Intervention — “Carlos Walter Porto-Gonçalves: The Decolonial Geography of an Intellectual from Abya Yala”

Renato Emerson dos Santos, Instituto de Pesquisa e Planejamento Urbano e Regional, Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro

On 6 September 2023, the Brazilian geographer Carlos Walter Porto-Gonçalves (1949-2023), one of the most prominent critical voices in contemporary Latin American thought, passed away. In almost 50 years of his career as an intellectual and activist—dimensions he considered inseparable—he published more than 20 books in Portuguese and Spanish, in addition to dozens of articles in scientific journals and chapters in edited collections. His production was very rarely translated into English: Porto-Gonçalves enjoyed a wide circulation primarily throughout Latin America through his own choice, since at a time when state agencies were demanding the internationalization of academic production, he critically stated that “going to Bolivia, Ecuador or Cuba and publishing there is also internationalization, isn’t it? Or does internationalization only mean Europe and the United States, where we are treated as colonies?”

Carlos Walter Porto-Gonçalves (or, CW, as some of his closest interlocutors used to address him) was born and raised in a peripheral suburban neighborhood of Rio de Janeiro. His personal formation both in childhood and adolescence was marked, on the one hand, by the material limitations imposed upon the working class. His father was a factory worker and his mother a housewife. This was during the period of Brazilian industrialization—which, as a paradigm of peripheral economies, meant that the country was dependent and based on the hyper-exploitation of the workforce—which transformed the city into a metropolis. On the other hand, he also experienced all the cultural wealth of this very same working class, then marked by an ethnic and cultural plurality driven by migrations from different regions of the country (rural areas, the northeast, which then became mixed with the Black community and white descendants of poor European immigrants).

These experiences inspired his political involvement after entering university, and in the 1970s, CW became involved with various social movements and struggles. In a context of African anti-colonial struggles, he took part in courses with groups from the Black Movement. With the struggles against the military dictatorship (which he called the “civil-military-business dictatorship”), he came into contact with Marxist ideological groups and, despite some initial dissonant positions, adopted Marxism as his first major matrix of thought. It is in this context that he joined in the struggles of residents’ associations as well as grassroots groups in the founding of the Workers’ Party (PT) at the end of that same decade.

It was at this time, working as a schoolteacher of geography, that CW participated in the 1978 National Meeting of Geographers, organized by the Association of Brazilian Geographers (of which he was later to became president, in the 1998-2000 biennium). In a context in which the dictatorial regime was weakening and exiled activists and intellectuals were beginning to return (e.g. Milton Santos), this meeting became known as the most important event for the critical turn in Brazilian geography. At the meeting, three disputes came together. First, society’s political dispute against the dictatorship, with conservative and right-wing geographers in favor of the regime, and progressive left-wing geographers against it. Second, the epistemological disputes of geographic science, opposing the defense of Quantitative Geography, called “New Geography”, against the emerging Marxist Geography, which argued that the scientific field should adopt critical political positions as the basis for its academic praxis. Thirdly, the institutional disputes of the Association itself, which, until then, functioned as an elite club with very few members across the country.

In the middle of this political turmoil that had transformed the meeting, CW, for the first time, presented his text entitled “A Geografia está em crise: viva a Geografia!” (“Geography is in crisis: long live Geography!”), which was republished several times in books and journals over the following years, leaving an enduring mark on the discipline because of the specific demand he made:

The crisis we are currently experiencing is not, therefore, just one of geography or a certain “vision” or theoretical-methodological stance, but is part of a more general crisis, the symptoms of which began to come to light with the North American defeat in Vietnam. This fact must be retained by all those geographers who propose scientific production committed to a transformative perspective, with a space that is the freedom of men [sic] and not a space of capital. (Porto-Gonçalves 1982 [1978]: 109, our translation)

Some of the central ideas that permeated his entire career as an intellectual and activist had already appeared in this text. First, that a transformative geography, instead of focusing on the spatial forms and relations of capital, should value subaltern social subjects and their own ways of being and existing—“in space” and “with space”. This was most notable in CW’s involvement, during the 1980s, in the struggle of the Amazon rubber tappers in the state of Acre, advising the group led by Chico Mendes. Rubber tappers sought the demarcation of their rubber collection areas, but not as individual private properties. They demanded ways of recognizing their rights over land that maintained their collective uses. For this, it was essential that the forest maintained its fauna, flora, and ecological relationships, which provided support for the rubber trees, as well as a multiplicity of uses, practices, and meanings that the groups constituted in their interaction with the environment. Accompanying them in the forest in order to support their struggles for demarcation, he witnessed how these subjects built their intertwined pathways which, in addition to extracting latex for rubber production, enabled a set of relationships with both nature and other occupants. It was then that he indicated that subjects were graphing out the land, imprinting their marks and actions upon it, constituting themselves as subjects “with” nature (and not “living off nature”). This transformed geography into a verb: to geo-graph, as the act of writing the earth and thereby giving it meaning. Geo-graphing thus appeared as a way for groups to signify their existence on earth, through practices that placed them in the same movement that constituted their territories and territorialities.

These experiences took him, from an initial role as a geomorphology researcher, to the field of agrarian geography and, from there, to the environmental debate and political ecology. This new framework deeply informed his publications in the 1980s and 1990s, especially his books Paixão da Terra: Ensaios Críticos de Ecologia e Geografia (“Passion of the Earth: Critical Essays on Ecology and Geography”) (1984) and Os (Des)caminhos do Meio Ambiente (“The [Non]pathways of the Environment”) (1989), both important milestones in understanding ecological movements from the lens of historical materialist criticism, while valuing the multiplicity of cultural forms engendered in the relationships between society and nature. He stated then that “man [sic] is a being that by nature produces culture, this is his [sic] natural specificity” (Porto-Gonçalves 1989: 94, our translation.). It was by valuing such cultural plurality in its geographical inscriptions that CW helped to construct the Articulation of the Peoples of the Amazon Forest in the 1980s, and later collaborated in the struggles of traditional peoples and communities from other Brazilian biomes, such as the Cerrado and the Caatinga, where he worked with the Indigenous, the Quilombolas, geraizeiros (traditional inhabitants of the Cerrado in northern Minas Gerais), vazanteiros (populations from the floodplains of the São Fransisco River), and fundo de pasto communities (community forms of raising cattle), among others.

By fighting to maintain their material conditions of reproduction, these groups demonstrated the inseparability between their ways of existing and the elements of nature that were co-constitutive to them. Throughout his entire career, CW was involved in the struggles of these groups, whose ways of existing involved this inseparability of their social forms and their environmental conditions. He therefore argued for the valorization of a worldview based on the inseparability between nature and society: “Women and men of flesh and blood”, as he liked to state, were social subjects but they were also nature, as bodies and as practices, behaviors, power relations, and knowledge. He liked to underscore his point by playing with words in Portuguese, e.g. “sabores” and “saberes”—two words that appear to be very similar in form but in fact signify “flavors” and “knowledge”. This not only allowed him to highlight the continuity between the metabolic dimensions of human bodies and their natural environments, but also the situated construction of the matrices of knowledge. In his lectures he drew from anecdotes like the following one: an Indigenous people who, upon observing that a certain lizard, whenever it was bitten by a snake, would gnaw on the bark of a particular tree, began to use the tea from that bark as an antidote to snake poison. This allowed him to demonstrate that, for this group, preserving nature and its ecological relationships was also fundamental to the preservation of particular sources of knowledge matrices (non-scientific!) and the production of subjectivities (including the sacred), all of which should be understood as inseparable. This also led to his adoption of Orlando Fals Borda’s idea of a “feeling-thinking person” in a critique of the supremacism of Western rationality and science as the supposedly superior matrix of knowledge.

A geography committed to transformation and justice should, then, valorize the “geographicities” of oppressed, exploited, and subalternized subjects, who fight against such processes of domination. “Geographicity” was another of his neologisms, which he used to oppose the valorization of the temporal dimension in the reading of processes, phenomena, and social subjects, to the detriment of their spatial dimensions. CW proposed a geography centered on action and subjects, especially those desde abajo (“from below”—one of the phrases he liked to use in Spanish, in recognition of his Latin American dialogues). He stated that the action of these subjects would bring transformative potential to society, and this transformation was necessarily spatial. He pointed out that “every social movement carries, to some degree, a new order which, as such, presupposes new positions, new relationships, always socially instituted, between places”. Thus, social movements would be fundamentally geographic phenomena. In his text “A Geograficidade do Social: uma contribuição para o debate metodológico sobre estudos de conflito e movimentos sociais na América Latina” (“The Geographicity of the Social: a contribution to the methodological debate on studies of conflicts and social movements in Latin America”) (2003), he argued that “movement”, even in physics, is a change of position, and that the coming together of social movements was therefore a rejection of the position of subordination imposed on such subjects.

In making this point, he coined one of his most cited expressions, widely incorporated as a discursive repertoire of groups in struggle and in critical discourses: the idea of “r-existence”—understood as the actions of subjects who resist oppression by reconstructing their ways of existing. A celebration of the social, cultural, and ecological creativity of matrices of knowledge and survival of groups that do not necessarily declare themselves as a pole of social conflict in their everyday lives. However, when their forms of existence (material conditions and entangled social practices) are perceived as being under threat, they put themselves in struggle.

We can therefore point out two fundamental aspects in his work. First, the search for the theoretical and political valorization of these subjects, two expressions that, inseparable for him, made up the epistemic dimension. Second, the appreciation of the multiplicity of being and existing, alongside of which he placed the “criticism of critical thinking”, but from a constructive perspective, of immanent criticism. From these two traits, he approached the decolonial perspective, and was perhaps a pioneer in Brazil in direct dialogue with the ideologues of this agenda, under the leadership of the Peruvian sociologist Aníbal Quijano. Beginning in the 1980s, his travels through the Amazon offered a window onto plural perspectives on the region that valued its socio-biological diversity, a theme he explored in his book Amazônia, Amazônias (2001). Here he portrayed how the Amazon was constituted and approached in different ways by the groups that actually lived in the region, on the one hand, and by the economic and intellectual elites, on the other hand, of the countries whose border regions overlap with the Amazon. This is why he preferred to call the Amazon a “territorial state” rather than a “national state”. He therefore saw the contradictory and multiple understandings of Amazonian space—between Amazonians and non-Amazonians, Indigenous and non-Indigenous people of Brazil, Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, and other countries—as an analytical and political challenge, and ultimately as a fertile field for the production of knowledge.

Because of its more than 300 ethnic groups and 274 native languages, CW used to state that Brazil was the most Indigenous country in the Americas. But he also argued that this indigeneity had been made invisible by the imposition of the dominant mode of representing the nation that recognizes less than 1% of its population as Indigenous. His struggle against this invisibility was made all the more evident by the 1992 campaigns of Indigenous people denouncing the processes of oppression initiated by Christopher Columbus 500 years prior. This struggle continued to reverberate throughout his period as president of the Brazilian Geographers Association (1998-2000). This explains his prominent role in choosing the theme for the 2000 National Meeting of Geographers: “Os outros 500 na formação do território brasileiro” (“The other 500 in the formation of the Brazilian territory”) (Brazil celebrates its own discovery date, which is the arrival of the Portuguese navigator Pedro Álvares Cabral on 22 April 1500). This theme argued for the need to decolonize the manner in which the country was viewed.

This is the moment in which, capitalizing on the critical sociopolitical and academic networks of the first meetings of the World Social Forum (WSF, in 2001, 2002, and 2003 in Porto Alegre, in Brazil), CW increased his ties with Latin American militancy and intellectuality that sought, through its roots in regional struggles, to make a critique of its own critical thought. It was during this period that he met with Black militants of the hip hop movement in Rio de Janeiro who developed a critique of the elitism of “academic stars” at the WSF and intended to organize a “social forum of the periphery”. And at the same time, CW established connections with a group of intellectuals that proposed the decolonization of critical thought. He became a pioneer of the decolonial turn in Brazil, having written the preface of the first edition in Portuguese of the book A colonialidade do saber: eurocentrismo e ciências sociais—perspectivas latino-americanas (“The Coloniality of Knowledge: Eurocentrism and Social Sciences—Latin American Perspectives”) (2005), organized by the Venezuelan Edgardo Lander and published by the Latin American Council of Social Sciences (CLACSO).

The circulation of his work in Latin America—which he preferred to call “Abya Yala”, reverberating the denominational form used by the native Kuna peoples, who live in parts of Panama and Colombia, or “Pachamama”, as the peoples of the Quechua and Aymara languages call it, from the Andean region that includes Chile, Argentina, Bolivia, Peru, and Ecuador—from this moment, in the early 2000s, was the reason that many of his books and articles were published in Spanish. His book A globalização da natureza e a natureza da globalização (“The Globalization of Nature and the Nature of Globalization”) (2008) received the Casa de las Américas award in Cuba. In Brazil, he received the Chico Mendes Award from the Ministry of Environment, in the Science and Technology category, in 2004.

Carlos Walter Porto-Gonçalves was, certainly, one of the central names in Brazilian and Latin American geography in recent decades. He helped to redefine the dialogue between geography and the social and natural sciences in the region. His work in affirming critical geography and in the construction of the “critique of critical thinking”, as well as his relationship with social movements and the affirmation of space in the strategies of their struggles, were fundamental contributions that he left behind.

His involvement and theoretical contributions on environmental issues and the Amazon are also unique. Regarding the Amazon, which he addressed in several of his books, Cruz (forthcoming) identifies a number of his contributions, of which we will highlight three here. First, its fight against deep-rooted cognitive schemes, the “colonial archive about the Amazon”, seeking to overcome and destabilize the approaches used to interpret and represent the region, especially those constructed by actors external to it. Second, his effort to think about the Amazon based on its socio-metabolic dynamics, overcoming the division between natural and social aspects. Third, the quest to think about the territorial diversity of the Amazon (including the Pan-Amazon, exceeding the national borders that cut across it). He therefore proposed to value the diversity of temporalities (historical and natural) that shaped the region, its biodiversity and sociodiversity, conceiving of the Amazon as an “epistemic reserve”, a repository of knowledge that can contribute decisively to the constitution of a political horizon and a cognitive project for Brazil and for the broader world.

By proposing a spatial imagination based on the reading of multiple cultures and multiple natures engendering multiple spaces, spatialities, territories, and territorialities, CW leaves behind a set of ideas that destabilize traditional conceptions of geography, especially those centered on the state and on the agents of capital. Valuing r-existences means seeking to decolonize thought and geography, in search of social transformation, which was the real meaning of his intellectual production and performance throughout his career.

Cruz V C (forthcoming) Dez lições para se pensar a Amazônia a partir da obra de Carlos Walter Porto-Gonçalves. GEOgraphia

Porto-Gonçalves C W (1982 [1978]) A Geografia está em crise: viva a Geografia! In R Moreira (ed) Geografia: Teoria e crítica—O saber posto em questão. Petrópolis: Vozes

Porto-Gonçalves C W (1984) Paixão da Terra: Ensaios Críticos de Ecologia e Geografia. Rio de Janeiro: Socii

Porto-Gonçalves C W (1989) Os (Des)caminhos do Meio Ambiente. São Paulo: Contexto

Porto-Gonçalves C W (2001) Amazônia, Amazônias. São Paulo: Contexto

Porto-Gonçalves C W (2003) A Geograficidade do Social: uma contribuição para o debate metodológico sobre estudos de conflito e movimentos sociais na América Latina. In J Seoane (ed) Movimientos sociales y conflicto en América Latina. Buenos Aires: CLACSO

Porto-Gonçalves C W (2005) Apresentação da edição em português. In E Lander (ed) A colonialidade do saber: eurocentrismo e ciências sociais—perspectivas latino-americanas. Buenos Aires: CLACSO

Porto-Gonçalves C W (2008) A globalização da natureza e a natureza da globalização. Rio de Janeiro: Civilização Brasileira

Featured image: Amazon River – 2018 by Alexander Gerst CC BY-SA 2.0 ( [last accessed 31 January 2024])