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The Americas 58.3 (2002) 476-477

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Fruitless Trees: Portuguese Conservation and Brazil's Colonial Timber. By Shawn William Miller. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2000. Pp. xiii, 325. Illustrations. Appendix. Notes. Bibliography. Index. $55.00 cloth.

This important contribution to the growing field of conservation and environmental history argues that the uncommon destruction of Brazil's forests was a direct result of Portuguese forest policy during the colonial period. Royal policy "provided no incentives for conservation, few opportunities for timbering profits, and every stimulus for landowners to destroy what, by decree, did not belong to them" (p. 8). The analysis boils down to the simple formula "monopoly = destruction." Furthermore, this was not only an environmental disaster, but also an economic one. In the name of protecting timber for shipbuilding, the Crown made it impossible for royal subjects to make a profit on timber, paradoxically restricted the supply of timber for the king, and provided incentives for burning the forest rather than harvesting it. This was an opportunity for economic development foregone. According to Miller, "The king, his subjects, and the forest would have been arguably better off, under the circumstances, had there been no forest policy at all" (p. 69).

In some ways a sharp response to the work of Warren Dean, Miller has carefully reconstructed the tragic history of Brazil's colonial timber industry. Although he agrees with Dean that the destruction of "Brazil's coastal forests was uniquely violent, rapid, and careless," this was not the result of rapacious Portuguese attitudes toward the forest (p. 8). Ironically, he argues, it was the Crown's efforts to monopolize the timber industry that made the production and export of timber inefficient, unproductive, and ultimately easier for the settler to burn the forest rather than harvest it. Although the analysis is clearly argued, Miller's strident tone (especially when criticizing Dean), his snide remarks about environmentalism ("preachy, first-world origins" [p. 232]), and his dismay that the Portuguese did not have enough foresight to be like the English in North America (p. 231) are irritations in a very well researched and clearly written book. [End Page 476]

With seven concise chapters sandwiched between an introduction and conclusion, Miller's book is well organized and chock full of esoteric and valuable information about timber and its uses. Chapter 1 provides a nice overview of the ecological setting emphasizing the quality of Brazilian timber, especially its lightness and elasticity. In the next chapter he then moves to the heart of the matter, an overview of Portuguese timber policy, especially the royal monopoly on the timber industry. Chapter 3 surveys Brazil's timber in the Atlantic world showing how nearly every Brazilian port exported timber, but those exports were not significant and never lived up to expectations. His next chapter on the "tropical woodsman" is especially informative as is Chapter 5 where he discusses the technology of timbering--focusing on the ax, ox, and sawmill. An important piece of his argument is that Brazil did not suffer from technological backwardness in the industry, but rather technological inefficiencies produced by Portuguese conservation policies. His chapter on transport is also an important rethinking of an important issue in the historiography of the colonial period. He persuasively argues that despite the poor harbors and lack of good river transport, Brazil's inability to produce and export timber were not constrained by those obstacles as much as the Crown's monopoly. Chapter 7 on shipbuilding and tropical timber is also a very important contribution to our understanding of this key sector of the economy. The tiny size of the Portuguese naval and maritime fleets were at times astonishingly small and inadequate for an empire built on oceanic transport.

This is a richly detailed study that employs a wide variety of archival and printed sources. Like many studies of the colonial period, it is hampered by the need to rely on early nineteenth-century travel accounts (especially British and French) to read backwards in time. The source bias in the book is toward the late eighteenth...


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