The Amazon fires have been a long time coming

When I lived in Bolivia the first time, in 2006, I lived in the Yungas, a series of cloud-forested valleys between the Andean altiplano and the Amazonian lowlands. All that winter, I watched as what looked like clouds crept day by day further into our little valley, until it became clear that these were not clouds but pooling smoke. By August, we could see the line of fire consuming the hillside across from us. A small fire, one of thousands set intentionally that winter, with the cumulative effect of blocking out the sun.

protective measures, 2006.

By that point I was routinely wearing a bandana to breathe when I left the house but even so I developed a cough that lasted a good six weeks after my return to the States. But the fires of 2006 were no emergency or global crisis.

Our neighbors told us the burning happened every year. The fires were set mostly by small-time coca growers, laid off former miners and poor farmers for whom this was the best way of earning a living, clearing fields by fire the easiest way they to plant the next crop.

Rather than a time honored practice, however, what I saw was a new boom of people settling and resettling a landscape that burned up the land all across the valley. This was shortly after the historic election of Evo Morales, and so after years of US-backed eradication programs, coca was no longer officially discouraged by the government. Legalizing the coca trade created immediate economic and human rights benefits for poor Bolivians, but it had devastating immediate effects on the landscape.

The next time I visited that community, six years later, the fields and houses had been devastated by mudslides and floods. A few years of burning and the denuded hills couldn’t keep the soil and water from washing through the valley. But a few years more and the the valley was also greener and less smoky. People had learned to be more cautious about how and where they set fires. That kind of real time accommodation to the landscape was possible in small quantities because these were just regular folks who had to reckon with their communities and the effects of their actions on a small scale. On a small scale, most decisions are reversible.

In fact, people have been setting fires in the Amazon for thousands of years to change landscapes and create arable land. The Amazon, under normal conditions, doesn’t burn very easily, and in fact creates a firebreak for nearby regions more susceptible to fire. The problem is deforestation creates knock-on effects, and we don’t know how much of the forest still counts as “normal conditions.” What’s changed is the scale, the technology, and the accumulation of global risk.

The fires I witnessed were mostly for crop clearing. These are not the kind that tend to rage completely out of control, but they get people used to the idea that fire is relatively controllable because again, in a healthy forest, they are. The fires raging in the Brazilian and Bolivian Amazon today are something different. They are small fires set in deforested and mixed use regions dominated by larger industries: agribusiness, livestock, and mining.

The vast scale of deforestation is being encouraged tacitly and vocally by both Jair Bolsonaro and Evo Morales’s nationalist approaches to development. Despite vast differences in policy and politics, both governments have pushed the idea that national well-being must come from the exploitation of natural resources. And why wouldn’t they? Every nation in the world that has achieved a general level of prosperity for its population has done so by extracting wealth from its national resources, or more truthfully, those of its colonies or unequal trading partners. Although his “socialist” credentials are by now fairly suspect, the more leftwing approach by Morales argues that the Bolivian government should have control over this process of resource extraction, while on the right, Bolsonaro prefers to give private corporations free reign.

Historically, as now, this means that in the Amazon, small cooperatives and large corporations alike have free range to flaunt local regulations, ignore mandates to consult with indigenous communities, kill anyone who protests, and justify their actions in the name of prosperity, whether collective or individual.

Bolsonaro, the climate change skeptic, has characterized the forest fires as a natural disaster, as the unfortunate results of an abnormally hot, dry year, and refused international criticism linking his policies to the fires. Meanwhile, Morales, who began his presidency writing protections of the Earth and indigenous rights to land into the Bolivian constitution, has had to suspend campaigning for his October election because of the fires.

These fires are the result of decades of small decisions to view the Amazon as a perpetually untapped resource, a place so vast as to absorb any possible damage, and by more recent big decisions by industries to ignore mounting evidence of crisis in the global climate.

As one of the wonders of the world and also a real place, the Amazon is at the same time home for specific communities of people and a global resource to be fought over. The Amazon has been cast as a pristine antithesis to modernity even while being populated for centuries by large numbers of poor people needing to put food on the table, changing the landscape for pennies to enrich investors attracted by the next boom. Those workers tended to call the Amazon home. Many of the investors exploiting their work have been and continue to be European, North American, or even local elites expressing an internal colonial relationship to the Amazon.

The Amazon is integral to the health of humans across the planet but it does not belong to Europe or the US or even to Bolsonaro. To “save” the rainforest people in the US and Europe would do well to curb our own reliance on meat and soy, first and foremost.

We would do even better to restructure our global economy away from extraction that depends solely on short-term profits for decision-making and start building credible, green alternatives–not with leaders of foreign states like Bolsonaro, but with local and regional organizations more inclined towards conservation.

These alternatives must recognize that communities across the global south can be leaders and not just stakeholders in this endeavor. I welcome suggestions as comments, and will be creating a list of those below who might benefit from donations.

In the meantime, some suggested readings on the history of the Amazon.

  • Blanc, Jacob and Federico Freitas, eds. Big Water: The Making of the Borderlands Between Brazil, Argentina, and Paraguay. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2018.
  • Cote, Stephen C. Oil and Nation: A History of Bolivia’s Petroleum Sector. Morgantown: West Virginia University Press, 2016.
  • Dean, Warren. With Broadax and Firebrand. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997.
  • Nepstad, Daniel. “Amazon Fires: What We Know and What We Can Do.” Earth Innovation Institute, August 24, 2019.

Omeka Exhibits for Mapping Border History

For the final project in this class, we created a website/exhibit using Omeka that combined the two halves of the class content.

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Next week, I will be writing up the contemporary project, but this post is about teaching mapping and using historical maps to talk about border history.

Tools Used in this Project:1

Historical Map (Omeka/Neatline)

Creating a new record in neatline.

The first project students worked on was a historical map. Each student was responsible for contributing their own piece of history, a site where the border between the US and Mexico “came into being” or was reproduced. The basic form of this historical mapping exercise was scaffolded across the term to introduce mapping principles, explore how maps express historical arguments, and finally, familiarize students with Omeka and Neatline as tools.

Putting books on the map as geolinked Omeka items.

I really like teaching mapping to my undergraduate history courses because it helps denaturalize how scholars craft information into arguments and appeals to students with diverse learning styles. Maps contain arguments as much as essays do, and I find that students benefit from explicitly thinking about maps as visual essays and vice versa.

The Codex Quetzalecatzín. [Mexico: 1593] Library of Congress Record:

Historical maps, moreover, are fantastic media for understanding change over time and particularly the way that nations and empires code value across space. In the case of the US/Mexico Border, we are looking at a space of contestation between empires that became a site of policing, militarization and exclusion. Early in the class, students could compare maps created for Spain and Mexico to those of indigenous communities in the region and then see how these maps in turn had different cartographic priorities to French, German, and Anglo explorers. As we moved towards studying how the US conquered and then negotiated the divided space with Mexico, maps visually represent the link between knowledge collection and colonization.

A map of Mexico showing borders before the US/Mexico War.
Map of Mexico, 1847
J. Distrunell, 102 Broadway, New York [Public domain]
  1. Initial Analog Mapping Assignment: as part of the ice-breaker exercise on the first day, I gave students 10 minutes to draw a map or picture in answer to the question: Where do you consider to be home/Where do you come from?2 Once students created their maps, they presented to each other in pairs and introduced each other to the class. This led to a group discussion about the choices everyone made to include certain kinds of imagery, scale, information, etc. This takes plenty of time but can be adapted as a jumping off point to talking about other class themes such as community and memory.
  2. Formal Analog Mapping Exercise: I introduce the study of formal mapping with a lesson adapted from the introduction to Dym and Offen’s Mapping Latin America.3 Students have to identify what choices go into making a map and how mapmakers highlight or obscure different types of information.
  3. Introductory Omeka and Neatline Assignment: what is an Item, and what can you do with it? Find this full exercise here.4
  4. Midterm: For the midterm, students responded to the prompt: [The Mexican-American War did not create a “real” border between the US and Mexico. When and where did the border come into being? Draw a line and justify your choice from 2-3 of the readings.] This midterm exercise involved very little technical expertise, as students could choose to simply trace a line in marker on a printed map, and was easy to grade because it did not take the form of a formal essay. However, students did have to make a textual argument to complement their visual argument and reference course readings.
  5. Final Neatline Exhibit: Students worked in pairs or individually to adapt their midterm answers into Neatline records. Students submitted temporally and geographically tagged items in order to understand how time and place markers can be used to make an argument.5
  6. Reflective Final Essay: This was a personal, reflective essay asking students to introduce their contributions to the map and integrate both historical and contemporary work. The formal prompt was: What is a border and how does it create or alienate community? Answer with reference to 3 readings from the class and also your own experiences in group work.
Public view of a neatline record using the SIMILE timeline with a stamen watercolor map.

By putting everything on one big map, we could play around with representing the link between dates/events/places, and also see how different design choices affect our ability to read and interpret maps.

Paired with readings about the history of a borderland becoming a land full of borders, these activities also encouraged students to ask critical questions about the maps we are most familiar with.6 Colonial maps that we may look to in order to understand “how things were before” were often acts of colonization in themselves, reflecting aspirational borders rather than contemporary realities. Lines on maps reflect choices that obscure other possibilities for representation and understanding. In their reflective final essays, I asked students to be intentional about applying insights from critical historical learning to their contemporary projects, the subject of the next post.


Histories of the US/Mexico Border

just one example of Neatline and Omeka map showing the history of the border

Every history course I teach ends up feeling timely for some reason or another and yet I don’t think I’ve ever taught a timelier course than my history of the US/Mexico Border. In this post, I’m going to talk about what I tried to do and what I think worked well. Future posts will address specific assignments, technologies, and the things I will change next time I teach this class. This is a course I could go on tinkering with forever.

The basic structure of the course consists of two parts: history and practice. The readings mostly follow a chronological progression while moving somewhat westward across the border region, but they also oscillate between the Southwest Border and the US/Midwest.

Historical Learning Objectives

  1. To recognize that the way we now see the US/Mexico Border does not reflect the way the border has always been, and that in the process of getting to now there were moments when the border could have looked very different.
  2. To understand how the settling of the US West and the Mexican north were both processes of settler colonialism in which a number of different imperial ideologies of race and gender lived together (and continue to live together) uneasily. Corollary: Racism does not always work the same way in all places, but racist ideologies in one part of the country tend to migrate.
  3. To recognize the importance of Mexican history, Mexican-Americans, and particularly the Mexican revolution, in the history of the United States.
  4. To learn how borders work. What is a border, and how is this different than a borderland or a bordered land? How are both kinds of entities constructed across time and space? Is there always a clear distinction between the two? What kinds of community do they produce, and what kinds of exclusionary practices help maintain borders? [note that I am not doing a great deal of theorizing about borderlands in this class, because I think this is something other disciplines can do better, but I do like students to get familiar with these concepts.
  5. To understand that borders create border crossings inherently.
  6. To understand particularly how the industry of border policing grew out of this history of empire and forced labor, and now generates its own militarized momentum.
  7. To consider how the processes that built and maintain the border have effects on the rest of the United States, using the northern Midwest as a case study.

Contemporary Learning Objectives

  1. To apply the historical lessons from the class to here and now in whatever way students feel motivated to ask questions.
  2. To understand how maps code information and make social and historical arguments.
  3. To begin to use quantitative and qualitative research to answer social questions.
  4. To gain exposure to software that scholars and businesses use to ask and answer demographic questions, and to think about the kinds of borders that these tools help create.
  5. To think critically about how the Northfield and Carleton communities are constructed and to do some research into the distribution of power, wealth, and access in these communities.
  6. To learn about the migrant communities that live here, with an emphasis on Latinx communities.
  7. To ask students to consider how to create useful knowledge that can be applied in their communities.

Is this a tall order?

Absolutely. Doing this in 10 weeks is a phenomenally difficult task. Of course not all of these learning objectives can be achieved to the same degree. You will note that many of the learning objectives are intentionally about starting points in the conversation, not mastery of a subject. And yet I think this is one of the strengths of the course. I gave students a lot of different ways to engage with the material intellectually and practically, as you will see in future posts.

Number 1 bit of advice: Sacrifice readings and discussions if you need to. I never regretted “sacrificing” discussion time of academic readings for other kinds of class work because the students really learned a lot from these moments.

Number 2: Bring in Experts. Thanks to the Mellon Public Works grant I received, I was able to bring in a visiting scholar of Latinx communities in the Midwest, Dr. Sergio González to talk about his research and his experiences as a scholar. I also brought in a local city council member to talk to students about local issues. Thanks to a fortuitous bit of timing, the college also brought two alumni who work as immigration attorneys to campus during the term and I had them come talk about the work they do and give career advice to students in the class. I also brought students to the Perlman Teaching Museum to look at their special collections.

Number 3: Bring in the Highly Trained Professionals! I could not have done this class without the experts helping me. I am not as proficient in ArcGIS as the professionals hired to teach and use these tools on campus and I do not keep up to date with the latest timeline or data mapping software. If there are people on campus that do this as their job, bring them in, either before or during class. Before term started, Academic Technology Professionals and Reference Librarians helped me design the class and choose the tools we would later use. MOST CRITICALLY, the Mellon grant also allowed me to hire a student technology associate as a teaching assistant on the course. This student did not have familiarity with the academic course content but was familiar with mapping racial and economic divisions from her own research. She did not attend my class but worked during the term to create technology tutorials, did on-call troubleshooting and also held one-on-one consulting sessions with groups and individuals as the project came due.

Students really thrived. The class of twenty often felt like it had the most space and room for play in discussion and workshops of anything I was teaching at the time. I think part of this was due to the enthusiasm of the students and the particular alchemical mix of the term in which I taught this. However, I think it also had to do with the way I framed the course and offered space for students to engage with new ideas and new technologies.

Some Logistics:

The course met Mondays, Wednesdays, and a shorter Friday period, and most Wednesdays we ended up doing some kind of practical exercise, inviting visiting expert, or doing group work. This structure in particular gave students a lot of time to interact with each other rather than me, and broke up the rhythm of discussion in productive ways.

Outside of class, students completed weekly journals that allowed them to engage more privately with concerns or personal reflections on the course. This let me keep track of individual students and allowed students to practice different kinds of writing and thinking before sharing ideas publicly.

Group projects were due at the end of the term but we started doing group work almost from the beginning with discussions and brainstorming of ideas for research. Group work began with a charter the students had to complete by week 3. See the group charter I used here. I will be discussing this in greater detail in the next post.

The course had a midterm that asked students to contextualized one of the readings or passages from the readings in a historical map with background information. Students used Omeka and Neatline to place their historical vignette in space and time. This integration of spatial and temporal thinking was a fairly brief assignment (easy to grade) but helped link the first half of the course with the second, more contemporary and practical half.

Finally, and this is something I will write about more extensively in the future, I gave students as many ways to engage in the course as possible. Some students love talking, some only express themselves in office hours, some really responded to mapping, some really preferred more traditional academic work. Group work with clear delegation of roles helped students find their best fit for the final project and also allowed groups with different levels of interest or experience to coexist. I had a group that spoke Spanish and wanted to do interviews and site visits to places in the community, but didn’t spend as much time on their maps. Others really delved into census data and used Tableau to map their data extensively. Both projects worked really well in the context of the course.

Teaching in Place While the World Burns

We are living in difficult times. When I was a college student at the beginning of the (undeclared) Iraq War, I was often preoccupied by the paradox of wanting to learn in a disciplined academic setting while it felt like the world was burning and I should be doing something about it. I do not believe the world feels less on fire for college students today.

Today I am a college professor (visiting assistant, but still, I got that P.h.D!) so I must, on some level, believe that there is value to institution-based learning for young adults today. I do. I firmly believe that history as a discipline teaches exactly the kind of skills that can help us understand inequality and processes of oppression. Good history teaches you how to ask questions about context and causality, how to examine biases, and how to effectively find answers across multiple forms of research. But history is also generally not a theory of action. Historians make terrible activists; we are always complicating things in moments when political activism requires simplicity. Historians make better advisors, in my opinion and should be part, but not all of the committee.

As a college professor of history I am not primarily interested in turning all my students into historians, but I do want them to see that they are learning valuable ways of seeing the world when they study history. I want them to explore dynamics of inequality, oppression and resistance in settings that are not familiar, and then use that experience to defamiliarize and question their own assumptions locally. I also want them to recognize that they are learning concrete skills in my classroom, just as they would be in a computer science classroom, an engineering course, or a carpentry workshop.

I believe that students learn best when they are asked to bring their educational experiences to bear on their worlds. I also believe that the purpose of education is to better serve the public good (once a Badger, always a Badger) and that the question of how to serve the public good is a very difficult one for undergraduates to answer by themselves. Finally, I believe that history is an omnivorous discipline that pairs well with digital technologies for research and communication and is very suited to the needs of the contemporary student. For all these reasons, I try to organize my courses to consciously engage interdisciplinary questions about the here and now, even if they discuss content that is far and then. I also design my courses to incorporate principles and practices of academic community engagement whether or not I am teaching a course that has an explicit service component.

This is a kind of teaching that Zoe Todd has called “teaching in place.1 However, in order to teach in place, you have to sink roots and create space for experimentation and failure. I am a visiting assistant professor at a small liberal arts college, and as a visiting assistant professor the nature of my job is temporary and peripatetic and the risks of failure are very high. This creates some tensions and contradictions, as you might imagine.

I hope to write about some of these tensions in the posts that follow.