Perspectives of violence
Imagem: Acre geoglyph. (Source: Diego Gurgel/Secom, Notícias do Acre)
After the military dictatorship set off its project to occupy the Amazon, the process of deforestation began to give way to the farming activities in the area. In stark contrast with the play of light and shade projected by the closed treetops, the green of the new pastures is pale, melancholic—a desolate absence of mystery which has revealed strange geometric forms to the airplanes’ mechanic eyes.
These are simple drawings, usually circles and squares dug in the ground. But they are strange because us, the colonizers, did not expect to find them there. Since the geographer Alceu Ranzi casually spotted them while flying over the area in the 1980s, more than 500 of these structures were cataloged, some with hundreds of meters in diameter and dating back to 2,000 years ago.
In the article “In The Forest Ruins”, the architect and urbanist Paulo Tavares departs from this discovery to show how the unveiling of the so-called Acre geoglyphs have been deeply altering our paradigms on how we see the Amazon. In light of these structures hidden amidst tree roots, the forest is no longer a place with no past or history and transforms into a potential repository of civilizations as complex as those which are characterized by major stone edifications, such as the Greeks or the Aztecs.
Alas it is sadly ironic that this finding has occurred at the expense of deforestation, risking the very existence of the forest. The flip side to the appearance of the geoglyphs is pointed out by Paulo Tavares, to whom more than a “historic document of the [developmental] violence, the discovery of these structures destroys the colonial imagery on the nature of the forest”—an imagery that supports the expansionist policies of the Brazilian government to date.
Architecture and its weapons
The trained gaze that brings up signs of violence is one of the main tools of Tavares’s work, a fellow researcher at Forensic Architecture, a research agency based at Goldsmiths, University of London.
Founded in 2011 by the Israeli architect Eyal Weizman, one of the agencies’ goals is that “architecture, artistic presentation and curatorial practice can lead to a more accurate scientific technology,” providing evidence that can be used in trials of crimes against humanity. To Weizman, “the introduction of the architectural representation as evidence at international courts can change the entire dynamic of a legal process,” confronting judges and attorneys with the spatial configuration of cases tried.
One of the main objects of investigation by the founder of Forensic Architecture is the way Israel has been conducting the occupation of Palestine over the last decades. “The architecture and the built environment exert a kind of slow violence,” he claims in an interview to Al Jazeera. His studies show that the Israeli occupation was designed to, purposefully, “strangle the Palestinian communities and villages, to turn them into unlivable places. And this crime was perpetrated on the drawing board itself.”
“Architecture is used by architects as a weapon,” sentences Weizman. The premise of his work, and that of other researchers at Forensic Architecture, is the inversion of the weapon, now aimed at institutions that perpetrate oppression. This action, however, cannot be restricted to buildings, streets, and other traditional architectural spaces; it is necessary to approach the very bases of the discipline from a different standpoint.
Image: map from the investigation “Archaeology of Violence: The Forest as Evidence”
Paulo Tavares went to search for this standpoint in the forest. In a testimony to VB Channel, he claims that the conception of the Amazon as a “desert,” mentioned on “In the Forest Ruins,” is a constant in the Western epistemology—which, since the Greco-Latin Antiquity, sees the forest as the antithesis to civilization: “It is the space of the lunatics, the savages, the outlaws, the people who run away from the city. It is the space of irrationality.”
This conceptual tradition is being disputed by recent archaeological studies in the Amazon, Eduardo Neves one of its chief exponents. The archeologist, who has been studying the region for over two decades, is bent on showing the forest does not correspond to any ideal of virgin forest; on the contrary, it is a construction of the Amerindian peoples. In an interview to the blog of University of São Paulo’s Archeology Laboratory, Neves elucidates:
“Archeology shows today that the Amazon was densely occupied before the beginning of the European colonization, contrary to what many people think. This is true for other areas in Brazil as well. What happens is that, in many places, the raw material for construction was the soil, different from other places, where rock was used. The groups that lived here quickly succumbed to the diseases brought from the old continent by the Europeans, such as smallpox, measles, chickenpox, etc. When the first scientists started to travel across the country’s inland, a few centuries later they discovered uninhabited regions, but which were densely occupied before.”
This radical change in understanding, which reveals the wilderness space as an architectonic project, was set in motion by Paulo Tavares in his research “Archaeology of Violence: the forest as evidence”, in which the architect identified the territory of the Waimiri-Atroari people, almost entirely decimated during the invasion of the Amazon by the Brazilian government between the late 1960s and the early 1980s.
Botanical archeology of the genocide
The Waimiri-Atroari spread through autonomous and nomadic villages on the banks of the rivers Camanaú, Alalaú, and Abonari a few hundred kilometers north of Manaus. Interconnected by several trails, the villages had a communal house in the center of the field in an elliptic shape, around which they cultivated fruits and nuts, as well as other edible and medicinal plants.
When they moved their village, the Waimiri-Atroari went on using the plants that remained at the abandoned space, which in turn attracted other species of plants and animals. The repetition of this cycle is characteristic to the Amazonian peoples for at least 2,500 years, according to Eduardo Neves, and it is responsible for the emergence of the terra preta (Amazonian dark earth), extremely fertile, which covers the forest’s ground.
By comparing aerial maps of the Waimiri-Atroari territory with the region’s botanic structure, Paulo Tavares was able to, for instance, differentiate the recent plantations from the older ones, tracing the native’s footprints and consequently locating the villages that were destroyed or removed by force during the military dictatorship.
The study clearly shows, as Tavares himself claims, that “the Brazilian government was not intervening in an empty territory, thus revealing the existence of a strategy planned to interrupt, transform, and annihilate ways of living in the forest that were considered enemies of a project for national development.” The Waimiri-Atroari population, with roughly 3,000 people in 1972, was of 350 in 1983, according to Funai (National Indian Foundation). The report of Brazil’s Truth Commission estimates that 2,650 Waimiri-Atroari died as a result of government actions.
With a change in the methods of reading the space and collecting data, it is possible to outline what the architect calls the “botanical archeology of genocide,” in which the story of the victims survive in the plant structure of places where they have been. This same method of investigation is being used to legally recover the Xavante territories in the Marãiwatsédé lands, today the state of Mato Grosso.
On June 10, Saturday, at 3 p.m., Paulo Tavares will address these and other topics of his work in a talk with the public moderated by Gabriel Bogossian, co-curator of the exhibition Nada levarei quando morrer, aqueles que me devem cobrarei no inferno [I will take nothing when I die, those who owe me, I will charge in hell], on view at Galpão VB through June 17.
WHAT: Talk with Paulo Tavares moderated by Gabriel Bogossian. Public program of the exhibition Nada levarei quando morrer, aqueles que me devem cobrarei no inferno
WHEN: June 10, Saturday, at 3 p.m.
WHERE: Galpão VB | Associação Cultural Videobrasil (Av. Imperatriz Leopoldina, 1150, São Paulo, SP)