Designing a Climate at the Edge of Change

By Rennie Jones and Igor Bragado
This article is the result of research undertaken at Princeton University and on site in Mato Grosso, Brazil
Instructors: Eduardo Cadava, Paulo Tavares, and Eyal Weizman

Winner of the inaugural Design Writing Prize from the Design History Society in August 2017. A version of this article was published in Pidgin Magazine Issue 23 and a Spanish translation was published on ArchDaily in April 2017.

Leandro, a Xavante indigenous chief in the Brazilian Amazon, often crosses his territory on motorcycle. He and several other men from the village of Wederá carry along GPS trackers, mobile phones, photo and video cameras, and plenty of batteries on their excursions. This motorcycle gang has a purpose— to track and document the Xavante reservation of Pimentel Barbosa, which is under constant pressure of constriction. On the other side of the post-and-wire fence marking the edge of the reservation, vast fields of soybeans stretch to the horizon.

In the mid-twentieth century, the Brazilian government undertook an urban planning initiative of immense scale in order to gain control of the Amazon. In 1960, the city of Brasilia was designated the country’s capital and constructed on an undeveloped site deep in the Amazon hydrographic region. It was designed in conjunction with an extensive highway system to efficiently connect to Brazil’s coastal cities and nascent agricultural industry. By the 1990s, hundreds of thousands of square miles of cerrado, biodiverse grasslands that comprise much of the Amazon’s ecosystem, were converted to farmland. Today, Brazil is the world’s largest exporter of soy, generating the largest farm-trade surplus and shipping primarily to Europe, the United States, and Asia, and the state of Mato Grosso produces more soy than any other region in Brazil. Rows of crops extend across the former cerrado, from the edge of the dense tropical forest to the border of Pimentel Barbosa.

Leandro and his team hardly exemplify the image of isolated indigenous villagers idealized in the Western imagination. Nor are the reservations of the Amazon forest remote realms of pristine nature. The Amazon is a space of culture, affected by centuries of design by its human inhabitants. In Pimentel Barbosa, animals and vegetation alike are managed according to traditional practices and climactic considerations. Hunting grounds shift along with precipitation as mammals migrate from seasonal flood plains. Land is selectively burned to chase out edible inhabitants, and careful attention must be paid to temperature and humidity levels to avoid wildfires. Many Xavante still plan extended fishing trips according to the cycle of the moon and tides, traveling to designated areas in order to allow others to replenish. This type of land and resource management far preceded the conventional understanding of urban planning in North America, which only gained disciplinary credence in the United States around the time Brasilia was gaining ground.

The idea that the advent of agriculture allowed for the development of sedentary societies through the creation of surplus links the establishment of cities to a supposedly linear historical understanding of modernity. This conception of human development also equates land ownership with stabilized settlements, and was used to justify the seizure of indigenous lands. Those groups who subsisted primarily on fishing, hunting, and gardening as an intentional aspect of their designed relationship to the land, were perceived as aberrations against the developmental timeline. The earliest encounters of the Brazilian state with indigenous people, including the Xavante, often resulted in their constraint and forced resettlement, effectively reducing their relationship to the land and clearing it for state-sanctioned expansion. By imposing a restricted and bounded territory on the Xavante in Pimentel Barbosa, the State enforced a sedentary lifestyle that limited the traditional possibilities of hunting, fishing, and foraging, which required vast expanses of land in order to avoid the depletion of resources. The contemporary border between the reservation and the agricultural expanses beyond represents the edge of two conflicting approaches to land-use planning, and therefore two different designs for the climate.

Just beyond the northern boundary of Pimentel Barbosa, the traces of the former Xavante village of Aribonipo’opa are barely visible in the vegetation. Tamped grasses suggest the characteristic circular form of a village, and domesticated plants dot the landscape. The village had been occupied by descendants of the Xavante in the early twentieth century, before the Brazilian state undertook a campaign to move indigenous people to concentrated, rationalized encampments. The occupants of the village were relocated to São Domingos, at the eastern edge of what is now Pimentel Barbosa, and the village was abandoned. Leandro and his crew seek to generate technical evidence that this area, which lies outside the reservation’s legal limits, was originally occupied by the Xavante, in case of future border disputes. In October of 2015, Leandro and the others departed from Wederá on a day-long motorcycle voyage through the sweltering cerrado, using information gathered from oral tradition and collective memory to find the abandoned village, and a GPS tracker to trace it. According to the accounts of Xavante elders, the residents of Aribonipo’opa were relocated by government authorities sometime in the twentieth century, as Brazil’s agricultural industry increasingly sought land.

The border between the reservation and the surrounding agricultural territory has shifted continuously since its institution in 1950. According to the Brazilian anthropologist Vinicius Furie, Pimentel Barbosa has shrunk from the nearly two million hectares originally allocated to the current 329,000. Each side of the border operates according to a distinct form of urbanism in its cultural control of the territory, and the opposing designs represent an inherent conflict. As part of their documentation, Leandro and his team placed GPS tracking devices on wild boars to monitor and maintain a stable population within the reservation. Early data indicates that the boars readily breach the border to feed on neighboring farmlands, ingesting harmful chemical fertilizers as part of their meal.

The Xavante also use the GPS and satellite imagery to patrol the border and note incursions, including fertilizer deposits that are carried over the border by runoff and river sediment, incidents of agroindustrial livestock allowed to graze on indigenous land, and fires started by farmers across the border that scorched the cerrado within indigenous territory. One such fire, in 2010, destroyed a Xavante mapping outpost at the northeastern edge of Pimentel Barbosa that contained an archive of maps generated through the collection of GPS data points. The goal of the project was to index the indigenous territory of Pimentel Barbosa against satellite imagery, linking access on the ground and known borders (such as rivers) to the image. According to the Xavante, farmers in the area would sometimes produce fake documentation claiming that their lands actually extended into indigenous territory, thereby challenging the established image of the border as drawn. Where these frictions and transgressions at the border also appear as traces in the satellite image, the image can be used as evidence of illegal actions at the edge of the design.

The design of the local environment, including the transformation of ecosystems, is intrinsic to any human settlement. However, the urbanism necessary to sustain industrial agriculture constitutes a total control of natural forces. Farming in the cleared cerrado requires an altered microclimate to produce favorable growing conditions. Farmers in Mato Grosso instituted research departments to develop a genetically-modified soybean adapted to the particular soil conditions, which could not naturally sustain large-scale soy growth. The ground itself is treated with chemical fertilizer and microorganisms bred to tolerate the soil conditions and facilitate the growth of soy. Soil conditions vary naturally over a plot of land, and farmers map the results of soil samples against satellite imagery to calibrate fertilizer accordingly. While these interventions are local in design, their combined effect is a global one. The conversion of cerrado and other rain forest biomes to farm land has fueled climate change and propelled the geological evolution of the planet to a precarious point, precipitating the era known as the Anthropocene. This “age of the human” succeeds the Holocene and is defined by a fundamental alteration of the atmosphere and the Earth’s crust, caused, in part, by the consumption of fossil fuels.

Back at Wederá, Leandro uploads the GPS tracking data to Google Maps in the village media center. Using geolocation software, he cross-references the information with Corona Mission satellite imagery dating from 1979, before Pimentel Barbosa’s most recent border was instated. In the satellite image, two clearings in the form of perfect circles stand out against the dense vegetation, confirming the location of Aribonipo’opa. The Xavante can use this and other data they have collected to combat further constriction of their territory.

The urbanism of the indigenous inhabitants of Pimentel Barbosa is, like that of the agricultural industry, a choreographed exchange between ecology and technology. Hand-held electronic devices, satellite imagery, and internet platforms interact with land and living things. These two approaches toward the environment- largescale, continuous consumption on one side of the border, and localized, cyclic use on the other- are both forms of urban design intended to manage a territory and its resources.
In the Anthropocene, the term urbanism is up for re-evaluation. This era suggests that nothing remains untouched by human design. The distinction between natural and cultural, which has long been up for debate, is no longer possible to maintain. Design and urban planning must consider more than the artificial edges of municipal boundaries. Careful analysis of the complex material assemblies at work in the construction of the environment, including the ways physical and digital resources are channeled and concentrated, will allow us to invest in more intelligent, sustainable design.


Clastres, Pierre. Society Against the State. New York: Zone Books, 1989: 161

Adey, Peter and Whitehead, Mark and Williams, Alison J. Introduction: Air Target: Distance, Reach and the Politics of Verticality, in Theory, Culture & Society 28.7-8 (2011): 180

Cadava, Eduardo. Lapsus Imaginis: The Image in Ruins, in October 96 (Spring 2001): 56

Kohn, Eduardo. How Forests Think: Toward an Anthropology Beyond the Human. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2013: 8

Heckenberger, Michael. The Fractal Forest: An Archaeology of Body and Built Environment in the Amazon. The University of Chicago. 31 May 2008. Lecture.

Hecht, Susanna B. and Mann, Charles C. How Brazil Outfarmed the American Farmer. Fortune 21 January 2008: 98

Kaplan, Caren. Mobility and war: the cosmic view of U.S. ‘air power,’ in Environment and Planning 38 (2006): 396.