Árvores do rei, floresta do povo

A instituição das ‘madeiras-de-lei’ no Rio de Janeiro e na ilha de Santa Catarina (Brasil) no final do período colonial

Diogo de Carvalho Cabral and Susana Cesco


Colonial Brazil’s forests are a fascinating new topic in environmental history. Since W. Dean’s With Broadax and Firebrand (1995), the field has been growing as more specific themes have been proposed and investigated. In Fruitless Trees (2000), a pioneering broad-scale incursion on the subject of the timber industry, S. W. Miller builds a theory that associates Portuguese forest policies with the development of the lumber sector. The ‘monopolistic hindrance’ thesis postulates that the conservation strategy represented by the ‘madeiras-de-lei’ (‘timbers-under-the-law’) institution – which aimed to safeguard Brazil’s best trees for the construction and maintenance of the Royal Navy – was vague and poorly enforced but extremely rigid in its intent, resulting in negative consequences for the forest’s use and economic development. This paper aims to debate this statement and contribute to the model’s improvement. Our research on administrative documents from late 18th and early 19th centuries in Rio de Janeiro and Santa Catarina Island does not confirm the harshness of colonial government policies. Additionally, it also suggests that daily forest management was far more complex than the simple reading of Royal prescriptions would lead one to think. Drawing on E. P. Thompson’s theoretical insights, we describe the ‘madeiras-de-lei’ institution as a practice that emerged as the dynamic result of socio-political relations established between forest bureaucracy – conceived as a group of individuals endowed with personal interests and well aware of the social and ecological peculiarities of the environment on which they acted – and private economic agents (sugar-mill owners, subsistence farmers, merchants, shipbuilders) for whom direct and continuous access to carbonized and/or non-carbonized timber was crucial.


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