Warren Dean’s With Broadax and Firebrand is a history of the destructive impact of human activity on the Atlantic forests of Brazil. Chronicling social attitudes towards nature and the impact of those attitudes on the forests from pre-Columbian times to the present, he highlights the ultimately unproductive exploitation of Brazilian natural resources, which left the country with a depleted national patrimony, toxic environment, and incalculable loss of species and knowledge about one of the world’s great forests.
In contrast to many environmental histories that use nature as a window into social, economic, or political history, Dean flips the paradigm by using society as a window into the history of the forest. His insights into colonial religious attitudes viewing the forest as a place of devilishness, and later ideological connections between the forest and diseases like malaria and yellow fever help explain Brazilians’ seemingly short-sighted destruction of their environment.
Dean’s discussion of the impact of swidden agriculture on land tenancy and how the Portuguese Crown’s disorganized property laws spurred environmental destruction are some of his most valuable contributions. One of his biggest takeaways deals with the destructive effect of periods of political instability on the environment, including during the late colonial period, the nineteenth-century independence movements, and the late twentieth-century crises following the military dictatorship.
Dean, Warren. With Broadax and Firebrand: The Destruction of the Brazilian Atlantic Forest. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 2008 .
By N. H. Gill