9 Jan 2009, 3:24pm
Cultural Landscapes The Wilderness Myth
by admin

Of Fates, Forests, and Futures: Myths, Epistemes, and Policy in Tropical Conservation

Susanna B. Hecht. 1993. Of Fates, Forests, and Futures: Myths, Epistemes, and Policy in Tropical Conservation. Horace Marden Albright Lecturer in Conservation. UC Berkeley College of Natural Resources

Full text [here]

Selected excerpts


In spite of increasingly strident international censure, the global rates of deforestation in the tropical world have more than doubled during the last decade (Myers 1990). This destructive pattern is well advanced in the Western Amazon. In 1980, less than 8,000 km of Rondonia’s forests had fallen. Acre’s forests were largely intact. By the end of the decade some 60,000 km, or 17% of the state of Rondonia had been cleared. In Acre - more distant, fewer roads and more politically organized - by the mid-1990s, some 5% of the lands had been deforested (FUNTAC 1990). Spurred by government colonization programs, fiscal distortions, land speculation, timber concessions, dubious land titles and the migration of almost a million peasants from southern Brazil (World Bank, 1989), forests relentlessly fell. Degraded pastures and abandoned farms soon replaced rich woodlands. Weed invasion, declines in soil fertility, and frontier economics all took their toll as colonists and ranchers pressed ever forward. …

Rapid deforestation and resource degradation are related to the ecological instability and economic peculiarities of the forms of land occupation expressed by current regional development efforts. But why such forms of land use have come to dominate the landscape leads us further to questions that lie at the heart of deforestation: how we understand it, and how we hope to halt it.

What I will do in this article is to explore some of the deeper epistemological issues that inform our models and environmental sciences of how the world unfolds in these regions. While the scientific literature, airwaves and popular culture barrage us with “explanations,” these competing, largely unexamined paradigms have policy and real-world outcomes. I will examine first two broad overarching approaches that have been instrumental in defining resources debates in the first world, how these have articulated with the scientific frameworks that have been significant in interpreting tropical forests and populations as well as their peoples. I will also discuss the emerging counter view. These will then be linked to explanations of deforestation, and their policy consequences.

The Amazon has always been a mirror to the vibrant fantasies of its observers. Any review of its history is always tremendously disconcerting because there are so many disparate versions of Amazonia, in part because the region is so enormous. But as much as it is a forest of trees, it is also in Turner’s phrase “a forest of symbols.” …

As a tabula rasa, an area perceived in the Western mind as largely devoid of history, the tropics, and Amazonia particularly, have become a canvas for narratives about primitivism, purity, and the primeval, what I have called tropicality. Now, this may seem quite removed from the technical debates over rates of species extinction, magnitude of C02 generation, and alternative agroforestry systems. I argue that what at first seem like arcane philosophical debates have quite a bit to do with the way we view the tropics and their inhabitants, how we explain processes of deforestation, and how we propose to conserve or manage these regions.

Tropical Environmentalism

Lost Eden and El Dorado

While we are accustomed to thinking about myths as attributes of primitive peoples, or as characteristics of our Mediterranean past, the extensive tropical myth making of the colonial period barely registers in the consciousness of most of today’s analysts. In most of the US environmental community, and in its global equivalents, two major conceptions prevail: that of the Lost Eden and that of El Dorado. These overarching constructs have variants reflecting historical periods, and the political interests for which they have been mobilized, though simplified, as heuristic devices they are most useful.

Lost Eden traces its American origins to John Muir as well as the American Transcendentalist movements. But its roots are much deeper and easily trace back to the French descriptions of Brazil by de Lery in the 16th century, and to the widely known works of de La Condamine, Condorcet and Rousseau-to the enlightenment roots of European romanticism. In this view, nature is a wilderness, an object of religious or scientific contemplation, an area of spiritual renewal, a primal area, an Eden. Spared the noxious hand of modem man and the corrupt state, nature’s true glory, as well as man’s innate nobility, is revealed. This stands in contrast to the deeper history of wildness and danger, and the necessity, indeed obligation as part of the civilizing process, to tame the natural world.

As he gazed upon the majesty of Yosemite, as an employee of the local logging company, Muir conceived of the mountain areas around him as an untrammeled wilderness. His lost Eden however beautiful and wild as he saw it, was a nature that in fact had been shaped and molded by human agency. He was contemplating the former territory of the Miwok Indians, whose population was the largest one north of the Aztec empire. The people who had fashioned this landscape had been devastated by the gold rush, been dispossessed by agricultural settlers and ravaged by disease. In their profound absence, he assumed that they had never been. What he took as a wilderness was to other eyes an agricultural landscape formed of trees and tubers which his own conception of agriculture, and his own conception of nature, could not comprehend. This area, so majestic in its beauty and its vegetation, had been both human artifact and habitat.

The Lost Eden paradigm posits conservation issues in terms of wilderness and wildness and more recently biodiversity. The poignancy of loss is traced to the corrupting hand of man, and thus to save what we admire, we must stop ourselves from inhabiting it in anything but a spiritual way. Environment and conservation are thus deeply moral issues. Thus set asides - the model for this is the US National Parks - are the dominant means to this lofty end. Human society - particularly in rude numbers - is specifically excluded.

In contrast to this highly ennobled vision of Muir, we turn to his contemporary, the rational, managerialist Gifford Pinchot, the first director of the US Forest Service. As a product of Roosevelt’s progressive era as well as German scientific forestry, he was concerned to control unbridled excesses of petty entrepreneurialism that characterized the timber industry at the turn of the century. Thus using the emerging, unprecedented regulatory power of the state, he set his task to one of large scale state management of resources, and the creation of a regulatory apparatus focused on forest management along industrial lines (Hay, 1956). By rationalizing production, wasteful activities would be transcended. Consolidation into state holdings as well as corporate structures would provide economies of scale and economic buffers able to protect (at least in theory) land resources from mining and overuse.

For Muir, destruction of resources and their preservation represented a moral crisis, while for Pinchot the problem was merely managerial, a technical one of efficient resource use.

If we translate these perspectives to their international arena, they naturally become more complex because they are infused with colonial concerns pertaining to the three G’s (God, gold, and glory) or 3 Cs (commerce, Christianity, and civilization). But Brazil in particular was deeply affected by French enlightenment thinkers and by its own nativist movements as well as by the waves of scientific expeditions and adventurers who surged over the region in thinly disguised forays of espionage and botanical theft.2 In the literature on Amazonian history and development, the search for the lost Eden is everywhere, at least when viewed by outsiders.3 The cousin of lost Eden, El Dorado, requires further elaboration because of its linkage to two deeper mythologies: for the individual entrepreneur, the Great Journey - a kind of entrepreneurial Iliad of knowledge and profit; for the state, Manifest Destiny.

Both these views are highly “developmentalist,” but one posits primacy in private gain to the glory of the national order, while the other invokes state management and control. For both the entrepreneur as well as the state, El Dorado evokes regions of untapped riches for both private glory and state coffers. In the idiom of Brazil, the entrepreneur, the Bandeirante - so named because they economically claimed uncharted lands for the crown and its flag, the bandeira - were the sinews that bound private gain with national identity in the uncharted tropics.

These optics, in complex interaction during the post colonial period with ideologies of nature whether that of the spiritual Muir, or materialist Pinchot, presume, when translated into their Third World matrix, forests to be wild entities, either devoid of people, or if inhabited, people of small consequence.4

Thus wildness and emptiness become the overarching view of these regions, awaiting salvation or pillage. The fact that these areas had been arenas of resistance and revolt since contact was obliterated by the frameworks imposed upon them in the post-war period in which scientific enterprise in biology and anthropology had an unusually important role.

… The historic dominance of equilibrium models in biology have also infused these areas with a purported stasis, a continuity that seemingly stretched back to the Permian. Like Eden, these forests supposedly resided in some complex perfection so ancient as to be outside of history.

Forest inhabitants also inhabit a history. Impressions of tropical forests were deeply imbued by African and Asian colonial history where barbarism and inchoate nature cohabit. …

The scientific luster placed on this perception owes a great deal to the work of the influential Amazon scholar, Betty Meggars.

Science and Society in Tropical Ecologies

In contrast to the classic trends in social anthropology which emphasized symbolic and political structures, Meggars extended Kroeber’s ideas on the limits of culture through the elaboration of what might be called the “soil determinist” view of cultural history. Using the Kayapo Indians as the central example in her opus Counterfeit Paradise, she argued that in the vast areas of the tropics dominated by poor soils and cultivated with swidden agriculture, complex cultures could never evolve because of the inability to generate and store the surpluses necessary for stratified societies and their attendant arts and sciences.

Thus, limits to culture were essentially environmental, and the kinds of dynamics and structures witnessed in these societies were adaptations to the unexpected rigors of tropical life and its marginally productive agriculture. Many cultural structures - trekking, taboos, infanticide etc. were viewed as cultural regulators mediating environmental pressures. Transferring other ideas from the biological sciences, such as those of carrying capacity, she argued that the low population densities were at “K” or maximum sustainable density, and expressed uniquely environmental conditions. She argued away the existence of complex cultures in Marajo, Santarem, the Beni, as Andean flotsam.

… More to the point, that tropical regions even had a human history was regularly overlooked, even as biologists toiled at “primary forests” of the La Selva research station, later discovered to have been substantially modified by Mayan occupation.

The ensemble of these views - the empty and the wild - certainly served the purposes of theory construction. In addition, the overarching evolutionary models of tropical life also implied a thinly veiled subtext of social Darwinism. This perspective had other implications. In another context, Michael Dove has made a very relevant point about the political economy of ignorance - that to see tropical realms as largely devoid of people, and these possessing only primitive technologies, and tropical lands as unmanaged, with no history other than a biological one, made swidden lands easy to expropriate by colonial governments. …

Conservationists of this period also shared these perspectives and held that the primal forests could only persist in a world outside of history.

While the logic of the motives of the developmentalist states and entrepreneurs, and conservationists were diametrically opposed, both camps viewed their intercessions as essential for the good of society as part of the mission civilizatrice. For the states, this charge was to bring these lands and peoples into the “new” orbit of modem history. For conservationists, the objective was to isolate these realms from history. Their impacts on local populations was roughly similar and involved vast processes of land expropriation.

Tropical Habitat and Artifact

While the dominant scientific paradigm tended to glorify nature, and trivialize natives6, a counter analysis was also developing that was informed by quite a different optic. Inspired by field ethnography and in some cases by the emerging political and environmental debates in both the US and Latin America, this “new paradigm” began to challenge prevailing doctrine. The focus was mainly historical and agroecological.

Take first the lessons of historical demography and archeology.

The first question was what had populations been? Caravajal’s amazed descriptions of societies fielding 60,000 canoes full of warriors and hosting the Portuguese reconnaissance mission for months on end had been dismissed as foolish boasting. The dense populations of the central lowlands encountered by the Jesuits in eastern Bolivia and the LLanos do Mojo, as well as the complex pottery and dense settlements of the areas of Santarem and Marajo argued for a reassessment of the potential population densities in the region and always challenged the Meggars model. Native agricultural systems of the Americas suggested far more widespread impacts than previously thought (cf Denevan 1989) as ridged beds, drainage canals, terraces and other agronomic hardware of Amazonian craft became better known.

The essential question was whether this evidence of complex culture represented transpositions of Andean culture. Donald Lathrap, who had a long standing feud with Meggers emphatically argued from Upper Amazonian data, mainly pottery styles and motifs, that the direction was from the lowlands to the highlands. Anna Roosevelt in the most detailed archeological effort in the lower Amazon, suggested that rather than being a remote cultural back-water, Amazonia, especially its lower reaches was a major center, with stratified societies and complex social and production arrangements. Indeed, South America’s oldest pottery was found in Santarem.

Exhaustive reviews of contact and obliteration, such as those by Hemming (1987, 1982, 1976, 1972) provide insight into the patterns of indigenous dislocation and collapse. Other researchers, such as Gott (1992) Taussig (1988) Brown and Fernandez (1992) further illustrate the dynamics of disease and terror in the depopulation of Amazonian ecologies.

Historical botanical studies have also served to recast the debate. Denevan’s magisterial efforts on ridged field agriculture throughout Latin America provided the intellectual and philosophical guidance for deeply recasting the debates on population through the optic of production, and bringing into to resolute focus human impacts on tropical landscapes. These helped stimulate general analyses of regional vegetation patterns such as those of Balee, who deemed the region to be characterized by “cultural forests” and posits that roughly 12% of Amazonian forests are decidedly anthropogenic.

Thus large scale regional forest patterning reflects human intervention. Other studies have reviewed human impacts on succession in tropical zones, arguing that diversity patterns can in fact be enhanced by human modification. … Posey (1989, and others) have reported that the Kayapo regularly move plants from one watershed to another and plant along forest trails thus affecting the broader regional distribution of species and subspecies.

Assumptions of the productivity and technology of swidden agriculture on acid soils of the tropics, came under further review as efforts began to focus on indigenous production strategies and resource management, and quantitative descriptions of the agroecology of such systems became more widespread. The enormous literature often reprised the Meggars debate, (cf Hames and Vickers 1984) but increasingly also served to develop a systematic body of literature on ethnopedology (cf Hecht and Posey 1989), successional management (cf Denevan and Padoch 1988, Irvine 1989), crop diversity (Chernela 1991) and broader issues of resource management (Robinson and Redford 1990, Redford and Padoch 1993).

… Detailed studies of the production systems of peasantries, including petty extractors have also amplified the way scientists have viewed the extent of human modification of “natural” tropical vegetation. In addition, the increased ability of tropical populations to articulate the nature of their interaction with environment as well as their enhanced political voice, further consolidated this perspective. …


Introducing: Susanna B. Hecht

It is the University’s privilege that Susanna Hecht is the 32nd Horace Marden Albright Lecturer in Conservation.

Susanna Hecht is Associate Professor in the Graduate School of Architecture and Urban Planning, University of California at Los Angeles, where she took up her appointment beginning as a Visiting Professor in 1992. At UCLA she has taught a number of courses dealing with agricultural ecology and rural development, regional development and policy, tropical agricultural development and resources, soil morphology and management, and nutrient cycling. Much of her research interest is centered in the Amazon Basin and, since her initial work there in the mid- 1970s, Professor Hecht has established an international reputation as a leader in the broad field of resource conservation.

Professor Hecht received a Bachelor’s degree in 1972 from the University of Chicago, and followed that with an MA in 1976 and a Ph.D. in 1982, both from the University of California at Berkeley.

Her numerous publications deal with a broad spectrum of Amazonian issues including environmental politics, deforestation, economics of cattle ranching, shifting cultivation, land use, agroforestry, societal development planning, soil and water policies, and global environmental change.

Being amazingly active professionally, Professor Hecht’s professional activities include:

Member of the Board of Trustees of the Institute for PreHistory, Anthropology, and Ecology;
Member of the Board of the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture;
In the last ten years she has served on a Blue Ribbon Panel: Agriculture 2000 which gave directions for US Development Assistance;
Advisor to the Committee on Sustainable Agriculture for Developing Countries;
Member of the Board of the Rainforest Alliance;
Member of two panels of the National Academy of Sciences;
Panel member of the National Research Council;
Advisory Board member of the Organization for Tropical Studies;
Member of the Directorate of the U.S. Man in the Biosphere Program;
Member of the Advisory Board of the US Congress’ Board on Tropical Rainforest Policy.

Professor Hecht has served as a consultant to foundations such as Ford, Rockefeller, Pew Charitable Trusts and MacArthur, and to government agencies such as AID and equivalent agencies in several other countries. She also has done consulting for many non-governmental organizations such as Rainforest Action Network, Environmental Defense Fund, and the World Wildlife Fund, and Multilateral Organizations including the World Bank and the United Nations.

Her reputation is such that she has been interviewed by numerous newspapers including the New York Times, The Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, Los Angeles Times and the San Francisco Examiner. She has appeared often on television and radio and written many articles for the international press and magazines. She has been an advisor to two film documentaries and contributed to exhibits at the Smithsonian, a museum in Brazil, and at the Earth Summit in Rio.

Professor Hecht has been honored since 1991 by being invited to give distinguished lectures at universities including Stanford, Illinois, Cornell, and Columbia.

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