Amazonia

Ghosts across cultures

The Old Burial Ground at the Boston Commons. Photo by Smallman

I’ve long loved Japanese ghost stories, ever since I came across the stories of Lafcadio Hearn. As the epitome of modernity, with its vast urban metropolis of Tokyo, sophisticated infrastructure, and advanced education, you might expect that these supernatural traditions would be fading in Japan. After all, Hearn recorded his stories in the nineteenth century. Instead, the traditions are evolving, as Christopher Harding has described in an article, “Ghosts on the Shore.” In the aftermath of the 2011 tsunami, ghosts didn’t disappear, but their role changed, as they comforted the living. Harding’s well-written and thoughtful piece is worth reading, particularly to hear the thoughts of one Zen priest who has an interesting take on the divide between the living and the dead. …

Reality and the lost city of Z

British explorer Percy Fawcett. Posted by User Daniel Candido on pt.wikipedia [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons. This work is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 70 years or less.
I have been teaching a course on the Amazon for nearly 20 years. Part of what draws students to the class, I think, is the perception of the Amazon as an exotic world. Perhaps this interest also helps to explain the success of David Grann’s The Lost City of Z. This book tells the story of the explorer Percy Fawcett, who disappeared with his son and his son’s friend while searching for a legendary lost city in Brazil. This story has interested people for four generations, and has been inspiring authors for nearly as long. For example, Peter Fleming’s Brazilian Adventure was published in 1933, and is a humorous recounting of an early expedition’s efforts to find out what happened to Percy Fawcett. There has probably never been a more self-mocking explorer than Fleming, and his troubled efforts to find Fawcett’s trail.

The Lost City of Z is now a movie; you can see the trailer here. The movie’s concept has received a scathing review by John Hemming, who is perhaps the most famous living Amazonian explorer. Hemming’s own book, Red Gold, tells the story how Brazil’s indigenous peoples fought against Portuguese exploitation and conquest over the course of centuries. For Hemming, Fawcett was a dilettante with strange religious ideals, who lost his life due to his own lack of knowledge about the Amazon.

The legend of the Lost City of Z is based upon a document now held in Rio de Janeiro’s national library, which supposedly was written in 1743; the document claims to tell the history of a group of bandeirantes (explorers and slavers) who found a lost city in the interior. As Hemming points out, these men were almost always illiterate, so the fact that such a document exists is surprising in and of itself. It was also the case that other explorers had been working in Amazonia for centuries by the time Fawcett disappeared, with no other discoveries of such a city. …

Hope and Fear in the Amazon

Macaw in the Amazon, taken by Shawn Smallman
Macaw in the Amazon, taken by Shawn Smallman

In the 1980s the global media gave extensive coverage to deforestation in Amazonia. Over the last thirty years, there has been a significant decline in media attention to this topic, which partly reflects very real progress that Brazil and neighboring countries have made in slowing deforestation. Still, the problem remains. In 2014, Brazil decided not to sign a UN agreement to defend forests.

I’ve been teaching a course on Amazonian history for 20 years, and I’ve never found such a good classroom resource on the topic as this storyboard by the Council on Foreign Relations. The storyboard combines small amounts of text, with imagery and short videos to place the issue into historical context. Many of the pages are dynamic; that is, there is movement in the background. Some of the maps are excellent. I also particularly liked the successive aerial shots of forest in the Brazilian state of Rondonia over ten year increments.

One weakness is that the storyboard focuses only on Brazil. While Brazil is the country that on its own has the largest Amazonian territories, it would have been useful to have more information on Bolivia, Peru, Colombia and Venezuela as well. I also personally believe that dams are perhaps the greatest environmental threat in the region, and would like to have seen more coverage of this issue in the storyboard. Still, for any class that addresses environmental issues, this would be a great link in a course shell.

Shawn Smallman, 2017

Why they must flee to the forest

Macaw in the Amazon, taken by Shawn Smallman
Macaw in the Amazon, taken by Shawn Smallman

I’ve written before about how there aren’t truly “uncontacted tribes” in Amazonia, but rather refugees from a long history of slave-raiding, disease, missionary work, and development. Partly for this reason, the term now used in Amazonia for these populations is “Isolated Peoples.” This term makes clear that these peoples are separated from the dominant culture by choice, rather than only because they live in some pristine environment preserved from contact. For some nation-states, particularly Peru, the existence of these peoples has sometimes been controversial, because they limit the state and corporations’ ability to extract resources from Amazonia. Still, there are Isolated Peoples remaining in Latin America and elsewhere; Amazonia likely has more than any other region of the world.

A Hidden Wonder in Brazil

It’s not true that the age of discovery is over, and everything worth knowing has already been found. We live in an age of revelations, such as the resting site of one of the ships from the lost Franklin expedition, an immense canyon in Greenland, and an unknown tapir in the Amazon. How can an mammal that travels in groups and weighs 200 pounds have remained undiscovered for so long? What is remarkable is the pace of the discoveries.  A new species of wolf has just been revealed in the Himalaya. Three new species of lemurs were discovered by researchers at the University of Kentucky. Multiple new species were just discovered in the ocean off of Atlantic Canada. Still, all of these discoveries are less surprising than the recent announcement that a coral reef exists at the mouth of the Amazon. The reef is the size of Delaware. Part of the reason that it hasn’t been studied before was that nobody thought that such a reef could exist in the fresh water and heavy sediments that pour into the ocean from the river. If we can miss an ecosystem 600 miles long (965 kilometers) long, what else is out there that we’re missing?

If you are interested in Latin America, you might wish to read either my book on the region’s AIDS epidemic, or my study of military terror in Brazil.

Shawn Smallman, 2016

Video Reviews: Amazon Games

"Amazonian Macaw - Ara Ararauna In Front Of A Blue Sky" by xura at freedigitalphotos.net
“Amazonian Macaw – Ara Ararauna In Front Of A Blue Sky” by xura at freedigitalphotos.net

This fall quarter I taught a hybrid class on Modern Brazil, which had both a History and International Studies section. We spent three weeks during the course covering modern Amazonia, during which we discussed Indigenous issues in depth. One of the videos that we watched was Amazon Games, which was available through the streaming video service at the Portland State University library. The documentary described a modern sporting event in the Amazon River basin that brings together different nations throughout the region for an annual contest. The video (released in 2005) began by showing two different Indigenous nations (Enawanes and Matis) preparing to travel for the games, then followed them to the competition itself.

The selection process for the games was a fraught one, as was the decision to take part in the competition. Some Aboriginal peoples in one nation were concerned what would happen to their people if the plane taking the competitors to the games crashed with all of their best hunters. Obviously, another risk would be that the Indigenous participants might bring back disease. But the Aboriginal people themselves were excited to participate, and clearly discussed the risks of travel. My students thought that overall the games were positive for the athletes, who wanted to engage in the competition and meet other Indigenous peoples. They also hoped to make money by selling handicrafts. There was a great deal of good natured banter about who would go, and the scene in which the Indigenous peoples were seeking to make latex balls -a difficult process- was a funny one. …

New dolphin species discovered in the Amazon

Deep Forest Waterfall by Witthaya Phonsawat
Deep Forest Waterfall by Witthaya Phonsawat

In a recent post I talked about the discovery of a new species of tapir in the Amazon. What is amazing to me is that there are still large mammal species being “discovered” in the region. Within the last ten years a new monkey species was described scientifically for the first time, after having been identified within 60 miles of Manaus, the largest city in the Amazonian river basin. Of course, local and native peoples are already well aware of these animals, which they have hunted for long periods of time. Now, not a month after the last such discovery of a large mammal species in Amazonia, a new dolphin species has been described in a scientific journal. It is the first new species of river dolphin discovered in a 100 years. …

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. …

A large unknown mammal discovered in the Amazon

"Tropical Waterfall" by Vichaya Kiatying-Angsulee
“Tropical Waterfall” by Vichaya Kiatying-Angsulee

In an earlier blog post I discussed the fact that explorers and scientists are still making major new discoveries on our mysterious planet. If any still place holds many surprises it must be the Amazon. In 2009 I was staying in a lodge on the Rio Negro near Manaus, in the midst of the worst flooding that the Amazon had seen in sixty years. My wife and I took our two daughters down to the bank of the river. Swarms of small insects were attracted to the lights on the river bank. Fish would rise to the surface and surge up to catch the insects. And as we watched, a bat flew past and captured a fish, which hung twisting and flopping in its clutches. It happened so fast that I couldn’t believe what I had just witnessed. I think that I began my sentence, “that almost looked as if that bat just. . . ” But a minute later it happened again, and there was no question. There really are fish-eating bats in the Amazon. But now scientists have found something not only amazing but also unknown- at least to outsiders. …

Global Amazonia

It is ironic that a location with deep global connections -the Amazon- has long been thought of as a pristine refuge, ecologically and culturally, from the rest of the world. Over the last two decades, people have come to realize however, that the Amazon was always managed forest, with a significant population that shaped their environment to meet their needs. A recent BBC program entitled “Unnatural Histories- the Amazon” captures the evidence that has changed how we thought about the Amazon’s prehistory. We now know that the Amazon was not always isolated from neighboring regions in its prehistory. The Tupi people spread from the Amazon to the Brazilian coast, replacing the existing population. The Inca employed Amazonian forces as archers, while Guarani raided as far as the Andes. The Caribs spread out into the islands of the Caribbean, where they later met Columbus. The region was integrated with neighboring peoples throughout South America. …

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