Diogo de Carvalho Cabral
Although it has received less scholarly attention than firearms, microbes, domestic animals and plants, market economy, and statecraft, alphabetic reading and writing was crucial in the European conquest and colonization of the Americas from the late 15th century on. Unlike the agrarian empires the Spaniards encountered in the Andes and the Mexican highlands, the Portuguese frontier advanced upon tribal peoples who relied exclusively on oral language, such as the Tupi of Atlantic Brazil. These were semi-sedentary horticultural villagers whose entire socio-ecology (myths and knowledge, territoriality, subsistence strategies, etc.) was conditioned by the face-to-faceness and fugacity of spoken words. In turn, their Portuguese colonizers—for a while rivaled by the French, who enjoyed short periods of stable settlement through the early 17th century—were urban-based, oceangoing merchants, bureaucrats, soldiers, and religious missionaries whose organization strictly depended on the durability and transferability of written texts. Even if most of the Portuguese who came to Brazil in the 16th century were themselves illiterate, colonization as a social enterprise framed their actions according to prescribed roles set down in writing (both handwriting and printed script). Thus, the Portuguese colonization of Brazilian native lands and human populations can be interpreted from the point of view of the imposition of an alphabetically organized way of life. Two major dimensions of this “letterscaping” can be discerned as to its impact on Amerindian bodies (human and nonhuman) and modes of understanding. Although the 16th century was only the introductory act in that drama, its historical record shows the basic outlines of the alphabetic colonization that would play out through the early 19th century: native decimation and enslavement, territory usurpation by sesmaria grants, forest recovery in former native croplands (then resignified as “virgin forest”), loss of native ecological knowledge not recorded in writing, disempowerment of native cultural attunement to the wild soundscape, among other processes.
José Luiz de Andrade Franco and José Augusto Drummond
The rich variety of the tropical ecosystems and wildlife native to the current territory of Brazil has captured the attention of several groups of observers since the early 1800s. Wildlife and landscapes in particular generated a continuous stream of appreciation of their uniqueness and concern about their integrity. This perception affected government officials and foreign traveling naturalists of the 19th century, when dozens of French, German, Austrian, English, Belgians and North American naturalists traversed the immense territory of the former Portuguese colony that had been virtually closed to trained scientists. Throughout the 20th century, newly trained Brazilian scientists and again foreign scientists, besides government officials and activist citizens, continued to explore species, ecosystems, and landscapes of what now recognized as the largest tropical country of the world. More recently, the growing amount of information about the global distribution of biodiversity placed Brazil at the top of the ranking, as a truly “megadiverse” country. As a consequence, Brazil has engaged, through environmental non-governmental organizations (NGOs), government agencies, and foreign and locally trained scientists, in a remarkable series of successful projects aimed at the identification and protection of endangered species. The country has only recently built a cadre of wildlife and ecological scientists trained to initiate and manage these types of projects. Despite the fact that these efforts are still far from being a priority in terms of its national environmental policies, Brazil has been quite active and successful in the protection of some of its most endangered animal species and their habitats.
Rafael de Bivar Marquese
The coffee economy was decisive for the construction of independent Brazil. By the middle of the 19th century, the country was responsible for about half of the coffee global supply; in 1900, that number had increased to about three-quarters of the world’s production. In the Brazilian monarchical period (1822–1889) the center of the activity was located in the valley of the Paraiba do Sul river. Brazilian coffee production from its very beginnings demonstrated an inherent spatial mobility and a great demand for workers. Before 1850, labor supply was guaranteed by the transatlantic slave trade; after that, by an internal slave trade. The two basic characteristics of the coffee economy created during the era of slavery (the intensive exploitation of workers through the extensive exploitation of natural resources) were maintained after the crisis and the abolition of the institution (1888), when the center of the coffee economy moved to the West of São Paulo. Now counting on a new arrangement of free labor (the colonato) and on the subsidized immigration of European peasants, the São Paulo coffee economy in the new republican regime (founded in 1889) underwent a huge productive leap. Overproduction and falling prices became the new problem. The coffee valorization policy adopted by the State of São Paulo after 1906 and then the federal government indicates the reconfiguration of the class relations experienced in the new republican era, which nevertheless kept many of the historical structures of the slave legacy intact.
The semi-arid interior of Brazil’s northeast region, known as the sertão, has long been subject to droughts. These can devastate the agricultural and ranching economy and cause serious hardship for the area’s inhabitants, particularly those who labor on farms and ranches belonging to the landowning elite. A prolonged drought in the late 1870s led the Brazilian government to begin soliciting advice from engineers about how to redress the periodic crisis. In 1909 the federal government established a permanent federal agency, the Inspectorate for Works to Combat Drought, to undertake reservoir construction throughout the sertão along with other measures that would alleviate future droughts. In subsequent decades the activities of the drought agency expanded to include constructing irrigation networks around reservoirs and establishing agricultural experiment stations to teach sertanejo farmers improved methods of farming in semi-arid conditions. Although powerful landowners lobbied for federal aid to construct reservoirs, which helped to sustain their own cattle herds through drought years, they were often opposed to initiatives like the establishment of irrigated smallholder colonies around reservoirs, which threatened to alter the social order in the sertão. Support for the federal drought agency’s work waxed and waned during the 20th century under different presidential administrations. Often it would rise in response to a period of damaging drought, then diminish once the crisis abated.
Droughts have affected the sertão at irregular intervals since at least the colonial era. They vary in temporal duration and geographic expanse. Their impact on human populations depends on how the area of reduced rainfall overlaps with human settlement patterns and land use. Over the 20th century the years in which drought most severely impacted human communities (including crops and livestock) in the sertão included 1915, 1919–1920, 1931–1932, 1942, 1951–1953, 1958, 1970, 1979–1983, and 1998–1999. These are the periods when local, state, and federal governments received the most persistent pleas for assistance from affected populations. The precise cause of droughts in the region is debated, but they are thought to be triggered by changes in major wind patterns, particularly the El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO), that prevent Atlantic Ocean precipitation from reaching the sertão.
Regina Horta Duarte
Brazil’s environmental history is often told as a tale of irresponsible exploitation and societal indifference. However, a broader perspective must consider the country’s diverging traditions of environmental thought and practice. During the 19th century, several naturalists wrote about the need for the rational use of natural resources, founding a conservationist cultural tradition. In the 1920s and 1930s, a group of naturalists from the National Museum produced various initiatives related to biological research and conservationism. In the 1950s, another group of scientists, agronomists, and journalists founded the National Foundation for the Protection of Nature, active until the 1980s. Although none of these initiatives led to a continuous environmental mobilization, they shaped public policies and cultural sensibilities toward the environment. Beginning in the 1970s, a new wave of environmentalism emerged in several cities—with protests against pollution, nuclear energy, and deforestation—but also in rural areas and forests, with demands from traditional peoples. Over the years, several conservation units and federal institutions were founded to implement environmental policies. Finally, the 1992 Earth Summit gave a special boost to these movements in an era of growing NGO activism. All of these fueled the feeling that environmental activism in Brazil had entered a golden age of dialogue and negotiation.
Contrary to this view, some activists claimed that major political advances were still needed. Through the lens of socio-environmentalism and environmental justice, they denounced the displacement of communities by mining companies and the construction of hydroelectric plants, as well as the unhealthy and violent conditions faced by inhabitants of urban peripheries and areas where agribusiness was expanding.
Skepticism toward gradual advances was warranted following the election of Jair Bolsonaro, whose administration threatened environmental legislation and institutions and prior achievements. To confront these perils, environmental activism must become a political, scientific, and cultural movement.
Regina Horta Duarte
Modern zoos emerged as mass entertainment, spaces of public leisure and of culture. In the past, they served as monuments and expressions of the degree of “civilization” and progress of a city and its respective country. In Latin America, zoos date from the last quarter of the 19th century. The history of Latin American zoos is a political, cultural, and social history. The conditions of their creation and operation over the decades have conferred important specificities to these institutions. Since their inception, zoos in Latin America have reflected nationalistic aspirations, civilizational projects, and social transformation. Over the decades, the history of many zoos has blended with natural history in Latin America, as many zoo founders were important scientists. The development of new sensitivities toward animals also follows the history of zoos in Latin America from the beginning, because the first animal protection societies appeared at the same time. Today, zoos face vigorous claims from animal rights activists calling for their closure. In view of so many challenges, these institutions are reinventing themselves with an increased focus on conservation and environmental education, joining international zoological societies with high standards of quality. Among several of these societies, the Latin American Association of Zoological Parks and Aquariums (ALPZA) stands out. Founded in 1990, ALPZA organizes, reshapes, and integrates Latin American zoos, establishing global connections. Various actors play a role in the defense and contestation of zoos, such as politicians, scientists, conservationists, animal protection societies, anti-zoo activists, visitors, administrators, officials, and, of course, thousands of wild animals from all over the world who have lived in Latin American cities for decades.