Behind the frontier

  • 14/08/1994

Behind the frontier THE 1980s witnessed an unprecedented burst of writing on the forests of Amazonia. This book stands out in this motley crowd for its scholarly treatment of a subject that is voluminously documented, although frequently in partisan and impressionistic terms.

When Schmink and Wood describe the residents of Sao Felix in Brazil watering the front of their homes before watching the television brought into their homes by the same processes that have brought dust and environmental deterioration, they place the ironies of local resource conflict in their widest context.

The careful consideration of state policy and its motivations is clearly the main strength of the book. The persisting hunger for durable and substantive land rights -- interpreted diversely by Indians, small peasants, migrant settlers, traders, rubber tappers, miners and local elites -- remained in conflict with a nation-state entangled in global economic and ideological trends. The authors also point out at the same time that collective action against the state was facilitated by developmental activities like road-building and the philosophy of military populism.

Schmink and Wood also focus on local history to show how "specific characteristics influenced the course of frontier change". By discussing the manner in which the "greening of political discourse" was used by ranchers, Indians and the state to push their contrary interests and the different results it yielded in varied locations, they demonstrate the merits of an approach that focuses on specific contexts and strategies placed in a larger and more determinate field.

At times, one gets lost in the wealth of plots and sub-plots of the multi-stranded narrative that dominates the book. As a result, the theoretical sophistication proposed at the outset is frequently obscured. Another problem is the hasty roundup of macro-economic changes in the more recent periods of Brazil's past. This is inadequately integrated with the historical processes of state formation and frontier expansion in which the current conflicts are situated.

The findings in the book co-exist uneasily with reports like that of the Brundtland Commission (Our Common future) which pinned much of the recent escalation of environmental problems in the Third World on declining commodity processes. Also, when we do finally get to the local study in Sao Felix, the physical quality of life is presented solely in terms of the statistical analysis of dietary complexity and housing quality and not in experiential terms.

The consequence is an analysis of class and economic differentiation that remains in the world of sizes and concentrations of land holdings without addressing the way class is formed through experience, as E P Thompson has so effectively argued in various articles (see his Customs in Common). This becomes important because Schmink and Wood argue that clearly enunciated land rights never emerged even after various developmental efforts.

The book also provides emerging accounts of similar struggles like that of Nahuatl resistance to the San Juan dam in Mexico, and how the Kayapo resistance to forest expropriation in the Amazon creatively used Western technology and alliances with environmental movements in the US to serve the indigenous cause. But the victory that is attributed to the Kayapo followed a radical transformation of the ecology and their use of the forested landscape, where the sustainable agro-forestry system documented by anthropologists like Darrell Posey is no longer practiced.

It is difficult to say who really won. If the terms of the debates about development have changed from growth versus equity to the quality of democratisation in the management of natural resources, how do "traditional systems" as opposed to some hybrids that might succeed them fare? Overall, the book should be of interest to development anthropologists, environmental historians and people concerned about indigenous peoples.

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