[Graywolf Press; 2023]
Tr. from the Portuguese by Diane Whitty
Forests are the lungs of the Earth—a common metaphor used among environmental scientists and activists alike to generate a sense of relation between botanical worlds and human beings. Lungs, in this metaphor, poignantly index a pulsing heart, limbs and a body, and a discerning mind, the composite image succinctly drawing trees, soils, flowers, and fungi into the realm of animate life that warrants recognition as such, and humane care, in turn. Indeed, the metaphor extends a warning meant to spur action: Without its forests intact, the Earth faces collapse, just as the mind, body, and heart will crumble if our lungs rot ahead of schedule.
But the costs of metaphor are also often steep. In an effort to galvanize human engagement with the health and wellness of the natural world, the idea that forests share a vital anatomy with humans, displaces important differences: between forests and humans, among forest types, and through myriad respiratory systems across forest-dwelling animals. Forests, further, predate the human lungs on which this metaphor hinges, their deep time challenging whatever rhetorical imagery takes their complexities and influences as its subject. A helpful jolt, the metaphor is also aloof. And today, it begs another question entirely: namely, will forests even outlive the lungs of the humans who smother the skies and turn sun rays into fires?
This question propels Eliane Brum’s essay collection Banzeiro Òkòtó: The Amazon as the Center of the World, translated from the Brazilian Portuguese by the prolific Diane Whitty, and the second work of nonfiction by Brum, a journalist on environmental justice, indigenous rights, and gender. Writing from within the Amazon, Brum is far from aloof in her relationship to forests, and she is adamant about the endurance of this specific forest, and its lessons for worldwide environmental justice. Learning to recognize what exactly this endurance looks like, however, in the forest’s own terms, and, in turn, representing this endurance for a primarily Western audience, are the driving arcs of Brum’s collection—though “arc” is too neat a word to describe the dynamic experiences that Banzeiro Òkòtó recounts and induces.
From the outset, Brum introduces the figure of the banzeiro, the term for what unpredictable and often unnavigable vortices erupt within the powerful Xingu River, a southeast tributary of the Amazon River. For Brum, however, the physical force of banzeiro extends through the region writ large, and makes the Amazon rainforest less a place and more an experience that starts with a “destructuring,” in her neologism, of one’s body and mind, and what traditions from the West or Global North the body and the mind carry. Moving between urban and forest centers herself, Brum describes banzeiro as a “whirlpool” in her body, a “dissonant symphony” spiraling through her head and heart, “a fish tickling” at her toes, a “rot[ting] away” of some hold. From within banzeiro, Brum insists on a critical revision of the metaphors, languages, and coordinates commonly grounding normative discussions on the natural world, and she calls celebratory attention to the destabilizing consequences.
At perhaps the text’s most experimental, Banzeiro Òkòtó thus proceeds not through linearly progressive chapters but more unpredictably, starting the collection with “11. where does a circle begun?,” ending with “00. #freethefuture,” and moving through a range of other numbers and their related subjects in between. Without any explanation of this method or explicit commentary on the relationship between the number and title of an entry, whether “24. confession,” or “9. pigeon claws on the roof,” Brum gradually teaches readers to assume nothing but to remain open to everything in regards to the Amazon; and through each story, Brum underscores the role of uncertainty and even bewilderment in encountering this region. Over the course of the collection, however, readers might increasingly wonder how Brum has arrived at this organization—whether she follows a local system to which she gives no credit, or has crafted a logic on her own that is inspired by her experiences and work. That we cannot say for sure means that Brum has succeeded in disarming readers, and opening up space for other ways of coming to know this region and its banzeiro; but the ambiguities in her approach are also risky, as they threaten to foreclose what useful outcomes emerge when readers are aware of the multiple worlds they encounter.
Indeed, what Brum means by “the Amazon,” “the World,” and “the Center,” all respectively maintain similar ambiguities. Beyond gesturing towards a constitutive banzeiro in each of these cases, however, Brum’s storytelling gradually sketches radical redefinitions and new relations. In the collection’s opening pieces, Brum interlaces descriptions of gendered violence as nearly omnipresent in Brazil, and especially throughout the Amazon rainforest, with anecdotes of covert mining, overfishing, and deforestation in the name of lumber, soy cultivation and trade, and infrastructural productions. Mechanisms of violence against the Forest, Brum formally demonstrates, entail those against peoples, and as these stories weave in and out of ecological and social spaces, it becomes clear that by “the Amazon,” Brum is speaking of a complicated matrix of ecological and social spheres and agendas. While she introduces the cohorts of illegal miners and fishermen, the government-funded construction teams, the grileiros who duplicitously seize land and falsify records of ownership, and the latifundiáio/as who inexplicably manage vast swaths of Forest land and rivers, the peoples in whom Brum is most interested are those with what she calls “fierce life”; those resisting violence by extractive agents, and surviving through networks of solidarity or “mutual being” with each other and the natural world. Mutual being this way, however, functions only by way of difference, and Brum is careful to identify lines of connection as much as distinctive singularities. She uses her own phrase “beings of the forest” to refer to the region’s numerous and various Indigenous peoples, and takes up the commonly used “quilombolas,” to introduce the myriad descendants of maroons and maroon communities who extend the African diaspora into the Amazon and among Indigenous comrades. She inaugurates “forestpeoples” to refer to a range of peoples who, in response to state violence and dispossession, gather in communities in the forest to settle and survive, “an alliance of the beings and in-betweens.” Indeed, “in-betweens of the forest” is how Brum speaks of those distinct multitudes who have been displaced by the towering Belo Monte dam and hydroelectric power plant east of the Amazonian town Altamira, both along the circuits of the Xingu River. As a spectrum of relations, “the Amazon,” for Brum, is the proving ground of capitalist encroachment against place and peoples, as well as the grounds of resistance to these violent enterprises by networks of human and ecological relations. “The Amazon” signifies both, in Brum’s formulation, and as such, underscores these encroachments and encounters as far from settled, but dynamically, urgently ongoing.
Brum narrows in on the specific places and peoples of “the Amazon,” this way, but she also often turns outwards towards “the World,” to trace the lineaments of influence from “the World” upon “the Amazon,” as much as from “the Amazon” upon “the World.” Regarding the former, Brum reports on the numerous migrant crises across South American and the Caribbean and the ways in which these events uniquely play out in “the Amazon.” She reads the production of grileiros and latifundiáio/as in connection to the vicious competitions of global capitalism, and she sees the disruptions to any predictable episodes of banzeiro as the result of a warming Earth caused mainly by Global North hegemonies. Like “the Amazon,” “the World” is a composite of ecological and social conditions and relations on a global scale, and while Brum never announces as much, the imbrication of these spheres is a powerful integration of the historically estranged orbits of Culture and Nature. As “the Amazon” integrates things local and global, these matrixes model a “weaving,” in Brum’s telling, that has the power to outmaneuver and render impotent, these vast ideologies. In this sense, “the World” is centralized in “the Amazon,” but as such, for Brum, “the Amazon” is capable of decentering “the World” as it currently stands against the wellness of the Earth and the peoples closest to it.
Unquestionably bold, Brum’s sometimes unkempt discussions on “the Amazon,” “the World,” “the Center,” and their interrelations can risk damaging effects. Her gestures towards “the World” are often sweeping, tending to detour into verbose anti-capitalist discourse and dense psychoanalytic commentary, and effectively eschewing the specifics of what relations between “the Amazon” and “the World,” she seeks to draw out. Similarly, despite the vast community of peoples from “the Amazon” whose stories represent local politics and might model resolutions that could reach global impacts, Brum often opts for first-person narrative to dramatize a scene. Indeed, in a lengthy section midway through the collection, Brum recounts her decision to move to the town Altamira in the state of Pará in the Amazon Forest, where the Xingu River takes an abrupt north-south, right-angle turn. Brum is keen on encountering “the Amazon” in unmediated terms and experiences, and yet she describes this move as “a return to my body,” the spirit of which disparagingly echoes notions of the forest as primeval, viz. primitive, and overall, shifts attention to Brum as opposed to the peoples who so compel her. On perhaps the most obvious level, finally, apart from the banzeiro, Brum speaks little about the local features of the Amazon rainforest, whether its unique biodiversity, its relationship to rain, or the role of rivers in shaping and reshaping its lands. By “the Amazon,” Brum might primarily mean the peoples traversing the region, but given her emphasis on the mutual relations between peoples and forest, the absent ecological profile of the Forest might leave readers justifiably unfulfilled.
In bits and pieces throughout the collection, Brum gradually reckons with her position as a “gaúcha,” the term for peoples of European descent (Portuguese, Spanish, Italian, German) who historically disquieted colonial rule by opting for nomadic lifestyles across Brazil, but, in doing so, also alighted like “locusts” upon the Amazon rainforest and its peoples who experienced gaúchas as a relentless plague. Calling attention to this social capital, Brum underscores the limited affordances of her personal experience in “the Amazon.” Nevertheless, she brings the many narratives of her collection back to herself often enough that more than about local politics and their various embodiments of or impacts on global trends, Banzeiro Òkòtó is a chronicle of the author’s attempts to keep track of herself in relation to “the Amazon” and “the World.” Lacking clear signage to this effect, however, Brum’s more autobiographical moments do not only call into question the genres of this collection but the ethics of this social anthropological work.
Banzeiro Òkòtó begins to resolve its tensions in the final chapters, where Brum introduces the individual peoples “the mother,” Erika, Eduardo, and their respective experiences managing life in the Forest. Here, Brum nuances the taxonomic categories she otherwise leans on to identify the many peoples across the Forest, and she decidedly grounds her project in the Amazon region. In the case of “the mother” who, Brum explains, cannot be named for security reasons following the 2019 “massacre of Altamira,” Brum demonstrates the risks of carrying a specific identity in “the Amazon,” a point that might implicitly relate to how few individuals she introduces in the collection. In the cases of Erika and Eduardo, however, Brum never reveals her processes for getting to know them or for deciding how to record their respective stories. While withholding as much might also be in the name of protection, Brum, troublingly, never accounts for decisions and relations.
Brum’s passion about the Amazon rainforest, the peoples who protect it, and the possibilities that these relations might inform in terms of global change, is resounding. In another formal practice, Brum demonstrates her commitment to honoring the realities of “the Amazon” and working creatively to represent the complexities of “the Center” as she makes sense of it. The title of her collection, Banzeiro Òkòtó, brings together two terms from related but distinct zones of “the Amazon” and its multilingual worlds. The “whirlpool” or mixture of directions and energies of the vernacular Brazilian Portuguese banzeiro, sits alongside the Yoruba òkòtó, which Brum defines as the ungraspable infinity of the spiral of a snail shell, or something of a twirling galaxy. Together, banzeiro òkòtó signifies the imbrication that constitutes “the Amazon,” its environments, peoples, histories, and aspirations; but it is also more than its individual parts, introducing an expression that relates to a mode of perception that takes the power of relation as paramount. If Brum never specifies the details of these relations, including her own, her title proves something of a promise—that attempts at solidarity among peoples and with specific places is what breathes life into human and forest singularities and communities the world over.
Katrina Dzyak is a PhD Candidate in English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University.
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