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HIU34541 The Making of Brazil: An Environmental History

As French philosopher Bruno Latour observed in a recent interview, no other country is facing today's twin crises – the political and the ecological – as intensely as Brazil, so if it proves able to solve them, it can save the whole planet. Historical understanding is crucial in making sense of the current crossroads. How did the world's largest tropical nation-state form? What were the geo-ecological and human processes that shaped Brazil's territory and natural resources? What is at stake in Amazonia now, and how did it come to this?
  • Module Coordinator:
    • Dr Diogo de Carvalho Cabral
  • Duration:
    • Hilary Term
  • Contact Hours:
    • 2 hours per week
  • Weighting:
    • 10 ECTS
  • Assessment:
    • 100% coursework (2 essays 40% and 60%)

This module will seek answers to these questions through a two-sided, interconnected inquiry: one centred on the nonhuman historicity of the planet and the other centred on people and their entanglements with the earth. In the planet-centred quest, the protagonists are rock layers, air pressure systems, water cycles, and nonhuman biological communities evolving over geologic timescales. Although the primary focus is on that portion of Earth's surface that one day would become Brazil, we will also pay attention to climatic linkages with other parts of the planet, including Europe. The importance of these teleconnections is enhanced by the activities of humans, an invasive species responsible for the most dramatic environmental transformations in what is today the Brazilian territory, from megafaunal extinctions to microplastic sedimentation. In the human-centred quest, biogeography gives way to cultural and political geography, as people's environmental practices are seen through the lens of linguistic transactions, economic motivations, and power asymmetries. Using an array of scientific and humanities literatures, our study will span Paleoindian, native precolonial, Portuguese colonial, and Brazilian postcolonial settlement dynamics, from the formation of Earth about 4.6 billion years ago to the present day. We will also use primary written sources to explore colonial articulations of ethnic and ecological refurbishment of non-European cultural landscapes, from Pero Vaz de Caminha's "discovery" letter to Jair Bolsonaro's statements about Indigenous and Afro-Brazilian territories.