- The People of the River: Nature and Identity in Black Amazonia by Oscar de la Torre
Though there has been a surge in academic literature on autonomous afro-descendant communities in the Americas such as the Garífuna in Central America, Maroon communities in Jamaica, comunidades negras in Colombia, and remanescentes de quilombo in Brazil, the everyday struggles of such communities were brought to the attention of many outside of academia with the rise to power of Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil. Bolsonaro's racialized rhetoric disparaging quilombolas and his promises (or threats) to open the Brazilian Amazon to agribusiness portend a new cycle of social conflict over the commodification of black and indigenous community lands.
In The People of the River: Nature and Identity in Black Amazonia (2018), Oscar de la Torre presents the historical, cultural, and even environmental contexts behind the formation of an autonomous black peasantry in Western Pará in the years after abolition. An underlying theme in the book is the continuity of black peasant struggle in Pará, subtly connecting chronologically far-flung periods of resistance from the 1830s to more recent struggles for land demarcation by quilombolas in Pará in the 1990s. In this way, Torre bridges the gap between the typically separate historiographies of slave resistance and what he refers to as Afro-Brazilian "peasant projects" in the twentieth century—a novel development which at the same time is crucial to understanding the historical trajectory of black peasant communities in northern Brazil. Using an impressive array of archival sources down to the municipal level, Torre illustrates how developments as far back as the Transatlantic slave trade in Pará influenced the formation of a cohesive black peasant identity rooted in autonomous landscapes.
Torre's work is at the vanguard of an emerging English-language literature on quilombos in Brazil with a historical focus. Though the author approaches the subject as a historian, Torre skillfully incorporates anthropological methods and critically engages monographs produced by anthropologists in the past three decades. Both tasks are undertaken with the aim of centering black peasant agency as a vital factor in agrarian struggles such as those against the displacement of rural Afro-Brazilians from the lands they traditionally occupy, the attempted privatization of valuable Brazil nut groves, and more recently against mining and agribusiness interests in the Trombetas River region.
His interviews with Afro-Brazilian residents of the lower Amazon, many of whom were nut extractors and quilombolas, reminds the readers of their subjectivity as historical actors while also adding texture to the narrative as presented through the documents—reverence for heroes of the past who defied powerful landowners attempting to privatize nut groves previously considered a public good, heroic victories against landowners like Rodolfo Englehard who attempted to charge communities on the island of Tauapará rent though they had occupied their lands for generations, and cultural or communal practices with African roots.
Torre also makes a timely intervention in what the reviewer has identified as a key historiographical debate: How important were overarching juridical [End Page E7] and political realities in shaping the contours of quilombola and black peasant resistance? Some relatively recent works from anthropologists such as Hoffman-French (2009), Veran (1999), and Arruti (2006) place great emphasis on the consequences of Article 68 in the 1988 Brazilian Constitution, articulating the right of remanescentes de quilombo (quilombo descendants) to apply for formal titles to the lands they occupied for generations. These authors discuss topics such as the creation of new ethnic categories and the restructuring of peasant ethnic identity in rural areas. In other words, a shift in the legal framework governing land titles for black communities and the involvement of outside actors such as black activist groups, NGOs, and representatives of the Church had a generative or determining effect on black peasant identity. Torre mostly eschews this argument in favor of a "toolbox of strategies and narrative inscribed on the landscape and used in moments of conflict over land, labor, and citizenship" (4). This toolbox consists of elements...