Ioris on Scanlan Lyons, 'Running After Paradise: Hope, Survival, and Activism in Brazil’s Atlantic Forest'

Colleen M. Scanlan Lyons
Antonio Ioris

Colleen M. Scanlan Lyons. Running After Paradise: Hope, Survival, and Activism in Brazil’s Atlantic Forest. Critical Green Engagements: Investigating the Green Economy and Its Alternatives Series. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2022. Illustrations. xv + 287 pp. $60.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8165-4013-6

Reviewed by Antonio Ioris (Cardiff University) Published on H-Environment (November, 2022) Commissioned by Daniella McCahey (Texas Tech University)

Printable Version:

Social scientists, working in academia or policymaking and activism, have offered some of the most interesting reflections on socio-ecological problems. Instead of the conventional description of environmental impacts and the formulation of merely mitigatory measures, critical researchers have emphasized the ontological interdependencies between society and wider nature, as well as the deeply politicized mediation of resource access and environmental degradation. This kind of work is even more thought provoking when conducted in close cooperation with low-income communities living in marginalized areas affected by development pressures. These are not just research partners but also co-producers of knowledge and innovation. We can find all of this in the excellent publication of Colleen M. Scanlon Lyons, an experienced environmental anthropologist with rich professional and personal experience in South America, Asia, and Africa.

The book has the fascinating main title, Running After Paradise, and the text demonstrates that, rather than a self-contained place, “paradise” is a collective construction of just social spaces that depends on the struggle for survival and the maintenance of hope. One of the most attractive qualities of the work is the detailed explanation of the author’s engagement with Brazilian environmentalists and people living in the southern section of the state of Bahia. The region used to be largely covered by the lavish Atlantic Forest (Mata Atlântica), a four-tiered Atlantic evergreen moist forest, but since the early decades of colonization it has been severely transformed and destroyed by the advance of private farms and urban settlements. The first Portuguese expedition sent to conquer the new continent arrived, in 1500, exactly in this segment of the Atlantic coast and initiated a long process of deforestation, enslavement of the native inhabitants, and resource extraction. In the early twentieth century, the region became an important exporter of cocoa, but the monoculture collapsed due to exhausted soils, poorly managed latifundia, and widespread plant diseases. Although today there is much greater international attention to the Amazon Forest or the Pantanal wetland, the Atlantic Forest is one of the most severely altered and damaged Brazilian biomes (together with the savannah and the caatinga). Nonetheless, despite the long-term degradation (the Atlantic Forest continues to be devastated, with numerous species of endangered animals, and the remaining fragments are suffering from biomass erosion), it remains a major stock of biodiversity and carbon, as well as rich socio-ecological relations.

Most pages of the book contain a record of the personal motivations of the author, the dialogue and experience with local inhabitants, and the lives and thoughts of remarkable research partners. The detailed description of Lyons’s travel through the region allows the reader to almost feel and touch the landscape. The book starts with the memories of the author when she first arrived in Ilhéus, the main airport in the South of Bahia, and the initial impressions meeting people and moving around. The narrative here is an elegant combination of some key academic references with the emblematic phrases heard here and there, images of the hills and the Atlantic vegetation, and early attempts to answer old and new research questions. The main informants, starting with Guiomar (a lady who is still very proud of regional cocoa production), are delicately described and enrich the text with their opinions and frustrations. The diversity of ethnic backgrounds and professions of the participants provide a tasteful blend of old and new procedures. The next part of the book discusses how biodiversity mediates social relations and how multiple associations converge to produce a highly uneven space. The interventions of local and global nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) help to connect agendas across scales, countries, and places. There are numerous perceptive observations about language, accent, history, and personal behaviors. Elements of the colonial past and the golden years of cocoa production continue to affect present-day politics and mobilization. The accentuated degradation of the Atlantic Forest is just the more recent chapter of a long process of socio-ecological estrangement and of the joint exploitation of resources and the labor of natives and African slaves.

The book then continues with a fascinating consideration of the interplay between destruction, conservation, and consequential agri-forest production. Novel technologies are embedded in old knowledge and accumulated practices. Despite the beautiful landscapes and the warm connection with co-investigators, the story is fraught with violence and even death haunting it. Art, dance, and poetry help to somehow alleviate this tragic dimension of the socio-spatial reality of southern Bahia. The discussion then rises to a crescendo with activism of local inhabitants and, for instance, protests against the South Port Project. On page 196, the author explains that “No Port” means not just what they don’t want but also a vision of what they really want: to foster regionwide sustainable development and environmental justice. Socio-ecological activism and self-consciousness are deeply ingrained in contingent local relations and in the generalized impacts of national and international hyper-capitalism. The final chapter brings the journey to an end with lovely pictures of the author’s three children (who shared the fieldwork time in Brazil) and their white Volkswagen beetle (the famous fusquinha). As a final gift to the reader, the book has a detailed and insightful reflection on the methodological approach employed to think through power, as an engaged and critical framework for dealing with the politics of conservation, social inclusion, and political agency.

In addition to the above positive features, the book has a friendly layout, pictures, and a captivating text. It is a highly successful combination of academic excellence and in-depth practical experience working in difficult circumstances and committed to the concrete problems of Global South populations. The author should be congratulated for conducting such an important study and providing us many reasons to reflect on the crucial need to reconcile the specific and general, Bahia and Brazil, coloniality and postmodernity, the local and global, past and present elements of this complex world of ours.

Citation: Antonio Ioris. Review of Scanlan Lyons, Colleen M., Running After Paradise: Hope, Survival, and Activism in Brazil’s Atlantic Forest. H-Environment, H-Net Reviews. November, 2022. URL:

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.