Construction of the Climate and the Overhead Gaze in Brazilian Amazonia

December, 2017. Article by Igor Bragado & Rennie Jones Published in Pidgin journal.

The colonial settlement of South America’s Amazonia was more than a quest for domination of land and its resources. It reconfigured the relationship between the human and the environment, presenting this relationship as one of controlled dominion over wild Amazonian expanse. In the Brazilian state of Mato Grosso, this conflict continues as the cerrado, figured as a wild and barren resource to be tamed and utilized, is incorporated into Brazil’s growing agriculture industry. The rapid deforestation and conversion of cerrado into arable land constrained and displaced the indigenous populations who inhabited it, creating a conflict of the border between indigenous and state-owned lands. The changes this conflict imposed on the environment and its human inhabitants can be traced through satellite imagery, which bears the traces of a shifting land use pattern over time.

The overhead gaze embodied in the satellite image is more than the evidence of human reconfiguration of the territory. This image constitutes a landscape where the conflict takes place and the medium through which is designed.

Colonial biases are designed into the overhead gaze, placing the viewpoint at an impossible distance from the earth. This presents the globe as a flattened totality to be rationalized and altered as part of an “insane Cartesian project” that seeks an “absolute mastery of nature.”1 As a form of representation, the satellite image is an abstraction designed to privilege particular types of information while obscuring or omitting others. The overhead gaze that characterizes the satellite image is an extension of the colonial maps that greatly reduce complex ecosystems as barren land to be conquered. The lack of perspective, that is, the three-dimensionality of human eyesight, is also a lack of political perspective, in that the view from above removes the viewer from the complexities of material consequences and engagement on the ground. The gaze from above abstracts the life it threatens to such a degree that potential ethical misgivings are eliminated.2

Soy farming, forest clearing, and genetic alteration are the contemporary forms of hegemony over the people of the Amazon, as well as ecosystems, plants, and interrelated climate networks. As Eduardo Kohn elucidates in How Forests Think, the human perspective is not the only form of thinking subject or way of life that might seek to understand and structure our surroundings.3 Understanding the way other beings inhabit and represent the world could expand the political possibility of the human relationship to the environment, offering a different way of relating to the world. The mass reconstruction of the cerrado’s complex ecosystem has not only altered the relationship of the human to the environment, but the climate that is partially sustained and regulated by this portion of our planet. In Mato Grosso, the friction at the border is really a conflict between two ways of allocating and expending natural resources: there is the indigenous mode of relating to the environment, and the mode sanctioned by the state.

The lack of state formation in indigenous life is perceived as something primitive along a tautological idea of human evolution and development. This syllogism of state and modern society is used to construct a hierarchy of state-sanctioned authority and dominance over supposedly-inferior indigenous people. The idea that the advent of agriculture allowed for the development of sedentary societies through the creation of surplus, equates the establishment of cities to a supposedly linear historical understanding of modernity, and stabilized settlements to the possession of land. This conception of civilization was used to justify the seizure of indigenous lands. Those groups who subsisted primarily on fishing, hunting, and gardening, and who did not generate surplus as an intentional aspect of their designed relationship to the land, were perceived as aberrations against the historical timeline of human development. The fact that such groups as the Xingu in Mato Grosso regarded these means of survival as pleasurable activities rather than labor was not an accident of limited technological development, but rather as a function of their intentional understanding of the environment.4 By imposing a bounded territory on the Xavante in Pimentel Barbosa, the Brazilian state enforced a sedentary lifestyle that limited the traditional possibilities of hunting, fishing, and foraging, activities which required vast expanses of land in order to avoid depletion of resources.

The Western idea of civilization favours concentrated settlements. But these require the production of surplus, which is accomplished through the control of dislocated agricultural land and infrastructure to transfer the product. The distance between cities and the land necessary to sustain them has increased significantly since the mid-20th century, along with urban populations.5 The colonial Brazilian city and the agroindustry act as a symbiotic entity that drives a logic of unlimited territorial expansion.

The dominant conception of civilization, which equates urban settlement with modernity, does not, by standard definition, include the technological and political territory of the Xavante. As Michael Heckenberger illustrates in The Fractal Forest, the relationship of indigenous people to the forest makes it “a saturated anthropological or anthropogenic landscape” in which the environment is under “active management.” Contrary to the popular representation of the Amazon as natural, Heckenberger reveals that it is, in fact, planned. “[…] if we reorient our thinking around the number of bodies that are incorporated in those landscapes and the degree of planning that goes into the orientation of those bodies, this is equally complicated as a wide variety of societies that are uniformly called urban.”6 Indeed, pre-Columbian societies of the Upper Xingu region, today’s Mato Grosso, lived in settlements that consisted of socially and geographically articulated entities with shared political structures and economies. Most importantly, these pre-colonial urban formations rearticulated vast territories, by means of regional ecology modification and land-use planning.7 This designed relationship to the environment undertaken by pre-Columbian indigenous groups was a parallel precursor to the way the Xavante in Mato Grosso relate to their environment in the contemporary human landscapes of Pimentel Barbosa. This anthropogenic area is a heavily touched “nature” defined by intentional burning of fields for hunting, tamping of the ground and planting of trees to create villages, and the implementation of roads and paths to link villages to hunting and fishing locations. The conflict between state and indigenous territory is not one that merely attempts to incorporate indigenous society into “civilized” state formation, but a collision at the edge of two anthropocentric domains.

The organization of the landscape into cities and attendant agriculture takes place at the level of the overhead gaze but also at the level of genetic material and the human body. Farmers in Mato Grosso instituted research departments to develop a genetically-modified soybean adapted to the particular soil and climatic conditions of the land. Multiple types of life forms, from soy plants to microorganisms, are designed to reduce the unknowns of natural heterogeneity by designing for efficient homogeneity. The overhead gaze is again employed to create maps of soil conditions, which vary naturally over a plot of land. The results of soil samples are mapped using satellite imagery, the amount of fertilizer is calculated to correspond to the soil conditions, and is subsequently distributed according to the satellite-generated maps using GPS. The temperature of crops is monitored by satellite imagery during the growth season. Combines used to harvest the resultant crop are likewise controlled by GPS satellite technology, reducing labor and error costs. As elaborated by Eyal Weizman in “Control in the Air” and observed in Mato Grosso’s conflict of the border, the overhead image is used as a means of extending the sensory capacity of the human and flattening the terrain to make it a suitable canvas for agricultural production.8

This anthropogenic alteration of the environment appears in the satellite imagery as the reconfiguration of the cerrado. Deforestation manifests as geometric, white wounds on otherwise dark, forested land. Political borders, marked as indigenous protected lands on the map, are scoured into the satellite image over time, creating a material and physical boundary that reflects the conflicting modes of land use planning. The owners of the soy farm Mano Julio in Mato Grosso described the appearance of their farm as “beautiful” in that it was the result of efficient design. They produced imagery in the form of videos, brochures, and web-site content to be consumed elsewhere on Earth by potential investors and buyers. Images are shipped. They operate within the logic of and in symbiosis with the soy that is exported, processed, and consumed elsewhere.

Mano Julio farmers boast that the area was “nothing” only thirty years ago, referring to it as empty land. The cerrado was figured as a blank canvas in need of human intervention; an expression the desire for agricultural production to advance and replace this “blank” space in the satellite image. This sentiment parallels the case of Brasilia, Brazil’s capital city and an urban epicentre constructed in the 1960s in a remote area of the cerrado. Perceived as vacant and underutilized, the cerrado biotope became a target for development as a means to rationalize this area within the realm of the state. Extensive road systems were built to connect the new city to existing population centers. The effort was likely the largest land-use conversion in history and, within the short space of a few decades, fifty percent of the cerrado ecosystem was transformed into farmland.9 Brasilia’s aesthetic was conceptualized from above, but it was also designed with symbolic reference to the overhead gaze: Brasilia’s urban plan takes the form of an airplane.

The conflict of the image implicates actors beyond the Brazilian state and the indigenous groups it inscribes. Brazil is the world’s largest exporter of soy, generating the highest farm-trade surplus and shipping primarily to Europe, the United States, and Asia.10 This implies that the demand for the “civilized” relationship to the environment is a global one, linking cities across the world to agrarian epicenters in Mato Grosso. This complex network fuels the machines of the agroindustry and the images the industry produces and operates within. The contested boundary of Pimentel Barbosa is fueled, in part, by soy demand in cities across the globe.

Just as early satellite imagery of the earth confirmed the effects of human design on the climate by exposing, through the overhead gaze, the reduction of the ozone layer, satellite images marked by the aesthetic of industrial agriculture also bear the traces of the deforestation of Amazonia. The reaction of Mato Grosso’s agricultural industry to alarms raised about its contribution to climate change through its massive reconfiguration of the landscape has primarily focused on rebranding. The aesthetic of efficiency is incorporated into the promotional rhetoric as ‘sustainability.’ Here ‘sustainability’ is not about reducing the industry’s effects on the climate, but about making the process more efficient and cost-effective. Anchoring the efficiency aesthetic to ecological rhetoric allows the farm to access international markets desirous of products that profess concern for the environment. In this way, the aesthetic of desirability produced and circulated by the image is directly tied to the desirability of the designed landscape.

The contested border is no longer an issue of agroindustrial frontier and expansion that supposes an initial condition of pristine, untouched forest. Although indigenous groups are said to be outside the state apparatus, they have been placed within the hybridized borderlands of indigenous tradition and state control. Indigenous groups recognized early on that the seizure of land was accomplished, in part, by its domination through agriculture. Indigenous groups near Avila, under Spanish colonization in the late sixteenth-century, perceived imported crops as invasive and hostile, and enacted retaliatory violence on the crops and the people cultivating them. In one such uprising, they destroyed the bodies of the Spaniards as well as their houses and crops.11 The earliest encounters of the Brazilian state with indigenous people, including the Xavante, often resulted in forced resettlement, effectively reducing the relationship of these indigenous groups to the land and clearing it for state-sanctioned expansion. The concentration of these groups to militarized, gridded camps limited their ability to design their own environment. The contemporary borders imposed on the Xavante are also intended to restrict their movements. Delimiting the land forces them to exist within the hazy borders of state-sanctioned autonomy- that is, still hedged in by the government systems they are supposedly beyond.12 These drawn boundaries impose the aesthetic of human efficiency on a landscape perceived as barren in spite of its many inhabitants.

In order to protect their land and their particular, designed relationship to it, the Xavante of Pimentel Barbosa have taken up the tools of the image war. They use GPS trackers to link their knowledge of the landscape at ground level to the gaze from above. By traveling to the limits of their territory by foot or motorcycle, they are able to overlay evidence of their own activity onto Google satellite imagery and create an image archive of indigenous inhabitation, thereby furthering the technologized design of the territory. The Xavante also use the engagement with the satellite to patrol the border and note incursions that defy state regulation, including fertilizer deposits that are carried over the border by runoff and river sediment, incidents of agroindustrial livestock grazing on indigenous land, and fires started by farmers across the border that scorched the cerrado within indigenous territory. Access to the overhead gaze from the ground therefore enables the Xavante to participate in the conflict of the image in order to protect their relationship to the environment against that prescribed by the state.

The use of these technologies by the Xavante is a sign of their involvement in the image conflict as active contenders. Through the construction/ design of the image, they are not only protecting their border, but also designing their way of being. Communication and design are simultaneous, and both operate under identical symbolic structures. That is, design and conflict operate according to the same language of imagery; that of the overhead gaze.

The agroindustry has long held the advantage in the design of the image. Images are a means of generating desire, and the aesthetic of the satellite image formed by industrial agriculture has furthered the desire for its own expansion, compounding the effects of international publicity produced for potential buyers and investors. The Xavante of Wederá are attempting to counter this condition by utilizing the images and the overhead gaze to generate international interest and support. Using GPS trackers, they approach the image conflict as a means of communicating with the power structure that privileges the overhead gaze to protect the way of life they have established. By synching what is already known to them through oral tradition, memory, and landmarks on the ground with the gaze from above, they can share this information with the world.

The initial acts of violence against the indigenous people of Brazil, including the resettlement of the occupants of Arobonhipo’opa to São Domingos, were erased in their very doing. There is no census or account of the Xavante relationship to the environment as it existed before the encounter of the indigenous groups and the state of Brazil. A mere trace of this erasure is recorded in the overhead image – a satellite photo showing the hazy residue of a semicircular village, abandoned, and the encroachment of farmland; the movement of the border and its inscription on the landscape over time. Yet the aesthetic and anesthetic nature of the satellite image discourages the consumer from interrogating the context of its formation. Instead, the “structure of delay built into the photographic event” creates a “distance between an event and our experience or understanding of it.” “This distance,” as Eduardo Cadava illustrates, “tells us that we experience an event indirectly, through our mediated and defensive reaction to it.”13 In this way, the event leaving its trace on the satellite image appears as a natural progression, rather than a sign of violence, preventing the viewer from recognizing the destruction represented in these traces.

The legal demarcation of Pimentel Barbosa is the frontier of two anthropocentric designs. The changes this conflict imposed on the environment and its human inhabitants can be seen in the satellite imagery, which marks a shifting land use pattern over time. The overhead gaze embodied in the satellite image is simultaneously the evidence of the design of a particular relationship between humans and the environment, and the medium through which it is designed.

1. Clastres, Pierre. Society Against the State. New York: Zone Books, 1989: 161.

2. Adey, Peter, Mark Whitehead and Alison J.Williams. “Introduction: Air Target: Distance, Reach and the Politics of Verticality.” Theory, Culture & Society 28.7-8 (2011): 180.

3. Kohn, Eduardo. How Forests Think: Toward an Anthropology Beyond the Human. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2013: 8.

4. Clastres, 161.

5. DeClerk, FAJ, et al. “Agricultural ecosystems and their services: the vanguard of sustainability?” Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability 23 (2016): 92-99.

6. Heckenberger, Michael. The Ecology of Power: Culture, Place, and Personhood in the Southern Amazon, A.D. 1000-2000. New York: Routledge, 2005.

7. Ibid., 1216.

8. Weizman, Eyal. “The Politics of Verticality: Control in the Air.” Open Democracy. 1 May 2002.

9. Hecht, Susanna B. and Charles C. Mann. “How Brazil Outfarmed the American Farmer.” Fortune 21 January 2008: 98.

10. Ibid., 94.

11. Kohn, 3.

12. Kaplan, Caren. “Mobility and war: the cosmic view of U.S. ‘air power.’” Environment and Planning 38 (2006): 396.

13. Cadava, Eduardo. “Lapsus Imaginis: The Image in Ruins.” October 96 (Spring 2001): 50.

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