Green Acres: Lost in the Amazon | The Nation


Green Acres: Lost in the Amazon

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In considering a story like Fawcett's, one appreciates Peter Fleming's restraint. It would be easy when telling the tale to portray the Amazon more as a metaphysical testing ground than a social or ecological system, where moral emptiness mirrors human alienation. Compared with the "vileness and baseness and obscenity of all this jungle," said Werner Herzog, who made two films about jungle obsessives, Aguirre, the Wrath of God and Fitzcarraldo, "we only sound and look like badly pronounced and half-finished sentences out of a stupid suburban novel, a cheap novel." (Fitzcarraldo is based on the life of the rubber baron Carlos Fermín Fitzcarrald López, who, unlike Herzog, had the good sense to dismantle his riverboat before trying to haul it over a mountain.) "It's still prehistorical," Herzog thought. "The only thing that is lacking is--is the dinosaurs."

About the Author

Greg Grandin
Greg Grandin
Greg Grandin is the author of Empire's Workshop, Fordlandia, a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in history and the...

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But for all its ability to photosynthesize the fantasies and fears of outsiders, the Amazon is a real place. Throughout the nineteenth century, as practically the sole source of the world's latex, integral to the advance of industrial capitalism, the forest was no more unmoored from time than Manchester or Detroit. Along the great rubber corridor running south of the Amazon River from the Atlantic into the lower reaches of the tropical Andes, the latex boom pressed indigenous communities into what Amazon scholar Susanna Hecht calls "terror slavery," which included the torture, rape and starvation inflicted by the British-financed Peruvian Amazon Company, documented by Roger Casement in 1910. As native Amazonians died, they were replaced by migrants from Brazil's drought-prone northeast, who arrived by the boatload, already withered and bonded to pay for the voyage. And the slavery continues: more than 20,000 workers are captured every year in the Amazon, forced to work in wretched conditions, clearing forest for soy and sugar plantations or tending furnaces to make contraband pig iron, forming the first ring in a labor chain linked to the most respectable corporations. Steel made from Amazonian pig iron forged by slaves has been used in Ford and General Motors cars and Whirlpool appliances. Slave-mined gold forms the capital reserves of some of the world's largest banks. Rather than being a holdover from a lost world, modern slavery is, as an official from Brazil's Ministry of Labor puts it, a "key part of the globalized, export-oriented economy Brazil thrives upon."

Grann's rehabilitation of Fawcett rests on a rich paradox: Grann avoids reducing the Amazon to a canvas of Western fantasies about itself by defending Fawcett's original vision of the jungle. Fawcett's case for the existence of Z grew out of his appreciation of the expertise native Amazonians demonstrated in extracting medicine and food from their harsh environment, reinforced by hearing legends of a lost great civilization and reading early Spanish accounts of jungle "cities that glistened in white," connected by "many roads" and "fine highways," populated by skilled potters and other craftsmen. The "ethnology of the continent," Fawcett said, was "built up on a misconception"--the fallacy being that the jungle's severe ecology limited the possibility of large, sophisticated civilizations. In the years after Fawcett's disappearance, environmental determinism became orthodoxy. Published in 1971, Betty J. Meggers's Amazonia: Man and Culture in a Counterfeit Paradise, based on decades of fieldwork, drove home the idea that the forest's extreme biodiversity was deceptive, that what appeared to be rich, dark soil was veneer, beneath which was mostly acidic sand. But recently a new generation of scholars, led by University of Illinois archaeologist Anna Roosevelt, Theodore Roosevelt's great-granddaughter, has contested this view. Roosevelt, also drawing on extensive fieldwork, argues that Amazonia supported "very populous societies comparable to complex chiefdoms and small states known in other parts of the world," whose farming technologies would allow them to transcend the limits of anemic soil.

Now in her 80s and only recently retired as director of the Smithsonian's Latin American Archaeology Program, Meggers dismisses those who argue that early Amazonians had built large cities, perhaps home to as many as a half-million people and rivaling those of the Aztecs and Mayans. "The myth of El Dorado," she says, "just keeps going on and on and on. It's amazing." Meggers's scholarship helped spur early campaigns to save the Amazon, and today she says the idea that the forest's weak soil could support large populations has allowed developers to "operate without restraint," accelerating the "pace of environmental degradation." Revisionists insist that the civilizations they are describing were sustainable. Agriculture was oriented not toward profit-driven export but subsistence, and the sophisticated techniques of soil enrichment they have identified, including the charring of pottery and organic matter, could provide a model for the continual reuse of planting fields, limiting pressure to cut down more and more trees. "It's not like loggers are revving up the chain saws after reading our articles," says Brazilian archaeologist Eduardo Góes Neves.

Grann ends his quest with a Fawcett-worthy test of endurance that leaves him siding with the revisionists. Having become separated from his guide, Grann loses his trail and sinks into mud. With reeds ripping his skin and desperation closing in, he is finally rescued by a group of naked children who lead him to his destination: the field site of archaeologist Michael Heckenberger, close to where Fawcett had imagined Z. There Grann is shown evidence of causeways, bridges, settlements, palisades, plazas and roads, "laid out," says Heckenberger, with a "sense of engineering and mathematics that rivaled anything that was happening in much of Europe at the time." "Poor Fawcett," Grann quotes his guide as saying, "he was so close."

Until recently, stories told about the Amazon tended to emphasize its unconquerable enormity, which has repelled one challenger after another. That's changed, of course, since the forest now appears to be fragile. Much of what was jungle during Fawcett's last trek through Mato Grosso is now covered with soybeans, which, along with cattle and logging, are the primary agents of deforestation. The beans are grown for export to the United States, Europe and China and crossbred to survive ever more humid climes, which means there is no limit to how far planters can push into the Amazon. Since the 1970s, 20 percent of the forest has disappeared, and if the current pace continues, another 40 percent of what's left will be gone by 2050. Slowing this deforestation will be Amazonia's final test.

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