- In Search of the Amazon: Brazil, the United States, and the Nature of a Region by Seth Garfield
Long before construction of the Transamazon Highway across northern Brazil captured the world’s attention in the early 1970s, Amazonia had already been subject to large-scale regional development efforts. The most famous of the extractive cycles was the historic “rubber boom,” which lasted from approximately 1850 to 1910, when native Amazonian rubber (primarily Hevea brasiliensis) became a valuable primary commodity in industrial processes. This classic period of Amazon rubber extraction has been the subject of influential studies by Barbara Weinstein, Warren Dean, and others. Seth Garfield’s In Search of the Amazon resumes the region’s environmental history during the transformative, but often overlooked period of World War II.
Although competition from more productive rubber plantations in Southeast Asia – born of rubber seeds smuggled out of their native region by a British adventurer – ended Amazonian supremacy in the early twentieth century, a resurgence of extraction occurred during World War II. Given the sudden wartime disruption of trade with Asia, the United States embarked on a frantic search for new sources of rubber to support the Allied war effort. This mid-century period has previously lacked the scholarly attention of the earlier classical period of Amazonian rubber extraction, but recent works have begun to address this gap in the literature. Greg Grandin’s Fordlândia (Picador 2010) recounts the saga of Henry Ford’s not-so-excellent adventure with rubber plantations on the Tapajós River between 1928 and 1945, which ended in total failure. Garfield’s book covers the same period, but broadens the regional framework to link the Brazilian Northeast to Amazonia through wartime recruitment and migration of rubber tappers. While lacking the sharp focus and high personal drama of Fordlândia, Garfield’s work provides a meticulous environmental history and systematic analysis of Amazonian political ecology in the context of swirling regional, national and international forces. As a result, the recent works by Grandin and Garfield complement each other and together provide essential references on Amazonia in the mid-twentieth century.
In Search of the Amazon examines an important, if often ignored period of regional change. Brazil’s modern transformation from a regional South American power to a developmental state with industrial aspirations and rising international significance can be traced to the Revolution of 1930, which brought Getúlio Vargas to power. Vargas ruled as a populist with increasingly authoritarian tendencies after the proclamation of the Estado Novo in 1937. By the time that Vargas stepped down in 1945 at the close of the Second World War, which Brazil entered on the side of the Allies, the country had undergone profound changes in the state’s political-economic role, official recognition of labor unions, broadened electoral representation (including female suffrage), and the growth of industrialization. While the national politics and policies of Vargas have been the subject of wide scholarship, the Estado Novo’s role in promoting more effective integration of Amazonia has received relatively little scholarly attention. [End Page 233]
Against a national background of institutional reorganization, state planning, and political conflict, Garfield analyzes Amazonian environmental debates and regional policies of the period. The book’s early chapters situate the geopolitical and developmental contexts of the Vargas regime’s “March to the West” and the creation of new governmental agencies to pursue Amazon integration. This campaign led Vargas in October 1940 to deliver a dramatic “Speech of the Amazon River” in Manaus, which put the leader’s personal prestige behind a strong national presence there. Geographers will be particularly interested in the creation of a regional identity through governmental programs, institutional definitions, and regional planning designations. The approach to political ecology – “…as a study in conflicts over the use, rights, and definition of territory and resources among distinct social groups” (p. 3...