Contested Frontiers in Amazonia

by Marianne Schmink and Charles H. Wood
New York: Columbia University Press. 1992. 387 pp. ISBN: 0231076606

Reviewed by Keith Forbes

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This book deals with the colonization of the southern part of the state of Pará, Brazil in the Amazon rainforest region. This is a region that has been subject to massive deforestation, food scarcity, and numerous, often violent, land conflicts. The authors, an anthropologist and a sociologist-demographer, present the results of a 15-year longitudinal study in this work. They examine this human and environmental catastrophe, and demonstrate the complex dynamics involved at local, regional, national, and international scales.

In the settlement of Pará, as elsewhere in Amazonia, competing land uses led to conflicts between almost every possible combination of small scale miners, peasant farmers, indigenous peoples, mining industries, large scale private land development companies, and loggers. The results of these inter-group conflicts were determined both by their differing degrees of economic and political power, and by the interaction of this inter-group conflict with competition for power between municipalities, states, the federal government, and disparate agencies within the federal and state governments. Federal and state agencies would often find themselves with radically different agendas for land use in a particular area, one favoring large scale industrialization and the other small landholder resettlement in the context of agrarian reform. These priorities for land use would themselves change in a highly dynamic political environment depending upon whether the support of local voters was seen as more important than that of well-heeled industries from other regions.

The book is divided into three parts. The first examines the history of land use in Amazonia, summarizing neatly the various approaches taken by military and civilian Brazilian governments toward this region. These approaches varied from corporatist, capital-intensive development policies, to agrarian reform through land redistribution, as well as garnering political support from locally important constituencies such as small-scale miners. The second part examines the state of Pará, and the complex interactions between municipal, state, and federal government agencies, competing for the power to manifest their particular visions for the development of the region. Finally, a detailed socio-economic profile of one town provides an in-depth look at the effects of competition between the various stakeholders on the everyday lives of migrant settlers. This last section contains the bulk of the quantitative analysis of standard data such as immigration patterns, livelihoods, food consumption, and so on.

Throughout the book, a convincing case is made against the “developmentalist” paradigm– the emphasis on capital intensive development, the capitalization and privatization of land use versus community-owned and usufruct models of land ownership. One is made keenly aware of the irony and tragedy of landless peasants full of hope, immigrating from other parts of Brazil to government sponsored resettlement programs, only to find the majority of new lands once again concentrated in the hands of a few large landowners. However, the successful resistance of small landholders, indigenous peoples, and small-scale miners, against forces that would impoverish them through appropriating their land and destroying their resource base is also a growing phenomenon. The case of the Kayapó Indians winning their lands back and small scale miners in Serra Pelada wresting control of the mines from the State are but two examples of these dynamics of resistance.

If there is a difficulty with the book, it is in its organization. Each part of the book summarizes changes over time. The chronological overlap between the sections of the book can make it difficult to follow the chronological sequence of events happening at regional, state, and municipal scales. All in all, this is a small problem with an otherwise excellent book that should be of great value to anyone seeking a better understanding of the interplay between agrarian reform, social tensions in frontier areas, and environmental destruction. The attention given to the resistance efforts of marginalized groups and their sophisticated understanding of events that shape their lives is of additional value to those seeking remedies to similar problems of land distribution and competition for land use in other regions of the world.

At the time of this review, Forbes was senior research analyst with the Research and Reference Services Project, managed by the Academy for Educational Development, of the United States Agency for International Development.

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