March, 12 – «Creating Politics out of Violence»: Amazon Globalization and the Discovery of «Modern Slavery»

By the late 1960s, the Amazon entered a new phase of its integration within global (and unequal) capitalist exchange. The proliferation of large-scale farming projects aiming to transform the rain forest into a major exporter of commodities unleashed a massive deforestation wave. In turn, the rising demand for clearing workforce helped revivify and consolidate local networks of forced labor, embodying the violence to which the Amazon’s “agricultural modernization”, in spite of bright promises of social improvement, subjugated people and nature. This lecture examines the intertwinement between physical and moral coercion in the process of making the workforce captive. But more importantly, it discusses how forced laborers and their allies from the rural Amazon could transform their struggle for individual freedom into a new political category that laid bare the contradictions of late capitalist development in peripheral world regions. The forced labor scandal involving Volkswagen’s cattle-ranch operation, which started in 1973 in the southeastern Amazon, serves as main case study to illustrate this claim.

Dr. Antoine Acker, Department of History, University of Zurich