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Susanna Hecht on the global ‘scramble’ for the Amazon

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Susanna Hecht is a professor of urban planning in the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs and is also on faculty in the Department of Geography and affiliated with UCLA’s Institute of the Environment and Sustainability. Her new book, “The Scramble for the Amazon and the ‘Lost Paradise’ of Euclides da Cunha” (University of Chicago Press), explores the decades-long “scramble” for the Amazon basin as world powers and “hemispheric aspirants” vied for its precious natural resources. In the midst of this struggle is Euclides da Cunha, an engineer, journalist, geographer, political theorist and one of Brazil’s most celebrated writers, who led a survey expedition to the farthest reaches of the river, among the world’s most valuable, dangerous and little-known landscapes.
 
Hecht will speak about her book on Tuesday, June 6 at 6 p.m. at the Luskin School, Room 2355. Her talk, titled “The Scramble for the Amazon: A Game of Thrones with a Tropical Twist,” will draw parallels between machinations over the Amazon with the HBO’s wildly popular “Games of Thrones” television series.
 
Why is the “Amazonia Scramble” like the “Game of Thrones?”
 
The term "Game of Thrones" is a popular idiom that helps people understand geopolitics. In the “Game of Thrones” [television  series], you have the royal houses and their minions in a rivalry for sovereignty in areas that have unclear boundaries and uncertain vassals. Although the dominance is framed in mostly military terms, with little reference to economic underpinnings (like gold for the House Lannister), these are basically competitions managed through lineage alliances, betrayals and continual competition for the Iron Throne, which confers control over several kingdoms that also lay claim to it.
 
In an analogous way, Amazonia has been in play among Europeans, hemispheric aspirants and its native polities since 1494. Most people see Amazonia largely as a wild place without much social history, but it has a long and significant one — and one that’s not just about Spanish and Portuguese rivalries. The Dutch, French, English and Irish had colonies in Amazonia by the 16th century. By the 17th century, you basically had a buffer state — a kind of analogue of the “The Wall” [in the “Game of Thrones”] —  between the holdings of Spain and Portugal formed by religious orders and their missions, that stretched from the mouth of the la Plata in Argentina to the Orinoco in Venezuela. Like the Black Watch, the ecclesiastics were largely concerned with managing “wildings.” Their charge was to control the “wildings” and the free people who lived beyond fealty to the crowns in an incomprehensible, dangerous nature with animals and peoples from other ages.
 
In 1767, the religious orders were expelled from the new world, and this was one of the key dynamics of the scramble. The great interior of what had been “Land of the Amazons” had morphed into the religious territories of Chiquitania, Moxos, Maynas and Orinoquia and had no real boundaries. Meantime, after the Bolivar liberation, the Spanish empire dissolved into a new set of states in the early 19th century, while the Napoleonic wars caused the Portuguese monarch to flee to Brazil and proclaim his tropical Versailles — a new kingdom in the New World rife with slave revolts, political incursions and disobedient vassals. Two commodities began to emerge as key in this new phase of globalization: rubber and gold. The greater Amazon was very rich in both.
 
The countries surrounding Amazonia began to see it as a new imperial space, and tropical exploration took off with explorers like Alexander von Humboldt, in the service of the Spanish crown, de la Condamine of France and Rodrigues Ferriera at the command of “Mad Maria,” the Queen of Portugal. These set the stage for a pattern of Amazonian expeditions as a mix of espionage and science. Lots of countries had claims from different eras, and the boundaries were physically unknown and politically contested. The Game was on in a big way in this new global phase.
 
Why was the Amazon such a prize?
 
Rubber, along with coal and steel, was key to the industrial revolution. Rubber was a necessity for machinery, transportation and communications, and it stimulated huge innovations in medical technologies. By the late 19th century, the best latex was coming out of Amazonia from the Hevea rubber tree, tapped by men deep in the forest whose main tools were prehistoric: knives and fire. More than half the world’s rubber production came out of these Amazon forests, a quantity that would be valued in the billions in today’s currency. So the developed world owes quite a bit to Amazonia.
 
Why was there such a battle over rubber?
 
In addition to latex from Hevea gum, another important latex was derived from the Castilla tree, known locally as caucho. The latex was extracted by killing the tree. As the trees were felled, the depleting resource drove Peruvian and Bolivian “caucheros” into the rubber-tapping lands of Hevea. These two latex ecologies became stalking horses for bigger geopolitical concerns as rubber workers were used to “claim” lands for different nations and the region exploded in guerrilla warfare.
 
This is where Euclides da Cunha comes in?
 
Euclides da Cunha is considered by many to be Brazil’s greatest writer. He’s known for his famous chronicle “Rebellion in the Backlands” of an uprising by a millenarian and renegade ex-slave community that was brutally repressed by the young Brazilian republic. This work brought da Cunha to the attention of the foreign minister, the Baron of Rio Branco. Da Cunha had been a military man so he knew about surveying and guerilla warfare. He was also a dedicated scientific scholar, understood tropical nature and was a fervent nationalist.
 
Why is da Cunha important?
 
In many ways he can be considered the first Amazonian scholar, poring over Jesuit archives, old maps, explorations and diplomatic memos. He was a magisterial writer documenting a momentous time as one of its protagonists. Most colonial literature comes from outsider observers — think Joseph Conrad — who had no substantive political role in what they were writing about. Others, engaging in imperial ecotourism plus espionage regularly defamed local populations as indolent or just simply backward in the social Darwinist language of the day, even as their toil provided the industrial world with one of its most coveted products.
 
His sequel to "Rebellion in the Backlands" was supposed to be his “Lost Paradise” but he never completed it because he was later killed by his wife’s much younger lover. I think da Cunha has yet to be recognized for his Amazon contributions, and my hope is that this book brings his life and times into sharper focus. His writing truly does elucidate the new world’s Heart of Darkness, but also dreams of a New World in the Tropics.
 
What do you hope the book achieves?
 
I want people to understand that Amazonia isn’t a wild place beyond “the Wall,” with only a biotic history, but a place with a rich, dramatic and very interesting social history that was as much about utopian aspirations as resource scrambles, and this is still true today.
 
This story was adapted from the original, published by the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs. For more information on Hecht's book and her upcoming book event, visit the event page. 
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