- 4 – In sum, according to a number of scholars, the 1988 constitutional clause underlies the present-day process of black peasants’ identity-building and political mobilization. In contrast, this book argues that, despite the changes set in motion by Article 68, a number of discourses and practices inherited from past generations continue to be a source of identity for the black peasants of Brazil. Dating from the era of slavery, such traditions have subsisted embedded in the landscape in the form of agro-ecological strategies, political discourses, and even relationships with political and economic elites. They have not resulted in hard ethnic boundaries sharply separating black peasants from other rural Brazilians, but rather have been part of a flexible toolbox of strategies and narratives inscribed on the landscape and used in moments of conflict over land, labor, and citizenship.
- While the relationships between black rural communities and the natural world have been largely overlooked as a vehicle for the maintenance of an AfroBrazilian identity, this book is devoted to unearthing their existence, interrogating their relevance, and putting them in dialogue with the broader history of slavery and its legacies in post-emancipation Brazil. The rhetorical figure of the “people of the river,” which epitomizes those relationships, titles this book.
- Landscapes are “the symbolic environment[s] created by a human act of conferring meaning on nature and the environment”; in other words, they are the sum of a physical place plus the narratives people formulate about it. Because a landscape is simultaneously “what we see and how we see it,” it is a very useful concept for illuminating the connections between the natural world and historical processes of material and cultural change.
- 7 – The erection of a parallel economy could only take place after slaves and maroons explored Amazonian landscapes and came to understand their seasonal rhythms, their marketable products, their possibilities for agriculture, and their potential to sustain families and communities. I call this process of acquaintance with the opportunities and constraints of local environments “environmental creolization.”
- However, I apply the concept not only to the initial arrival of Africans to the region but also to their broader strategies of social and economic advancement throughout the entire era of slavery. Just as they learned a new language, became Brazilian by birth, or came to understand the interstices of Brazilian law to gain autonomy or even freedom, slaves and maroons also acquired knowledge of the natural world with the intent of becoming forest collectors, hunters, rangers, or farmers. With the concept of environmental creolization, then, I intend to capture the ideas, practices, strategies, and discourses that both African and Afro-Brazilian slaves learned not only as they adapted to the New World, but as they sought to become free peasants as well.
- 8 – The first part of this book, in sum, is a social and environmental analysis of how the enslaved became peasants. Chapter 1 discusses plantation slavery in Pará in the decades after the Cabanagem revolt, an enormous anti-Portuguese rebellion that shook post-independence Amazonia between 1835 and 1840.
- 8-9 – Chapter 2 and 3 offer a microsocial perspective on the process of environmental creolization. The former uses the oral myth of the Big Snake to analyze how maroons in the Lower Amazon merged fragments of West African and Indigenous mythology to narrate their experiences and how instrumental their mastery over local environments was in resisting the slaveholders’ might.
- 11 – The second part of this book, then, interrogates the role played by ideas of place and nature in conflicts over land, labor, and politics—the realms where black peasants mobilized their collective identities to claim for citizenship.
chapter one After the Reign of Terror Slavery and the Economy of Post-Cabanagem Pará, 1835–c. 1870
- 135 – Unfortunately, the new visions of Amazonia have done little to alter traditional perceptions of the region as essentially diferent from the rest of Brazil in terms of its economic, social, and racial profile. It continues to be seen as a backwater in which nothing important happened, and that only gained prominence during the three or four decades when it supplied North Atlantic markets with latex. Amazonians have been portrayed as historical actors who seem to have done little more than react to external stimuli. Naturally, there are some exceptions, but most studies on Amazonia continue to focus on the outside perspectives of intellectuals, policy makers, entrepreneurs, foreign powers, and the federal government. Few works portray the locals as having any agency
- The People of the River reinserts Afro descendants into Amazonia’s history, especially in the periods immediately before and after the rubber boom.
- 136 – Nothing prevented Amazonia from developing a plantation agriculture, and certainly not the region’s environment, as we saw in chapter one. Despite the harsh regime of tropical rains and the poor soil in most of the uplands across the Amazon basin, both cacao and sugarcane could be cultivated in the high floodlands, areas that were submerged seasonally for brief periods. Local planters took advantage of the compatible relationship between these two crops and other staples, used the energy generated by the river’s tides, and relied on the tide to fertilize their fields. By successfully adapting plantation agriculture to the environmental conditions of the region, then, Amazon planters proved that they could successfully produce export crops, facilitating the expansion of the regional economy in the post-Cabanagem decades.
- 138 – The People of the River argues that natural landscapes represented a vehicle for the genesis and the evolution of an Afro-descendant identity among Pará’s black peasants. The process of developing that identity gained force in the last decades of slavery, when the ties of cooperation and support that the enslaved had built among them generated a shared culture and some common aspirations.5 As I aimed to show here, the material and symbolic dimensions of natural landscapes were pivotal to the parallel economies and the bonds of community that the enslaved erected in senzalas and maroon communities.
- 145 – Black peasants continue to assert their rights as Brazilians through multiple dialogues, but their voice has always found in nature a vehicle to maintain a singular identity along the way.