From the Desks of Nicholas A. Robins and Barbara J. Fraser: A Timely Exploration of Inequalities in the Andes-Amazon Region

Nicholas A. Robins is a teaching professor of history at North Carolina State University. He is the author of several books, including Mercury, Mining, and Empire: The Human and Ecological Cost of Colonial Silver Mining in the Andes and Of Love and Loathing: Marital Life, Strife, and Intimacy in the Colonial Andes, 1750–1825 (Nebraska, 2015)Barbara J. Fraser is a freelance writer covering environmental, public health, indigenous, and social issues. Her work has appeared in publications including Nature, Science, EcoAmericas, the Lancet, and Discover. They are the editors of Landscapes of Inequity: Environmental Justice in the Andes-Amazon Region (Nebraska, 2020).

When word of the coronavirus pandemic reached indigenous communities in the Amazon basin, some blockaded the entrances to their villages to keep outsiders away. In others, parents took their children and retreated into the forest, where they built temporary shelters and settled in to hunt, fish, gather forest fruits and tend small gardens until the worst had passed.

Those strategies for avoiding infection are deeply ingrained in the collective memory of the region’s indigenous peoples—most especially, perhaps, in those whose ancestors fled genocidal rubber barons a century ago, and who still live semi-nomadic lives, avoiding contact with outsiders.

Although the coronavirus has been called a great equalizer, as no one is assumed to have immunity, it has taken a disproportionate toll in the Amazon basin, laying bare inequities that have accumulated over centuries, during which adventurers, corporations and governments have pillaged the region’s natural resources with no regard for original and traditional forest dwellers.

Those are the systemic patterns that we explore, along with our co-authors, in Landscapes of Inequity: Environmental Justice in the Andes-Amazon Region. The idea for the book arose one chilly evening in Huancavelica, a city high in the Andes Mountains in Peru that was once the cinnabar mining center of South America, where we met while exploring the legacy of pollution from colonial-era mercury production.

As we talked over dinner, the conversation turned to the history of injustices in the western Amazon basin and the ways in which they continue to reverberate in the lives of people whose territories have been converted into polluted landscapes by outside interests that strictly limit their rights to their resources.

Our focus on the eastern flank of the Andes and the western Amazon is no accident. The western Amazon basin is known for its exuberant cloud forests and extreme biological diversity. The major Amazonian rivers have their headwaters in the Andes, and rainfall in the region regulates the cyclical flooding that has nurtured forests, fish, and human and non-human inhabitants for millennia.

The region has drawn adventurers and corporations that have enslaved and displaced indigenous people and other traditional inhabitants to extract timber, oil, gold, rubber and animal hides, leaving a trail of pollution, conflict and debt peonage. The tragedy is that this history continues to permeate lives and landscapes. Nevertheless, hope emerges from the actions of indigenous and traditional peoples in defense of their territories, and in the work of scholars, activists and journalists who listen to the stories of those who are directly affected.

These are the stories recounted in Landscapes of Inequity. Robins tells of the mercury that produced incalculable wealth in colonial Peru, but has left a toxic legacy in vapors emanating from the adobe walls of houses in Huancavelica, which pose an ongoing risk to residents. Fraser recounts the dilemmas faced by indigenous villagers in Amazonian Peru whose lands have been polluted by decades of oil production—an industry that also offers one of the few possibilities for employment, and which has created a modern feudal system in a region neglected by successive governments.

Amazonian countries promote extractive industries and infrastructure projects that lead to deforestation and threaten the very connectivity of rivers and forests that gives life to the region’s ecosystems and the people who depend on them. Carwil Bjork-James describes the efforts by indigenous inhabitants of the Isiboro Sécure National Park and Indigenous Territory in Bolivia to stop the construction of a highway that would slice through their territory and encourage settlement by outsiders.

Supposedly “sustainable” development also raises issues of environmental justice. Philip M. Fearnside explains the cascade of impacts from hydroelectric dams, which are billed as a renewable energy source, but which displace indigenous communities, spur construction of roads through the forest and contribute to climate change, ultimately reducing the rainfall needed to generate electricity.

Incentives to keep tropical forests standing have been a centerpiece of climate negotiations, but Anne M. Larson and Juan Pablo Sarmiento Barletti show how projects aimed at reducing deforestation and forest degradation, known as REDD+, ultimately sideline the people who live in, and safeguard, those forests.

Underlying many injustices against Amazonian indigenous people is official reluctance to grant territorial rights, as Richard Chase Smith notes, focusing on Peru. And although international law supports the right of indigenous peoples to consultation about projects or regulations affecting their communal rights, in South America these processes tend to be administrative procedures that do not solidify territorial rights, as Roger Merino explains.

Territory offers scant protection if governments do not respect those rights. As I write this, the coronavirus is advancing in the Javari Indigenous Land in Brazil, a huge expanse of forest on the Peruvian border that is home to semi-nomadic groups that avoid contact with wider Brazilian society, as well as to groups in fairly recent contact. Barbara Arisi and Felipe Milanez focus on a conflict between an isolated group and a more recently contacted group to show how official policy can undermine the self-determination of indigenous peoples.

Environmental justice in the Andes-Amazon region requires recognition of the relationship of mutuality and interdependence between humans and the non-human environment—a relationship intrinsic to indigenous eco-cosmologies, but which Western-oriented societies ignore, and from which we must learn, writes Jonathan D. Hill.

The coronavirus pandemic reminds us that pathogens are most likely to find human hosts when the natural environment is disturbed. It also casts into sharp relief the continuing inequities faced by forest dwellers in the western Amazon region. Whether the pandemic will exacerbate inequalities or create openings for more just relationships in the Andean-Amazonian landscape remains to be seen. We hope that Landscapes of Inequity: Environmental Justice in the Andes-Amazon Region will contribute to the debate.

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