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Studies in Anthropology and Environment

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Culture, Place, and Nature

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K. Sivaramakrishnan, Series Editor

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Culture, Place, and Nature


Centered in anthropology, the Culture, Place, and Nature series encompasses new interdisciplinary social science research on environmental issues, focusing on the intersection of
culture, ecology, and politics in global, national, and local contexts. Contributors to the series
view environmental knowledge and issues from the multiple and often conflicting perspectives of various cultural systems.

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The Kuhls of Kangra: Community-Managed


Irrigation in the Western Himalaya,
by Mark Baker

Nature Protests: The End of Ecology


in Slovakia, by Edward Snajdr

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Wild Sardinia: Indigeneity and the Global


Dreamtimes of Environmentalism,
by Tracey Heatherington

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The Earths Blanket: Traditional Teachings


for Sustainable Living, by Nancy Turner

Tahiti Beyond the Postcard: Power, Place,


and Everyday Life, by Miriam Kahn

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Property and Politics in Sabah, Malaysia:


Native Struggles over Land Rights,
by Amity A. Doolittle

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Forests of Identity: Society, Ethnicity,


and Stereotypes in the Congo River Basin,
by Stephanie Rupp

Border Landscapes: The Politics of Akha


Land Use in China and Thailand,
by Janet C. Sturgeon

Enclosed: Conservation, Cattle,


and Commerce among the Qeqchi
Maya Lowlanders, by Liza Grandia
Puer Tea: Ancient Caravans and
Urban Chic, by Jinghong Zhang

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Andean Waterways: Resource Politics in


Highland Peru, by Mattias Borg Rasmussen

Ecological Nationalisms: Nature, Livelihood,


and Identities in South Asia,
edited by Gunnel Cederlf
and K. Sivaramakrishnan

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From Enslavement to Environmentalism:


Politics on a Southern African Frontier,
by David McDermott Hughes

Conjuring Property: Speculation and Environmental Futures in the Brazilian Amazon,


by Jeremy M. Campbell

Being and Place among the Tlingit,


by Thomas F. Thornton

Forests Are Gold: Trees, People, and Environmental Rule in Vietnam,


by Pamela D. Mc Elwee

Forest Guardians, Forest Destroyers:


The Politics of Environmental Knowledge
in Northern Thailand, by Tim Forsyth
and Andrew Walker

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Tropics and the Traveling Gaze: India, Landscape, and Science, 18001856,
by David Arnold

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Conjuring
Property
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Speculation and
Environmental Futures in
the Brazilian Amazon

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Jeremy M. Campbell

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U n i v ersit y of Wa sh i ngton Pr ess

Seattle & London

2015 by the University of Washington Press

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Printed and bound in the United States of America

Composed in Warnock Pro, a typeface designed by Robert Slimbach

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1918171615 54321

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All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or


transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical,
including photocopy, recording, or any information storage or retrieval
system, without permission in writing from the publisher.

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University of Washington Press


www.washington.edu/uwpress

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Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

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[[to come]]

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Unless otherwise noted, all photographs are by the author.

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The paper used in this publication is acid-free and meets the minimum
requirements of American National Standard for Information Sciences
Permanence of Paper for Printed Library Materials, ANSI Z39.481984.

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Lewis H. Morgan, Ancient Society (1877)

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A critical knowledge of the evolution of the idea of


property would embody, in some respects, the most remarkable
portion of the mental history of mankind.

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Contents

Foreword by K. Sivaramakrishnan ix

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Prefacexi
Acknowledgmentsxv

Introduction:
Real Estate in Wild Country 3

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Abbreviationsxix

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1 Frontier Capitalism and Figuring the State 25

2 The Labors of Grilagem 59

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3 Speculative Accumulation 93

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4 Living Proleptically in the Environmental Era 125

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5 Regularization and the Land Question157

Conclusion: On Property and Devastation 189

Index223

Bibliography213

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Notes199
Glossary211

Foreword

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The importance of this book is to be found both in its novel theoretical


contributions to the anthropology of futures, and in the ethnographic study
of land futures in Brazilian Amazonia. Land, broadly conceived, and the
property in it more specifically, is a topic of great contemporary interest
internationally due to land grabs by sovereign wealth funds and powerful
transnational corporations, the crisis in agriculture and the world food system, and the rapid increase in land conversion for nonagricultural uses to
generate energy, build infrastructure, provide housing, and support service
industries.
At the risk of being somewhat dramatic, it is possible to suggest, though,
that much of the recently burgeoning scholarship on land grabs around
the world, especially in sub-Saharan Africa, Asia, and Latin America, pays
little attention to actual and imagined property rights. Scholars have rightly
cautioned from a variety of perspectives that the use of and profit from land
may have little to do with the exercise of property rights in any orderly sense.
But struggles over land, nevertheless, are also always struggles over property.
Jeremy Campbell is at pains to clarify that property in his usage is not merely
something held by record of ownership or right to use, but is crucially an
idea, a connection between present struggle and future visions of wellness,
success, prosperity, and identification with communities of aspiration. It is
this essential set of points that animates a fine ethnographic examination of
the imagination, establishment, trade, and invention of property rightsand
property futuresprovided in the pages of this book.
Campbell argues that as colonists, big and small, rich or poor, juggle
the definition and claiming of property, they actually produce the state
and market relations that in turn shape the future of landed property in
the Brazilian Amazon. It follows that these practices provide important
windows into land deals, but much more as wellnot least the making
of identities, communities, government programs, and commercial activitiesand therefore merit an examination that does not end with dubbing
them odious, speculative, the nefarious working of frontier societies.

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x Foreword

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Most studies conducted in Amazonia in the last twenty-five years have


been preoccupied with indigenous and forest people, and for good reasons.
In these studies colonists have often come out as unsympathetic stick figures, the interlopers and vanguard of various kinds of forces of predation
and exploitation, but they are ultimately seen as agents of the market or the
state. Campbell humanizes the predicament of the colonist. He discusses
in detail how they come to settle, what they dream about, and what their
anxieties are. They struggle to make agriculture and animal keeping viable
vocations in an area unfamiliar to them and in which the land market has
been made highly unstable by rampant speculation and fickle government
policies for development, and later conservation, and now sustainable governance in the Amazon.
In this careful account, colonists may not become sympathetic figures,
but they do emerge as complex human subjects whose role on the leading
edge of projects driven by states or financial institutions is inevitably one of
absorbing risk and outlining opportunities that may lie ahead. This creates
a space for colonists to lead the imaginative revolution and also to call up
the government to act nimbly in a shifting terrain. Campbell is aware that
advance parties can be forsaken or can lose their way, but they inevitably
carve out directions on the landscape that cannot be ignored, even if they
are difficult to decipher.
Along the way, Campbell provides a novel account of colonization by
smallholders: a land grab, if you will, that is given shape and meaning on the
ground by the conflicted and changing assumptions of many petty operators, as much as it is a product of the working of grand schemes of government and the large forces of corporations and wealth funds. This allows him
to retheorize enduring topics of interest in the social sciences to do with
state formation, the differentiation of social classes during processes of land
settlement and conversion for economic activity, and the meaning of labor
in farm, pasture, and forest.

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K. Sivaramakrishnan
Yale University
January 2015

Preface

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In the first decades of the twenty-first century, the worlds largest remaining tropical biome is under formidable pressure from a range of forces
calling for development. Plans for hydroelectric projects, roads, colonization schemes, and oil and gas pipelines ring the Amazon Basin, from
Guyana to Peru. In Brazil, the nation with the largest share of Amazonia,
a brief decline in deforestation rates earlier this century has lately yielded
to increased conversion of forests into pastures and soy fields. A familiar
corollary to environmental destruction is the social upheaval that results
from disputes over rural territories: since 2000, 447 people have been murdered, with another three thousand receiving death threats, in the Brazilian
Amazon (CPT 2014). Indigenous peoples have organized valiant defenses
of their lands through international campaigns and coordinated marches
on regional cities, but the news of clashes between natives and encroaching
miners, loggers, and colonists shows no sign of stopping.
For observers of the region, the contemporary emphasis on a muscular
development apparatus in Amazoniastudded with ambitious megaprojects such as the Belo Monte dam in Brazil or the Camisea Gas Project in
Perumarks a return to an earlier era of incursions. From the late 1960s
through the 1980s, Amazonian states built highways, financed massive
mining projects, and dislocated thousands of native peoples in the name
of modernizing the forest. These efforts abated, however, due to pressures
from an emerging environmental movement in Amazonia and the successful internationalization of the indigenous rights struggle. By 1992, development had shifted toward smaller and more inclusive projects that added a
social and environmental calculus to economic growth. An emphasis on
grassroots participation continues, even as large-scale investments have
returned to dominate the scene. What is different this time around is the
ascendance of a neoliberal orthodoxy that emphasizes the participation of
local actors in markets and market-driven activities that have regional or
even global reach. In Brazil, planners use a language of benefits, incentives,

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x i i Preface

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and rights to create projects they believe will be equally fair and attractive
to native peoples, migratory colonists, and far-off investors.
A key element in the new development orthodoxy in Amazonia is
property: specifically, its deployment as a means to manage territory and
incentivize rational behavior. In the fundamental debate over how natural
resources should be managed or developed, Brazilian policy has turned
decisively toward privatization and away from collective (i.e., state) supervision of resources. This shiftwhich has been repeated on other resource
frontiers globallyfigures private property as the intervention that will
stanch disputes over territory and runaway deforestation. The contemporary development imaginary proposes an ownership society, in which
individuals trust in the integrity of property and are able to realize returns
on their investments in environmental goods and services. Propertys usefulness lies, in part, in how it can address the chronic (and utterly local)
problem of tenure ambiguity while also linking Amazonian territories to
broader (global) streams of investment and systems of government.
The problem with the ownership model, however, is that property already
exists in the Brazilian Amazon; a surfeit of it, in fact. Since the 1970s, waves
of colonists to the region have staked out positions on public lands, often one
on top of the other, resulting in a thicket of overlapping claims and counterclaims. Whats more, colonists have devised their property claims largely in
the absence of the state agencies that would definitively recognize them. As a
result, throughout much of rural Amazonia, peasants and large landholders
have improvised a vernacular system for holding, claiming, and selling lands
that operates largely beyond official sanction. Highly volatile and prone
to outbursts of violence, this vernacular property system nevertheless follows a certain logic: through forging papers, grooming trails, squatting on
lands, leveraging debts, or working with confederates, colonists turn land
into a protocommodity awaiting recognition by the state and incorporation into the market. The states turn toward privatization thus converges
with the positions many colonists have adopted over the past forty years
with their speculative properties-in-wait. Not every claim is destined to be
honored, however, so colonists jockey for best position. Though Amazonia
represents the hope of agrarian reform for landless migrants in the region,
crafty speculators and rich land grabbers are busily subdividing lands in
anticipation of future regulations.
The culture of colonial settlements in Amazonia has received little attention in the anthropological literature. However, there is much value in an

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Preface x i ii

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account of the habits and frames of mind that colonists share as they carve
villages out of the forest. Self-described as living on the frontier of civilization, colonists seem to pursue a mongrel existence . . . clustered around
temporary landing strips and edging newly cut roads, [in towns] that each
day put out new tentacles (Descola 1996, 1). Improvised and makeshift,
the lives colonists lead nevertheless incline toward permanence.Indeed,
as property stabilizes in Amazonia, the implications for the forests and the
traditional inhabitants of the region are dire. In colonists hands, property
devastates habitats and occludes histories.
What follows is an ethnography of political economy in formation. In
Amazonia, the land market to come is more important than the market as it
exists today, and the focus here is on how colonists prepare for the development intervention that emphasizes property regularization and privatization. Rather than a study of the land trade as such, this book follows how
colonists trade techniques for making the illicit acquisition of land appear
legitimate to one another and to Brazilian authorities. Just as important,
colonists are participating in a robust trade in agrarian identities, shifting
from peasant to producer or environmentalist and back again, depending on the advantage gained. These improvised and illicit transactions are
shaping the property market to come, while also encouraging deforestation
and the greater concentration of wealth. This is not an optimistic story;
however, describing how local actors anticipate and manipulate official plans
might yet inform the crafting of more nimble socioeconomic policy.

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Acknowledgments

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Despite the lone wolf reputation of the discipline, no anthropologist works


alone. As I researched this book, I was the beneficiary of the kind support of many colleagues and strangers. Since 2000, on my first visit to the
sleepy riverboat town of Santarm, I have spent over forty months learning
about territorial dynamics in western Par. The research that forms the
core of this study was conducted from 2006 through 2008 with support
from the Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research and the
Fulbright-Hays Research Abroad Program of the US Department of Education. Additional support for fieldwork was provided by the Department of
Anthropology and the Center for Tropical Research in Ecology, Agriculture,
and Development (CenTREAD) at the University of California, Santa Cruz.
Continuing research from 2010 through 2014 was made possible through
the Foundation for the Promotion of Scholarship and Teaching at Roger
Williams University and the National Geographic Societys Committee for
Research and Exploration. Fieldwork was conducted entirely in Portuguese,
and all translations of quoted conversations and common idioms are my
own.
I am grateful to have had many conversations over the years with a brilliant set of colleagues and friends at the University of California, Roger Williams University, and many other institutions. Each of these colleagues has
had a hand in shaping this volume, and I appreciate their generous support:
Ryan Adams, Renato Athias, Brenda Baletti, Christopher Ball, Eve Bratman,
Marisol de la Cadena, Andrew Canessa, Mike Cepek, Janet Chernela, James
Clifford, Rose Cohen, Beth Conklin, Jonathan Echeverri, Juliet Erazo, Bill
Fisher, Susan Harding, Penelope Harvey, Adam Henne, Jeffrey Hoelle, Alf
Hornborg, Jason Jacobs, Nick Kawa, Chris Kortright, Doreen Lee, Alejandro
Leguizamo, Dan Linger, Carlos Londoo Sulkin, Patrick Lundh, Kristina
Lyons, Marybeth MacPhee, David McGrath, Cristina Mehrtens, Felipe
Milanez, Brent Millikan, Sean Mitchell, Tim Murphy, Jessica OReilly, Ben
Orlove, Jason Patch, Daniela Peluso, Autumn Quezada-Grant, Richard Reed,
Peter Richards, Dan Rosengren, Teal Rothschild, Steven Rubenstein, Carlos

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xv

x v i Acknowledgments

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Sautchuk, Suzana Sawyer, Marianne Schmink, James Scott, Shaila SeshiaGalvin, Glenn Shepard, Jessica Skolnikoff, Michelle Stewart, Terry Turner,
Leah VanWey, Wendy Wolford, and Laura Zanotti. I must also extend special thanks to Heath Cabot, Kregg Hetherington, and Bregje van Eekelen for
providing patient and valuable feedback on manuscript drafts. Paola Prado
provided expert advice on the books images, Daniele Tem Pass skillfully
drew the maps, and Sherry Smith compiled the index.
Thank you to the audiences and students at the College of the Atlantic, Northeastern University, Vanderbilt University, Temple University, the
University of Maryland, the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth, the
University of Wisconsin, and Yale Universitys Program in Agrarian Studies, where I have presented my research. Portions of chapter 3 appear in an
article I wrote for the Journal of Latin American and Caribbean Anthropology (Campbell 2014, 23759), and a version of chapter 5 was published in
PoLAR: Political and Legal Anthropology Review (Campbell 2015, 14767).
This book has also benefited from the invaluable mentorship I received from
Mark Anderson, Andrew Mathews, Hugh Raffles, and Anna Tsing. Though
the book is my own (and I take full responsibility for its faults and omissions), the influence of these exemplary scholars can be seen throughout.
Far more than a mentor, Anna Tsing has modeled for me a humble yet fierce
determination to pay attention to the world as it is, to learn what wonders it
can teach, and to find a constantly renewing hope in its surprises.
In Brazil, I benefited from the kindness and encouragement of many
individuals and institutions. In Belm, at the Universidade Federal do Par
(UFPA), Edna Ramos de Castro provided access to the Ncleo de Altos
Estudos Amaznicos (NAEA), an invaluable resource for Amazonianists.
Thanks to Jos Benatti in the faculty of law at UFPA, who has been a pioneer in the social studies of land grabbing in the Amazonia. I also received
invaluable support from the researchers at the Amazon Institute of People
and the Environment (Instituto do Homem e Meio Ambiente da Amaznia,
or IMAZON) in Manaus, including the ecologist Philip Fearnside and his
colleagues Brenda Brito and Paulo Baretto. In Santarm, where I affiliated
with the Instituto de Pesquisa Ambiental da Amaznia (IPAM) and the
Instituto Cultural Boanerges Sena (ICBS), I wish to thank Rosana Costa,
Fernanda Ferreira, and Ane Alencar, as well as ICBS director Cristovam
Sena, who opened his extensive archive to me. Thanks also to colleagues
at the Universidade Federal do Oeste do Par (UFOPA), especially Bruna
Rocha, Mauricio Torres, and Florncio Vaz, who are academic and social

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Acknowledgments x v ii

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justice pioneers in the Tapajs region. It is certain that I could not have
explored Amazonia without the love and support of my extended family in
Santarm: Steven Winn Alexander, Dra. urea Lucia Alexander, their sons
Arthur and David, and the crew at Amizade and the Fundao Esperana,
especially Nathan Darity and Micah and Lidiane Gregory.
Despite not knowing what to make of me at first, the people of Castelo
de Sonhos embraced me as I came to know their stories. I have interviewed
over three hundred individuals from Castelo over the past decade, and have
spent countless hours hiking through fields and forests, or sharing coffee
or beer, with the resident colonists who hail from all corners of Brazil. It
is a privilege to have been given the chance to try to understand Amazoniaand the changes underway therethrough their eyes. It would be
impractical for me to list the names of all to whom I am grateful here; also
imprudent, as I have taken pains to use pseudonyms throughout this text to
protect informants identities. Let me say that were it not for your generosity, this work would not have been possible. A very special thanks is due to
Douglas Arajo, Cristiane Wermuth, and their daughter, Tain, who kindly
supported this work from the start.
I am grateful to K. Sivaramakrishnan and Lorri Hagman at the University of Washington Press for all of their support through the editorial
process. Many thanks also to the two anonymous reviewers who offered
insightful comments on the manuscript. My dear friend Adam Brown did
me the great service of being my writing coach, keeping me on task through
deadlines and offering brilliant advice on style and tone. Deep thanks to my
parents, Kathy and Ron, and godparents Sharon and Patti, who supported
me throughout the years of travel and research. Finally, I wish to thank my
children, Kassandra, Louisa, and Phillip, who have inspired me more than
they can know, and my lovely wife, Madeline, for her endless support and
encouragement. I dedicate this book to them.

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Abbreviations

Banco da Amaznia, SA (Bank of Amazonia)

BNDES

Banco Nacional do Desenvolvimento (Brazilian National Development


Bank)

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BASA

Cadastro Ambiental Rural (Rural Environmental Registry)

CNJ

Conselho Nacional de Justia (National Council of Justice)

CPT

Comisso Pastoral da Terra (Pastoral Land Commission)

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CAR

Empresa Brasileira de Pesquisa Agropecuria (Brazilian Agricultural


Research Corporation)

FLONA

Floresta Nacional (National Forest)

GTA

Grupo de Trabalho Amaznico (Amazonian Working Group Network)

IBAMA

Instituto Brasileiro do Meio Ambiente e dos Recursos Naturais Renovveis


(Brazilian Institute of Environment and Renewable Natural Resources)

ICBS

Instituto Cultural Boanerges Sena (Boanerges Sena Cultural Institute)

ICMBio

Instituto Chico Mendes de Conservao da Biodiversidade (Chico Mendes


Institute of Biodiversity Conservation)

IMAZON

Instituto do Homem e Meio Ambiente da Amaznia (Amazon Institute of


People and the Environment)

INCRA

Instituto Nacional de Colonizao e Reforma Agrria (National Institute


of Colonization and Agrarian Reform)

IPAM

Instituto de Pesquisa Ambiental da Amaznia (Amazon Environmental


Research Institute)

ISA

Instituto Socioambiental (Socioenvironmental Institute)

ITERPA

Instituto de Terras do Par (Par Land Institute)

MDA

Ministrio do Desenvolvimento Agrrio (Ministry of Agrarian


Development)

MMA

Ministrio do Meioambiente (Ministry of the Environment)

MP

Medida Provisria (Provisional Measure)

MPF

Ministrio Pblico Federal (Federal Public Ministry)

MST

Movimento dos Trabalhadores Sem Terra (Landless Workers Movement)

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EMBRAPA

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xix

x x Abbreviations
NAEA

Ncleo de Altos Estudos Amaznicos (Nucleus of Advanced


Amazonian Studies)

PAC

Plano da Acelerao do Crescimento (Accelerated Growth Plan)

PARNA

Parque Nacional (National Park)

PDS

Projeto de Desenvolvimento Sustentvel (Sustainable


Development Project)

PIN

Plano de Integrao Nacional (National Integration Plan)

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PT

Partido dos Trabalhadores (Workers Party)

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Reais, Brazils currency

REBIO

Reserva Biolgica (Biological Reserve)

RESEX

Reserva Extrativista (Extractive Reserve)

SPR

SUDAM

Sindicato dos Trabalhadores Rurais (Rural Workers Union)


Superintendncia do Desenvolvimento da Amaznia
(Superintendency of Amazonian Development)

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ZEE

Sindicato dos Produtores Rurais (Rural Producers Association)

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STR

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R$

Zoneamento Ecolgico-Econmico (Ecological-Economic Zoning)

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Conjuring Property

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Introduction
Real Estate in Wild Country

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o the best of his knowledge, the land that Z currently occupies


along a dusty secondary road in the Brazilian Amazon has been bought
and sold five, maybe six times. Most of these transactions have been between
parties who have never seen the parcel, using documents with incomplete
or inaccurate coordinates. Strictly speaking, all of these dealings have been
illegal, as definitive title to the lot has never been issued; in fact even the
size and shape of the parcel on which Z (a pseudonym) resides are indefinite. Furthermore, at least two additional property claims overlap portions
of Zs land. For his part, Z did not purchase the lot when he migrated to
Amazonia from northeastern Brazil in the late 1990s. From the perspective
of the lands distant ownersthe investors in So Paulo or Rio de Janeiro
who paid for the lot despite its legal uncertaintyZ is a squatter with no
claim to the property. However, it is unlikely that these owners are aware of
Z, and it is very probable that they plan to sell the lot as soon as a profit can
be turned. Zs claim to the place, where he has built a clapboard farmhouse
and planted manioc and fruit trees, is effectively an act of homesteading,
protected by the Brazilian constitution.
So long as definitive title is elusive, these two worlds can coexist: a world
of dodgy but lucrative transactions among absentee owners, and a world
in which a landless migrant stakes and defends a claim on the ground, amid
counterclaims and other tenure ambiguities. If, however, the question of
ownership were ever raisedas an increasing chorus of elites, peasants, and
government officials in Amazonia are demandingthis improvised system of
multiple, overlapping, and legally vague territorial claims would be replaced
by a singular and definitive tenure regime. The shape that regime would take,
and the kinds of claims that would ultimately win out, are anyones guess.
What is clear is that, as the Brazilian state embraces new development rhetorics of environmental sustainability and social empowerment in Amazonia,
property has emerged as a premier site for government intervention.

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4 Introduction

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Viewed from above, there are no discernable boundaries distinguishing Zs homestead from those of competing claimants, only the classic
image of a green carpet of trees, stretching out in every direction. What
this vision of untracked wilderness obscures is a tangle of claims lying in
wait: property projections crafted by colonists and speculators out of cash,
forged documents, clandestine redoubts, and a variety of legal principles and
development policies. Colonists are currently preparing for development
reforms with the aim of owning severable lots carved from Brazils vast
public domain. The techniques by which they construct and display their
claims are as varied as the development protocols that mark the history of
colonization in Amazonia; furthermore, colonists have invented their own
methods for making property legible to one another and to the state.
Theres a real future in land here. In property [propriedade], Z
explains, as if he were encouraging me to invest in real estate. Noting the
nearby roadwhich many say is soon to be pavedhe adds, Theres no
limit to what is possible on land like this: good for planting, for ranching, for
building wealth.1 As Z speaks, a vision for the future of the region crystallizes, a future predicated on property not only as the basis of a political economy but also as a marker of modernity and progress. Z shares in the feeling
of many colonists that the Brazilian state, while encouraging the settlement
and civilizing of the forest, has nevertheless abandoned migrants to their
own devices in Amazonia. For Z, who came to the region in search of material improvement, Amazonia is still wild country, where a strange ecology
beguiles and Brazilian law barely applies. Indeed, the reach of government
services, support, or general oversight is ineffective in preventing predatory
land grabbing or wildcat logging and mining. The muddle of property claims
is a function of the states absence, though it is through making property
claims that migrants like Z hope to encourage the establishment of proper
government in the region. Some of us have been here for decades, waiting
and surviving. The state will have to see that, he adds, how weve made
the framework [estrutura] for order and progress.2
Property claims are efforts to give shape and regularity to political economy in a land with few rules. With them, colonists like Z attempt to build
alienation into land as a commodity, to make singularity and severability
viable in the midst of ecological relationships and multitudes (see Tsing
2013). Just as important, property is used as a technique to bring a deferred
colonial future to bear. It simultaneously materializes a culture of territorial occupation and performs a settler historical consciousness in which

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Real Estate in Wild Country 5

wilderness inevitably yields to the progress of the plow and the paper
deed. Z, a homesteader who had not purchased a deed, nevertheless had
one: a crumpled forgery that had been artificially yellowed to look authentic.
He explained that he had the document just in case it is what I need to
finally get established here.

This study describes how colonists in the Brazilian Amazon bring property
to life, both as a circulating cultural category and as a material transformation of landscapes. Colonists in rural Amazonia are preparing for the arrival
of government, development, and the future itself in the form of property
reform and recognition. The claims that they stake are speculations about
the shape of a to-be-recognized commodity as well as world-making technologies for the fabrication of Brazilian civilization on the frontier. In rural
Amazonia, property is conjuredmade to appear from seemingly nowhere,
as if by magic. These conjurings are made with the belief that they might
be recognized and thereby become the basis of individual wealth, a shared
economy, and a rural way of life. Situated in improvised and fraudulent
practices, property is to emerge with enough appearance of propriety to
legalize the illegal and regularize the irregular.
Since Brazil first encouraged large-scale Amazonian colonization in
the early 1970s, nearly one million people have migrated to the region (de
Lima Amaral 2013, 3). The results of the push into the forest have been
mixed. Though standards of living have improved throughout the region,
indigenous groups have faced genocidal conditions, Amazonian cities have
swelled with migrants whose farms failed, and violence and corruption
have come to define rural land dynamics (see Foweraker 1981). Over the
decades, Brazil has promulgated contradictory development and colonization policies, alternately backing agrarian reform, corporate colonization,
indigenous land rights, environmental protection, and private homesteading. State and business interests have variously figured the region as a demographic void, a national security risk, and a storehouse of lucrative natural
resources. Diverging techniques for claiming land, including filing papers,
burning forest lots, building a homestead, and chasing off the competition,
have accompanied these exogenous development visions. The result is that
frequently in Amazonia, many potentially legitimate but mutually exclusive
claims for the same piece of ground overlap one another.

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Conjuring Property

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In a region that many perceive to be stateless, migrants are adopting


anticipatory stances while they await future government intervention
regarding tenure confusion. Z is one of thousands who, since 1970, came
to Amazonia to homestead, pan for gold, set up as ranchers, or chase dreams
of a better life. Hardly a monolithic category, Amazonian colonists reflect
the broader socioeconomic and regional diversity of Brazil, and range from
landless peasants who seek to set up small farms to wealthy agribusiness
elites. Those who, like Z, homesteaded on federal lands in western Par
state, found none of the institutional trappings of the Brazilian stateno
court, no police, no agricultural extension servicesthrough which their
fledgling parcels could be recognized or sustained. In this vacuum, a colonial culture of improvisation has taken root in which violence, fraud, and
wily maneuvers are among the tools that colonists use to bolster their territorial positions. Finding no preestablished legibility for property, Z learned
from other migrants how to make and transport claims, always with an eye
toward future recognition from the state. It is from within this vernacular
system of property claims that colonists are currently engaging new federal efforts to sort out territorial relations in rural Amazonia, namely an
economic and ecological zoning (zoneamento ecolgico-econmico) scheme
and a tenure regularization program (Terra Legal).
An ethnography of colonists territorial practices reveals an underlying characteristic of colonization in the Brazilian Amazon: even as colonists speculate about future dispositions of governance and of capital, their
everyday actions regarding property have the effect of bringing the state
and market into being. For Amazonian colonists, property is a dynamic
category that becomes salient in the making: it is conjured through papers,
appeals to state officials, and the manipulation of landscapes and memories
of occupation. The speculative rush to secure viable claims on property
draws in squatters, homesteaders, and the well-heeled, as each seeks future
recognition and legitimacy to be conferred by the Brazilian state. Speculating colonists root their claims in the purported legitimacy of development
policies, but they also adapt their property positions to influence emerging
government programs. The implication of these findings is that the state,
far from absent in rural Amazonian settlements, is emergent in the ersatz
engagements of colonists with their surrounding environment, with one
another, and with the figural metaphors of modernity and development that
they bring with them into the region. Analyzing the manifold phenomena
that constitute property speculation (especulao fundiria) as a practice

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pursued by both elites and smallholder peasants in Amazonia casts new


light on colonists participation in Brazils current efforts to install environmental governance regimes in the region.
Anthropological studies of state power have emphasized discursive
regimes of power and knowledge (Agrawal 2005; Ferguson 1999), or how
states make landscapes and rural societies legible for rule (Scott 1998). In this
book, I posit that to understand state territorialization in a resource frontier,
it is also crucial to consider how colonists affect the state and the market
through their own speculations and anticipatory practices. Visions of territorial transformation never fully colonize a place, nor do colonists act as mere
extensions of state power. Here I focus on colonists material and discursive
practices of anticipation vis--vis future regularizations and improvements
by state and market. These practices, congealed in how colonists manipulate
territories, documents, and histories to produce property claims, dispose
rural Amazonian colonists to act as if the state and market had already
ratified their positions. Emerging, top-down regulatory regimes that aim to
encourage environmental governance and participatory development are
in turn influenced by these vernacular speculations. In settler communities
in rural Amazonia, colonists are creating the conditions for capitalist accumulation in a region they understand as being before history. I argue that
the category of the futureenacted as a cultural style of frontier occupation
and civilizational anticipationshapes property-making behaviors in the
present while also setting the stage for environmental and sociopolitical
transformations. As colonists take up strategic positions, they turn property
into a resource for prolepsis, of anticipating and forestalling possible objections by incorporating them into ones own stance. Concerned that environmental regulations may lead to their territories being expropriated, colonists
strive to represent themselves as dutiful, environmentally conscious proprietors, a strategy that may prove effective in legitimizing claims. Constructed
prolepticallyby meeting, parrying, and influencing regulations in a manner
advantageous to colonistsproperty becomes a material and conceptual
resource for accumulating power and redirecting state policies on climate
change, forest governance, and agrarian reform.
Over the past decade, land prices in Amaznia Legalthe official name
for the Amazon region within the Brazilian republichave risen by 247
percent, a rate much higher than the rest of the country. 3 This statistic
refers only to legitimate transactions on which taxes and fees have been paid
to the government, a caveat that leaves out the transactions and specula-

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tions that take place in rural zones awaiting regularization. Still, it is clear
that a land boom is currently underway in rural Amazonia, along the vast
stretches of public domain (terras devolutas) where homestead claims and
paper deeds constitute a protomarket of privatized properties. Announced
or anticipated investments in infrastructure and economic development
are fueling the surge in land prices, even in places where tenure confusion
is particularly acute. Speculative cash infusions from residents in Brazils
urban south inflate this Amazonian land bubble, but the viability of real
estate in the region is a matter that can be assured only locally, through the
sleights of hand and anticipatory stances of conjuring property. The question
of what becomes of property in Amazoniahow it is made and recognized,
to whose benefit, and with what economic and sociocultural effectslies
at the heart of this study.
Approaching this question is itself a study in irony. The earliest form
of Western proprietorship in Amazonia was the colonial sesmaria system,
in which the Portuguese crown devolved vast stretches of land as courtly
favors. Largely intact at the dawn of the republican era, the sesmaria system
assured the concentration of land and wealth in the hands of an agrarian
elite in Amazonia. It was not until the 1970s, in the guise of a reactionary
dictatorships national integration plan, that any democratization of land
ownership was attempted in the region, an irony that was knotted up in the
slogan of the times: that Amazonia should become a land without people
for people without land. The dictators populist stance fully ignored the
native populations of the region and heralded an era of colonization in lands
that had been declared public domain.
In practice, Brazils push into the forest has been characterized by land
grabbing and speculative maneuverstermed grilagem locallyrather
than a smooth succession of official plans. Agrarian reform turned out to
be more conducive to the consolidation of wealth than to its redistribution,
and the land without people myth yielded to the reality of a formidable
indigenous rights movement resolved to defend the integrity of native lands.
Violent struggles over land and social justice claimed the lives of activists
such as Chico Mendes and Sister Dorothy Stang, resulting in widespread
condemnation of Brazils colonization policies. Rapid deforestation also
grabbed the worlds attention, as nearly one-fifth of the Amazon rainforest was converted to farmland between 1970 and 2000. Today, 67.1 million
hectares 4 of public lands in Amazonialands that were nationalized by
generals and opened to homesteaders, international mining outfits, largescale agribusiness, and othershang in the balance as Brazil attempts to

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reform tenure while reducing deforestation and preserving conservation


areas and indigenous territories. Approximately 296,000 claimsa best
guess, as records are incomplete and claims-making procedures uneven
overlap each other as their holders anticipate state action (MDA 2012). The
history of development planning in Amazonia suggests that unintended
consequences and ironic reversals lie ahead; this study is situated from the
perspective of colonists whose attitudes have been shaped by that history,
and whose property-making strategies are shaping its future.

Property as Ethnographic Object

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There has been a resurgence of anthropological interest in property. Property was among the first subjects the discipline explored in depth (Morgan 1877), and more recent inquiries have been inspired by the ascendancy
of novel, rapidly globalizing forms of property relations (e.g., intellectual
property regimes or the patentability of life). Ethnographers have insisted
that property be viewed contextually, arguing that the seemingly standardized model of private, exclusive ownership so ubiquitous today is not the
natural shape that property takes always and everywhere. In renewing the
anthropological tradition of comparative studies of property, ethnographers
have problematized property in studies of the global emergence of native
land rights discourses (Doolittle 2005), the normalization of economic models that stress the rationality of private property (Mansfield 2008), and the
rapidity with which ownership idioms are shaping debates over heritage,
creativity, and personhood (Hann 1998; Strathern 1999; Verdery and Humphrey 2004). Three conceptual tendencies cut across this diverse literature
and inform how I operationalize property here. First, anthropologists view
property as a social construct, not as existing latently in nature, as John
Lockes natural law approach would have it. Second, the anthropological
perspective situates property as embedded in social relations; the apparent
thing of property is made and becomes meaningful only within a social
field in which norms about economic systems, social distinctions, and public versus private spheres attain. Finally, ethnography reveals the work that
property does: as a lively concept and institution, property becomes the
umbrella label under which certain kinds of relationships are categorized
and through which particular political projects, such as liberalization, are
made ready for export (see Maurer and Schwab 2006).
The work of Karl Marx casts a long shadow over the anthropology of
property. The theory of history that Marx developed with Friedrich Engels

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focused on transformations in property relations, especially the ownership


of land as a means of production. Though ethnographers have traced the
expansion of property logics into virtual and immaterial spaces, the social
functions of landed property remain of special interest. Countering the
liberal economists he critiqued, Marx stressed that when it came to land,
material relations (i.e., between owners and vassals, lords and serfs) were
not mere facts but expressions of political and social relations that could
be changed. Marxs attention to landto the process of enclosure, eviction,
and the transformation of tenants into free laborersleads to a critical
rejection of the ideologies that would hold these processes as the inevitable functions of economic progress. This critical discernment between
the material effects of property and the conceptual armature developed to
justify those effects is today just as crucial in the analysis of landed property
as it was for Marx.
A global land rush is under way in the first decades of the twenty-first
century, in which capital and discourses of privatization are framing up
lands for the taking (Borras Jr. et al. 2011). Speculation is most acute on
agricultural lands and in zones (such as Amazonia) where legal regimes
are murky and the resident population is politically weak. The global
hegemony of neoliberal political economic thinking has resurrected and
is attempting to naturalize the view that private property rights are requisite for rational economic calculation on the part of individuals and
states.5 Even environmental conservation, in this view, can be best achieved
through the establishment of private property: Garrett Hardins tragedy of
the commons and Harold Demsetzs (1967) managerial economics made
mainstream the idea that communally held resources were retrograde and
ultimately destructive of environmental resources. The modern thing to
do, these thinkers posited, was to allow market forces and entrepreneurial
labor to transform the commons into valuable resources. Private property
regimes would lead simultaneously to economic expansion and environmental conservation, since owners would work in their own self-interest to
steward resources efficiently. The field of resource economicsfounded on
the purported virtues of privatizationis currently remaking the political,
economic, and social landscapes of the developing world. Ethnography can
attest to how its practice departs from its orthodoxy.6
In this book, I pay special attention to an often overlooked quality of property: its association with temporality, as in the role property systems play in
the elaboration of ideas about history, the future, progress, and social development. The idea of exclusive private ownershipenforced by a legal and

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juridical apparatus that includes a bundle of rights, police, courts, cadastres,


and tax regimesis a premier marker of Western modernity. Confidence in
property and in the pressing need to universalize it emerged as by-products
of colonial encounters with land regimes that could be parsed and labeled
as nonmodern according to the degree to which they matched up with the
Wests own imagined past (see Chakrabarty 2000). Early ethnology was
complicit in the sorting of foraging, horticultural, and pastoral peoples as
living fossils, based in part on the presence or absence of private property in
these communities. The colonial prerogative not only assumed that its own
property system was the most advanced, it also employed property making
as a strategy of conquest and dispossession (Weaver 2006). Treaties, debts,
and patents were the technologies through which colonial modernity could
take root and overwrite preexisting territorialities. But beyond propertys
obvious role in parceling space into ownable lots, it also helped frame settlers sense of time. Once established, private property outlined a novel
historicity in colonial spaces: now lands had histories, a lineage of owners
who could set about improving territories and accumulating the fruits of
their labors. With property, the eternal return of the past could be overridden by a succession of events culminating in the dynamism, or messianism,7
of industrial capitalism.
Along colonial frontiers, surveyors and homesteaders effect a creative
destruction, marginalizing indigenous peoples while also emplacing modern
ideas of histories and futures. Those ideas of the futureexpectations, anticipations, and notions of progressare themselves cultural facts that shape
social life in the present and are enmeshed in power relations (Appadurai
2013). For Amazonian colonists, the fluidity of property is both a reminder
that the region is not yet modern and an invitation to stake their own claim
in the future of the place. Expectations of modernity (Ferguson 1999), or
nostalgia for a future that was promised but never materialized (Piot 2010)
become social dramas with material and emotional effects for communities
whose situated understanding of historicity does not comport with material
markers of progress (Lomnitz 2003). I am interested in how property
as a condensation of material and ideological effectsbecomes useful for
both creating wealth and elaborating a normative shape for history.

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Regulating the Environment


A central concern of recent work in political ecology has been to understand
the social and environmental effects of official projects that conjoin develop-

12 Introduction

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ment with conservation. Tenure regularization in Amazonia is elaborated


as just such a project: by bringing the institution of property to order, the
theory goes, economic and environmental goals will be more easily attainable. Paige West has shown how official development-cum-conservation
projects can amount to a delicate barter in which governments and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) give local communities the things they
see as development in exchange for participation in conservation (2006,
xiii). Conservation is here revealed as a project in regulating persons more
than an effort to control natural resources. This point resonates in similar
work by Tania Li (2007) and Celia Lowe (2006), who show how projects
tendency to distinguish between local and expert knowledge ramifies a host
of political and economic inequalities and reinforces the preeminence of
official conservation and development goals over the concerns of clients.
The concept of environmentality, developed by Arun Agrawal (2005),
illuminates the subtler power dynamics at play in regulating nature, as forest communities take up environmental discourses by articulating new,
self-asserted identities. The struggle between official and local knowledges
within regulatory encounters is an open and dynamic one, Agrawal suggests:
in becoming subject to environmental rules, local peoples influence these
rules just as their own territorial behaviors are disciplined. As governments
and international organizations have become increasingly concerned with
creating environmental codes, a rich literature reveals a staggering diversity of outcomes, from top-down managerial schemes to community-based
resource management projects that have empowered locals to secure land
rights (see Brosius, Tsing, and Zerner 2005; Escobar 2008; Mathews 2011).
In the Brazilian Amazon, conservation programs began in the 1980s,
largely as projects spearheaded and funded by the nongovernmental sector. In recent years, state backing and a desire to have programs generate revenues has brought development and conservation planning into the
picture, a scene that often still lacks community representation. Studying
the gap between official plans and their practical effects is an important
undertaking in Brazil, which boasts some of the most progressive environmental legislation in the world but where the reach of regulation and
enforcement is often lacking. Colonists in rural Amazonia are generally
skeptical of rules that would limit their ability to farm, ranch, or pursue
logging. But colonists responses to environmental governance projects have
been surprisingly diverse: rather than simply rejecting regulations, colonists have engaged, appropriated, or even adopted the environmental brief.

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In a parallel context, Tracey Heatherington (2010) shows how rural Sicilian


villagers invoked the label of indigeneity to oppose conservation efforts that
they viewed as enclosing common lands. In Amazonia, private property
becomes the basis for an owner identity category that colonists adopt to
rally for or against conservation initiatives. Colonists stress how they were
originally encouraged to settle and improve the land, and that they are not
the enemies of nature so often caricatured by conservationists. Many even
describe themselves as environmentalists, and offer detailed explanations
of the environmental benefits of the property regularization they seek.
A study of how environmental regulations come into being necessarily
entails a conceptualization of the state: what it is and how it can be apprehended. I agree with Michel-Rolph Trouillot (2001) and others who argue
that the state is not a fixed institutional form, and that state effects come
to life in a social context that the state neither fully controls nor can come
to know entirely. The effects of state actionsthe enforcement of laws, the
promulgation of policy and ideologyare no doubt important, but the material and social spaces in which those effects take shape are contested terrain
(see P. Harvey 2005). These contests are not limited to traditional electioneering. Rather, the meaning and shape of state regulations are contested in
quotidian acts of resistance, appropriation, performance, and refusal. When
they appropriate documents or maneuver amid bureaucratic procedures,
unofficial actors inhabit the form of the state even as they critique officials
in power (see K. Hetherington 2011; Watts 2003). In addition, regulatory
encounterswhere property may be recognized or territorial activities punishedhappen in social fields wherein there is a large possibility for variable
and conflicting appropriations of concepts and practices (Roitman 2005,
2). As interventions, regulations begin with a set of presuppositions about
the nature of politics, economics, and economic objects, and the work that
they do to render spaces and subjects governable is never assured but always
subject to contingencies. In Amazonia, colonists desire for state recognition
does not equate to an eagerness to submit to official rules. Instead, property
conjurers hope to bend emerging environmental regulations by instantiating their own political economic norms.

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Amazonian Colonization and the Emerging Brazil


Relative to the number and quality of ethnographic studies focused on
indigenous Amazonians, there are few accounts of the daily lives of Ama-

14 Introduction

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zonian colonists.8 The reasons for this are many. In North America, Europe,
and Brazil, most students trained in Amazonian ethnography are directed
toward indigenous studies, either by theoretical concerns or as the result of
the imprint of a leading paradigm (e.g., structuralism). Only recently have
anthropologists joined geographers and economists in the systematic study
of nonindigenous Amazonians, contributing ethnographic analyses to the
growing literatures on river-dwelling (ribeirinho) communities, extractivists, and descendants of escaped slaves (quilombolas) (see Adams et al. 2009;
Hutchins and Wilson 2010). Still, the social science of colonist communities
is dominated by political scientists and economists, whose treatment of data
runs to the econometric and comparative.
A thorough ethnographic analysis of the values and practices taking
shape among colonists would enrich and inform debates about development
and conservation policy in Brazil. To that end, I define colonist communities as communities consisting of those families and individuals whose
history in Amazonia begins after 1970, who continue to maintain meaningful connections with their region of origin, and who aspire to improve
their personal situations and/or transform the region. Defined in this way,
Amazonian colonists emerge as an understudied constituency in the literature and as a community apart within the region. Colonist villages and
neighborhoods, while growing in size and influence, are nevertheless visually and geographically distinct from native or caboclo (mixed white and
Indian ancestry) communities (Nugent 1997; Wagley 1953).
This book explores how colonist communities attempt to transform
Amazonian territories through the elaboration of property logics. Though
this is not a story of native Amazonia, it has clear implications for indigenous peoples and politics, especially regarding land. Settlers speculative
and often violent strategies for alienating property are currently dovetailing with the Brazilian states neoliberal land management policies, creating
greater territorial pressures on traditional peoples. Activists and analysts
interested in justice for indigenous peoples and continued vitality for Amazonian forests will benefit from contemplating the motives, cultural styles,
and territorial strategies of Amazonian colonists. In the shifting middle
ground of ecopolitics, where national and international interest in indigenous issues often correlates with globalized concerns about our planets
future (Conklin and Graham 1995), paying some attention to the colonists
who are at the doorstep of indigenous territories is warranted.
Early twenty-first-century pundits often describe Brazil as a developing
or emerging nation, and colonists arriving in Par, Acre, and Amazonas

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states are partisans of the idea that the nation has untapped political and
economic potential. They are perhaps predisposed to see board feet of lumber where others would find a fragile ecosystem, or acreage for cattle where
others envision an extractive reserve. But these migrants originate from all
corners of Brazil, and pursue a wide range of visions for the Amazonian
frontier. It would be a mistake to assume that their attitudes are uniform.
Exactly how notions of Brazils emergence as a protosuperpower become
enmeshed with colonists understanding of their activities is an open question, and one addressed in this study. I hope to bring critical social analysis
to the fine workdone mostly by ecologists like Philip Fearnsideon the
social drivers of deforestation in Amazonia. Fearnside (2008, 2009) convincingly describes a vicious cycle in which peasants open up lands only to
have them confiscated or bought out by loggers and, ultimately, ranchers;
when peasants move on, it is cheaper and easier for ranchers to expand
pastures into the new lots rather than intensifying their production. Fire,
debt, and poverty are the key levers in a machine that is eating up the forest,
but a thorough understanding of the practices, visions, and social relations
of peasants and elites is absent from the analysis. The latter can enrich
ongoing policy discussions in which ecologists and political scientists are
formulating strategies to mitigate the impacts of colonization (see Laurance
et al. 2001). A flexible cultural category in its own right, property should
not be taken for granted in policy prescriptions.
Perhaps another reason for the relative lack of in-depth studies of Amazonian colonization is scholars reluctance to associate with groups engaged
in questionable or even odious pursuits, such as fraud, theft, deforestation,
and even slavery. Analysts have chronicled the response of grassroots social
movements to the development juggernaut (Baletti 2012; Hall 1998; Sawyer 2004), with encouraging accounts of how marginalized communities
articulate an insurgent citizenship that critiques conventional modernist
authoritative development planning (Hecht 2011: 203). This is important
work that increases the moral imagination of what kind of place Amazonia
can be. However, few have attempted to study those communities, which,
through deed or word, propose the wholesale transformation of Amazonia
into a market of saleable commodities. The diverse backers and beneficiaries
of Brazils emergence are influential and persistent in their drive to transform the nation. Analytically, we ignore them at our own peril. The social
and environmental changes currently underway in Amazonia are complex
and multiform; access to power and the types of uses to which power is put
must continue to be the focus of fine-grained cultural analysis.

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Study Area and Research Methods

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This ethnography is situated in the western half of the vast state of Par,
home to dozens of traditional Amazonian populations and the site of
repeated colonization efforts and development projects (see map 1). The
principal city in this region is Santarm, located at the confluence of the
Amazon and Tapajs Rivers and a longtime hub of the provincial riverboat
economy (Nugent 1997). The majority of western Pars population lives in or
near Santarm (current pop. 350,000), the size of which has doubled over the
past forty years due to development successes and failures that encouraged
urban migration. In the rural zones of the region, the twenty-first century
finds a mix of traditional extractive economies with the capital-intensive soy
planting and cattle ranching that is pursued by thousands of recent arrivals
from southern Brazil (gachos or sulistas). South of Santarm, ranching
gachos and smallholder migrants mostly from Brazils northeast (nordestinos) have built communities hugging the BR-163 highway, a road punched
through upland forests in the early 1970s. In the 1990s, the southern reaches
of this highway corridor in the state of Mato Grosso became the center of
Brazils booming soybean crop, but after its initial construction the thousand-kilometer stretch in Par remained abandoned by the authorities for
decades. It is in this regionthe southwestern corner of the state of Par,
defined by the unpaved BR-163 highwaythat property speculation and
anticipating development can be best examined.
Since the highway proved an unreliable colonization corridor, relatively
few migrants settled in western Par compared with the south of the state
(near the city of Marab) and the Acre/Rondnia colonization corridor
(Hoelle 2012). Kayap and Munduruku are among the most prominent
indigenous groups in the area, and elders still recall the arrival of the bulldozers and first migrants in the 1970s. Discovery of gold in the Tapajs valley
set off the first rush of settlement, especially near the auriferous deposits
along the Jamanxim and Curu Rivers far to the south of Santarm. Clandestine airstrips and hastily constructed settlements soon pockmarked the
forests, along with open-air alluvial mines and tailings deposits. The most
successful gold minesincluding Castelo de Sonhos, the key colonist village
chronicled in this studysurvived the malarial infestations and entrenched
violence associated with the gold boom and eventually became villages
with sustained populations (roughly seven thousand people currently live

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zon R

iver

SANTARM
BR-163

Hw
nian

Xingu

Cur
u
R

iver

Hw y
3
BR-16

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PAR

NOVO PROGRESSO

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Jamanxim River

ALTAMIRA

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maz

sa
Tran

RURPOLIS

-23

-230

y (BR

River

Tapa
js R
iver

ITAITUBA

BR

ni

AM
AZO

NA

Ama

100

200 km

CASTELO DE SONHOS

Amazon Region

paved road
state border

Map 1: Amazon Region and Study Area

non-paved road

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W
MATO GROSSO

18 Introduction

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in Castelo de Sonhos). In these small settlements, the mood is overwhelmingly colonial: no one has been in the region for long (forty years at most),
many are soon to be on their way to someplace else (like a major city),
and a migrants region of origin correlates strongly with the community
she or he keeps when first encountering Amazonia.
A succession of minor economic booms and busts came in the 1990s
and 2000s, but the population density in western Par remained low and
the reach of government modest. The Brazilian state nationalized lands
alongside Amazonian federal highways in the mid-1970s to encourage settlement, but in the absence of local land courts or surveyors, distinguishing
legitimate property claims proved impossible. Tenure ambiguity became
widespread and increasingly violent throughout the Brazilian Amazon in
the late twentieth century (see Schmink and Wood 1992). In western Par,
however, tenure ambiguity continued to compound with each new development protocol issued by the distant state. Though not immune to landrelated violence, the region remained relatively quietprotected in part by
the seasonal impassibility of the BR-163 highwaywhile land battles raged
to the west (e.g., in Acre, where Chico Mendes was killed in 1988) and to the
east (e.g., the massacre at Eldorado dos Carajs, south of Belm, in 1996). This
study picks up the story of this underdeveloped region at the point when
the Brazilian state was signaling its intention to pave the BR-163 highway,
build a series of hydroelectric plants on the regions rivers, and regularize
land tenure.9 The colonists who settled in the rural zones of western Par
took the states intentions seriously, and prepared to use the onset of new
development programs to maximize their territorial positions.
In studying how colonists construct property claims in anticipation of
state recognition, I have used methods and asked questions that are rarely
pursued in the study of Amazonian colonization. The status of property
in rural Amazonia is so dodgy, so replete with advantageous trickery, that
many analysts assume the basic shape of land jobbing and real estate speculation without investigating it in detail. While understandable, an approach
that too readily writes off all behaviors concerning property as corrupt or
avaricious might actually serve the status quo. In any event, we stand to
learn little of the sociocultural practices and modes of thought associated with property makingsome of which are key to the normal and
modern functioning of political economyif we see it only as a swindle.
When I began the fieldwork for this study in 2006, I committed to a longterm grappling with the world-making qualities of property, and how

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it comes into existence as an institution to order territorial, social, and


even historical relations between the colonists who are active agents in
its creation. An initial two-year stint of fieldwork proved insufficient to
track the labors and meanings associated with making property in western
Par. I returned to conduct follow-up research on an annual basis between
2009 and 2013, tallying a total of forty months of participant observation
and interviews.
Research took me into the backrooms of land registry offices,
where I perused forged deeds and gained entry into a world fueled by speculative cash transfers from southern Brazil. On winding forest trails far from
colonial villages, I hiked with the hired hands that did the demanding work
of maintaining parcels boundaries. I participated in meetings with landless
workers associations struggling to make their own claims more visible, and
with outsider NGOs who came to the region to educate colonists about
sustainable development. In all, I found that the story of what might happen
in western Parwhat kind of government and economic growth colonists
could expect or demandwas always a story about the fate of the land itself
and the rights to dispose of it as property. By participating in the spaces
where property was being made, I could pay attention to the techniques
that colonists used to make it appear. By listening intently in open-ended
interviews,10 I noticed how concerns about property also announced a host
of ideas about the proper relationship of people to land, the role of government, and the nature of history itself. I collected information regarding
colonists region of origin, the length of time they had been in Amazonia,
the range of their economic activities, the extent of their relations with other
colonists, their tenure status, and their hopes for the future. What emerges
from this data is a thorough ethnographic examination of a region that is
understood by its inhabitants to be in the midst of a monumental change.
Fieldwork is marked by difficulties and misapprehensions, for both the
researcher and the community being examined. My motives in pursuing this
study were a constant source of curiosity for colonists, and early on I became
familiar with a wary suspicion that many had of outsidersespecially educated North Americans whom many assumed traveled to Amazonia to
preach the gospel of environmental preservation. It took me nine months
to convince some of the residents of Castelo de Sonhos that I was in their
village to research local history and development politics, and that I believed
that their local perspectives were the ones most often left out in debates
on environmental policies. If the owner of the local pirate radio station had

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not shown an interest in my work, I might still be knocking on doors with


little to show for it. But with this support, social networks within the village
became intelligible, and I could begin to work with confidence and credibility. Still, many remained suspicious, and I occasionally heard rumors of
my secret work with the US government or my affiliation with Greenpeace
(none of which were true).
Locals defensiveness about their presence in Amazonia is understandable given the all-or-nothing tone of many discussions about the environmental future of the region. Regardless of their personal opinions on forest
conservation, colonists unanimously cited their rights to develop Amazonia by relating that the Brazilian government had long ago invited them
to the region. Besides, many addedwhile embracing the idiom of propertyAmazonia is ours. Interviewees often followed this line of thought
with a reminder that North Americans and Europeans had already destroyed
most of their forests while getting rich. I heard many times that this is the
future that we want, too, with a dangling ambiguity concerning whether
it was the riches or the destruction, or both, that colonists were after. I suspect that the tensions examined in this bookbetween rich and poor,
economic growth and environmental protection, and local, national, and
global perspectiveswill remain unresolved for decades to come in Amazonia. Indeed, it is perhaps better if we refrain from attempting to resolve
these tensionsa strategy often undertaken in policy prescriptionsand
instead attend more carefully to how these debates produce a framework for
understanding and interacting with the world. Colonists count themselves
as modern, rational actors whose efforts to civilize the Amazon have been
stymied by a weak, indecisive government and an international cast of moral
crusaders. It is worthwhile to attempt to understand their worldview, if for
no other reason than to show its limitations and convenient elisions.
Gradually, the colonists with whom I spoke and hiked and lived came
to tolerate my presence among them, and soon I became privy to the small
and large ways that people relate to land and curate potential claims to it.
Informants proved to be surprisingly frank about the improvised, fraudulent, and sometimes dangerous nature of their activities, which ranged from
forgery and dissimulation to blustery threats and land invasions planned
in secret. Over the months I came to discern fragile alliances and competing factions engaging one another in protracted contests in which de
facto control of land was only one aspect of what was at stake. Perhaps the
greater prizemore important than using a parcel of land or defending it
from encroachmentwas the ability to speak for the future of a particular

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territory, effectively projecting a claim to ownership in an idiom and manner that might someday be sanctioned by the authorities. In this space of
subjunctive suspense, colonists crafted novel techniques to frame land into
property, both materially and discursively. My own position in this game
both in terms of the ethics of research and as a practical matter of method
was a source of ceaseless anxiety. Though I eventually gained the trust of
both regional elites and poor migrants (groups known locally as grandes
and pequenos, the big guys and the little guys), I worried that I might be
perceived as partial to one faction or the other. Interviews with nearly three
hundred individuals form the foundation of this study, but I would rarely
reach a mutual level of trust with anyone until I had conversed with that
person a half dozen times. Renato Rosaldos description of ethnography as
deep hanging out was never far from mind.
Beyond the private life of property, the signs of which I could only discern under the tutelage of colonists in western Par, I was also interested in
tracking the more public lives of land claims. Participating in meetings about
state-backed development projectsespecially Brazils ecological zoning
and tenure regularization effortsproved an important complementary
methodology by which I could ascertain how colonists transformed their
provisional, and often secret, land claims into solid precepts with which
to engage the state. I attended dozens of meetings and observed long-time
colonists and petty speculators wrestle with Brazilian officials about the
moral exigencies of colonization, land reform, and sustainable development.
Great venues for performance, from the colonists perspective these official
forums were just one more means of publicizing and documenting a claim.
Straddling the line between private and public, information on land sales
over the past several decades was also an important stream of data, collected by supplementing government figures with interviewees accumulated accounts of informal cash, trade, and debt-swap transactions.
Studying property conjuring amounts to immersing oneself in a massive confidence game, and on a daily basis I negotiated the limits of fieldworks aspirations to objectiveness and impartiality. Individuals stories and
positions on property remained constantly in flux, leaving little hope of
recording the objective history of territories. On some level, fraud itself
became the constant and truest characteristic of colonists engagements
with property, giving rise to the widely held belief among colonists that
the distinction between a fraudulent and a legitimate claim was largely
meaningless. The pervasiveness of this attitude enabled an ethnographic
engagement with activities and perspectives that informants might other-

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wise have wished to leave concealed. As one claimant explained to me, The
frauds [as fraudes] are how the lawor how right and wrongbegins to
exist. What was the harm in letting a researcher see the particularities of
the fraud, when the illicit and the improvised were prerequisite to regularization and legality? Since all was fraudand since every player in the land
game could accuse every other of shady dealingthere was little to conceal.
Even among rivals, a casual familiarity attained, as when peasants and the
wealthy attended the same celebrations or when hired thugs mingled peaceably with the associates of those they were rumored to have killed.
Even so, throughout fieldwork I struggled to understand why people
talked to me so openly about a topic as sensitive as land tenure. In the
end, I concluded that some colonists told me such candid stories as part of
one of their many strategies for creating paperwork (in this case, a distant
book) that might validate their land claims. Many claimants viewed my
notebook as a corroborating document, a place where stories and facts could
potentially be built up in defense of a property position. While interviewing
colonists, I explained that I would not be comfortable advocating for one
persons property position over another, and that I was able to do little more
than observe. I believe that many informants enjoyed having an opportunity
to converse with me about their relationship to Amazonian lands, while
others continued to hold out hope that connecting with a foreign researcher
might ultimately yield powerful results for their property plays. The ethical
implications of this imbalance continue to weigh heavily on me, and have
led me to use pseudonyms and nonspecific physical coordinates in this volumes ethnographic stories. In doing so, I want to eliminate the possibility
that my words may be used in any future legal disputes over specific parcels.
But I am also troubled by how, in so sanitizing this text, it becomes primarily a vehicle for more distant reflection on academically interesting matters.
As it happens, the property conjuring game in Amazoniareplete as it is
with fraud, deception, and reversals of fortuneis not conducted on a level
playing field. This book relates how a structurally marginalized group of
landless peasants decided to enter the land speculation business only to be
further exploited and eventually disappropriated by elites. My political sympathies are with these peasants, many of whom saw hope for a better future
in the confabulations of forged deeds. As a practical matter, however, I am
afraid that this book offers little by way of exculpatory proof or corroboration for those smallholders who joined in the property conjuring perfected
by Brazils moneyed classes and landed elites, other than the synoptic point
that the game was rigged against them from the start.

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My overall aim is to richly describe the phenomenon of property speculation in Amazonia, and to show how speculation is embedded in a colonial
social system oriented toward emplacing political economic and historical
norms in country that colonists and officials alike regard as wild, undeveloped, and thoroughly nonmodern. While I attempt to understand property
making on its own termsand how, for colonists, property instantiates
the shape of history, the prospect of governance, and the promise of longsought modernitythis book is not intended as an apology for colonization.
Rather, my goal is to show the range of material and discursive labors that
define colonialism as a sociocultural system, and how one of that systems
key institutionspropertyemerges haltingly from makeshift inventions,
luck, fraud, collusion, and creative destruction of the environment. Official
histories of colonization often present the story of property (where it is
considered at all) as a fait accompli. Here my focus is on the contingency of
property, on colonists labors to make it viable enough to usher in a modern
future, and their concomitant efforts to present it as obvious and inevitable. Training the ethnographic lens on Amazonian colonists requires
attention to some rather unsavory dimensions of colonial culture, including widespread racist attitudes toward indigenous peoples, colonists often
pugnacious suspicion of environmental conservation, and their faith in the
doctrine of improvement. These are points on which I strongly disagree with
Amazonian colonists, but these differences do not negate the importance of
trying to understand their perspectives and analyze the political economic
realities that are currently taking shape for them. Consequently, I avoided
casting my analysis in terms of victims and villainsa common trope in
much writing on Amazoniaas I have found that there are events too
important and dynamics too subtle for that framework to capture.

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