Anthropological Quarterly 75.4 (2002) 829-832
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In Amazonia: Territorial Struggles on Perennial Frontiers, Paul Little argues that the Amazon is not a single, finite frontier but many perennial ones formed as a result of fragmented but interconnected environmental and social histories. Little posits that Amazonia is shaped by the series of boom and bust cycles of commodity exploitation and the various social groups who arrive riding the waves of these cycles. Focussing on the Jari river region of Brazil and the Aguarico river area in Ecuador, Little uses an interdisciplinary environmental anthropological perspective to examine and compare the accelerating rate of change and "centuries of territorial disputes among various social actors." Amazonia is ambitious in scope and Little successfully rises to the challenge of providing historical and ethnographic specifics for each region. He is to be commended also for tracing similarities and discontinuities across time and across his two field sites. However, Little's analytical framework does not match the richness of his ethnography and thus limits the broader relevance and insights of Amazonia.
Two concepts are central to Little's environmental anthropology of Amazonia: human territoriality and cosmography. According to Little, human territoriality is "the collective effort of a social group to identity with, occupy, use, and establish control over the specific parcel of their biophysical environment that [End Page 829] serves as their homeland or territory" (p. 4), and "cosmography is the collective, historically contingent identities, ideologies, and environmental knowledge systems developed by a social group to establish and maintain human territory" (p. 5). According to Little, human territoriality is not an even or abrupt process, as overlapping cosmographies lead to territorial conflict and dispute amid asymmetrical power relations. He notes further that similar global processes are intercepted and shaped differently by local actors and effects, as well as by "natural agency" as environmental factors respond to human intervention.
Little charts territorial change from colonial times to the present in his two areas of study—the two river basins. He chronicles how indigenous cosmographies in both regions are overridden by the cosmographies of conquest during the establishment of historical frontiers. In Chapter Two, he shows how after an extensive period of neglect, both Amazonian regions are recolonized through large-scale development projects. During the 1970s and 1980s, the rising tide of environmental cosmographies challenged and won over these various forms of developmentalism. In Ecuador, environmental cosmographies interacted to various degrees with neo-indigenous cosmographies to assert the need for sustainable land use and conservation of natural resources through the promotion of nature-based tourism. In Brazil, by contrast, environmental cosmographies were appropriated for various reasons and degrees by the state and local actors to replace large-scale development projects with sustainable use extractive reserves.
In Amazonia, Little outlines in rich detail the differential contribution of enterpreneurs, migrants, the state, and local ethnic and non-ethnic societies to the process of territorialization in the two regions. However, the social, economic, political and cultural complexity of territorial change that are revealed through his ethnographic details are not sufficiently matched by Little's interpretative insights. This deficiency is related to the limits of the author's principle analytical terms. Neither those terms (cosmography and human territoriality) nor their linkages with broader political economy (on which Little's argument rests) has been sufficiently theorized. These limits are especially revealing in Little's discussion of the shift from developmentalism to environmentalism.
In the chapter entitled "Saving the Rainforest," Little explores the Brazilian state's transition from developmentalism to environmentalism and its impact on the Jari region. Changes in political power at the national level and the increasing importance of the Amazon in the global environmental discourse lead to the establishment of the Jari Ecological Station in the early 1982. This transformation is curious given that the Brazilian state had nationalized American billionaire Daniel Ludwig's Jari Project, perceiving it as a threat to national sovereignity, and [End Page 830] that environmentalist cosmographies are understood to be western or...