July 5, 2023
Urban life has long intrigued Indigenous Amazonians, who regard cities as the locus of both extraordinary power and danger. Modern and ancient cities alike have thus become models for the representation of extreme alterity under the guise of supernatural enchanted cities. This volume seeks to analyze how these ambiguous urban imaginaries—complex representations that function as cognitive tools and blueprints for social action—express a singular view of cosmopolitical relations, how they inform and shape forest-city interactions, and the history of how they came into existence.
Urban Imaginaries in Native Amazonia edited by Fernando Santos-Granero and Emanuele Fabiano features analysis from historical, ethnological, and philosophical perspectives, contributors seek to explain the imaginaries’ widespread diffusion, as well as their influence in present-day migration and urbanization. Above all, it underscores how these urban imaginaries allow Indigenous Amazonians to express their concerns about power, alterity, domination, and defiance. Below read an excerpt from the Introduction to the book.
Although urbanization is an ancient phenomenon, going back in time at least nine thousand years (P. Taylor 2012), for most of human history people lived in dispersed, low-density rural settlements. This began to change as a consequence of the Industrial Revolution (1760–1840), when, due to technological changes in production and manufacturing, rural emigration increased and urban populations began to grow rapidly. In 1800, only 10 percent of the world’s population lived in urban areas. Today, 55 percent of the world’s population (according to the United Nations) or as much as 85 percent (according to the European Commission) live in urban settings (Ritchie and Roser 2019), the discrepancy deriving from different definitions of urban—an issue that will be discussed in more detail below. Regardless of these differences, however, what the above figures indicate is that urbanization has not only accelerated sharply in the past two hundred years but has, in the process, become a global phenomenon.
This rapid process of urbanization has had significant social, economic, and political impacts. On the positive side, high population density (and the concentration of resources in cities) has fostered technological advancements, economic specialization, higher productivity, and lower costs of production. It has promoted new forms of connectedness, political activity, and social solidarity, and it has encouraged creativity and the development of a broad range of cultural activities and forms of entertainment. On the negative side, it has deepened social inequalities, leading to the emergence of slums, overcrowding, and an urban underclass. It has promoted individualism and anonymity, thus weakening traditional family networks and forms of cooperation. And it has increased pollution, waste production, environmental degradation, and crime. In brief, although urbanization has generally led to higher standards of living, it has also condemned a large proportion of urban dwellers to a life of poverty and squalor. Despite lingering perceptions of Amazonia as a wild, remote, mostly rural space, the region has not escaped this global trend. Thanks to the building of a large network of roads and the development of better means of transportation, since the 1960s Amazonia has experienced a rapid process of urbanization. By 1985, with over 50 percent of the population of Amazonia living in urban areas, Bertha K. Becker (1985) had already described it as an “urbanized forest.” Today, almost forty years later, with approximately 70 percent of the Amazonian population living in cities (Becker 2013, 310; Chaves et al. 2021, 1187), urbanity has become hegemonic, and Amazonia is now an urban forest. The appeal of cities and urban lifeways has extended to the region’s every corner, including its three million Indigenous people belonging to some 350 ethnic groups (Charity et al. 2016, 26). As a result, by 2010, 36 percent of Brazil’s Amazonian Indigenous population lived in urban settings (Santos et al. 2019). Although the pace of Indigenous urbanization has varied in other Amazonian regions, it is safe to assume that between 30 and 40 percent of Amazonia’s Indigenous population now lives, more or less permanently, in cities. The urbanization of Amazonia has neither been the result of a unidirectional process nor been limited to the Indigenous people living closest to cities. Migrants to Amazonian cities often originate from the rural and urban areas of the Andes or the coastal regions of Brazil (Emlen 2020; Ødegaard 2010). In some cases, they are international migrants coming from neighboring countries (Aragón 2011). It is therefore appropriate to consider Amazonian cities and their current population as the result of complex demographic flows between rural and urban areas, often leading to the multisite household pattern that characterizes Amazonian populations nowadays (Padoch et al. 2008).
Pirjo Kristiina Virtanen
Robin M. Wright