Nicolas Kawa has crafted a refreshing and quite evocative ethnography of rural life in Amazonia in the era of the Anthropocene. As I read the pages I found myself back in the Amazon doing fieldwork, on the floodplain, talking with farmers about their livelihoods, hanging in my hammock, and dealing with the assorted travails that are fieldwork in the region (WinklerPrins, Between the floods: Soils and agriculture on the lower Amazon flood-plain, Brazil, 1999).
Kawa’s attention to details of the luta de vida (fight for life) that locals endure and his own vie quotidienne while doing research, bring a humanity to a place the popular media often wraps up in overgeneralizations and supersized pronouncements. This attention to detail brings Kawa’s discussion about the Anthropocene—what it is, and how we might envision and engage with it—down to the local, personal, and tangible, thereby making it accessible to many more readers than much of the existing literature. Most importantly his book helps us (re)conceptualize the Anthropocene as something longer and deeper than its start at the Industrial Revolution that many attach to it.
To have the reader understand that the Anthropocene is something much longer than commonly envisioned, Kawa guides us through the ways in which people have long been subtly altering the soils, plants, and forests of the Amazon rainforest. His work is focused on the human-environmental relationships in the municipality of Borda, in Amazonas State, along the Madeira River, Brazil. Based on his dissertation in anthropology at the University of Florida as well as other related research in the region, Kawa has produced a succinct volume with a refreshingly accessible prose that will likely find use as a text is a variety of courses about Amazonia, Latin America, rural livelihoods, and the Anthropocene. It is a short book, with 133 pages of narrative, making it a relatively quick read and thereby attractive as assigned reading even for freshman and sophomore courses. Except for the first and last of the six chapters, the crisp chapter titles—”People,” “Soils,” “Plants,” and “Forests”—make them easy to assign and then build on, depending on the course.
The author frames his perspective in the first chapter, taking the Anthropocene as a given but pointing to its inherent Eurocentrism and a need to unpack and disentangle the term and its application. He follows with a chapter on the history and livelihoods of the people who currently embody the Amazon as a humanized space, the caboclos, the region’s indigenous peasantry, a people of mixed heritage yet long-time occupancy and engagement with its resources. In the next chapter Kawa discusses the fertile terra preta do índio (TPI: black soil of the Indians) found in patches throughout the region and how locals use [End Page 203] these in agricultural practice. In the fourth chapter the focus is on the region’s plants, especially ones found around human inhabitation, used for their magical and healing powers. Next is a chapter on forests in which Kawa confronts the debate about the nature-culture divide. Although TPI soils clearly signal greater human agency in the Amazon than many have thought, the debate about the degree to which humans have manipulated forest composition is really where the differences in ideas about human agency in the “natural” world reach a crescendo. Kawa lays out the terms of the debate and infuses his discussion with post-human agency and local folklore. Last is a chapter that considers the future of the region, especially as linked to global environmental change.
I like this book for its accessibility, but I wish Kawa had engaged more fully with research by non-anthropologists, including geographers, who have long worked on similar topics. It is clear this book is derived from his dissertation in anthropology, but it could have been so much richer if the author had broadened his references and...