Literature, Modern Languages, News

Mapping the Amazon: Cutting through the Entanglement of Literature and Extractivism

An Interview with Amanda M. Smith

An analysis of the political and ecological consequences of charting the Amazon River basin in narrative fiction, Mapping the Amazon examines how widely read novels from twentieth-century South America attempted to map the region for readers. In this exclusive interview with the book’s author, Amanda Smith, she discusses extractivism, sensorial mapping, and the far-reaching socio-environmental impacts of the rubber boom.


Your book proposes mapping as a framework for understanding how stories about Amazonia have literally shaped the region. In what ways do the literary works you study map the region and to what ends? 

AS: Mapping is the systematic process of taking in the world via the senses and ordering that sensory input for the purposes of understanding space and moving through it. All animals, both human and nonhuman, and possibly other forms of life, are constantly mapping the spaces they inhabit. What is unique to the human experience is the creation of representational maps on paper or in digital formats. Not only do such representational maps document, encode, and hierarchize geospatial data—information about the world around us and our place in it—but they also make it appear fixed. Curiously, we let those static representational maps mediate and sometimes supplant our dynamic sensorial mapping. In other words, we stop attuning to our senses to navigate the world when we have a seemingly accurate scientific map in front of us; we trust the map more than our senses. I think most GPS users have by now had the experience of following a screen from point A to point B, arriving at a destination, and having no “sense” of how to get back on their own.  

Because literary works also situate characters and orient readers in space, they function as a kind of representational map, and like other representational maps, humans sometimes attribute more authority to them than to their sensory input. Bertrand Westphal and Robert Tally, two literary critics I reference in my book, suggest that literary maps prime readers to have certain kinds of experiences of the places they’ve read about. Like paper maps, literature highlights places of importance and directs peoples’ transit. If a literary work is culturally well-known, sometimes people do not even have to have read it for its ideas to intervene in their place-based perception.  

José Eustasio Rivera’s map of a river system in the Colombian Amazon near the Isana, Inírida, and Guaviare Rivers. Courtesy of the Biblioteca Nacional de Colombia.

In Mapping the Amazon, I discuss literary forms and narrative structures that chart Amazonia cartographically, like a map. I focus on canonical novels from the twentieth-century that created and circulated lasting impressions of the region. Jose Eustasio Rivera’s La vorágine (1924), Rómulo Gallegos’s Canaima (1935), Mario Vargas Llosa’s La casa verde (1966) and El hablador (1987), César Calvo’s Las tres mitades de Ino Moxo y otros brujos de la Amazonía (1981), and Márcio Souza’s Mad Maria (1981) each respond to the systemic mapping of Amazonia and its nefarious effects, namely the identification of and access to exploitable resources to be extracted from the region for the wealth of the world beyond. I argue that the cartographic impulse of each narrative tries to undermine the basis of maps that draw the region as what Macarena Gómez-Barris has called an “extractive zone.” Additionally, because I consider the novels as maps themselves, I also investigate how they, too, have had a lasting role in mediating readers’, corporations’, and politicians’ knowledge of the river basin. By approaching literary texts as maps, Mapping the Amazon provides evidence of the role literature plays not only in representing the world but also in constructing geographic regions, determining their value, providing access to them, and reinforcing how people and capital flow through them. Las tres mitades, for example, is now a canonical text for ayahuasca tourists traveling to the Iquitos region. They experience Iquitos and its meaning through Calvo before ever sensing it themselves. 

Amazonia has been the land of cinnamon and El Dorado since the colonial period, so why do you propose the rubber boom as such a key historical moment for the construction of the region as a storehouse of riches for the rest of the world? 

AS: It is true that Amazonia has been a land of fabled riches since even before Francisco de Orellana’s infamous 16th-century expedition along the river, but the subtitle of Mapping the Amazon is “Literary Geography after the Rubber Boom” because the systematic pan-regional removal of latex from rubber trees at the end of the nineteenth century transformed the waterways into export routes for the first time on a large scale. With the boom in rubber production, generally considered to have been between 1850-1920, Amazonian rivers flowed into global supply chains, making it possible to imagine subsequent cycles of resource extraction long after East Asian plantations took over the market. In fact, the fine wood and petroleum industries, among others that followed in the wake of the rubber economy, seized upon the infrastructure and labor practices of the rubber boom period. Furthermore, during the rubber boom, the region’s ecology was trampled as labor bosses subjected Indigenous peoples to violent slave-like labor conditions, murdering more than 100,000 Indigenous people by some estimates, and indelibly uprooting communities and reordering Indigenous social geographies. Today, Indigenous activists who oppose development projects in Amazonia are often cast as impediments to modernization, and that racist framing of forest defenders hearkens back to the rubber boom as well. During that time rubber barons established in Amazonia the colonial practice of using Indigenous bodies and minds to extract wealth from “nature”—with flagrant disregard for the socio-environmental consequences—and opposition to that capital flow was—and is still—met with brutal force. 

Shipibo Shaman Guillermo Arévalo offering Las tres mitades de Ino Moxo y otros brujos de la Amazonía during an ayahuasca vision in the film Icaros: A Vision, directed by Leonor Caraballo and Matteo Norzi, 2016. 

Because this period was so defining and so devastating for the region, it shows up in almost every work of Amazonian fiction. All of the novels I consider in Mapping the Amazon take place after the rubber boom, and yet those intense decades of latex harvesting are still present—whether in the continued tapping of rubber trees or in the effects of the extraction of other resources on Indigenous lives and Amazonian ecologies in the diegetic present. “After the Rubber Boom” references works written following that economic period while simultaneously evoking the influence of that period into the present. We cannot understand current efforts to harness or protect Amazonia’s supposed potential—in the form of resource extraction, hydropower, agriculture, or even oxygen—without understanding the first time that this region’s superlative biodiversity became earmarked as raw materials for the rest of the world. 

Given the enduring power of representation that you examine, what do you see as the anti-extractivist possibilities of Amazonian literature and culture moving forward? 

AS: Mapping the Amazon draws attention both to literary efforts to undermine the harmful effects of systematic representational maps and literature’s sometimes unwitting involvement in reinforcing the lines that divide and catalogue Amazonia into areas of economic exploitation. The book also highlights how sometimes these two seemingly different gestures move synchronously throughout a given literary work. In other words, as a novel exposes the deliberate omissions of a scientific map, it inevitably produces other omissions of its own; reduction is inherent to the mapmaking process because one cannot account for all of the available geospatial information. In each of the works I study, then, the anti-extractivist discourse is imperfect, and I think this is exacerbated by the fact that the authors are all outsiders to the region, moved by the harmful effects of forest commodification that they witnessed during their time in the forest, but nonetheless unable to experience those effects firsthand as threats to their livelihoods. Even the two relative “insiders” I study—César Calvo and Márcio Souza—approach the region from an outsider’s perspective. César Calvo’s novel Las tres mirtades de Ino Moxo y otros brujos de la Amazonía is deeply autobiographical and the narrator, César, is almost obsessed with being accepted as Amazonian like his father though he grew up in Lima. Likewise, Márcio Souza has admitted in interviews that though he is from the Amazonian city of Manaus, he learned early in his career that he knew no more of the forest than someone born in Porto Alegre or São Paulo.  

Peruvian forest defender Liz Chicaje Churay, recent recipient of the Goldman Environmental Prize. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

More powerful anti-extractivist possibilities are now coming from those who live with the forest ecology of the Amazon biome. In the conclusions to Mapping the Amazon, I highlight the work of Indigenous leaders Davi KopenawaAlmir Suruí, and Nemonte NenquimoLiz Chicaje Churay’s efforts to create Yaguas National Park have also just been awarded the Goldman Environmental Prize. What all of these activists have in common is their use of maps to fill the voids produced by governmental and corporate maps. If, as I contend in Mapping the Amazon, canonical authors were some of the most impactful mapmakers of Amazonia’s past, these Indigenous activists are proving to be the cartographers of Amazonia’s future. And their maps challenge cartography’s colonial biases. The underlying coloniality of Western mapmaking is present in the ongoing use of cartography to cleave nature and culture in order to justify the exploitation of nature for culture and capital. Unlike typical representational maps, contemporary Indigenous maps embed history and cultural practice into the geography, as well as plant and animal life. They are still, of course, reductive, as all maps are, but what they have chosen to foreground is life and interconnectivity. Mapping the Amazon exhaustively explores the possibilities of what it would mean to take literature seriously as a map, and it closes by proposing maps as a kind of literary text. I think we need to “read” and study these Indigenous maps, share them with our students, and write about them, in order to broadly disseminate frameworks for thinking Amazonia beyond its exchange value. 

Now that Mapping the Amazon is out, what are you working on? 

AS: In the summer of 2020, as I was preparing the revisions of Mapping the Amazon, I evacuated my home in Santa Cruz to keep my family safe from an encroaching wildfire. It was one of the most fraught and humbling decisions that I have ever had to make. We were not in an official evacuation zone, but the official zone was mere blocks from our home. Additionally, the air was thick with smoke, and I have a child with a history of respiratory problems. Because it was during the first summer of the pandemic, families were isolated and very much on their own to make decisions and find alternative lodging.  

Wildfire sky over Santa Cruz, California: 8am on August 18, 2020

Shortly after that harrowing experience, I read Samanta Schweblin’s Distancia de rescate (2014) for the first time. This short novella is packed with the poignant horror of what it feels like to be a mother in late capitalism unable to sense the dangers of ecological crisis and, therefore, incapable of protecting her children from them. I am interested in how the creation of spaces to support primarily white, heteronormative families provoked climate change and how, now, the effects of ecological disasters urgently call hegemonic family structures into question. 

My next project examines how Latin American artists, writers, and filmmakers from a variety of backgrounds are imagining alternative configurations of family and kinship—among and between humans and nonhumans—in order to survive the current ecological epoch. 

You can view Amanda Smith’s Mapping the Amazon on our website as part of our American Tropics: Towards a Literary Geography series.


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