Oscar de la Torre: The Towering Inferno: Fire and Globalization in Amazonia

The People of the River by Oscar de la TorreToday we welcome a guest post from Oscar de la Torre, author of The People of the River: Nature and Identity in Black Amazonia, 1835-1945published last fall by UNC Press.

In this history of the black peasants of Amazonia, Oscar de la Torre focuses on the experience of African-descended people navigating the transition from slavery to freedom. He draws on social and environmental history to connect them intimately to the natural landscape and to Indigenous peoples. Relying on this world as a repository for traditions, discourses, and strategies that they retrieved especially in moments of conflict, Afro-Brazilians fought for autonomous communities and developed a vibrant ethnic identity that supported their struggles over labor, land, and citizenship.

The People of the River is available in both paperback and ebook editions.


The Towering Inferno: Fire and Globalization in Amazonia

In the 1974 disaster movie, The Towering Inferno, a roaring fire broke out in a 138-stories-high skyscraper just as it was being dedicated in a lavish and flamboyant ceremony. Somewhat concealed amidst all the suspense and the spectacular drama of the burning tower was a subtle message about how ostentation and the pursuit of profit should never come before safety and responsible planning, a lesson that almost half a century later seems to have fallen on deaf ears. During this past August, close to 30,000 fires have been counted in the Amazon basin, engulfing entire areas of the forest and covering with black clouds the skies of cities including São Paulo, Brazil’s economic capital, located about 600 miles away from Amazonia, the largest tropical forest in the world.

Active fire detections in South America as observed by NASA instruments August 15-22, 2019. Source: NASA Earth Observatory.

Since homo sapiens arrived in the Amazon region 13,000 or so years ago, slash and burn agriculture has always been used as the default method for practicing agriculture there. However, in the last century, the arrival of agribusiness—especially soy cultivation and the expansion of large-scale cattle ranching—and the repeated colonization projects carried out by the Brazilian, Bolivian, Colombian, and Peruvian governments have accelerated traditional rates of deforestation. There are more western-style farmers, agribusinesses, ranches, and mines in Amazonia now than ever before, which naturally increases the pressure to clear new areas of the forest.

That these economic activities put pressure on the forest is normal in the capitalist systems that are prevalent throughout the Americas. Governments can, however, ease such pressures by supervising deforestation, slowing it down, demarcating areas to be kept as uncultivated forest, and relying on native populations (including indigenous peoples, descendants of maroons, rubber tappers, and others) to manage the forest in a sustainable way.

The problem is that the current presidential administration of Brazil (and those of surrounding countries too) are actually doing the opposite.

Last year the administration of far-right Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro slashed the budgets for fire prevention and control by 38%–and then announced that it would use the largest international fund meant to prevent and control deforestation to compensate businesses whose lands were affected by the demarcation of natural reservations and other protected areas.

The former governmental administrations of the Brazilian Workers Party (WP; known as PT in Portuguese) had a mixed record in fighting deforestation. While they approved big colonization projects, such as the Xingu River’s Belo Monte dam, they also created new reservations for traditional populations (including the black peasants of Amazonia, the subject of my new UNC Press book, The People of the River: Nature and Identity in Black Amazonia, 1835–1945). They also enhanced mechanisms of deforestation control and strengthened collaboration with international institutions and NGOs devoted to sustainability and the preservation of Amazonia.  Thanks to those efforts, during the 1980s and 1990s, twenty thousand square kilometers of forest were cleared on average every year; but by 2009, the WP had cut that rate by about 66%, to about 7,000 km2 per year.

That success, though limited, proves that deforestation can be prevented and controlled. While it would be simplistic to say that it will ever stop completely—as it is inherent to the lifestyle of local rural populations—it can be managed in a sustainable way. Doing so demands really firm oversight and control in preventing the illegal clearing of forested lands, preserving the integrity of protected areas, and controlling the expansion of agribusiness. Without such policies, Amazonia will indeed become a towering inferno, a pile of smoldering ashes reminding us of the price we paid for giving profit precedence over sustainability.


Oscar de la Torre is Associate Professor of Africana and Latin American studies at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.