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  • Conjuring Property: Speculation and Environmental Futures in the Brazilian Amazon by Jeremy M. Campbell
  • Marcellus M. Caldas
Jeremy M. Campbell
Conjuring Property: Speculation and Environmental Futures in the Brazilian Amazon
Seattle and London: University of Washington Press, 2015. xx + 231 pp. Figures, maps, notes, glossary, bibliography, index. $30.00 paper (ISBN: 978-0-2959-9529-8) and $80.00 cloth (ISBN: 978-0-2959-9505-2).

I worked with land reform and colonization in Brazil for many years. I was attracted to this topic by the fact that I was born in the Brazilian Amazon in the period of the opening of the Trans-Amazon Highway and its colonization projects. The opportunity to travel and visit colonization areas was unique and challenging, and it influenced my vision of land reform in Brazil. The book Conjuring Property: Speculation and Environmental Futures in the Brazilian Amazon brought many memories of countless visits to assentamentos (land reform sites). However, the memories that this book brought were not just good ones. Conjuring Property provides a good description of the role of the state and its colonization policies in the first decade of the twenty-first century but it also presents the dreams of the colonist (which in most cases didn’t materialize). Campbell discuss the evolution of colonists, from small farmers to politicized small farmers, and the conflict that this politicization brought between small versus large farmers due to the absence of the state. Also important are the discussions of overlapping and ambiguous land tenure, and the evolution of land policies in Brazil from colonization policies to the use of sustainable development concepts to concerns to regulate the environment through cadastral maps. In other words, the book shows how the land law in Brazil has evolved since the Amazon colonization era and how the government and many nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) influenced local communities to participate in development planning and the propagation of development concepts in land claiming in the Amazon.

This book is without doubt a good description of how conflict emerges as a result of government policies. Campbell starts with a good description of the figure of the state in opening the region to colonization. He describes how the state attracted colonists to transform terra devoluta (“unclaimed public land”) into properties for production. In fact, the description of transforming terra devoluta into properties is one of the best parts of the book (although there are many good other ones!). Combining historical analyses with an ethnographic case study of landholders in Castelo dos Sonhos (Castle of Dreams) along the Santarém-Cuiabá Highway, Conjuring [End Page 273] Property describes how farmers (specially smallholders) learned the meaning (and use) of important concepts like posse, uso-capião, and sustainable development. Campbell shows that colonists learned that the history of the land through invasion (posse)and development (uso-capião) could be used in land claims in order to recognize the land by the state. It also describes how farmers (small colonists and large farmers) act to assert possessory rights of terra devoluta (and private land) through a wide range of strategies that involves grilagem, laranjas, false deeds, and bribing officials. The book portrays the hard life of small farmers who, without loans, technical assistance, or any type of training, fail to develop their lands, and thus abandon their posse to seek new opportunities including the opening of new areas of forest. In contrast, it also shows how land becomes an exchange value (for speculative accumulation) in the hands of a colonist that becomes “a real estate broker.”

In fact, the use of contrast is one of the characteristics of this book. For instance, Campbell explores the contrasts between “pequeño” versus “grande” (small versus large farmers), pioneer versus grileiro, and land as a way of production versus land as a commodity for speculation. It is an analysis of classes’ differences and its complex relationships to pursue property rights in the region.

For readers that are interested in sustainable development, I call attention to chapter 4. In this chapter, Campbell describes how colonists become environmentalist through the influence of the government (Workers Party) and NGOs that would use the concept of sustainable development...