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OBITUARY

Geographer of the Amazon’s cities

Bertha Becker promoted innovative ideas and established a broad view of the North of Brazil

Bertha Becker: 30 years of reflections intertwined with fieldwork

berthabecker.blogspot.comBertha Becker: 30 years of reflections intertwined with fieldworkberthabecker.blogspot.com

In 1985, after carefully examining the intense urbanization of the Amazon region, which in the last decades of the twentieth century had the highest growth rate in Brazil, political geographer Bertha Koiffmann Becker created the term “urbanized forest” to define the region, until then valued solely for its natural resources. Bertha Becker, who died July 13 at age 83, preferred to use the term Consolidated Settlement Arc, instead of the more common Arc of Deforestation, to designate areas of human occupation on the edges of the forest, for the simple reason that the area is occupied by many large cities, roads and vast soy plantations, in addition to cattle ranches and mining quarries.

“I have been studying the Amazon for 30 years; I cannot forgo fieldwork. I need to see what is happening,” she said in a 2004 interview for Pesquisa FAPESP in her spacious apartment on the 13th floor of a building on Avenida Atlantica, in Rio de Janeiro, while planning a trip to see—up close—the transformations caused by the beginning of soybean cultivation in some regions of the states of Mato Grosso, Pará and Amazonas. She traveled to the Amazon for the first time in 1970 when she was a professor at the Rio Branco Institute of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, in charge of a group of 60 future diplomats—all were amazed during their first trip to Brazil’s frontiers, where residents listened to Radio Cuba more often than the Brazilian National Radio Station. After that trip, she never stopped visiting—and thinking about—the Amazon, reconciling her field experience with academic practice.

Both small and large
Bertha Becker argued that Brazil has to think about forest development, not just preservation. “Becker believed in collaboration between traditional knowledge and advanced science, technology and innovation,” said Cláudio Egler, Professor in the Geography Department of the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ), to the newspaper O Globo. She said that big business ventures, despite the aversion to them generated by unsuccessful experiences in the 1970s, should coexist with small family production undertakings, because just large projects or just small projects, by themselves, would not solve the region’s challenges.

The daughter of European immigrants, Bertha Becker completed her degree in history and geography in 1952 at the University of Brazil, now UFRJ, where she later taught for 40 years. At the same time, she taught for 18 years at the Rio Branco Institute. Her lectures, discussions with academic colleagues and government officials and her 19 published books have helped enrich the view of the Amazon, now seen as a complex space, resulting from the interaction of political and economic forces. Her work influenced the development of new strategies for organizing land in the Amazon, expressed in the ecological-economic zoning of the states in the Legal Amazon and Legal Amazon Macrozoning, recently transformed into land policy for the region by the Brazilian Congress.

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