“BRUMASA controlled the Amazon timber trade from the beginnings of the logging boom in the early 1960s through to the 1980s. They bought up vast stretches of the estuary and built a state-of-the-art sawmill at Santana. They processed high-value timber for export, either to the south of Brazil, to the United States, or to Europe, and they sold cheaper lumber for construction in the local market. They operated largely by contract, buying logs from independent third parties who set up poorly capitalized, inefficient, and mostly short-lived sawmills at the mouths of distant rivers. BRUMASA’s operations extended from Santana past Manaus, nearly 1000 miles upstream. They brought wood cut in Igarapé Guariba until there was no more worth buying, and, from his dealing with residents, Octávio, a senior manager in those years of dynamism, felt secure in asserting the place’s typicality and confident about describing its history and future.
Octávio began by explaining that he, too, was índio, an Indian. His blood was just as contaminated, his spirit just as base, as those who lived in the countryside and whom, he told me, I could find drinking themselves stupid down by the docks or wandering through town looking lost. In fact, everyone here in the Amazon, he told me, was índio. The patrões – the landowners – were the same, he said, even if they did not look it. What I should realize was that he, Octávio, had escaped in a way that these other wealthy men had not: they may be bosses, but they were of the interior, the hinterland, and they had never fully broken away. He, however, had been moving in a completely different world – working for a major international corporation, running the largest sawmill in the eastern Amazon, transforming his thinking and his character. He had, as Amazonians say, ‘mudou a cabeça,’ he had ‘changed his head'” (45)
As a genre, natural history kind of seems like The Anti-Theory. But a close friend gave me a copy of Hugh Raffles’ In Amazonia: A Natural History to check out and that’s what I’m reading at the moment. I wanted to post on it because I’m really getting a lot out of it.
The central theme of the book is how a place labeled “natural” by an endless parade of outsiders has been constantly reshaped through the interplay of anthropogenic and biophysical processes: by moving water, the timber industry, small-scale agriculture, etc., all the way back to the prehistoric production of terra preta. The perspectival character of ‘nature’ and the work required to produce a ‘place’ are crucial but well-worn points in environmental anthropology. Thankfully, Raffles doesn’t just reiterate them ad nauseum, but builds those theoretical insights into his own ethnographic vision of the place, providing a rich and historically sweeping vision of the Brazilian Amazon. I’ve been particularly struck by his ability to evoke people in ways that speak volumes about local and regional socio-political-ecological-economic dynamics. His sketch of Octávio, only a small fragment of which is excerpted above, is a prime example.
Raffles, Hugh (2000) In Amazonia: A Natural History. Princeton: Princeton UP.