Antione Acker. Volkswagen in the Amazon: The Tragedy of Global Development in Modern Brazil. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017. 320 pp. $29.99 (paper), ISBN 978-1-316-64777-6.
Reviewed by Seth Garfield (University of Texas at Austin)
Published on H-LatAm (January, 2018)
Commissioned by Casey M. Lurtz (Johns Hopkins University)
At last, readers have a fine-tuned historical monograph focused on the Brazilian Amazon during the military era, one that links the region’s economic development and environmentalist resonance to the political economy of capitalist globalization. Antoine Acker’s book, tracing the rise and fall of the mammoth 140,000-hectare Volkswagen ranch in Pará state between 1973 and 1986, might be read as another sensationalist story of capitalist/colonialist misdeeds in the Amazon. With Volkswagen implicated in deforestation, latifundia, land speculation, human slavery, and economic fiasco, the venture certainly qualifies for inclusion in the genre. Yet Acker steps back from a purely declensionist narrative that rightfully marks many of his journalistic exposé sources to ask broader questions regarding the contested making and meaning of “development” in the Global South. With a variegated set of multinational actors—including automobile executives, government officials, urban and rural labor leaders, progressive clergy, scientists, and environmental activists—Acker’s stage is occupied by historical agents whose political affinities converge within and beyond national boundaries. In the process, a story that might have been glossed as a quirky one-off about a German corporation’s jungle stumble becomes a larger window onto the complex workings of global capitalism and transnational environmental and human rights activism during the latter part of the twentieth century.
Volkswagen do Brasil’s ranch, the Companhia Vale do Rio Cristalino (CVRC), was born out of a developmentalist vision—that is, a technocratic faith in expanded capitalist growth rather than economic redistribution—shared by Brazil’s military government and Latin America’s then largest private corporation. The former, eager to modernize the Amazonian economy and plug the frontier’s so-called demographic voids, extended generous fiscal incentives and tax shelters to lure private investment in farming and extractive enterprises. The latter eyed not only a prime business venture and tax write-off but an opportunity to cozy up with the generals in a grand patriotic avowal of the multinational’s Brazilian credentials. Its status as a German rather than US company ostensibly provided anti-imperial cover against Brazilian suspicions of foreign designs in the Amazon. That Wolfgang Sauer, the chief executive officer of Volkswagen do Brasil (VWB), relished his self-appointed role as twentieth-century conquistador, endowed the CVRC’s “civilizing” mission with additional gusto. Yet the transatlantic marriage of convenience soon faltered. The partners’ developmentalist “I dos” were instantly besieged by their kin’s competing populist, pro-business, nationalist, and geopolitical agendas, not to mention the multipronged opposition of the wedding crashers. In other words, Acker shows, the CVRC was doomed not only by the legendary environmental and infrastructural challenges to capitalist entrepreneurship in the Amazon. Tarred as a usurper, exploiter, and wrecker, VWB was haunted by a public relations nightmare in Brazil and Germany. Development’s pliancy as both market-centered and anticolonial ideology, guarantor of economic growth and social justice, cracked amid the more liberalized political environment of Brazil’s controlled transition from military rule and the strengthening of the global environmental movement. Once a crowning moment of Brazil’s “economic miracle,” Volkswagen’s ranch, Acker argues, provides a case study of how “the idea of development lost its framing role in politics” (p. 4).
Acker provides comprehensive background to Volkswagen’s entry into southern Pará. He offers an overview of the Amazon’s ecological profile, real and imagined; the evolution of Brazilian developmental nationalism and frontier geopolitics; the company’s Nazi-era origins and the 1953 establishment of a Brazilian subsidiary as symbol of Germany’s postwar political rehabilitation and economic resurgence; and Brazil’s quest to launch a domestic automobile industry and develop the nation’s vast interior. With the military coup of 1964, backed by VWB and other prominent industrialists in Brazil, the company reaped the benefits of the regime’s anti-labor and monetarist policies. During the heady years of Brazil’s so-called economic miracle, Volkwagen commanded over half of Brazil’s share of the automotive market, earning millions in profits. The company also showed itself exceedingly committed to public relations in Brazil, establishing the first press office in the nation’s business history, where a steady stream of commercials and print advertisements touted VWB’s contributions to industrial job development, social services, and economic growth—and later to the achievements of its “modern” ranch.
According to Acker, following the destabilizing impact of the oil crisis of 1973 on the automobile industry, VWB sought to shore up its position in Brazil through a full-throttle embrace of the government’s project for Amazonian development. The lure of extensive tax credits and exemptions under the 1966 legal guidelines of “Operação Amazônia” (meticulously outlined by Acker) undoubtedly coaxed Sauer into setting up the CVRC ranch in the Amazon. The generals’ development agency for the Amazon, Superintendência do Desenvolvimento da Amazônia (SUDAM), favored ranching to occupy territory, increase food supplies, and generate export revenues—a position endorsed as well by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization and the World Bank. Volkswagen trumpeted modern forms of livestock-raising, based on scientific improvement of soil, fodder, and animal breed, and proclaimed a target herd of 100,000 for the mid-1980s. The Luxembourg-sized ranch would also market timber and cellulose for export, boasting over one hundred kilometers of road, numerous bridges, and an airstrip. It offered its employees fair salaries (most earning roughly 15 percent higher than Brazil’s minimum wage) and ample social services and leisure opportunities, part of a vaunted project of social re-engineering of the rural poor. But SUDAM’s vision of Amazonian development spearheaded by big business never stood uncontested among Brazilian nationalists, nor local populations. Nor would VWB’s insistence that it was merely making good on the Brazilian “invitation” to invest in the Amazon fully allay German anticolonial unease. The ecological damage, land concentration, and labor abuse associated with the CVRC quickly added fuel to the fire, with the transnational company serving as the ultimate political bugbear, and its executives the targets of boardroom intrigues. The early nationalist backlash from the Comissão Nacional pela Defesa da Amazônia and corporate infighting at VW’s German headquarters was soon compounded by denunciations of scientists, environmental activists, labor union leaders, and liberal church groups in Brazil and Germany.
Acker’s exemplary analysis of the environmental and social costs of the CVRC, and the ensuing political fallout, grounds the book’s longish third and fourth chapters. The company’s burning of forest, the preferred method for clearing pasture, along with the purported use of chemical defoliants, raised the hackles of Brazilian scientists, ecologists, and opposition politicians—thereby challenging a commonly held perception of environmentalism in Brazil as a wholly foreign transplant. Like developmentalism, it too fueled a nationalist agenda: while the CVRC may not have actually destroyed one million hectares of forest in “the biggest fire on earth” in 1976 (the company alleged slightly more than nine thousand hectares), the ranch’s foreign ties made for a convenient whipping boy for land concentration and deforestation, common sins in the Amazon. Such was the case as well for accusations of “slavery” leveled in 1983 against CVRC, whose subcontractors employed debt bondage and violent intimidation to maintain seasonal workers for forest clearing. Although these coercive practices were not uncommon in rural Amazonia, nor perpetrated directly by VWB management, the company’s high-profile, modern reputation provided an ideal target for transnational activist networks denouncing corporate power and large-scale developmental projects. Acker’s intricate rendering of the varied and interconnected strands of grassroots opposition in Germany and Brazil is yet another original contribution of the book.
To CVRC’s considerable political headwinds were added the agroecological challenges of soil depletion, erosion, and plant toxicity, the deficiency of roads and energy sources, heavy operating costs, and the corporate merger of VWB and Ford do Brasil. In 1987, the sale of CVRC to a Brazilian corporation freed Volkswagen of a financial albatross and public relations disaster. In its wake, a tumult of smallholder occupation, violent land conflict, expropriation, and redistribution ensued, as Wolfgang Sauer’s vision of an orderly process of frontier expansion lay in tatters. Indeed, Acker argues, Volkswagen’s “pioneer” mentality, with its unbridled faith in the wisdom and certitude of high modernist development, is the true ghost of this story.
Some of the narrative detail overburdening sections of the book might have been swapped out for broader, comparative historical discussion. For example, attention to the international brouhaha surrounding accusations of genocide towards Amazonian native peoples, which preceded the CVRC controversy and involved similar actors and political tropes, would have added historical scaffolding and connective tissue to the argument. Quantitative data on patterns of land concentration and violent conflict in the Amazon during the 1970s and 1980s could have better situated the Volkswagen ranch in regional context. The prevalence of cattle as a mechanism for frontier colonization in Brazil since European conquest might have been offered as historical prologue, and the Amazonian ranching sector’s stunning economic turnaround in subsequent decades included as postscript. Acker’s rhetorical contention that the CVRC’s downfall epitomizes the loss of development’s “framing role in politics,” one of the “last developmental projects whose planners could ignore socioecological claims,” may spur, however, the liveliest debate (p. 290). While contemporary development planners may no longer ignore socioecological claims, they often pay mere lip service. Amazonian hydroelectric projects, executed by Brazilian firms and funded by state banks, have run roughshod over the objections of local residents and the global community. The CVRC’s political vulnerability, after all, owed in particular to its transnational taint rather than its exclusively developmental ambition. The latter has shown a hydra-headed capacity for mutation and reinvention. Wolfgang Sauer may be out to pasture, but the Odebrecht corporation, the Banco Nacional do Desenvolvimento, soybean king Blairo Maggi, and scores of other self-anointed modernizers in the Amazon still rule the roost. Our understanding of the Amazon’s recent history, nevertheless, is immeasurably enriched by Acker’s study. Volkswagen in the Amazon will be of great interest to students of Latin American studies, business history, economic development, and environmental politics.
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Seth Garfield. Review of Acker, Antione, Volkswagen in the Amazon: The Tragedy of Global Development in Modern Brazil.
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