the corporation produces a massive carbon footprint; Amazon the rain forest—when it is not burning—serves as a massive global carbon sink and produces 20 percent of the world’s oxygen. A multisovereign policy of protection and management of the Amazon rain forest that holistically addresses our global condition, similar to those currently in place at the Arctic and Antarctic, is the best way forward.

Catherine Seavitt Nordenson, ASLA, is an associate professor of landscape architecture at the City College of New York, where she will assume directorship of the master’s degree program next fall. She is the author of Depositions: Roberto Burle Marx and Public Landscapes under Dictatorship (University of Texas Press, 2018).

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