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Conservation consternation: Prof studies Amazon's forest people
A boater on the Amazon, near the Mazagao quilombo, where Hecht visited. (Photo by Susanna Hecht)

Conservation consternation: Prof studies Amazon's forest people

A inside look at the rainforest's quilombos

By Alison Hewitt for UCLA Today

To the untrained eye, the Amazon rainforest looks pristine and untouched by humans. But that picture is a myth. In Brazil, more than half of the Amazon’s conservation areas are actually inhabited.

The inhabitants are studied by Susanna Hecht, a UCLA political ecologist who travels deep into the Amazon rainforest to visit their century-old settlements called quilombos, which were hidden until recent decades.

“It’s the equivalent of having people living in Yosemite — and, in fact there was a major expulsion of native people when Yosemite became a national park,” said the professor of political ecology at UCLA’s Luskin School of Public Affairs and the Institute of the Environment and Sustainability. She’s a specialist on the Amazon Basin and has long studied forest people’s struggles for recognition and equality.

While some environmentalists fret that Brazil’s quilombos could thwart efforts to preserve the Amazon rainforest — the largest rainforest in the world, stretching over multiple countries — Hecht argues that the villagers are actually vital caretakers of the forest. The argument is ramping up as a 1988 Brazilian law helps more and more quilombos obtain ownership of the land. The controversy is the subject of an article she co-wrote in National Geographic with science writer Charles C. Mann, a correspondent for The Atlantic Monthly and Wired.

The quilombos are settlements formed centuries ago by runaway slaves and indigenous people in hiding from the Portuguese conquerors who literally worked slaves to death. Because the escapees needed to hide, they used “agro-forestry,” rather than agriculture, growing mostly native crops in a way that blended into the Amazon. Some quilombos were massive enough to be nation-states in their own right. Though slavery was abolished in 1888, continuing persecution persuaded them to remain hidden.

“What you saw were people keeping up the forest as both a means of subsistence and a means of protection,” Hecht said. “So a lot of the landscape that people think is wild is very managed.”

Hecht has spent 30 years studying the quilombos, making frequent trips to the Amazon to visit the residents, or quilombolas. They’ve shown her how they farm, fish, hunt and gather in a way that maintains the forest.

“We should take heart from that,” Hecht said. “If it’s possible to create as biologically complex a place as the Amazon through the sort of semi-domestication of the landscape, then we can imagine a forested world in which biodiversity, people and the climate are sustained.”

The Brazilian quilombos remained hidden for centuries until a 1988 law offered land ownership to anyone who could show they had lived there for generations. Politicians expected to hear from a few scattered settlements, but there are now 1,700 recognized quilombos in Brazil’s Amazon, Hecht said. There may be as many as 3,000-5,000 in Brazil, covering an area the size of Italy.

“The Amazon in Brazil is the size of the continental United States, so 3,000 settlements perhaps isn’t so astonishing, but it is if you didn’t think they existed,” Hecht said. “People began to literally come out of the woods to say, ‘We’ve been living here for 150 years.’”

But Brazil’s attempt at restitution turned into a bigger issue about land politics. Though gaining title to the land was initially a slow process, corporations and environmentalists watched with concern as quilombolas took ownership of some of the Amazon’s most fertile, valuable land, Hecht said.

Ownership also turned out to be a double-edged sword for the quilombolas: Without it, the land can be sold out from under them. But if they live in one of the Amazon’s conservation areas, the legal recognition comes with limits on how they can use their own land.

“It’s pretty contentious,” Hecht said. “About half of the Amazon is in some form of conservation protection area, and about 60 percent of that is inhabited. But a lot of the land that people say they love as forest was created by human agency, and the manipulated forest is often more diverse than the unmanipulated forest.”

Hecht is also fascinated by the culture in the quilombos, where the imprint of the villagers’ African heritage is often still strong. Its influence is seen in festivals, music, food and even in fishing nets that reflect traditional African designs. Sometimes even the language is African, although genetically most quilombos are a mix of blacks and indigenous people.

“It’s a very complicated genetic blend, and there’s a lot of interesting genetic work being done,” Hecht said. “The African diaspora produced malaria resistance among indigenous populations, which was really important in the long run because malaria was killing white people like mad.”

When she visits the quilombos, she often travels on the Amazon River, which she describes as a kind of main highway.

“The tides affect the Amazon quite a bit and actually reverse the flow of the river, so you go in one way, and wait until the current switches before you go back, unless you want to paddle your brains out,” Hecht said. “People move around on the river the way people here move in cars.”

When doing field research, she stays in the Amazon with quilombolas she befriended as long as decades ago. She spends time learning about their festivals, asking about their lives and tromping through the forest to see how they farm and feed themselves. Though there are roads in the quilombos, hotels aren’t available so she stays with friends.

“You always travel with a hammock and camping gear,” she said. “The things that people sleep in are hammocks, and people travel all the time, so having a spare place to hang a hammock is normal.”

It’s a different mindset, she said, and part of what makes the quilombos so welcoming.

“Most people, even in Brazil, aren’t aware of the quilombos,” she said. “They think of the Amazon as a big green blob that never had a social history, but it does. The quilombolas are an important part of the Amazon’s history, and a vital part of the Amazon’s future.”

Latin American Institute