The Brazilian Amazon, or Amazonia Legal, is today home to 21 million people, many of who can be classified as colonists, or migrants to the region. In Conjuring Property, anthropologist Jeremy Campbell provides an insightful ethnographic study of the colonists in Castelo dos Sonhos, a village in western Pará. He focuses on the relationship between colonists and the land that they wish to legally acquire, subsequently exposing the tactics, risks, and consequences of claiming property in a seemingly stateless hinterland.

Since the 1960s, when they were first encouraged by government, colonists, both large landowners and landless workers, have migrated to the Brazilian Amazon in search of prosperity, and for some, mere survival. The book opens with a history of this colonization, highlighting the Brazilian government’s failure to make successful use of this region in land reform, and the subsequent corporate investment in mining, rubber, logging and agroindustry. This history enables us to understand the roots of today’s colonial communities, made up of “grandes”, the wealthy landowners who have prospered in the absence of the law, and “pequenos”, the small farmers or homesteaders, and landless peasants, many of whom feel abandoned by the government that enticed them there.

"A world of sustainable opportunity" -Land investment advertisement. Photo: Jornal AtualIn the absence of governance and effective land titling, both grandes and pequenos have staked out their territorial claims in the Amazon.  Through his dedicated fieldwork, Campbell is privy to the schemes behind this rampant “grilagem”, or illegal acquisition of land, including the falsification of old documents, scorched earth campaigns, boundary trails, violence and death threats. While grandes have undoubtedly mastered the art of this criminal activity, the pequenos, too, have learned by their example.

Region-wide insecurity of land ownership has resulted in a cultural obsession with “speculative accumulation” among colonists. In this way, rather than focus on land’s current productivity, they accumulate plots and bicker over stakes, fixated on the potential sale value of a plot when it eventually achieves legal recognition. The colonists, meanwhile, have evolved their own justifications for grilagem. The grandes rely on theories of freedom and entrepreneurship. The pequenos cite equity and social justice. Both claim that the social contribution they make exceeds that of native indigenous groups.

Socio-environmentalism has dominated development policy in the Amazon since the 1990s, in rhetoric if not reality. Anticipating favourable government policies, Campbell describes how colonists are eager to assume cheap “environmentalist” identities, although they often misunderstand the concept. Unsurprisingly, many colonists claim that the recognition of land rights is key to protecting the environment. There are considerable barriers to success of the socio-environmental approach in the region, notably an underdeveloped and corrupt civil society and the widespread cultural misunderstanding of outsiders who preach such policies.

The final chapter provides a light critique of Terra Legal, the land registration programme introduced in 2009 designed to solve territorial disputes. While rates of violence have declined, through making land a commodity, the programme has failed to remove the incentives which perpetuate grilagem. Also, at a social level, Terra Legal has disproportionately benefited the large landowners who commandeer the programme. Ultimately, through validating land that was illegally acquired, Terra Legal has legalised grilagem, provided impunity for past environmental crimes, and muted recent indigenous histories.

Ethnographic studies of the Amazon have been overwhelmingly focused on indigenous groups, and quite justifiably so. However Campbell’s work provides a refreshing and necessary insight into the little-known, but much-demonised colonist. While he clearly disagrees with grilagem and the racist attitudes that he often encounters, the effort invested in his fieldwork and the neutral curiosity and empathy with which he has approached the study have paid off.

Through gaining the colonists’ trust, Campbell is exposed to the fascinating intricacies of how locals anticipate and manipulate government plans. Knowledge of such tactics, he claims, could shape more effective policy. While this may well be the case, Conjuring Property provides no detail as to how exactly these findings could improve land policy. Furthermore, despite criticising Terra Legal, Campbell fails to suggest improvements or alternatives. While he does not profess to be a development practitioner, these lingering questions leave the reader somewhat dissatisfied.

Illegal logging near Castelo dos Sonhos, Pará. 400 hectares had been felled before IBAMA arrived. Photo: Jornal AmataNevertheless, the frank discussions with both pequenos and grandes, give the colonist a human face, as we learn of their past struggles, deceptions and future ambitions. Among the pequenos, many migrants feel deceived and abandoned by government, living precariously in an anarchic community and lorded over by grandes. In this way, Conjuring Property provides a rare insight into the social structure, class divisions and psychology of colonist communities. The awareness and empathy that can be taken from Campbell’s findings are his most significant contribution, and will prove valuable to anyone seeking a greater understanding of the Amazon’s complex, and often oversimplified, society.

Conjuring Property – Speculation and Environmental Futures in the Brazilian Amazon by Jeremy M. Campbell, is published by  University of Washington Press, Seattle & London, 2015

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