Hecht, Susanna and Alexander Cockburn. 1989. The Fate of the Forest. London: Verso.
The first thing that stands out from Susanna Hecht and Alexander Cockburn’s classic Fate of the Forest is its mesmerizing writing style. The prose effortlessly moves the reader through centuries of history—social and natural—of the Amazon’s changing fate. From the dystopian Eden’s encountered by gold-crazed conquistadors to the modern day military fantasies and paranoia of Brazilian generals, the Brazilian Amazon pulses not only with biophysical life but also with a long history of social struggles—best of all, the authors manage to entwine these complex threads.
It is no wonder the book became an instant classic work of political ecology. The book helped dispel popular ideas about the Brazilian Amazon being felled by land-hungry peasants hacking their way into a pristine, untouched “wilderness.” The peasants were there, of course, but the authors paint a much more complex picture in which indigenous, rubber tappers, garimpeiros (artisanal placer miner), and settlers, though often pitted against each other, are the scapegoats (and victims, actually) of much broader and ravenous forces at work in the forest. The furies against the forest were fully unleashed in the 1960s when “the generals, the large entrepreneurs whom the generals saw as their natural allies in development, the extractionist oligarchies of rubber forest and Brazil-nut groves who had grown rich on their state leases and debt peons; and the speculators and ranchers” (129). The fateful result is by-now familiar (and ongoing): “burned forests, annihilated species, degraded lands, poisoned rivers, and toxic soils” (130).
The authors surface the politics of the forest that were buried in reigning discourses about the Amazon’s destruction. Without questions of history, politics, and distribution, fights over the forest could be portrayed as “some kind of geographical fantasy that draws lines on maps while ignoring the economic forces that have washed over the region and shaped its people and land uses. The Amazon landscape is not the outcome of a few planning errors” (205).
The authors show how the role of the military in shaping this landscape was fundamental amid concerns straddling military and economic concerns. The Amazon became an object of geopolitical concern for Brazil with domestic and international ramifications. Long standing dreams of a March to the West (a creolized Manifest Destiny) linked up with Cold War security doctrines. The dictatorships military strategists, above all Gen. Golbery, drew on the geopolitical theories of German geographer Friedrich Ratzel (103), in designing a “grand strategy” for the Amazon. The plan involved linking different regions of Brazil (“maneuvering platforms”) along axes that would integrate and subsume different portions of the Amazon through a three-part strategy. “Indeed the national security of Brazil demanded the complete integration of economic and military strategy and space, since rapid economic development was mandatory for neutralizing political challenges from the left” (103).
Although never blind to the multiply scaled dynamics present in the Amazons, particularly nationalist fears about the “internationalization of the Amazon,” the authors are more concerned with showing the way the many of the destructive dynamics stem from national actors (who of course act in a global context). For instance, contrary to some accounts from the day, the authors contend that the involvement of international capital played a “relatively minor” role. Instead, they highlight the “triple alliance” of “international, national and state corporations,” which demands a more “penetrating analysis regarding the role of the state and national elites than is usually offered” (98). Brazilian capitalists, they note, are the main culprits behind forest-clearing for pasture, which was “prime motivator” of deforestation.
In the concluding sections of the book, I found the discussion of “extractive reserves” particularly interesting. The reserves were the result of hard-fought struggles by various forest producers (particularly garimpeiros, indigenous, and tappers). These producers see the reserves “primarily as social and political spaces as well as physical entities” (200). However, the authors strongly temper their enthusiasm for these spaces wrought by political victories in light of the growing involvement of national and international development agencies getting involved and integrating them within ideas of agro-ecological zoning. “Without social content, the reserves become mere lines on a map, and not necessarily more secure than any other parcel in Amazônia. Without thorough organizing at local levels (which for many reasons is politically unpalatable to the local, if not national, elites) the reserves on their own cannot survive. They will only have a cartographic reality” (201). And, worse, such spaces could become the sites of new enclosures.