“Destruction and conservation in debate: Brazil’s environmental history in a global perspective," a conference summary by Nathalia Capellini
The International Workshop “Destruction and conservation in debate: Brazil’s environmental history in a global perspective” took place on October 13 and 14, 2016 in Paris, France. This workshop, the first ever to be dedicated to Brazilian environmental history outside of Brazil, offered a space to discuss both the state of the art and the new perspectives of this discipline. Studies presented dealt with a wide variety of environmental topics, including its representations, politics and material changes, and covered a large timeframe, from colonial times to contemporary studies. Despite the diversity of approaches, the research presented was linked by the idea of going beyond the declensionist narrative of Brazil’s environment that has historically characterized the reflections on this subject.
The workshop grew out of a desire to gather European scholars working on Brazilian environmental history and work to evaluate and overcome the lack of research in France on this field. This absence seemed odd in a country that has a large history of Brazilianist studies (including about the environment) and a tradition on environmental consideration in history, with the heritage of Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie, Lucien Febvre, Fernand Braudel and the École des Annales. In welcoming participants to the workshop, Antonella Romano, director of the hosting institution, the Center Alexandre-Koyré (École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales), pointed out that although there are many bridges between French and Brazilian research, and that the Center, among other institutions, has a commitment to developing the field of environmental history, thus far, these two subjects have not been combined. In response to the call for papers, many proposals came from Brazil and the United States, and so the workshop broadened and became a space of transatlantic discussion on the environmental history of Brazil.
The workshop’s first panel was centered specifically on the colonial period. Inês Amorim (Universidade do Porto) analyzed images and cartography of Brazilian territorial occupation produced during colonization and made the case for going beyond the Eurocentric view of this process as a homogeneous movement from the coastline to inner lands. Diogo de Carvalho Cabral (Instituto Brasileiro de Geografia e Estatística) reminded us of the effect literacy had on the subjugation of indigenous labor, territory and culture by the colonizer. Drawing on a more local analysis, Gustavo Azenha’s (Columbia University) presentation dealt with Portuguese interactions with indigenous people in a region of Southern Bahia over timber extraction and the concomitant rise of nature conservation policies.
In the second panel, Teresa Cribelli (University of Alabama) presented her ongoing research about narratives of progress through the use of natural resources and “wilderness geographies”. She examined nineteenth century International Exhibitions to compare and find bridges between the cases of Brazil and the United States’ frontier states. Ethienne Sauthier (Université Paris III) examined how Brazilian writers like Lima Barreto and Euclides da Cunha depicted tropical nature as an identitarian element for national sentiment in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Ely Bergo de Carvalho (Universidade Federal de Minas Gerais) presented a study about the representations of Brazilian environment in school textbooks since the 1960s. He observed that they follow a declensionist pattern while, at the same, praising (capitalist) development, inhibiting a critical perspective on the matter.
On the evening of the first day a broader debate took place about the environmental policies of Brazil after the impeachment of President Dilma Rousseff. Led by the environmentalist André Abreu de Almeida and the journalist Frédéric Pagès, the conversation was an open dialogue between civil society and academia. The discussion was strongly politicized and dealt with the legacy of Presidents Lula and Dilma’s policies for the environment and the prospective actions of the current government. Many participants expressed their fear of increased attacks against the nature preservation law in Brazil and the communities that depend on it. Abreu de Almeida underlined the need to get out of a good versus bad dichotomy to find better solutions to the environmental (and political) crisis in Brazil, and Pagès stressed the fact that these attacks against environmental and social environmental movements in Brazil are not new. Even though the assessment of the current and future situation was rather negative, the debate ended on the positive note that the crisis might be an opportunity to build a new critique of the political system based on political ecology.
The second day opened with a round table organized to go beyond the Brazilian example. The presentations included other world regions (Mexico, Cambodia and Malaysia) and a transnational space (the Amazon forest). Jorge Quetzal Argueta (École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales) presented a study about the history of agronomic research in Mexico stressing the role of foreign expertise and environmental conflict in this example. Matthieu Guérin (Institut national des langues et civilisations orientales) compared the colonization processes of Malaysia and Cambodia and their impact on the evolution of forests, fauna and later environmental policies, questioning the relevance of the nation-state scale. The following presentations dealt with the Amazon forest: Kevin Niebauer (Freie Universitat Berlin) discussed the globalization of the Amazon rainforest focusing on the role of circulation of scientific knowledge, while Thomas Mougey (Maastricht University) focused on the UNESCO’s project for an International Scientific Institute in the Amazon. In this panel the importance of transnational and foreign actors in the management of the environment was central: the role of U.S. corporations in Mexico’s case, the ex-colonial powers for Malaysia and Cambodia, the international scientific community and international agencies in the Amazon case. That is not to say that these territories are always under the yoke of outsiders, as Mougey underlined in his study questioning the marginalization of the Amazon forest in global history. Guérin emphasized the common trends and actors in the comparison of environmental histories of the Global South but also highlighted the importance of local (and very local) dynamics for understanding the complexity of these histories.
The next session started with Jennifer Eaglin’s study of caneworkers and the Guariba strikes of 1984 in São Paulo, and their impacts on establishing labor rights under an exploitative agriculture-focused development program. Next, Claire Lagier’s presented on the Landless People’s Movement (MST) in Southern Brazil and their ecological turn. The discussion showed the connections between these two examples through the figure of the agricultural worker and how the Guariba strikes ended up influencing the adoption of agroecology by MST.
The last session started with the presentation by Mariana Sales (Université Paris III) of the eighteenth century manuscripts of traveler Ferdinand Denis on the Brazilian flora gathered in the Saint-Genevieve’s library. Then, Georg Fischer (Aarhus University), using the example of iron ore extraction in Minas Gerais around 1910s, talked about the making and circulation of knowledge around iron prospects and how it shaped the materiality of a commodified landscape. Last, André Felipe Cândido da Silva (Fiocruz) stressed the key role of science and technology in development projects in Brazil while presenting his research program, “Water, Health and Environment in Development Projects in the Brazil of the Twentieth Century”. The role of experts, doctors, intellectuals and travelers in the production of knowledge around nature and the subsequent transformation of nature into resource was central to all of these papers.
José Augusto Pádua, professor of the Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro and leading scholar on Brazilian environmental history, gave the closing lecture titled “Brazil in the History of the Anthropocene”. He presented a longue-durée approach to Brazilian history in relation to the three waves that evoke the Anthropocene concept, industrialization (1800-1945), the great acceleration since the 1950s and the current “self-reflecting” times. In his presentation he emphasized the importance of global connections in this analysis and developed some ideas on the key role of environmental history’s reflections for the present and future of the environment in Brazil.
These two days of discussion offered a very broad perspective on the research being done on Brazilian environmental history in Brazil, the United States and Europe. This international panorama proved very enlightening for European researchers working on the subject. Likewise, European researchers offered original viewpoints and new archival possibilities. The studies presented showed the importance of transnational as well as local dynamics and revealed the importance of conflict in the making of environmental histories. In spite of the variety of issues presented in the different studies, the strong links between environmental history and history of sciences stood out. Overall, the workshop offered a more careful and complex understanding of environmental dynamics in Brazilian history beyond a narrative of plundering and destruction. In sum, the workshop was very fruitful and announces potentially promising pathways for Brazilian environmental history research in Europe and further afield.
The workshop was organized by Antoine Acker, postdoctoral fellow in the Environmental Humanities Research Group at the University of Turin, and Nathalia Capellini, PhD candidate in history at the University of Versailles Saint-Quentin-en-Yvelines. This workshop was made possible with the help of several institutions, and especially the European Society for Environmental History that granted us with their Small Workshop Fund, the Institut des Amériques, the Centre d’Histoire Culturelle des Sociétés Contemporaines (Université de Versailles Saint-Quentin-en-Yvelines) and the Association for Brazilian Research in Europe.