Urban Amazonia: an Interview with Ana María Durán Calisto

Publication Date
February 27, 2020

Ana María Durán Calisto is a visiting scholar at YSoA and teaches a seminar on the history of cities in Amazonia. In a conversation last week, we discussed the urban character of Amazonia and the politics of resource extraction in the forest.

Blanca Begert: Brazilian geographer Bertha Becker called Amazonia a “foresta urbana”, an “urban forest.” Even knowing that there are over 33 million people living in Amazonia, it’s still surprising to hear this region referred to as an urban forest. What do you think of this characterization?

Ana María Durán Calisto: I first understood there were cities in the Amazon when I went to Manaus when I was fifteen. We went on a small charter plane that flew right above the canopy, and you could see this wide expanse of forest, and the rivers. We stayed in a hotel at the edge of the city and that edge marked me; it was very manichaeic. It’s not like this everywhere in the city, but at that instance it was a hard edge of forest and city, brutally disarticulated from each other. Having grown up with this idea of Amazonia as a pristine wilderness, I was shocked. This was a huge city in the middle of Amazonia, full of industrial sites, with a free trade zone.

The urban history of Amazonia goes all the way back into pre-colonial times. One of the more recent chapters during which Amazonian cities prospered was during the Industrial Revolution, when the demand for latex soared. The rubber tree is endemic to the Amazon and at the end of the 19th century Amazonia was the only area where latex existed. Imagine all tributaries of the Amazon basin suddenly becoming hinterland economies, each with a system of cities, and an entrepot, a collection point for trade, where they meet the Amazon.

This was the first pan-Amazonian extractive system, analogous to what is happening with other extractive systems now. It was brutal there. Indigenous communities everywhere were enslaved to tap rubber. Today the resource is different, but you still have systems of slavery, immense violence, abuse, and accumulation, with the barons in Latin America and the beneficiaries in other empires. In the rubber boom it was the British Empire. Once the rubber plant was bio-pirated, and taken by the British to its colonies in Southeast Asia, the economies in the Amazon collapsed — but what a relief for Amazonians.

B: In your class we’ve talked about the myth of Amazonia as a “pristine wilderness”. What has been the impact of that idea on Amazonians?

A: Susanna Hecht once said to me, “Amazonia is shrouded in myth, and the myths play against Amazonia.” What has been generated in Amazonia is polarization. One side thinks this is a pristine wilderness that should be untouched, and humans should not be there. On the other extreme are people who just see Amazonia as a resource: “Let’s not idealize this. This is a raw material to be used for development.”

The middle ground of the indigenous ontology — where sustainability is completely compatible with human welfare – this is completely lost in translation.

Sometimes indigenous people are lumped into the “wilderness” idea, when they are conceived of as small, isolated, exotic tribes — as part of the romanticized “Indian wilderness”. Those concepts, developed in the North, have been translated to the South in terms of territorial planning. The concept that arrived in South America was the postbellum concept of a human-less “wilderness.” We’re okay with the exotic presence of “the Indian” but we’re not okay with thinking about Amazonia as an anthropogenic landscape with huge cities. That’s too much for many people.

B: Why have so many planners and designers ignored the urban aspect of Amazonia?

A: I’ve thought about that a lot. When I wanted to study the urban systems of Amazonia in architecture school, professors would direct me to look at Hong Kong in China, or other Latin American cities, like Quito, Bogota, or Santiago. The word urban did not correspond with Amazonia. Back then the dominant image I encountered was that of the pristine wilderness with local tribes who aren’t perceived as urban. Things have changed a lot because I’m talking about the same exact things now and they ask me to teach a course on it.

It’s interesting to see how Amazonia is now at the center, and the cities are not invisible anymore. The cartography that was submerged has now surfaced. Ironically, what put Amazonian cities back on the map has been this latest phase of mega extractivism, starting in the 60s and 70s, but booming under the neoliberal policies of the 90s. The cities continue to grow. The maps of copper, iron, oil, gold have created such havoc that suddenly other maps are being drawn, and one of those is the map of cities.

The colonization of the jungle is not just a random outcome of extraction facilitating human settlement. Colonization has been a policy enforced by the state, with the Amazon being used as a pressure release valve in response to demands for agrarian reform in Latin America. These forces have combined to create disastrous outcomes.

B: In Jim Scott’s Agrarian Societies class, we talked about how the state relies on simplified, knowable units to govern. Can you reflect a bit on the relationship between the state and Amazonia?

A: Jim Scott’s book Against the Grain has been so helpful for me in terms of understanding Amazonia and the non-panoptic vision. I think Amazonia has such a negative relationship with the state because you cannot control it with visual surveillance. In order to apply visual control mechanisms, you have to destroy the forest. Bolsonaro has tried to do this. But if you destroy it, you fall down with it. The resource appraisals we do in Amazonia are all about our ability to see it from above with satellites. But the Amazon is non-Foucauldian. It’s not a panopticon.

Amazonia drives the state crazy. Any incursion is countered by some resistance, some structure that the state doesn’t know how to deal with. It’s the condition of the forest. The canopy is not a site for visual power. It’s a place for sounds, spatiality, water, it’s a different kind of place. There is a local knowledge of water routes that is beyond our access. Amazonia defies the West and our systems at every level, that’s why we crack down there.

And I come from these systems. I learned architecture in a modern school that descends from the Bauhaus. Le Corbusier always built a representation of the eye into his drawings. Ever since perspective was invented in the Renaissance, the eye has been the main feature. In Amazonia all of that collapses. It’s more about the skin, the body, the sounds, the smells, the touch.

B: We talk about informal cities and you refer to them in quotes. Is “informal” not the right way to be thinking of these cities?

A: It’s hard to name it. Informal means lacking form, and that’s not the case with these cities. Latin American scholars tend to prefer “autoconstruido” which means “self-built”. The city that is built by all the people who have not been incorporated into the capitalist systems; they’re not part of the market, they’re not part of the state. Mike Davis calls them the “surplus humanity”. I’m not sure if I like that term, because he’s looking at it from the center outwards, though he is using it in a very cynical, Marxist way, to critique capitalism.

People refer to “frontier cities.” Here I again give credit to Susanna Hecht, who once told me “Frontier? From whose perspective?” We’re advancing into Amazonia so it’s a frontier of extraction, the oil frontier, the soybean agribusiness frontier. But from the perspective of indigenous peoples it is not a frontier at all, it’s an invasion.

“Frontier” needs to be questioned as a concept urgently because it has to do with jurisdiction, land tenure, and security. Indigenous populations are being dispossessed once again because our ontologies don’t take them into account. They don’t have the same property systems we do – but that doesn’t mean that we can impose ours and kick them out. It’s a continuous clash. So many people die in Amazonia every month due to land conflicts. In the abstract world, we treat the market as this benign mechanism of exchange. On the ground, there is a lot of intentional, strategic violence embedded in it. Just look at Judith Kimerling’s article for the Vermont Law Review – the oil companies were dropping bombs from the air into Waorani settlements to open the ground for extraction. The commodity market is not an innocent affair.

Publication Date
February 27, 2020
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