The hydrological roots of the Brazilian crisis

A historical and geographical perspective of the geopolitical structure of the South American subcontinent is key to understanding the deep crisis in Brazil and throughout the region. Español Português

Eduardo R. Saguier
7 June 2016

Map of the Amazon River basin in South America. Wikimedia Commons. Some rights reserved.

Brazil's current crisis cannot be reduced to an isolated, merely political or economic phenomenon. Its origins, its roots should be sought both in the near and remote historical past, and in the spatial and geographical layout of its territorial expansionism, its internal colonialism, and its misappropriation of political representation and business management.

This historical past is a determining factor of the current crisis, and should not be reduced exclusively to the Brazilian borders, because it involves all its neighbors in the Chaco-Amazon basin too. There is therefore a spatial dimension to its historical matrix which calls into question the inability or unwillingness of South-American nationalism and chauvinism to carry out the necessary water infrastructure works to connect the inland basins. These basins, however, have been exploited by water dams to extract electricity to be forwarded to seacoast centres. In the specific case of Brazil, this water overexploitation has been detrimental to the environment and the inland waterways, and the authorities have made willful omissions which should be punishable by Brazilian justice.

Modern history

The discussions on the global crises in the modern historical past have made it clear that they consisted of major military movements, sometimes preceding and sometimes following tremendous social and political upheavals on European soil, which then moved to the colonies in Asia, Africa and America as a "safety valve to arrange Europe’s own inner space" (Villacañas Berlanga, 2008, 256).

These political and social upheavals which led to the arrangement of the European inner space and had an impact on the global periphery were, successively: a) the wars of religion and the English and Portuguese revolutions, culminating in the Peace of Westphalia (1648) and the birth of the absolutist state; b) the Napoleonic wars and the Latin American emancipatory revolutions, culminating in the Peace of Vienna (1815) and the frustrated attempt at restoring Spanish colonialism in America; and c) the 20th century world wars, ending in the Peace of Versailles (1918), which put an end to four ancient empires (the Prussian, Tsarist, Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires), and the Yalta Conference (1945), which wiped out the Third Reich, Fascist Italy and Imperial Japan, but which did not encompass the dismantling of populism in Brazil (Varguismo), Argentina (Peronismo), and Venezuela (Perezjimenismo).

As to Latin America in particular, we also know that, as a result of the Napoleonic invasion of Spain and the imprisonment of its king in Bayonne, and although the Spanish American colony fragmented into multiple nation-states, the Portuguese colony – which was threatened by the same invasion —managed to preserve its political integrity thanks to the timely transfer of the Portuguese royal family to Brazil, courtesy of the British Navy.

Deeper roots: the 18th century

But what Latin American historiography has not researched with similar passion is the impact of the Thirty Years' War (1609-1640) and the Peace of Westphalia (1648) on the subcontinent’s deep division between the Spanish and Portuguese metropolises. Indeed, as a result of that global conflict, England entered a prolonged civil war (1640-1660) that led to the execution of King Charles I in 1649 and affected the rebellion of the Portuguese nobility against Spain and the House of Austria (the Habsburg dynasty) and in favour of the emerging English and French Enlightenment, which culminated,  half a century later, in the Treaty of Methuen (the 1703 trade agreement between Portugal and England) and Portugal’s siding with the Grand Anglo-Austrian Alliance during the War of Succession in Spain, which ended with the Peace of Utrecht (1713).

As a result of the Portuguese rebellion, the new dynasty of the House of Braganza not only reconquered the northeastern territories of Brazil and the African colonies (Angola, Sao Tomé) that had been taken over by the Dutch led by Count Maurice of Nassau, but started an expansionist campaign within the Brazilian colonial space under the command of the then Prince Regent and later King Peter II (1668-1706) and under the enlightened influence of Giuseppe de Faria. This expansionist campaign established the “Brazilian Island” legend, a spatial metaphor illustrating the Lusitanian ambition to define Brazil as the geographical space between two great rivers, the Amazon and La Plata (Paraná, Paraguay). According to the legend, these rivers originated from a hitherto unknown large inland lake, as was the case in Africa (Victoria, Chad), which they had been colonizing for the last two centuries. That territorial expansionism began in 1669 with the foundation of a citadel on the borderline of the Amazon and the Black River (later known as Manaus), and was crowned a decade later (1680) with the founding of Colonia del Sacramento in the eastern bank of La Plata River, opposite the port of Buenos Aires.

Treaties and the fragmenting of the river interconnection

These Portuguese colonial foundations led to the blowing up of the Treaty of Tordesillas (1493), because their expansionism in the Amazon extended to the mouth of the Putumayo and Caquetá rivers, west of Manaus, to the detriment of the young Viceroyalty of New Granada (now Colombia); and throughout the Amazon and the Chaco regions, the savannah and the seacoast, they put pressure on the Spanish Chancellery (the Council of the Indies) up to the point of prompting, in the 18th century, the political persecution of the Society of Jesus (linked to the Papacy) and indigenous ethnic groups who resisted their forced exodus (the Guaranítica war). This unhappy conflict finally triggered the exchange of Colonia del Sacramento (where the Potosí silver was plundered and smuggled) for the inland Chaco-Amazon space, occupied and recreated by the Jesuit Missions. This barter operation was sealed in 1750 by the Treaty Madrid, but perfected with the expulsion of the Jesuits in 1767, the Treaty of San Ildefonso in 1777, and the subsequent Demarcation Commissions, which continued their task until the very beginning of the 19th century.

The historical consequences of these treaties, and the policy of Jesuit banishment, were highly negative for the economic and cultural integration of the sub-continent, since they forsook the indigenous ethnic groups and beheaded the river interconnection of the Amazonian spaces. In particular, they disconnected the Neogranadino space (now Colombia) from the Peruvian Amazon region (Iquitos); the Amazon region of the Audiencia de Charcas (now Bolivia) from the Governorate of Paraguay’s riverside; and the Paraguayan, Argentine and Brazilian riverside areas (the Paraguay, Paraná, Uruguay, Ivaí, Iguazú, Tieté rivers) from the military commands and the eastern states of Brazil itself (Paraná, Sao Paulo, Minas Gerais).

In the 19th century, the struggle for free river navigation demanded new boundary treaties (the River Convention of 1851 and several agreements masterminded by the Baron of Rio Branco). And later, Brazilian territorial expansionism spread further westward with the rubber boom, to the detriment of the Amazon regions of Bolivia (Acre) and Peru (Amuheya).

The way out of the crisis: the integration of the Chaco-Amazon basin

So, based on the analysis put forward by The South-American Hinterland in its Tragic River Maze paper, the way out of the current Brazilian crisis clearly cannot be circumscribed to a short-term, conjunctural, purely economic and self-centered policy focusing only on Brazilian internal colonialism (in the Amazonas, Rondonia, Acre, Roraima, and northeastern states). The Brazilian government, in conjunction with neighboring countries, should develop instead a long-term infrastructural policy aiming at spatial reconfiguration in order to put an end to the old continental partition. The priority of this policy should be the internationalization and integration of the Chaco-Amazon basin.

This basin should be broken down, in fact, into half a dozen basins, including the Bolivian, Peruvian, Ecuadorian, Colombian, Venezuelan and Brazilian Amazon basins, the Colombian and Venezuelan savannah, and the Bolivian, Paraguayan, Brazilian and Argentine Chaco. These basins, savannahs and chacos should, in turn, interconnect their rivers and tributaries: in Bolivia, the Madre de Dios, Beni and Mamoré rivers; in Peru, the Ucayali, Urubamba, Huallaga, Marañón/Pastaza, Napo, and Yavarí rivers; in Colombia, the Putumayo, Caquetá/Apaporis, and Guainia/Vaupés rivers; in Brazil, the Negro/Branco, Madeira, Guaporé, Cuiabá and Paraguay rivers; and in Paraguay-Argentina, the Paraguay, Paraná, Iguazú, Bermejo, Pilcomayo, and Uruguay rivers. Such an ambitious enterprise would emulate Britain’s epic launch of the Suez Canal in 1869, or that of the Panama Canal by the US in 1914, or that of the Rhine-Mainz-Danube waterway, linking the Black Sea to the North Sea and the Baltic Sea, by Germany in 1994.

These state policies should consequently offer an exit strategy for the entire South-American hinterland, and they should be combined with other, bio-geographical, ethnic-cultural and socio-demographic policies. Extractivist projects such as the China-led trans-oceanic railway project can only mean the return to a policy of looting such as the one in force during the rubber era, and the continuity of the corruption of the current political class. By contrast, the launching of a river mega-project integrating the whole sub-continent would foster hope in a better world and in a new political and business class for all the peoples of the South American hinterland. And this, sooner or later, would spill into the coastal lands.

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