Susanna Hecht

2014 Carl O. Sauer Distinguished Scholarship Award

It is an honor to have nominated, and now present, the 2013 Carl O. Sauer Distinguished Scholarship Award to geographer Susanna Hecht, Professor of International Development in the Luskin School of Public Affairs, UCLA. She also holds joints appointments in UCLA’s Geography Department and the Institute of the Environment and Sustainability. The Sauer Award is given “in recognition of a corpus of important published work or other significant contribution towards Latin American geography,” and that “the recipients will be scholars who are leading authorities in specific research topics and geographic areas of Latin America.” Or, “recipients could also be scholars whose research has made significant advancements towards fostering understanding of Latin America to a broader audience.” I think it safe to say that Dr. Hecht’s record amply fulfills all of these criteria.

The primary criterion for this award is a body of publications. So let’s start there. I will not take the time to review her publications in detail here, however, several deserve more than mere mention. Her best-known and widely read book is Fate of the Forest: Destroyers, Developers and Defenders of the Amazon. The Fate was co-authored with the late Alexander Cockburn, perhaps the New Left’s most notable journalist and political critic over the past half century. Since its publication in 1989, Fate of the Forest has gone through several editions and updates, and there are translations in Spanish and Portuguese. I was invited to review it for the Annals of the AAG. It was obvious then, that beyond its exemplary qualities of putting the Amazon’s environmental history and geography in critical and expert perspective, it was written with a broad public as well as student audiences in mind, and would probably become a “classic.” It has. And for me, it has proven to be a text with few if any equals as a primer on the past, present, and future of a Latin America region. I have used it regularly since 1990 in my Latin America course. Hecht’s most recent book is The Scramble for the Amazon and the Lost Paradise of Euclides da Cunha, published in May 2013 by the University of Chicago Press. It has already received a lengthy review in the Nation magazine, and, given the laudatory appraisals by reviewers in trade publications, it should be very well received in both scholarly quarters and among a general readership. She also has another dozen authored or edited book-length works, either published, in press, or in preparation. Among these we have two more books promising high profiles to look forward to: The End of Nature: Globalization, Global Change and Amazon Forests in the Science Politics of the 21st Century (Knopf) and Tropicality: The History and Politics of an Idea (University of Chicago Press). On top of these, there is a co-edited book, The Social Lives of Forests: Past, Present, and Future of Woodland Resources coming out in March, also with Chicago.

I could stop here. Professor Hecht’s books alone make her a worthy recipient of this award several times over. However, to know her only by her books is to miss much of what else Susanna Hecht has contributed to the study of Latin America, not the least of which, is its geography. Her major research areas include: agroecology, climate change, environmental history, ethnicity and development politics, food systems, forest transition, gender and development, indigenous knowledge systems, and political ecology. Her regional theatres of research have been primarily in Brazil, Bolivia, and Central America, but she maintains an active interest and research focus on Latin America, and indeed the global tropics, as a whole. Among the dozens of specific topics for which she has conducted research and published results, I would mention the following to give you an idea of the range these encompass. Her work on forests includes: studies of non-timber forest products, women’s roles in agro-forestry, the newly recognized phenomenon of forest recovery as it relates to global economics and politics, and the implications of terra preta or “black earth” husbandry for both tropical forestry and agriculture. Her interest in tropical agriculture has spans the spectrum from traditional slash-and-burn systems to the South American soy juggernaut that is furrowing a vast expanse from northern Argentina to northeastern Brazil. Within this complex of agricultural practices, agroforestry has been of special interest, particularly women’s roles in landscape management. Increasingly, tropical reforestation and forest transition is largely carried out and managed by women. Forest resurgence in the tropics is now a widely documented phenomenon. Here Hecht, as with her early recognition of the existence and importance of terra preta, has been in the forefront of a number of research initiatives. More recently, she has focused on resilience questions and problems from the long-range optic of historical ecology and the here-and-now concerns of environmental economics. As in many of her other research pursuits and passions, she transmutes empirical findings – hers and others -- into creative and synthesized understandings of large and complex topics. Not surprisingly, her talents have been well regarded and registered outside of academia’s narrower precincts, particularly in the arena of quality journalism.

The third leg of her accomplishments and qualifications for this honor are the easiest to recount – not because of brevity – far from it, but because I could simply say that she has garnered most of the awards and fellowships for research and scholarship available to geographers. There is a steady stream of prestigious support from the 1980s to present. The list includes such institutions and entities as Guggenheim, MacArthur, and Ford Foundations, Institute of Advanced Studies (Princeton), Center for Advanced Studies in the Behavioral Sciences (Stanford), American Council of Learned Societies, Wenner-Gren, Fulbright, NASA, NSF, and NGS. And these are just the most well-recognized. Clearly Dr. Susanna Bettina Hecht has been widely and I would add deservedly well-recognized by multiple agencies. And now, the Conference of Latin Americanist Geographers would like to join these organizations in recognizing one of our own premier scholars with the Carl O. Sauer Distinguished Scholarship Award. As I think all here would agree, Carl Sauer was one of the preeminent geographers of the last century, and that he directed much of his research toward Latin America from a cultural and historical geographic perspectives was integral. Not unreasonably, his 1975 New York Times obituary headline acclaimed him “Dean of Geographers.” CLAG’s Carl O. Sauer Award has often been bestowed on geographers following in the Sauerian tradition. In the case of this year’s awardee, we have a scholar who has extended that tradition in multiple and creative ways.

-- Kent Mathewson