What a Difference a Century Makes: Images of the Frontier in Amazônia and the American West

James Hayes-Bohanan, Ph.D.

A chapter in Miguel Nenevé and Martin Cooper, eds. 2001. Olhares sobre a Amazônia: Looking at the Amazon. Rio de Janeiro: Terra Nova.



The experiences of colonization in Amazônia and the western United States have been similar in many respects, although they occurred a century apart. Both were initiated because of important geopolitical and economic objectives of the national governments. Both resulted in the destruction of biological resources and the displacement of indigenous people. In both cases, a human-built landscape has replaced the original hydrology and topography. In the case of the United States, popular images emphasize the economic benefits and civilizing influence of settlers. In Brazil, popular images emphasize environmental destruction.

Several reasons for this difference are examined. First, the colonization of Amazônia has occurred during a period of rapid global communication, especially in comparison to the communication networks of nineteenth century. Second, attitudes toward both environmental destruction and indigenous rights have changed considerably, especially in the latter half of the twentieth century. Third, even if the two events are seen as comparable, the idea of Amazônia as a Last Frontier creates a sense of urgency about environmental problems in the region. Finally, Brazil’s semi-peripheral status creates conflicting pressures both to preserve to extract resources for the benefit of the core.


In the decade of the sixties, the national government was concerned that vast areas of natural resources were not being exploited rapidly enough, while in the eastern part of the country, rapid population growth was creating a variety of unwanted social pressures. The government therefore embarked on an unprecedented settlement program that provided “land without men for men without land.” Of course, the land was not actually “without men,” since indigenous people had long lived in many areas of the land that the government now sought to distribute.

The program to distribute this land included fiscal incentives for those who promised to farm the land, a system of land grants organized on arbitrary grids, and – later -- incentives for particular kinds of natural-resource exploitation or transportation development.

The result was the rapid conversion to farmland and grazing land of some of the most important biological regions of the Americas. Many species of plant and animal were lost, the hydrologic cycle was disrupted, and the regional climate appears to have been permanently altered. Indigenous people – who were all but invisible in the government’s plans for the region – were dislocated, acculturated, or killed.

What is the catastrophe described here? It could be the government-led conversion of tropical rain forest in Brazil beginning in the 1960s. Of course, it could also be the Homestead Act of 1862 – the sixties of the previous century.


As the conversion of rain forest to other land uses in the Amazon region of Brazil continues, it is a legitimate source of concern, both in Brazil itself and abroad. Often, however, this concern rises to the level of outrage, particularly in North American and elsewhere in the North, where the problem is often cast in simplistic or even sensationalist terms. This essay suggests that the strong reaction to deforestation may be fueled in part by a nagging sense that what has occurred in Brazil in the late twentieth century in many ways echoes the experience of the North American frontier a century earlier.

These frontier experiences are strikingly parallel, and yet the comparison is difficult to discern for at least two fundamental reasons. First, advances in the science of ecology and the technology of communication make the negative consequences of modern frontier expansion impossible to ignore; a century earlier, such destruction was less widely understood, though a few contemporary reports were made of that destruction (e.g., Marsh 1864). Second, Brazil occupies a different position in the world system at the end of the twentieth century than the United States did a century earlier, and this position within the world system strongly colors the ways in which its process of frontier change is viewed. These two factors have complicated the ways in which observers in the North understand the frontier processes of change in the Amazon region.

The essay begins with a description of the exploitation of the nineteenth century North American frontier, followed by a similar discussion of the Amazon frontier in Brazil. It concludes with a comparison of the two experiences and an attempt to shed some light on North American attitudes toward events in Amazônia.

Nineteenth-century North America

Particular notions of the frontier have been central to the North American idea of the West, beginning as early as the immediate post-colonial period in the United States. The frontier embodied several distinct concerns of its founding leaders, Thomas Jefferson perhaps chief among them. First was the geopolitical problem of sharing a continent with the colonial powers that continued to control land to the north, south, and especially to the west of the newly independent nation. Second was the fact that the new nation was a democracy of landowners. That is, political power originally was vested in the common man, but only to the extent that he controlled property. The broadening of democracy would require ever-increasing access to land. Third, a particular Christian view of nature prevailed, in which human responsibility for its dominion entailed not allowing resources to languish unused.

These ideas collectively led to Jefferson’s drive to acquire Western territory. A generation later, this geopolitical program fell under the brilliant phrase “Manifest Destiny,” which could not easily be contradicted in a Christian nation, even if someone had had the desire to do so. Thus the national territory doubled in size with Jefferson’s Louisiana Purchase of 1813 and had roughly tripled in size by mid-century.

After the national territory was expanded, attention turned to its effective occupation and the use of its resources. The Homestead Act of 1862 provided 160 acres (64 hectares) of land in the West for the head of any household that did not already own land elsewhere. Because the land was reserved for citizens the Act served some of Jefferson’s earlier geopolitical goals. Because the land was distributed according to a strongly orthagonal survey system, occupation of the West represented the imposition of order without regard to regional topography, hydrology, or existing indigenous settlement. As fencerow and roadway have developed on these grids, the resultant cultural landscape is characterized both by a certain efficiency and sterility that convey a sense of human superiority over nature. The pattern of settlement is emblematic of another aspect of the idea of the West, which is the superiority of European white settlers in relation to the indigenous societies of the periphery. In fact, if “frontier” is taken to be the boundary between settled space and empty space, then the indigenous populations do not even rise to the level of “inferior,” but are instead not even visible in the expansive American vision of the continent (Loewen 1999).

Contemporary with the settlement program was a series of laws intended to ensure that specific resources in the West did not languish in disuse. The Railroad Acts of the 1850s and 1860s awarded generous land concessions to those who would build the infrastructure to remove timber, mineral, and other resources from the region. The Mining Act of 1872 provided extremely favorable terms for those who would commit to the extraction of minerals and the Timber Culture Act of 1873 encouraged the extraction of timber resources.

Perhaps consciously or perhaps not, in the post-colonial period, the United States replicated on a continent what European colonial powers had previously achieved by sea. In order to maintain an ever-increasing standard of living within its core, the new nation brought under its control a steadily increasing amount of land elsewhere. Prior to widespread industrialization (and perhaps not even then), neither Europeans nor North Americans could contrive a way to achieve economic growth on a finite endowment of land.

A century after the process of colonization in the American West, the received wisdom is that the process was a positive one. The settlement and extraction policies had resulted in an impressive and rapid transformation of the landscape of most of a continent and the conversion of a vast array of material in the ground to economically productive use. Relatively few reports were made of environmental damage, because it was difficult at the time to see the conversion of resources to productive use in any but positive terms. The expansion of both urban and rural settlement were depicted in positive ways at the time, particularly in the lithographs of Western urban scenes made at the time (Reps 1976). The lithographs depict urban landscapes of order and progress surrounded by rural landscapes that are similarly ordered. These positive images persist more than a century later, and have been reinforced throughout the continent by physical monuments to pioneers who brought progress to the West (Loewen 1999).

Twentieth-Century Amazônia

Although most of Amazônia did not come into its own as a frontier region until the late twentieth century, outside interest in its potential resources dates back five centuries. Ever since the Spanish navigator Vicente Yáñez Pinzón first entered the mouth of the Amazon River in 1500, the river has been a mystery to be unraveled. Because of Spain’s interests elsewhere, it was not until after the Portuguese navigator Pedro Álvarez Cabral made landfall near Recife in 1540 that Europeans first exercised sustained interest in the region. From that point forward, the basin was seen as a territory to be brought under dominion by both monarchs and scientists. Although the Portuguese had dominion, however, they had not much time for science, and so it was a succession of other Europeans, beginning with the French and ending with the English, who claimed the Amazon for their own exploring grounds (Stone 1985, 36-37; Smith 1990, 2).

Although Portuguese and early Brazilian interest in the region was scant, many early writings extolled the abundance of its natural resources and its potential for development. The words of Alfred Russell Wallace, the English naturalist, are typical of many Europeans who visited the region:

I fearlessly assert that here the primeval forest can be converted into rich pasture land, into cultivated fields, gardens and orchards, containing every variety of produce, with half the labor, and what is more important, in less than half the time that would be required at home (Wagley and Miller 1976, 6).
The geographers Alexander von Humboldt and Louis Agassiz and the North American writer Matthew Maury also were among those who thought that the Amazon's riches only waited to be developed by outsiders. In 1853, Maury claimed that Brazil, by not developing the Amazon, was attempting to "`lock up and seal with the seal of ignorance and superstition and savage barbarity the finest portions of the earth`" (Hecht and Cockburn 1989, 75). It befell the "free men" of the world, such as himself, to expose such an outrage. When Professor and Mademoiselle Agassiz toured the region, she wrote that colonization was needed, so that all civilizations could share in its wealth. She indicated that North Americans would be able to help Brazil develop its resources.

Mme. Agassiz turns out to have been both correct and prescient: the United States at that time was embarked on a very successful program of exploiting its natural resources, and eventually North Americans – notably Henry Ford and Daniel Ludwig – would transfer that vision to Amazônia itself. Between them, they disturbed two and a half million hectares of rain forest in separate efforts to meet industrial demands for raw materials – rubber in the case of Ford and paper pulp in the case of Ludwig. Both projects failed tremendously because the monocultures they planted were ill-suited to the tropical environment (Hecht and Cockburn 1989, 97-99; Reier, 1990).

It was just prior to Ludwig’s disastrous experiment that – despite Moury’s earlier fears to the contrary – Brazil itself came to view its Amazon region in economic terms similar to those long held by foreigners. From a world-system perspective, this can be understood in the context of Brazil’s position in the world economy. According to Barbosa (1993), an important ideological aspect of the expansion of the world economy has been commodification, or “assigning only economic value to things, ... making them sellable in markets for profits.” In this view – paradoxically – biological systems such as the Amazon rain forest come to be “perceived as either reservoirs of raw materials or impediments to development.” Brazil eventually came to adopt both views with respect to the Amazon region, which came to be regarded – also paradoxically – as both “the green hell and the Eldorado, an obstacle to civilization and the giver of wealth” (Barbosa 1993, 111-116).

Compared to its late-coming economic interests in the region, Brazil’s geopolitical interest in the Amazon Basin is long-standing. Close to one half of the Amazon Basin is in the domain of Brazil's neighbors, and the greatest length of Brazil's international borders are in Amazonia. Moreover, the Amazon has historically been controlled, sought, or at least coveted by foreign powers partly because of the persistent belief in the great wealth of its resources described above. Geopolitical ambitions in Brazil have figured prominently in the development of the region.1

Brazil’s Regional Development Policies in Amazonia

It was thus for a combination of geopolitical and economic reasons that the Brazilian government came to be engaged in a series of settlement and resource-extraction efforts throughout the Amazon region. The Grande Carajás Project (PGC), for example, sought – over the period 1981 to 1990 – to convert an area of virgin rainforest constituting eleven percent of Brazil's national territory “into an industrial and agro-livestock heartland" (Hall 1989, 41).

More generally, Operation Amazonia, enacted in 1966 and 1967, committed Brazil to the occupation the Amazon region, and to its integration with the rest of the country. This was to be achieved primarily through road construction, agricultural colonization and industrialization undertaken by the National Integration Program (PIN). Through the PIN, the government provided funds for the construction of 15,000 kilometers of roads, including the Transamazon, Cuiabá-Santarém, and Northern Perimeter highways. Not only would the highways link the Amazon region with Northeast, the South and the Southeast, but they would also make available land for settlement within a 20-kilometer band on either side of the highways. The irrigation of 40,000 hectares of land also was to be funded by the PIN (Mahar 1989, 23-25). In addition to the provision of infrastructure, the national government offered generous fiscal incentives to those who invested in agriculture or industry in the Amazon region.

Monitoring of projects was difficult, however, and many projects, particularly cattle ranches, were subsidized at great cost without actually providing the promised benefits (Hecht and Cockburn 1989). In many cases, small farms were abandoned as initial high yields were replaced by extremely low yields over the long term. As farms consolidated into large ranches, the top-heavy land distribution patterns found elsewhere in Brazil were replicated (Ozorio 1992). Many of the recent migrants were displaced, either to even newer frontiers or to growing urban places. By the late 1980s, a combination of fiscal constraints and international and domestic political reaction to rain forest destruction forced Brazil to deactivate its rural settlement projects and other major development projects in the Amazon region (Barbosa 1993, 109).


Tropical rain forest regions in general – and Amazônia in particular – are now widely known individually or collectively as a Last Frontier.2 At the time of frontier development in nineteenth century North America, the phrase Last Frontier would have been an oxymoron; the appeal of the frontier lay in the notion that it would forever give way to new frontiers. A century later, the idea of a Last Frontier has become rather compelling, however, as human societies begin to feel that they may be approaching the limits of growth. Recent literature describes as Last Frontiers such disparate places as Mongolia, Alaska, Australia, Antarctica, various ocean trenches, and outer space.3  In the case of the Amazon, the term Last Frontier is freighted with the connotation of a final battleground in a fight to save the planet (Hayes-Bohanan 1998). Brazilians may argue – with some justification – that North Americans who long ago cleared most of a continent and continue to benefit economically from that activity are in a poor position to criticize deforestation in the Amazon. This is precisely where the problem of the Last Frontier becomes crucial. Because of the deforestation that followed frontier expansion in North America – and Europe, for that matter – the Amazon is seen as the last stage in an on-going process. Nothing can be done about the past, whose mistakes belong to other generations, but the strong sense is that something should be done by this generation to spare the remaining frontier.

Though the parallels between the North American and the Brazilian frontier experiences should not be over-drawn, the comparison of the two is instructive. In both countries, economic, geopolitical, and cultural considerations combined to bring about government policies that fostered the imposition of new settlements of remote regions occupied at the time by indigenous peoples. In both cases, the indigenous people suffered the loss of their lands, their liberty, and many of their lives. Moreover, in both cases the landscape was forever changed, as roads were placed without regard to topography and hydrology. Ecological systems were disrupted, replacing the complex with the simple and eliminating species of both plants and animals. Finally, each frontier process created a permanently changed nation. Even as the process of frontier expansion in the Amazon region continues in such places as Roraima, it is clear that such recent frontiers are Rondônia are gradually becoming integrated into the fabric of Brazil, just as places like Kansas and California long ago became integral parts of the United States.

Although the actual experiences have been broadly similar, the perception of frontier expansion in Brazil has been generally much more negative. A few real differences should be acknowledged. The biodiversity of tropical rain forests really is much greater than that of the temperate forests and grasslands that were converted in North America, so that both the actual and the potential loss of plant and animal species is much greater in the Amazonian case. The lost grassland prairies of North America were more complex than commonly imagined, however, and the loss of original forest cover in many areas was more complete than in most of the Amazon. Indigenous people suffered in both cases, too, but clearly those in twentieth-century Brazil have had better access to international human-rights assistance than was possible for those in nineteenth-century North America.

In short, frontier expansion has been a beneficial disaster for both countries. The value of the benefits can be debated, as can the severity of the disasters. In terms of outside perception of change in the Amazon, the timing of the events in the late twentieth century is at least as important as the events themselves. The occupation of Amazônia has occurred during a communications revolution that has made news both global and instantaneous. In the nineteenth century, news of a fire burning a million hectares might reach newspapers a week later or not at all. Few in the urban Northeast of the United States were well-informed about landscape change or human-rights conditions in western North America. More importantly, in the intervening century dominant attitudes about the environment have changed considerably, as the scientific study of environmental connections has advanced. In the wake of Silent Spring, the space program, and Love Canal, North Americans and Europeans view the world as small and fragile. Environmental riches such as those of Amazônia are increasingly thought of as global treasures. Any threat to such resources may be considered more as a generational challenge than as the purview of any one nation.

This optimistic, generational view, combined with a studied ignorance of history – particularly the history of U.S. intervention in Latin America – helps to explain why many North Americans do not understand resistance to their efforts to “help.” For of course the development of Brazil’s Amazonian frontier has occurred within a specific political context. Though Brazil is the world’s tenth-largest economy it occupies an unusual position on the semi-periphery of the world economy. According to Barbosa (1993), core processes are those by which capital accumulates at the expense of labor, whereas peripheral processes are those by which that surplus is created to be accumulated elsewhere. There are no semi-peripheral processes, but there are places – and Brazil is one of them – that appear to experience aspects of both kinds of processes. Semi-peripheral regions generate surplus for the core but at the same time accumulate surplus extracted from the periphery. Newly developed places in Amazônia exemplify this dichotomy fully, as they fulfill two competing imperatives, both emanating from the core. Like newly developed places throughout the world, it is under pressure to become integrated into global consumer culture (Hayes-Bohanan 1998). At the same time, its resources are in demand, as they were in the days of Ford and Ludwig. Finally, Brazil’s semi-peripheral status is used – often unconsciously – as a lever to bring about the preservation of rain forest environments for the benefit of the world as a whole. In the 1980s this was exemplified by repeated efforts to exchange forgiveness of Brazil’s foreign debt for rain forest preservation measures (Hayes-Bohanan 1991). The interests of the North would be served both by the preservation of rain forest – to offset damages done in the past and assuage collective guilt – and by the continued expansion of both extractive activities and consumer culture in Amazônia.



1See Bunker 1985; Hayes-Bohanan 1998; Hecht and Cockburn 1989; Hurrell 1991; and Mahar 1989 for the debate on the relative importance of geopolitics in forming regional policy. (return to text)
2See, for example, Clement’s 1999 review of Sponsel et al. (return to text)
3Please see O’Donnell 2000, Kiernan 1999, Flannery 1997, McGowan 1994, McRae and  Curtsinger 1999, and Bowman 1998, respectively, for these examples. (return to text)