A Section of the Latin American Studies Association

2020 Best Book in Amazonian Studies

The Amazonia Section is thrilled to announce the recipient of our inaugural annual book award! 

Oscar de la Torre's first book, People of the River: Nature and Identity in Black Amazonia, 1835-1945 (2018), is a rich and variegated history of the Amazon's impact on Afro-Brazilian identity construction in Western Pará. De la Torre examines how relationships with the environment provided pathways to freedom, economic independence, and land ownership for Africans and Afro-descendants living in the region. Against the grain of scholarship linking the emergence of Afro-Brazilian ethnic identity to the granting of land to maroon communities in the 1988 constitution, De la Torre illuminates a longer arc of Afro-Brazilianness from slavery to abolition and into the twentieth century. This impressively researched monograph places archival sources in dialogue with oral histories from contemporary Afro-descendants. It theorizes how Afro-Brazilians have made the natural world their own in Amazonia, enacting an "environmental creolization" that involved both the development and application of place-based agro-ecological strategies as well as the creation of cultural narratives that incorporated their surroundings. The book reconstructs subregional economic history by elaborating "the parallel economy" developed by enslaved Africans who managed to capitalize on their knowledge of the environment to trade Brazil nuts outside of plantations without the knowledge of slaveholders. Focusing on African and Afro-descendant peoples' adaptation to and manipulation of Amazonian environments, The People of the River makes important contributions to Amazonian studies, environmental history, and African diasporic studies, and will surely inspire future work on the contributions of African and Afro-descendant peoples to the Amazon's natural and economic history. This groundbreaking book has also received the Outstanding First Book Prize from the Association for the Study of the Worldwide African Diaspora.

Honorable Mentions

Charlotte Roger's rigorously researched and beautifully written Mourning El Dorado: Literature and Extractivism in the Contemporary American Tropics (2019) earns an honorable mention for its comprehensive consideration of South American literary works through an environmental humanities lens. Bringing together analysis of Spanish-, English-, and Portuguese-language novels, Rogers examines literature's complicated relationship to "the promise of El Dorado." The book provides a detailed historical contextualization of the writing of Alejo Carpentier, Wilson Harris, Álvaro Mutis, and Mario Vargas Llosa. The historical contexts facilitate a close analysis that clearly articulates the tension of a literary discourse that mourned a time when the South American tropics represented boundless wealth while also recognizing the despoliation of nature, violent exploitation of women and girls, and impoverishment of Amazonian peoples required to create and maintain the myth of El Dorado.

Simón Uribe demonstrates impressive interdisciplinary skill in his history of the road linking the Colombian Andes at Pasto to the Amazon in Puerto Assis in Frontier Road: Power, History, and the Everyday State in the Colombian Amazon (2017), which also earns an honorable mention. Drawing from sources as diverse as correspondence, photography, maps, interviews, and ethnography, Uribe reflects on the various meanings of "frontier" in Colombia. He develops the useful concept of "inclusive exclusion" to describe the state's deliberate production of frontier spaces. The book illuminates the violence involved in the state's creation of political, environmental, and racial frontiers while centering the extraordinary people who have resisted such violence. A forthcoming documentary will showcase Uribe's research for the book.

Congratulations to all of our award-winning authors! Stay tuned for the call for our 2021 award!