Q&A with Susanna Hecht, winner of the 2023 Brunn Award in Geography

The director of the Center for Brazilian Studies receives the Brunn Award for Creativity in Geography on March 24. In honor of the occasion, Hecht answers questions about the award, her research and the current state of Amazon rainforest.

Q&A with Susanna Hecht, winner of the 2023 Brunn Award in Geography

Deforestation caused by illegal timber cutting in Gurupi Biological Reserve and the Caru and Alto Turiaçu Indigenous Lands, in Maranhão State, Brazil. Photo: Felipe Werneck, ASCOM/IBAMA (Brazilian Institute of Environment and Renewable Natural Resources), 2016; cropped. CC BY 2.0.


UCLA International Institute, March 24, 2023 — Susanna Hecht, director of the UCLA Center for Brazilian Studies, will receive the Stanley Brunn Award for Creativity in Geography from the American Association of Geographers in Denver, Colorado, on Friday, March 24.

UCLA geographer Susanna Hecht in the Amazon rainforest. (Photo provided by Professor Hecht.) A professor of urban planning at the Luskin School of Public Affairs and the Institute of the Environment and Sustainability at UCLA, Hecht is one of the founding thinkers of political ecology, an interdisciplinary analytical paradigm that understands environments as the outcome of the interaction between political economies, cultures and natural resource use, together with the socio-environmental impacts of that interaction.

The UCLA geographer has published widely on the Amazon rainforest for over 30 years,* including groundbreaking research on anthropogenic soils, agroforestry and the land management practices of indigenous and Afrodescendant peoples; how cattle farming, soy production and mining in the rainforest drive land speculation, unsustainable land use, deforestation and climate change; and how forests have been shaped by human engagement throughout history.

Hecht has also been actively involved in social movements in Amazonia, including the Forest Peoples Alliance in Brazil, and is a member of the Science Panel for the Amazon, which issued its first “Amazon Assessment Report” for distribution at the 2021 UN Climate Change Conference in Glasgow (COP 26).

She recently sat down for an interview about the Brunn Award and the current state of the Amazon rainforest; the text below has been edited for length and clarity.

Congratulations on the Brunn Award. Can you tell me what the award says about your work?

I think one of the reasons I am receiving this award is that I was given many opportunities to see things happening in the Amazon rainforest that had previously been kind of invisible, and that those things — the forces driving its destruction and the indigenous knowledge systems and practices that sustain its complexities — became very useful in the political battle over the future of Amazonia.** Perhaps another reason for my receiving the award is that I don’t mind running around the rainforest; some may find it unpleasant, but I’ve always thought it was fun!

I started from systems ecology, looking at what would happen if you took a highly biodiverse forest and burned it up and started raising cattle and cultivating soy on it. What was intriguing to me was that explosive investment in these economies quickly resulted in environmental degradation. It needed to be understood not simply as a localized phenomenon of deforestation, but as part of a larger picture of unsustainable land use and unsustainable development.

This problem of sustainability, linked to the poor quality of soils in the Amazon, triggered my interest in and research on alternatives to deforestation. My work on dark earths [produced by forest dwellers with low-intensity fires] and indigenous land management practices proved significant for indigenous organizing, as well as for more the practical purpose of documenting knowledge of sustainable land use and development in Amazonia (see earlier article on Hecht’s research).

We last spoke in 2021, when Amazonia was already in severe crisis. Can you give us a brief overview of the environmental stakes in preventing its further degradation?

Amazonia is central to global climate dynamics because the rainforest has been a key absorber of CO2. When you cut trees down, you not only release a lot of carbon into the atmosphere, but you destroy the ability to absorb carbon that comes with those trees, so it’s kind of a double whammy. Among the key climate tipping points, the Amazon rainforest is the most inhabited, so the dynamics there will have immense impacts.

If we reach a biome shift, where the rainforest becomes a savanna and a major CO2 emitter — and we are not far from this future — we will see widespread disruptions because of the role the Amazon plays in Andean climates. The rainforest actually absorbs and recycles its own water between the atmosphere and the trees, but climate change will affect the physics of hydrology and lead to droughts in the southern part of Amazonia. Those droughts will impact agricultural and water supplies in central Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay and Uruguay, including the water supply for the megacity of São Paulo.

Deforestation for cattle production in Venezuela, 2015. (Photo:MM from Switzerland
via Wikimedia Commons; altered.) CC-BY-SA 2.0.

Can you give us a brief recap of the forces currently driving the destruction of Amazonia?

The creation of pasture land by clearing and/or burning the forest represents roughly 3 percent of deforestation of Amazonia. But pasture is important because it became a means of capturing other resources in the early phases of deforestation and drove land speculation. In the early 1980s, the expansion of livestock breeding in Brazil was highly subsidized (roughly 80% of the costs were covered through enormous subsidies and tax write-offs) and attracted very large Brazilian companies to invest in acquiring land at a time of extraordinarily high inflation.

We are seeing a specific political economy of development that is unstable and unsustainable that started with livestock and, when livestock didn’t work, moved on to infilling with soy production. You don’t have a lot of backward or forward linkages, which is what you would like to see in a development program. Instead, you see a land agglomeration process that has not led to good social outcomes because it doesn’t employ many people, is fantastically destructive of biodiversity and has real climate effects.

Brazil is now the largest producer of soybeans in the world, but its use of glyphosate and fertilizers is toxifying the water system, so it is a poison pill. In other words, it is producing soybeans at very high environmental, geophysical and planetary costs. And those costs are not being calculated.

In the greater Amazonia region beyond Brazil, you see a kind of de-industrialization after China enters the World Trade Organization in late 2001 and well-made inexpensive Chinese goods began to replace a lot of local and national industry in Amazon countries. As a consequence, the rainforest became both a site of colonial extraction and an economic safety valve that draws people into labor-intensive, clandestine economies with horrific consequences for the environment — gold mining, timber cutting, coca production, among them. These criminal economies are poisoning the rivers (most Amazon freshwater fish is now too full of mercury to eat) and producing sustained violence against local inhabitants and environmental activists.

For example, roughly 20,000 to 30,000 miners invaded the Yanomami Indigenous Territory in Brazil, seized land and drove people from their homes. We have seen newly elected Brazilian President Lula da Silva move forcefully against miners in the Yanomami lands, but whether the situation can be turned around is unknown.

Lula was elected by a very small margin and former president Jair Bolsonaro virtually destroyed the Brazilian environmental protection agency and opened up many indigenous lands for exploitation. Environmental activists there continue to be assassinated — recall that journalist Dom Phillips and indigenous activist Bruno Periero were killed in Javari (in the far western region of the Brazilian Amazon) in June 2022. Not to mention that there is a governance crisis throughout the Amazon countries, with the notable exception of Colombia.

Gold prospecting pits in the Amazon rainforest of eastern Peru, 2020. (Photo: NASA;
taken by a crew member of the International Space Station Expedition 64
.) Public domain.

So how do you see the future of Amazonia?

To repeat, Amazonia is a site where wealth is being extracted at high planetary, regional and local costs, with very little invested in the area or its people. The reality is that the tipping point won’t be the same everywhere. Eastern Amazonia has likely gone into a tipping point because about 30% of the forest there has been cleared, and the tipping point is considered to occur around 20%. The processes driving deforestation in Brazil haven’t slowed, partly because they’ve been unregulated for four years and have become institutionalized.

But the Amazon can surprise you. If you had told me at the beginning of the 2000s that it would be possible to reduce deforestation by nearly 80 percent over the course of a decade (mostly during Lula da Silva’s previous presidency), I could not have imagined it.

We have more tools than we had before. We know more now about what might work in terms of sustainable agroforestry and forest cultivation — there’s been a crucial proof of concept in the past 20 years. There’s a lot of activism and a lot of optimism in the face of really difficult circumstances.

It’s going to be a long slog. As we re-imagine an Amazonian future, our ideas must be integrated with indigenous knowledge and indigenous empowerment. If you think that a bunch of scientists on the Science Panel for the Amazon can figure it all out, think again. We don’t even know all the names of the trees, but the indigenous peoples do.

*Among Hecht’s many publications are “Fate of the Forest: Destroyers and Defenders of the Amazon” (1989, co-authored with Alexander Cockburn, now in its fourth edition and translated into Portuguese, Spanish and Korean),“Scramble for the Amazon and the Lost Paradise of Euclides da Cunha” (2013), and the co-edited volume, “The Social Life of Forests: The Past, Present and Futures of Wooded Landscapes” (2014).“Scramble for the Amazon” won the Melville Prize for best book in Latin American environmental history, awarded by the Conference in Latin American History, in 2014.

**Amazonia is the name of the greater tropical forest that extends through Brazil, Peru, Colombia, Bolivia, Ecuador, French Guyana, Guyana, Suriname and Venezuela, together with thousands of Indigenous territories.