Editor’s Letter

The Amazon: Past, Present and Future

by | Oct 5, 2020

The Amazon is burning. The trees that have not been cut down are on fire. The crisis is now.

When I began to work on this issue on the Amazon, that was pretty much my vision, and it was a real one. I was determined to make the magazine on the Amazon about Colombia, Peru, Ecuador, Bolivia and Brazil, and to focus on the problems and challenges of the vast region.

Even though I had traveled to Manaus in Brazil, where a decrepit opera house and other remnants of a rubber boom belie a prosperous past, I was only thinking of the present. Researching for the issue and working with its many authors gave me a different perspective: the Amazon is past, present and future. It is community organization, women’s power, indigenous rights, startling new medicinal discoveries that lie in ancient knowledge, a new vision of what the world can be.

The Amazon forests are the lungs of the world, said to produce 20 % of the world’s oxygen.  The region represents a huge environmental challenge and opportunity, but the region is so much more.

Daniel Alejandro Martínez, a Colombian who spent a year in the Brazilian Amazon after graduating from college (he’s currently at the Harvard Graduate School of Education), said it so well, “The image of the wild Amazon jungle full of snakes, monkeys and alligators is more of a Hollywood creation than anything to do with reality. Truth is, it is rare to see wildlife in the Amazon; and it’s not because animals are scarce in one of the most biodiverse places in the world. No. The reality is different. In general, animals hide from people and in Amazonia, so extensive and full of life, wherever you search in its immensity, you can find humans. For hundreds of years (or perhaps even thousands of years earlier than expected) indigenous communities, quilombos and mestizo settlers have found ways to survive and make the jungle their home.”

There’s the Amazon as melting pot. Did I ever think of the quilombos—the villages founded by runaway slaves—as part of the history of the Amazon, as part of its vast and rich history? Or of the centuries of exchange of trade—and art—as Vinicius de Aguiar Furie, a post-doctoral fellow  at Harvard’s Center for the Environment, explains in tracing the European roots of the crafted glass beads made and worn by indigenous women?

As I worked with the issue’s many authors, I was also surprised by how often the theme of gender emerged.  The Bohemian glass beads, de Aguiar Furie tells us, were exchanged between indigenous people and European traders. And then he tells us the story of two women, different in their ethnicities and time period. Emilia Snethlage, a German ornithologist who had received her Ph.D. from Freiburg University in the early 1900s, when women were discouraged  from seeking scientific careers, traveled in the eastern Brazilian Amazon (when women seldom traveled) and observed the beautiful ornamentation the indigenous women made from the beads.

Samara Curuáia, who lives in a large village up the Curuá River, makes amazing jewelery creations today with glass beads—similar to the artifacts made a century ago, a fact of which she was not even aware. She teaches new generations of beadworkers—weaving together the past, present and future.

The subject of gender came up again and again, even though it was a topic I did not assign. Megan Monteleone, a Harvard graduate who works at Human Rights Watch,  writes about how women in a Kichwa community in Ecuador have organized through a monthly “Huayusa Upina,” a traditional tea drinking ceremony.

“Interestingly,” she writes, “this new space of culture creation relies predominantly on work historically and still done by women, and women have been the primary organizers of such events.Women who are at once highly educated and politically motivated…have demonstrated their strong desire to maintain Kichwa culture within an era of development that might otherwise erase the ‘traditional.’” Past, present and future: often it is the role of women to tie these threads (do I dare say beads?) together through both preserving culture and participating in its evolution.

This flow among the generations into the future one of the reasons that we also decided to prioritize culture in this issue, ranging from art, literature, theatre, poetry to handicrafts. From themes of culture to those of environment and development, the Amazon is a laboratory among nations and between time periods. It is both a microcosm of our globalized world and a special force unto itself.

I feel it is so appropriate then that the issue on the Amazon marks the inauguration of entirely new look for ReVista. For those of you a bit in the tech know, we’ve changed our platform from Open Scholar to Word Press, and you will be able to see the remarkable (I hope) visual difference that tries to emulate the aesthetics of the suspended print ReVista. We’re also bringing together all of ReVista’s separate branches (or little sisters, if you will) onto our newly designed homepage. There, you can find frequent ReVista Facebook updates, as well as the biweekly newsletter. And, of course, our latest issue, Eyes on Covid-19 and other spotlights, student views, book reviews and special video features. We’d love your feedback! Write me at jerlick@fas.harvard.edu

We’re building from the past to bring us towards the future. Lessons from the Amazon.

Spring/Summer 2020, Volume XIX, Number 3

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