The Amazon Forest, a Brazilian Colonial Frontier for Over Two Centuries



In this interview with Paulo Tavares, we talk about the Brazilian colonization and extractive deforestation of the Amazon. The largest forest on Earth is the site of tension between this colonial violence and defense alliances between Indigenous, ecological, and other emancipative political movements. With that in mind, we reflect on forest epistemologies “from below” and how cartographic and architectural analyses can support them.

Tavares Funambulist 2
Territorial Design: the basin-wide urban-matrix as planned in the Plan for National Integration (map by INCRA, 1971). Until Operation Amazonia, the spatial organization of the Amazon basin remained largely defined by territorial patterns inherited from the “Atlantic Trade,” more closely connected to the river network and the sea than the interior. Migrant communities and major towns were concentrated along major waterways, whereas the hinterlands, where indigenous communities sought refuge, remained relatively safe beyond colonial projects and mostly unmapped. These macrostrategies completely reconfigured the map of Amazonia. / Courtesy of INCRA.

LÉOPOLD LAMBERT: In your previous contribution to The Funambulist (#35 Decolonial Ecologies, May-June 2021), you described the 20th century colonization of the Amazonian interior of Brazil. It is indeed one of the “absurdities” (for lack of a better word) of colonialism to enforce sovereignty upon a territory and its people even when it does not even know. Could you talk again of this era in which the Amazon is seen as an always pushable colonial frontier?

PAULO TAVARES: In many different ways, Brazil forged its image and identity as a sovereign nation claiming a continuation with colonialism. It was by expanding the nation towards the hinterlands—conquering and mastering the interior—that Brazil would emerge as a modern, civilized nation. One can see this frontier discourse since independence in the 1820s, but such ideas really got fruition during the 20th century, more specifically during a period of rapid modernization inaugurated with the government of Getúlio Vargas in the 1930s. For ideologues of this view (many of them associated with the modernist movement) such as famous sociologist Gilberto Freyre, the main theorist of Brazil’s supposedly “racial democracy,” colonization assumed the form of national character itself. This is what Freyre meant when he spoke of a process of “auto-colonization” of Brazil as national formation, for example: “The colonization of Brazil soon ceased to be strictly European to become a process of auto-colonization: a process that would, after independence, take on a national character.” Other ideologues of the modernizing dictatorship of Vargas’s New State (1937-1945), as sociologist Nelson Werneck Sodré, claimed that Brazil was “a country that needs to conquer itself in order to fulfill itself.”