RESILIENT: Forest Cities - Utopia and Development in the Modern Amazon

RESILIENT: Forest Cities - Utopia and Development in the Modern Amazon

RESILIENT: Forest Cities - Utopia and Development in the Modern Amazon is a 3 year-funded project of the Gerda Henkel Foundation as part of the special Programme: Lost Cities: Perception of and living with abandoned cities in the cultures of the world. It focuses on 20th century ‘lost cities’ in the Amazon created and abandoned in association with different extractivist projects. RESILIENT will use multiple historical documents to explore the resilience of industrial cities in tropical forests from both a human and non-human perspective. Amazonian lost cities are privileged spots for investigating the pitfalls in discourses on modernization and progress so prevalent on large-scale development projects, which continue to shape the imaginings, expectations, and lives of people in the Amazon to this day.

In 1972, Brazil inaugurated one of the world's largest highways. This road did not follow the Brazilian coastline to connect the country's major capitals. Instead, it cut through the heart of the Amazon rainforest, justifying the road’s name, Transamazonica. Its official establishment triggered a massive influx of landless peasants, investments from international private companies, and the establishing of numerous company-towns in the region, often encroaching on Indigenous communities and settlements.

Public officials captured the zeitgeist of an urban-industrial imaginary future to the forest that proliferated at this time. The prevailing developmental mindset was translated into plans for hydroelectric power dams, mining fields and oil and rubber exploitation, with new extractivist forms of land use tied up with urban projects that seemed emblematic of the emergence of the Anthropocene. These aspirations came with a cost of agrarian conflicts, deforestation, and human rights violations brought about by the new territorial model, with long-held Indigenous forms of land use and cosmologies marginalized.

Nevertheless, by the mid-1980s, many newspapers labeled many of these company-towns as underdeveloped and abandoned. While various factors contributed to this, development agencies frequently attributed this failure to the untamed ‘wilderness’ of the forest. This argument can be historically linked to other Western, industrial assumptions that equated abandoned cities with the idea of an unconquerable and pristine nature in the Amazon and tropical forests worldwide.

Through an investigation rooted in an interdisciplinary approach, the project delves into the resilience of Amazonian industrial cities within tropical forests, simultaneously contesting the concepts of "lost" and "city". The Amazonian ‘lost’ cities represent the ambiguity between utopia and dystopia, abandonment and existence, presence and memory, decay and rebirth. RESILIENT forest cities project main goals are: to analyze 20th century Amazonian ‘lost cities’ existence and perception; to interpret the entanglements of lost cities with developmentalist ideals and circulation of images of wilderness and technocratic utopias; to assess the centrality of the non-humans relations and the environment in the success or failure of human urban spaces.

The project is coordinated by Dr. Danielle Heberle Viegas within the isoTROPIC Research Group led by Dr. Patrick Roberts at Max Planck Institute of Geoanthropology, in cooperation with Prof. Antoine Acker from the University of Geneva and Prof. Patrícia Vieira  of the University of Coimbra. RESILIENT forms part of a wider research focus of the isoTROPIC group and Department of Archaeology at MPI-GEA centred on human history in the tropics and the interplay between urbanism and different environmental and historical contexts. It also builds on the rich history of energy research in Latin America at the University of Geneva, within the Eccellenza-funded research group AnthropoSouth: Latin American Oil Revolutions in the Development Century. Finally, the project aims to promote interdisciplinary knowledge decentering humanity as the only source of meaning on the Amazon rainforest through its partnership with the ERC-funded ECO Amazônia project based at University of Coimbra.

Activities in 2024

1st semester: archival research and fieldwork in Brazil.

January: Ph.D. project’s presentation at Universidade Federal do Rio Grande do Sul, Porto Alegre, Brazil (Henrique Gasperin)

February: Memorias del Antropoceno: Historias y Archivos del Petróleo y de la Naturaleza (Henrique Gasperin)

March: RESILIENT project's presentation at Universidade Federal do Rio Grande do Sul (Porto Alegre, Brazil) and Universidade Federal do Pará (Belém, Brazil) (Danielle Heberle Viegas)

May: Ph.D. project's presentation, Centre du Patrimoine Arménian (Armenian Heritage Centre), Valence, Frane. “La fabrique du patrimoine face à l’antropocène: les company-towns abandonnés en Amazonie (Julia de Medeiros).

June: Latin American Studies Association (LASA) Congress: Reacción y resistencia: Imaginar futuros posibles en las Américas. June 12 – 15, 2024.  Bogota, Colombia & Virtual (Patrícia Vieira)

July: International Conference: International Conference: Towards a history of agrarian colonization in Latin America: Concepts and dynamics in the 19th and 20th centuries. 08 - 09 July 2024. Bielefeld, Germany. (Danielle Heberle Viegas)

August: 4th World Congress of Environmental History. Transitions, Transformations, and Transdisciplinarity: Histories beyond History. 19-23 August 2024. Oulu, Finland. (Antoine Acker, Danielle Heberle Viegas, Julia de Medeiros, Henrique Gasperin)

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