When sections of the Amazon rainforest burned in 2019, Brazilian far-right president Jair Bolsonaro blamed international NGOs. The charge, however, was a bluff to deflect criticism of his failure to protect the forest. It turns out it was local Brazilian ranchers, many of them Bolsonaro supporters, the ones behind the largest fires. Accusing international NGOs fit into a narrative that sees nature protection as a cover for foreign intervention in Brazil’s frontier. In the 1970s and 1980s, the generals who ruled Brazil were obsessed with the idea that foreign powers would use human and indigenous rights to undermine the Brazilian control of the Amazon. Today, Bolsonaro and his inner circle rehash this conspiracy theory. They see the existence of protected areas in the Amazon, and the international scrutiny they attract, as a threat to Brazilian sovereignty in the region.
But it was not always like that. In the 1930s, as Brazil and other Latin American countries created their first protected areas, national parks could be seen as instruments to gain control over frontier areas. My book, Nationalizing Nature: Iguazu Falls and National Parks at the Brazil-Argentina Border, explores how Argentina and Brazil pioneered national parks as tools of frontier development and border control. By tracking almost one hundred years of national park history, the book outlines the changes in environmental and territorial policies in Latin America’s two largest countries—from early twentieth-century bids to project power over contested borderlands to the adoption of an international conservation paradigm in the post-war era.
The book focuses on two borderland national parks established in the 1930s: Iguazú National Park, in Argentina, and Iguaçu National Park, in Brazil. The two parks share the famous Iguazu Falls, located right at the border between Argentina and Brazil. The falls are listed as UNESCO World Heritage Sites and make the parks one of the most visited destinations in Latin America.
Nationalizing Nature sheds light on a little known but crucial aspect of these two parks—they were initially created to promote the settlement and development of border areas. In the United States, national parks were first created in the American West to prevent settlement in desired landscapes. Argentina and Brazil went in the opposite direction and designed their national parks, include Iguazú and Iguaçu, to attract settlers to “nationalize” border zones in the 1930s. The two countries hoped to use parks to populate sparsely inhabited borderlands with migrants from their densely populated Atlantic seaboards.
This initial model gave way, in the 1960s, to an international consensus of parks without people that compelled eviction in the name of nature preservation. This shift soon led to removing park settlers from Iguazú and Iguaçu and the reforestation of these protected areas. These depopulation campaigns were carried out at the height of military dictatorships in both countries, highlighting the complex relationship between authoritarian regimes, conservation, and land policy in South America.
The mid-1960s reorientation of environmental policy in Argentina and Brazil also left their border areas with enduring patches of subtropical forests. In an era of climate change, these densely-forested preserves are increasingly crucial as carbon sinks surrounded by the agricultural frontier of South America’s breadbasket. Understanding the history of the Iguazú and Iguaçu parks is essential to the present—and future—of forested areas in a changing Latin American landscape.