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Terra preta de índio: Commodification and Mythification of the Amazonian Dark Earths

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Terra preta is a “hot” topic in the environmental sciences. From an anthropogenic soil type of local relevance, terra preta has been transformed by soil scientists into a techno-scientific object that helps to escape the global ecological crisis. The commodification goes along with a mythification that does not spare the scientific sphere.

This paper contributes to the history of terra preta research. It traces not only the history of science of Amazonian Dark Earths (terra preta de índio) but the history of knowledge of terra preta taking explicitly into account indigenous contributions. Five major phases are distinguished. In the beginning knowledge on terra preta was local indigenous knowledge. The scientific object “terra preta” was created in the context of archaeological research and has then been reframed as a carbon-sequestering soil in the context of the rising global warming debate in the early 1990s. This development led to a de-contextualization of terra preta and to commodification, giving rise to the biochar industry. Commodification included mythification of terra preta, stressing its ancient, prehistoric roots. Both processes ‐ commodification and mythification ‐ can also be found within the scientific sphere. This seems to indicate that not only terra preta has become a commodity, but that also research on terra preta shows signs of commodification.
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Keywords: Amazonian Dark Earth; biochar; carbon storage; global warming; history of knowledge; indigenous knowledge; soil science; terra preta

Document Type: Research Article

Publication date: 01 January 2017

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  • GAIA is a peer-reviewed inter- and transdisciplinary journal for scientists and other interested parties concerned with the causes and analyses of environmental and sustainability problems and their solutions.

    Environmental problems cannot be solved by one academic discipline. The complex natures of these problems require cooperation across disciplinary boundaries. Since 1991, GAIA has offered a well-balanced and practice-oriented forum for transdisciplinary research. GAIA offers first-hand information on state of the art environmental research and on current solutions to environmental problems. Well-known editors, advisors, and authors work to ensure the high quality of the contributions found in GAIA and a unique transdisciplinary dialogue – in a comprehensible style.

    GAIA is an ISI-journal, listed in the Science Citation Index Expanded, Social Science Citation Index and in Current Contents/Social and Behavioral Sciences.

    All contributions undergo a double-blind peer review.

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