The Unknown Lands: Nature, Knowledge, and Society in the Pantanal of Brazil and Bolivia Public Deposited

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  • March 19, 2019
  • Kauffman, Jason
    • Affiliation: College of Arts and Sciences, Department of History
  • This dissertation examines the modern history of the Pantanal, a seasonally-flooded wetland in the upper Paraguay River watershed at the border between Brazil, Bolivia, and Paraguay. Scientists and environmentalists currently regard the Pantanal as a wildlife-rich and “pristine” ecosystem threatened by uncontrolled development. I seek to understand the historical roots of these perceptions through an analysis of the transnational set of social actors – naturalists, boundary officials, indigenous peoples, field scientists, merchants, ranchers, cowboys, and hunters – who made discursive and material claims upon the Pantanal from 1870 to 1967. During this period, the Pantanal experienced rapid integration into global flows of commerce and a network of ranchers, merchants, and government officials formed to profit from a growing trade in cattle products and other commodities, including ipecacuanha, quebracho, and wild animal products. To justify their efforts to control space and the movement of people and goods through the Pantanal, these groups perpetuated a myth of isolation with origins in the colonial period. While the myth of isolation persisted, this study also reveals how perceptions of the Pantanal changed over time and varied according to social position. While powerful stakeholders (officials, engineers, merchants) viewed the Pantanal ecology as a problem to be overcome, rural populations used cycles of flood and drought to their advantage, adopting mobile lives and subsistence strategies that drew upon the resources of the Pantanal and neighboring biomes. During the first half of the twentieth century, a critical shift occurred when field scientists identified the Pantanal as an ideal location for zoological specimen collection and Brazilian and international sportsmen rediscovered the region as a “paradise” for hunters. While development-minded stakeholders continued to search for ways to shape the Pantanal into the mold of progress, by the 1960s a growing number of social groups questioned this imperative and articulated a need to protect the region and its wildlife. In the process, they silenced the voices of local populations who continued to subsist upon the region and its resources. These competing perceptions of the Pantanal planted the seeds for a conflict over conservation and development that defines the region to this day.
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  • In Copyright
  • French, John
  • La Serna, Miguel
  • Escobar, Arturo
  • Radding, Cynthia
  • Chasteen, John Charles
  • Doctor of Philosophy
Degree granting institution
  • University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Graduate School
Graduation year
  • 2015
Place of publication
  • Chapel Hill, NC
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