Monday, May 23, 2016

'Amazonia in the Anthropocene' Q&A with Nicholas Kawa

Our latest author Q&A features Nicholas Kawa talking about his new book Amazonia in the Anthropocene: People, Soils, Plants, Forests. Professor Kawa researches biodiversity management and agricultural sustainability in the Amazon region at the Ohio State UniversityThis timely study explores how pre-Columbian Amerindians and contemporary rural Amazonians have shaped their environment and how that environment sometimes resists human manipulation and control. With implications for the human role in global environmental
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Amazonia in the Anthropocene engages the concept of the Anthropocene by tackling its problems and paradoxes from the vantage point of the world’s largest tropical rainforest. We asked him about his work, what we can learn from contemporary rural Amazonians, and the complicated identity politics of indigenous rights.

This week in New York City, Latin Americanists from all over the world will gather to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Latin American Studies Association (LASA). We'll be there to salute LASA for 50 years of fostering intellectual discussion, research, and teaching on Latin America, the Caribbean, and its people throughout the Americas. We invite attendees to stop by our booth at the 2016 annual meeting for our newest titles, to pick up a subject catalog, and for an exclusive LASA offer.

Explain the concept of the Anthropocene and how your work wrestles with defining this “new” geological epoch.

Anthropocene is rooted in the idea that human activity on the planet has been so impactful and pervasive that we have ushered in a new epoch in geological time. Paul Crutzen, the Nobel Prize-winning atmospheric chemist, is recognized for popularizing the term in 2000. However, in the past five years or so, it has really gained traction. It is not just being adopted by natural and physical scientists but also social scientists and scholars in the humanities. This is what I really appreciate about the concept of the Anthropocene: it’s encouraging truly interdisciplinary and even transdisciplinary dialogue. As a consequence, it has also generated considerable debate and controversy. One of the current debates centers on the origins of the Anthropocene. When did it begin? Crutzen and a few of his colleagues have traced it back to European industrialization while other scholars have suggested that it began with the development of agriculture. Still others have promoted later origin points including World War II and the radiological signatures left by the atom bomb. Most recently, a team of geologists has claimed that industrial plastics will stratigraphically define this new epoch. Regardless of when the Anthropocene began (which is a debate that will likely carry on), most scholars link it to the rise of modern industrialization and global capitalism.

In this book, I look at the Anthropocene from the vantage point of the rural Brazilian Amazon. In doing so, I highlight some of the problems with its current conceptualization. One problem I point out is its subtle Eurocentrism. In tracing the origins of the Anthropocene to industrial Europe, it is overlooked that people across the world have been implicated in and directly linked to the broader processes driving the Anthropocene. I show, for example, that many of rural Amazonia’s contemporary inhabitants are descendants of migrants who moved to the region to tap natural rubber, which fueled the burgeoning tire and automobile industries in North America and Europe. Another problem I highlight is the anthropocentrism embedded within the concept of the Anthropocene. While it’s suggested that humans are coming to dominate the planet, every day we get news about how various forces and life-forms that make up our environment are constantly pushing back against us: hurricanes, tsunamis, the Zika virus, flesh-eating microbes, and CO2 in the earth’s atmosphere. The Anthropocene should remind us that while our technologies have expanded our ability to impact the planet, a much broader array of life-forms and forces is constantly thwarting our attempts to wrest control of the world around us.

To a lot of people, the land and ecology comprising Amazonia seems enshrouded in myth and mystery. Do you think that’s a potentially dangerous, disconnected way to view the region?

For many people, Amazonia is a land dominated by raw, pristine nature. Most of the media that circulate outside of the region perpetuates this image. But for decades, anthropologists have shown that Amerindians transformed large swaths of Amazonia long before the arrival of Europeans. The perpetuation of this “pristine myth,” as it has been described by William Denevan, is deeply problematic for many reasons. First, it suggests that people don’t really "belong” in the region, except perhaps in the case of small bands of hunter-gatherers. This view supports the forced removal of peasants and indigenous peoples from lands they inhabit when they fail to live up to outsiders’ expectations of “natural” Amazonian inhabitants. Second, it’s important to recognize that the majority of contemporary Amazonians live in cities, and that the region has been well articulated with the global market economy for hundreds of years. If non-Amazonians are truly concerned with conservation and forest preservation in the Amazon region, then it is important to first understand these realities.

How do rural Amazonians conceptualize their relationship to their environmental surroundings and what we can learn from their point of view?

While rural Amazonians have long been plugged into the global market economy, they also maintain distinctive forms of ecological knowledge through the direct practice of daily subsistence activities in their environment. By fishing, hunting, collecting, and farming, rural Amazonians are attuned to the movements of fish, the seasonality of forest fruits, and the ebb and flow of the region’s rivers. In no way do I want to romanticize the lives of rural Amazonians, but I do believe that their subsistence practices, and the associated ecological knowledge derived from them, shape a vision of human-environment relations that differs fundamentally from the worldview that undergirds the Anthropocene. Rather than viewing humanity as the ruler of the earth or standing at its center, rural Amazonians typically acknowledge the agency of a wide number of non-human others that challenge human intentions and desires. I think this worldview offers a valuable counterpoint to the anthropocentrism embedded within the Anthropocene.

How does your book’s thesis relate to the late Berta Cáceres's work protecting indigenous lands in Honduras?

The people with whom I work in the rural Brazilian Amazon do not identify as indigenous, per se. Although many mention that they have indigenous ancestry, they are reluctant to claim an indigenous identity in large part because of the long history of marginalization of indigenous peoples in the region. This is changing in some areas of Amazonia where rural communities are reclaiming their indigenous identity and developing significant social movements around it. However, I think it is also important to recognize the rights of those who do not claim to be indigenous but have lived in the region for generations. In Brazil, the term caboclo is often used in reference to non-indigenous rural peoples, and it’s a term that is reproduced by anthropologists, but it is a pejorative label that few people willingly apply to themselves. In the book, I challenge anthropologists’ use of the term, and I call attention to the ways that it perpetuates deeply problematic stereotypes of rural Amazonian peoples.

How did your interest in this project develop and how did you tailor your writing style to your goals?

I first arrived in the Brazilian Amazon in 2003. At the time, I was an English teacher in the city of Manaus. Halfway through that first year though, I was offered an internship at the National Institute of Amazonian Research (INPA). At INPA, I worked on a project focused on Amazonian Dark Earths, the anthropogenic soils associated with Pre-Columbian indigenous settlements. That project opened up many questions for me, and really fueled my desire to understand the ways in which the Amazonian landscape had been shaped by the human presence over time. I later enrolled in graduate school and developed my own independent research projects in 2007 and then later in 2009 and 2010. This book pulls together insights I have drawn from all those different periods of living and working in Brazilian Amazonia. It has turned out to be a rather short book; I attempted to pack in the essential points without overdoing it. I aimed to write the book in a way that people without much knowledge of Amazonia or the Anthropocene could engage with the stories, whether they be of the Confederates farming on archaeological sites in the lower Amazon, the mythology of the Big Snake (Cobra Grande), or the Amazonian healing plants that are sold today in North American nurseries. My hope is that there is a little something of interest in the book for everyone.

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