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Reshaping Amazonian Perspectives in English-Speaking Academia: Insights from the Counter-Cartographies of the Amazon Symposium

Written by Jamille Pinheiro Dias |
Dr Jamille Pinheiro Dias and Professor Gustavo Furtado
Dr Jamille Pinheiro Dias and Professor Gustavo Furtado


From 29 to 31 January 2024, the Amazon Lab at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, USA, hosted a series of critical conversations surrounding the Amazon region. Organised by Professor Gustavo Furtado, myself (both portrayed in the photograph), and a cohort of graduate students and post-doc researchers, the Counter-Cartographies of the Amazon Symposium illuminated perspectives on space, place, and territory, challenging hegemonic narratives perpetuated through traditional cartography. Held at the John Hope Franklin Humanities Institute, the symposium underscored the Amazon Lab's commitment to fostering interdisciplinary and intercultural dialogues concerning the region.

Acknowledging the historical exploitation embedded within cartographic practices, the event sought to amplify voices traditionally marginalised in representations of the Amazon. A diverse array of scholars, activists, journalists, artists, lawyers, and members of traditional communities converged to discuss counter-mapping strategies through in-person presentations, film screenings, and online discussions. These strategies, which intervene in and subvert conventional power structures, offer insights into the heterogeneous realities of the region.

The event opened on 29 January with a hybrid roundtable on law and Indigenous territories, bringing together Indigenous lawyers Ivo Makuxi and Maurício Terena from Brazil to discuss the critical importance of recognising and safeguarding Indigenous territorial rights in the face of challenges from the agribusiness lobby and attempts to undermine Indigenous constitutional rights. The event, conducted in Portuguese with simultaneous English interpretation, highlighted the ongoing struggles Indigenous communities face in protecting their lands from exploitation and encroachment. I had the honour of moderating this session, seeking to facilitate the discussion on the broader implications of Indigenous land rights.

Closing the first day, Robert Stam from New York University delivered a keynote address titled "Indigeneity and the Decolonizing Gaze: Media Arts and Indigenous Activism in Brazil." Gustavo Furtado served as the presentation's chair, and Stam examined how indigenous people, media arts, and activism intersect in Brazil while providing critical viewpoints on the decolonizing potential of visual storytelling and insights into the transformative power of media in Indigenous resistance movements.

On 29 January, another hybrid roundtable titled Filmmaking Collectives and Afrodiasporic Identities in Urban Amazonia shed light on the significance of representing Afrodiasporic identities in Amazonian cinema, featuring Caio de Jesus, Mayara Coelho, and Rodrigo Antonio, with a particular focus on the state of Pará. Moderator Uriel Pinho from Duke University guided the conversation, emphasising the ethical and material dimensions of Afroamazonian filmmaking. Organised by graduate student Uriel Pinho, the session facilitated a dynamic discussion that emphasised the transformative power of film in amplifying underrepresented narratives and confronting issues such as environmental racism and the preservation of ancestral territories, and underscored the importance of professionalisation and accessibility within the Amazonian filmmaking ecosystem.

The following hybrid roundtable, "Mapping Extractivism in the Amazon," tackled the urgent need to map the dispossession and destruction wrought by mining, cattle ranching, and timber extraction amidst the escalating crisis of extractive industries in the region. Participants Ana Magalhaes and Bram Ebus, speaking in Spanish with live English translations, shared insights from investigative journalism on the devastating impacts of extractivism on local communities and ecosystems. Moderator Marina Bedran from Johns Hopkins University facilitated a thought-provoking discussion on the intersection of environmental justice and media activism in the Amazon.

Additionally on 30 January, Nicoly Monteiro dos Santos from Duke University moderated my in-person keynote presentation, "Climates of Deceit: Environmental Rhetoric and Racialization in the Brazilian Amazon." In this presentation, I examined the intersections between environmental rhetoric, racialization, and anti-Indigenous sentiment within the context of the Brazilian Amazon. By delving into how environmental discourse frequently becomes intertwined with racial prejudices and discriminatory actions, I discussed the contributions of Indigenous Amazonian artists and lawyers in providing critical responses to these issues.

Following the keynote address, attendees had the opportunity to view a screening of "Stepping Softly on the Earth," a documentary amplifying the voices of Indigenous leaders from South America. The movie, which is the work of Arizona State University professor Marcos Colón, follows Ailton Krenak, Kátia Akrtikatêjê, Manoel Munduruku, and José Manuyama as they struggle against the dangers that large-scale mining, monoculture, and hydroelectric projects pose to Indigenous territories. A Q&A session with Colón, Mateus Sanches Duarte from Duke University, and I followed the screening.

On 31 January, the hybrid session on "New Social Cartography and Specific Territorialities at Volta Grande do Xingu," with Ana Laide Soares Barbosa, Rosa Elizabeth Acevedo Marin, and Elielson Pereira da Silva, moderated by Maria Fantinato G. Siqueira, discussed the complexities of social cartography and territorial dynamics in the context of energy projects, gold mining, and land occupation in Volta Grande do Xingu. The discussion provided a comprehensive understanding of grassroots movements, academic research, and community resilience in the face of socio-environmental challenges.

The closing session of the Counter-Cartographies of the Amazon Symposium, moderated by Jan Koplow from Duke University, featured a presentation by Aminah Ghaffar on the "Breaths Together for a Change (BTC): Creating a World of Feeling and Seeing No Strangers" pilot program. By drawing on Eastern wisdom traditions, Western sciences, and Indigenous epistemology, Ghaffar underscored the potential of mindfulness practices to promote empathy, understanding, and collective action in the pursuit of social justice. Her presentation resonated with the symposium's emphasis on amplifying marginalised voices and fostering inclusive dialogue.

As a researcher affiliated with the Amazon Lab, it was a pleasure to witness firsthand the transformative impact of initiatives like the Counter-Cartographies of the Amazon Symposium. Moreover, as an Amazonian myself and having previously co-organised events such as "Image, Memory, and Museums in the Amazon" and "Translation, Media, and Cosmopolitics in the Amazon" alongside Gustavo Furtado, as well as this more recent symposium, I am glad to see how the lab has served as a beacon of inclusivity, promoting engagement with researchers from the region. Amid academic landscapes often marked by asymmetrical power dynamics and linguistic barriers, the Amazon Lab has displayed a commitment to fostering equitable academic discourse centred on the voices and perspectives of Amazonians. Fran Baniwa, Roldán Tumi, Denilson Baniwa, Ivo Macuxi, Ana Laide Soares Barbosa, Rosa Elizabeth Acevedo Marin, Elielson Pereira da Silva, Luiz Braga, Caio de Jesus, Mayara Coelho, and Rodrigo Antonio are just a few examples of the many Amazonian thinkers and creative practitioners that have contributed to the discussions of the lab.

While there is a growing interest in Amazonian studies, a tendency to prioritise English-language scholarship risks marginalising valuable contributions from Amazonian institutions, perpetuating a geopolitical imbalance in knowledge production and distribution. The commodification of Anglophone academic discourse and praxis also threatens to co-opt the field of Amazonian studies. However, the counter-cartographies of the Amazon Symposium stand as a testament that it is possible to challenge these entrenched power structures. It serves as a testament that, by redoubling our efforts to centre Amazonian voices and perspectives, we can cultivate academic environments that genuinely embrace horizontal dialogue and seek to make space for Amazonian researchers themselves. By pursuing these goals, initiatives like the Amazon Lab pave the way for more inclusive landscapes in English-speaking academia—landscapes that truly seek to reflect the diverse realities of the Amazon.


Jamille Pinheiro Dias is the director of the Centre for Latin American and Caribbean Studies and the co-director of the Environmental Humanities Research Hub at the University of London’s School of Advanced Study, where she also works as a lecturer. She is also an affiliate faculty member at Duke University's Amazon Lab. Her research is dedicated to the intersection between the Environmental Humanities and Indigenous arts and activism, with a focus on the Brazilian Amazon.

Image by Marcos Colón

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The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the position of CLACS, ILCS or the School of Advanced Study, University of London.