Opinion, by Alfonso Stefanini

RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL – They say that if we don’t know our own history we are not only bound to repeat our mistakes, but also that someone is going to tell it and write it for us. After attending a symposium with environmental historians speaking about United States and Brazilian environmental history this past week at the Botanical Garden in Rio, I was intrigued by some of the historical narratives and themes presented.

Alfonso Stefanini, environmental consultant in Rio de Janeiro.
Alfonso Stefanini, environmental consultant in Rio de Janeiro.

Europeans arrived on the Americas coming from a continent with limited and exhausted resources. Once the Americas were discovered, the abundance of natural resources fueled the European economies and mythological and imaginary psyches, pushing them to search for more raw materials and more richness in a world with apparent endless natural material wealth. Europe had finally encountered their very own El Dorado.

The seemingly endless giant tree forests that once hugged much of the Pacific and Atlantic coasts, the enormous prairies, Pampas, Savannas, Caatingas and the formidable Amazon Rainforest helped capture this imagination that led to an impulsive and erratic extraction of New World resources. The Americas are mainly left with the histories of a people that did not understand this continent and its resources, and who where mainly the elites of that era.

Historically, “homens bons” or “good men” were the elites and the nobles who gained land by the land-giving policies of the imperial courts. Today one percent of Brazilians own fifty percent of the arable land in the country.

The elites of the world are famed for writing history. The Europeans through colonization and imperialism managed to change the views of what we perceive as “American history.” The ethnocentric views and narratives of their landscape helped shape the way we interact with our environment, as seen with land-use and the crops we plant today, leading to the globalization and homogenization in agriculture with massive mono-crop plantations seen nowadays.

We need to reclaim our lost environmental history by gathering information and relearning what actually happened in the Americas. To do this we need to find those “invisible voices” that were once ignored, such as the voices of indigenous people and other oppressed groups, such as decedents from slaves, in order to restore, recuperate and reconstruct environments that have been decimated. A democratic approach to history is essential in the revitalizing of our natural environment today.

The fact is that abundant era of natural resources is gone and now we are experiencing the consequences of the unbalanced growth as seen with climate change and other environmental problems. The unbalanced exploitation of resources has left us with barren soils, polluted water and air.

Environmentalists, for that fact, are constantly trying to discover new pieces to correctly form environmental history and use that acquired knowledge to shape the course of human actions for years to come. The bits and pieces of information that were once omitted in our “history” are slowly being gathered to reconstruct our present and our hopeful future.

We need to know what really happened to nature and to people during the colonization of the Americas in order to learn from it and still go forward in this adventurous world. There will be no other discovery of the Americas, and we better learn how to survive with the resources we are left today.

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Alfonso Stefanini has an MA in International Environmental Policy from the Monterey Institute of International Studies in California and a BA from Hampshire College. Alfonso lives in Rio de Janeiro, and he can be reached at: Ecobrasilis@gmail.com.

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