Syllabus for an “Amazon Rainforest” class.

"Scarlet Macaw" by Elwood W. McKay III
“Scarlet Macaw” by Elwood W. McKay III

I’ve been teaching a class on the Amazon rainforest for about fifteen years now, which provides a brief historical overview of Amazonia, before examining indigenous and environmental issues. A few words about the books for the course: students love David Campbell’s, Land of Ghosts, despite his sometimes challenging vocabulary, because of his evocative descriptions. But be forewarned about Mindlin’s, Barbecued Husbands. This is a book of erotic myths from the southwestern Amazon. The first time I used this book in a class, I had a delegation of students come to complain that I was requiring them to read material with sexual content; I made the use of the book (and attendance in the class discussion) optional. I also had another student explain why they hadn’t read the book by saying: “I loaned it to my housemate at the start of the quarter, and he’s refused to give it back.” I continue to use it as an optional text, and on that basis have not had any more student complaints.

Yungjohann’s White Gold is a very brief book that describes one American’s experience in Brazil during the rubber boom. Wade Davis’s book is a poetically written study of ethnobotany and exploration in the region, and is usually the most popular book in the course. Because the book is so long -and covers material outside of Amazonia- I only use selections. Although I love Joe Kanes’ Savages, I’m beginning to worry that the book may be dated now, as it was published in 1996. There are wealth of other great books on the Amazon to consider. But if anyone has their own great recommendations for Amazonian books or films, please let me know in the comments response.

Finally, if you are interested in Latin America, you might wish to read my own book on military terror in Brazil.



The Amazon Rain Forest

HST 462U/INTL 462U

Tuesday, Thursday, 10:00-11:50

UTS 205


Professor Shawn Smallman

Rm. 345, East Hall

(503) 725-9978

Office Hours: Thursday, 12:15-1:45.



Description:This course will first provide a brief overview of the Amazon’s history, before considering major social and political issues in the region. The class will give particular attention to contemporary environmental issues in Amazonia, such as deforestation, the soy frontier, dams, petroleum development, mining, and species loss. The lectures and reading will also examine the cultures and experience of the Amazon’s indigenous peoples, as well as the region’s portrayal in literature and film.



All books are available in paperback at the P.S.U. bookstore.


David Campbell, A Land of Ghosts

Betty Mindlin, Barbecued Husbands (note: this book contains adult material, and students are welcome to substitute another book of their own selection).

John C. Yungjohann, White Gold

Wade Davis, One River: Explorations and Discoveries in the Amazon Rain Forest.

Joe Kane, Savages




Participation: 30%

Class discussion is an integral part of the course.  Accordingly, students are expected to come to class having done the reading, and to contribute to the discussion.


Map Test: 10%: January 18th.

Students will be given a map of the Amazon region and asked to learn certain key features (cities, rivers, nations, etc).


In Class Mid-term Exam: 30%: February 3rd.

Students will answer one of two possible essay questions, which will draw on the lectures, film and readings.


Book Reflection: 30%: noon on March 14th

Students will write a eight to ten page paper that will compare and contrast each of the books from this course, discuss their strengths and weakness, and evaluate how each has contributed to the course as a whole. This paper is due in Dropbox in D2L by Monday of exam week.


Late policy: late assignments will be penalized (except in case of verifiable illness or family emergency) three percent a day for each day that they are late (including weekends) up to a maximum of thirty percent of the final grade.



Plagiarism is the submission of another person’s work as your own.  It is also a serious academic crime.  Any instance of plagiarism will result in an automatic O for that assignment.  You may also not submit a paper in this course that you also use in another course.


Disability: Any student who has a disability that may require some special arrangements in order to fulfill the course requirements should contact the Disability Resource Center at the start of the course to make appropriate arrangements.


Topics: True academic inquiry must follow its own course. For this reason, there may be changes and additions to the schedule that follows.


Week One, January 4th and 6th

Class mechanics; the Amazon in popular culture; the Amazon’s Geography and Biology.

The early history of Native Peoples: Geoglyphs, Biochar and Migration.

The Early Explorers: Orellana, Aguirre and Pedro Teixeira. The strange story of Isabelle Godin


Week Two, January 11th and 13th

The rise and fall of the Jesuit Missions.

Disease in Amazonian History.

Discussion: David Campbell, A Land of Ghosts.


Week Three: January 18th and 20th

Map test

The Rubber Boom.

Great Anthropologists: Karl von den Steinen and Curt Nimuendajú

Discussion: Barbecued Husbands


Week Four: January 25th and 27th

Discussion: John C. Yungjohann, White Gold

Amazonian History, 1910-1990


Week Five: February 1st and 3rd

The Amazonian Ecosystem and its Waters

The Cultured Forest: the legacy of human activities in the Amazon.

In-class Midterm exam


Week Six: February 8th and 10th

Amazonian Dams and Mining

Deforestation and the soy frontier

Species loss

Discussion, Wade Davis, One River, Preface, Chapters 5-8 (pp. 11-13, 123-269)


Week Seven: February 15th and February 17th

Amazonian Folklore

Cities and Economies in the Amazon.

The Amazon in film


Week Eight:February 22nd and 24th

HIV/AIDS in the Amazon

Wade Davis, One River, chapters 9-14 (pp. 270-491).


Week Nine: March 1st and 3rd.

The Amazon and Petroleum Development.

Cultural Globalization and the Amazon’s native peoples.


Week Ten: March 8th and 10th.

Joe Kane, Savages.

The Amazon in Contemporary Literature: Fordlandia to State of Wonder.

Travel and the Amazon.


Map Test:


For the test, students will be asked to indicate ten of the following items on a map:


Nations:                      Rivers:       Cities:            Highways:

Bolivia                          Juruá           Belém             Trans-Amazon Highway

Peru                             Purus          Manaus           Northern Perimeter Highway

Ecuador                       Solimões      Santarém

Colombia                     Amazon       Rio Branco

Venezuela                     Negro

Guyana                        Xingu


French Guyana


Native Territories:        Islands:

Yanomami                      Marajó


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