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Science, health and environment: the Brazilian Amazon

August 8, 2011

Oswaldo Cruz Foundation – by Dominichi Miranda de Sá

When it comes to describing the Amazon, the rhetorical device used most often seems to be the superlative: the Amazon holds the world’s largest hydrographic basin and the world’s largest rainforest, it possesses one of the greatest collections of aquatic fauna and it is the biologically richest terrestrial biome on Earth. The chroniclers and clergy, travellers and naturalists who crisscrossed the region from the 16th to the 19th centuries helped to construct this view of a unique, magnificent natural world. La Condamine, Humboldt, Wallace, Agassiz, Spix and Martius wrote about the breadth, quantity, wealth and other exceptional qualities of the Amazon’s soils, plants and waters.

In Brazil, the imagining of the Amazon has always been accompanied by a relentless endeavour to convert this natural setting into national resources. Recent research into the environmental history of Brazil has dated this idea back to the 18th century, when the notion of exploiting and putting the country’s natural elements to rational use was already on the table. But it took the 1889 birth of the Republic to usher in an actual policy for the scientific exploration of Brazil’s natural and regional diversity, with an eye on taking utmost advantage of such resources. At a number of government- run scientific institutions, including museums, botanical gardens and exploration commissions, studying the Amazon – that is, Brazil’s northwestern frontier – rose to the top of research agendas. These institutions were involved in the systematic inventory of the region’s nature, along with the shift from a frontier territory in expansion and a region of international border disputes into an area under true political rule by the state. In the first half of the 20th century, the Brazilian government sponsored a number of expeditions to explore the Amazon’s fauna, flora and people.

The Amazon contains remarkable biodiversity. Peter Schoen on Flickr

The Amazon contains remarkable biodiversity. Peter Schoen on Flickr

Members of these commissions included naturalists specialised in botany, cartography, geology, zoology and anthropology, especially from Rio de Janeiro’s National Museum. They gathered specimens, classified and catalogued collected material, wrote detailed scientific reports, gave conferences, and published texts on these expeditions and their findings. They also demarcated borders with other countries and delimited lands believed suitable for human settlement and for raising crops and livestock. With the region’s rivers serving as geographic references, medical and environmental surveys recorded the geology of river beds, the flora along their banks, the presence of indigenous societies, and signs of economic activities in their vicinity. They defined indigenous lands and established differences between ‘jungle’ and ‘forest’ – the former considered unhealthy territory where malaria raged, while the latter started becoming the subject of discussions over environmental protection.

My work analyses the relationship between the production of medical and scientific knowledge, environmental intervention, and the political and social dynamics involved in modernisation processes in nation states. Of key interest is the historical study of field research conducted by the exploratory and settlement expeditions that accompanied communications and transportation infrastructure works, particularly those conducted in the Brazilian Amazon during the first decades of the 20th century. Other areas of focus include the history of the development of scientific knowledge, disciplines and issues involving the study of nature, such as: cartography and borders; medicine, disease and people; ecology, environment, climate, the physical milieu, and practices used in exploiting and preserving the natural world; and botany, geography, the study of river, and natural history.

Our research project suggests that if the Brazilian state’s aim of ‘productively settling’ the northwestern portion of the country was not actually achieved back then, or if it has now been reshaped to fit new attitudes and agendas about our relation to the natural world, these government- promoted scientific surveys nonetheless played a decisive role in recognising the value of Brazilian naturalists. Above all, they broadened our understanding of vast areas of the Amazon – object of science, imagination, tourism, international political disputes and curiosity, and a central topic in debates on the sustainable use of natural resources and the preservation of ecosystems worldwide.

Dominichi Miranda de Sá is a Researcher and Associate Professor in the Postgraduate Programme in the History of Sciences and Health, Oswaldo Cruz Foundation.

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