Seeing like a Deforester: Settler Taxonomies of Vegetation in the Brazilian Amazon

We hope to run this seminar as a hybrid event with the choice of attending in person at the Oxford Martin School (followed by drinks at the King’s Arms), or joining online via Zoom.

OCTF seminar followed by Q&A – all welcome. NB – all times given in UK time

The majority of deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon is the result of the expansion of cattle raising and agriculture. Most research on these human activities focuses on measuring environmental impacts and linking deforestation with broader economic and policy drivers. However, less is known about the actors engaging in these destructive practices and the socio-cultural lenses through which they make land use decisions. In this presentation, Jeffery examines one element of the settler worldview: taxonomies of nature. Specifically, he explains how settlers along the frontier classify vegetation as either a useful plant or as mato, native species that are considered useless, threatening, and unsightly. Drawing on ethnobotanical approaches, he outlines four principles that structure settler classification of vegetation: species, origin, location, and form. These taxonomies help to understand how settlers evaluate the standing forest and decide how to use land once it is transformed, as well as management strategies for preventing the spread of mato and the return of the forest in human spaces.

Jeffrey Hoelle is an associate professor in the Department of Anthropology at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Hoelle studies human-environment interactions, with a focus on land use and deforestation along the frontiers of the Brazilian Amazon. Through in-depth ethnographic research, he seeks to understand the logic of rainforest transformation from the perspectives of local actors, including smallholder agriculturalists, cattle ranchers, and gold miners. During the 2021-2022 academic year, Hoelle is an Honorary Research Associate with the School of Geography and Environment and an Academic Visitor at the Latin American Centre at University of Oxford.