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Contested Spaces: The Brazilian Amazon

Module 2 of a 2-module course

The Brazilian Amazon is very important, as the rainforest is considered one of the world’s major “lungs,” meaning a carbon sink; such sinks grow ever more important as the concerns mount about global climate change. This case raises a central question regarding land and water resources: Are they to be exploited? Conserved? Shared?

Brazil is one of the emerging countries known as the BRICs: Brazil, Russia, India, and China. Hence, it is an increasingly significant player on the world stage. The issues surrounding the Amazon were developed in such a way that students gained insights into the general matters of sustainability as well as matters specific to the Brazilian context. This context is a democratizing and developing country that is considered a rising global power.

This learning module takes the Brazilian Amazon as a contested space.

Last fall (Fall 2014) this learning module was included in Latin American Politics, a mid-level comparative politics course that focuses primarily on democratization in the region.

Similar modules might be developed to explore issues surrounding copper mining or coffee growing in Latin America, for example (thanks to Team Beloit for this idea.) They would work well as pedagogical tools in courses on Latin American and/or international development.

The module was couched within the broader discussion of Brazilian politics.  In this, the first iteration of this module, it was one of a number of roundtable discussions.  In brief, course roundtables combine oral presentations with discussion, with all attendees (presenters and non-presenters) seated around a table.  In each roundtable, participants individually present summaries and analyses of course readings (listed below), then collectively discuss the day’s topic.


As stated above, the module is designed, in part, to push students to engage in reflective judgment on the Amazon as a contested space (i.e., think critically about this complex matter; describe, analyze, and respond to it).

At the end of this module, students should be able to:

  1. Identify key stakeholders.
  2. Engage in reflective judgment on the Amazon as a contested space.
  3. Discuss basic features of Brazil’s political institutions and explain how they affect policy making on this and other issues.


Roundtable on the Amazon

What makes the Brazilian Amazon a contested space? Who are the stakeholders? Who stakes claims to the Amazon’s resources?

See Stakeholders web diagram in Resources & Materials

Michael Reid, “Oil, Farming & the Amazon,” Brazil: The Troubled Rise of a Global Power (2014) ch.10

Stephen Aldrich, “Contested Groves…,” Journal of Latin American Geography 11:2 (2012)

Marianne Schmink, “Forest Citizens,” Latin American Research Review 46 (2011)

Maria Carmen Lemos & J. Timmons Roberts, “Environmental Policy-Making Networks & the Future of the Amazon,” Philosophical Transactions: Biological Sciences 363:1498 (5/27/08)

Resources & Materials

Brazilian Amazon Stakeholders web diagram

Stephen Aldrich, “Contested Groves…,” Journal of Latin American Geography 11:2 (2012).

Paulo M. Brando, Michael T. Coe, Ruth DeFries, Andrea A. Azevedo, “Ecology, Economy and Management of an Agroindustrial Frontier Landscape in the Southeast Amazon,” Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 368:1619 (6/5/2013).

Maria Carmen Lemos and J. Timmons Roberts, “Environmental Policy-Making Networks and the Future of the Amazon,” Philosophical Transactions: Biological Sciences 363:1498, (May 27, 2008), 1897-1902. – Among other things, this pieces describes the four periods of environmental policy-making regarding use or conservation of the Amazon.

Rachel M. McCleary, “Development Strategies in Conflict:  Brazil & the Future of the Amazon” (Case #501), Georgetown Institute for the Study of Diplomacy (GUISD), 1990 – Available on-line; log in as instructor to get a free download.

Patrick H. O’Neil, Karl Fields, and Don Share, “Brazil,” Cases in Comparative Politics, 3rd ed. (New York:  W.W. Norton & Co., 2010), ch.12. – Good introduction to Brazilian politics.

Michael Reid, “Oil, Farming and the Amazon,” Brazil: The Troubled Rise of a Global Power (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2014) ch.10. – In discussing “the trees and the people,” Reid sets out “two opposing Brazilian visions of the Amazon” (p.208), conservation and economic development, and the tough trade-offs involved.

Marianne Schmink, “Forest Citizens,” Latin American Research Review 46 (2011).

Vivian E. Thomson, “Brazil: No More Complexo de Vira-Lata (Mongrel Complex),” Sophisticated Interdependence in Climate Policy: Federalism in the United States, Brazil, and Germany (London:  Anthem Press, 2014), ch.4. – I accessed this through ebrary.

Vinod Thomas, From Inside Brazil Development in the Land of Contrasts (Herndon, VA:  The World Bank, 2006). – I accessed this through ebrary.

Heather L. Youngs, “The Effects of Stakeholder Values on Biofuel Feedstock Choices,” Perspectives on Biofuels: Potential Benefits and Possible Pitfalls (American Chemical Society: Washington, DC, 2012) pp.29-67. – Good source re: biofuels and stakeholders.

Outcomes and Significance

To be honest, this part is still in the works. However, given my teaching and learning goals for this module, I might best assess how well students accomplish these goals by having them write a policy recommendation for Brazil’s federal government. This would require students to consider the Amazon’s status, the key actors and their perspectives, and Brazil’s institutional and political context. It would move students towards reflective judgment – i.e., beyond description and analysis – to arrive at a decision of what is to be done, in the presence of conflicting claims and incomplete information about the implications of various policy options. I might follow this up by setting up a roundtable discussion in which each student presents their policy recommendation and makes the case for embracing it.

Instead of the roundtable format I used (see Activities), this might well be developed into a simulation in which students represent the interests of various stakeholders (see web diagram in Resources & Materials).


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