Germans Go Subtropical: Migration and the Quest for Environmental-Climatic Knowledge in South America

German migration in subtropical South America began in the early nineteenth century. It lasted for almost 150 years and shaped one of the most extensive projects of transnational forest colonization and global agricultural exchange in history. This experience catalyzed the formation of different bodies of knowledge, many of them currently either lost or “fugitive,” as Glenn Penny characterizes German migrant knowledge in Central America.

Indeed, German colonists had a desperate need to produce, manage, and disseminate complex environmental-climatic knowledge because they often settled on landscapes covered by the semievergreen forests of the Mata Atlântica biome, the dynamics of which were deeply embedded in previous human ecologies.1 Colonists had to schedule and even organize their departure from Europe by closely following the climatic conditions and local ecologies of South America. Land clearance and burning, for instance, had to take place in mid-spring in order to avoid the customary late winter precipitation; some types of forests could be more readily burned than others; clay soils promised booming agricultural productivity; and so on. German colonists had to redraw their entire agricultural calendar, and knowledge was an express part of this process.

From 1824 onwards, Germans began to settle in the southernmost Brazilian province, Rio Grande do Sul, which had been chosen by the political (imperial) elites in Rio de Janeiro to host a long-lasting flow of European migration. Climate discourses, policies of racial whitening, dynastic influences, and geopolitical machinations (disputes over hegemony in the La Plata region) helped motivate a large-scale plan of foreign rural colonization. Since that time, tropical and subtropical agrarian frontiers in South America have remained open for colonists from central Europe, making them landscapes of classical “settler colonialism.”2

When the Brazilian authorities began to promote immigration in the 1820s, Rio Grande do Sul was sparsely populated, and the former Portuguese administration was not pushing for the colonization of the southern semievergreen Atlantic forests. Agricultural production in the province was very limited and differed radically from the vast Brazilian commercial farming built on tropical crops for export. Agriculture here was conducted either by yerba mate producers of diverse ethnic and social backgrounds who practiced small-scale shifting cultivation on common lands or by Azorean-Portuguese settlements on the decline that had been established along the Jacuí river and its interconnections with the extensive waterways of the Lagoa dos Patos lagoon. Although indigenous groups, such as the Kaingang and Xokleng, also participated in the agricultural-based economy, they focused on subsistence and on gathering forest products (mostly the Araucaria angustifolia pine nut).3 By 1850, then, Germans were already responsible for the largest share of the region's agricultural output, mostly because local elites dominated the profitable estancieiro-gaúcho cattle-ranching system in the pampas and tended not to engage in agriculture. Since then, German colonization has remained a cornerstone for the history of agriculture in Brazilian society.

In the mid-nineteenth century, private entrepreneurs from Brazil and Germany also founded German rural colonies in the adjacent province of Santa Catarina, which thrived by echoing the initiatives taken in Rio Grande do Sul. In the 1860s, immediately after observing Brazil’s successful experiences, Chile, Peru, and Argentina began their own rural colonization undertakings with Germans. Following this process, governments and private actors alike collaborated to provide special conditions, services, and information with the aim of attracting European colonists to South America. We may well argue that the South America–Central Europe migration system was already operating and becoming well-established since German colonies were beginning to develop across several other nations within the region, one experiencing a persistent influx of migrants.

A cultural zone emerged along this migration axis, enabling the production, consumption, and circulation of environmental-climatic knowledge beyond that previously produced by scientists, artists, and academic societies for circulation in scholarly networks. This zone was marked by what Simone Lässig calls “migrant knowledge,” 4 whereby topics, literary genres, media, and specific networks were created, altered, or destroyed, whether to reject intellectual knowledge or simply ignore it or even cooperate with and complement it. Migrant, expert, and native-hybrid knowledge joined the booming, diversified media system that was developing between the 1840s and 1870s in the Germanies, Brazil, and other Latin American countries.5 Increasing popular literacy, vested nationalistic/colonial interests, technological improvements, welcoming Latin American elites, and more integrated a vast transnational cultural zone of environmental-climatic knowledge. For the purposes of my analysis, which focuses on the Brazilian case, I call this the “German-Brazilian environmental-climatic zone.”

Image of a Brazilian “Urwald” or “virgin forest” published in a widely circulated German magazine. Source: Alexander Schöppner, “Ein Brasilianischer Urwald,” Die Gartenlaube, Heft 4 (1858): 48–50, via Wikimedia Commons.

Regarding the relationship between the circulation of environmental knowledge and the rise of environmentalism as portrayed by David Heidenblad for the Swedish case in the 1960s,6 one might question whether there is any sense in applying the label “environmental” to the knowledge that colonists, scientists, and explorers produced in subtropical South America before the ecological revolution of the 1960s and 1970s. Even within a framework of European history, agricultural knowledge was not separate from forestry knowledge, as indicated by Verena Winiwarter for most of the modern period,7 and neither form was “environmental” in the contemporary sense. Furthermore, the frontiers between the “environmental” and “climatic” are also difficult to draw.8 Nevertheless, in the absence of a more accurate definition, “environmental-climatic” provides a useful form of contemporary readability, even if the idea of “agricultural” knowledge sounds historically more accurate.

In subtropical South America, the first reality that German colonists faced was the dense, tropical Mata Atlântica. The forest stretched along most of the Brazilian Atlantic coast, becoming wider towards the south of the country, reaching the humid valleys of the international Paraná–La Plata River Basin and the inland rivers of Rio Grande do Sul and Santa Catarina. The Germans called most of the forest subtypes belonging to the Mata Atlântica biome the Urwald, or virgin forest. This Urwald corresponded to a concept of “wilderness” that was not consistent with the social realities of the local environment. Indeed, the alleged Urwald had been long inhabited by very heterogeneous groups. Hence, there was no Urwald in the etymological sense; it was simply an invention, one more Western myth of nature, a symbol of ecological otherness.

The Urwald was the main focus of the German-Brazilian environmental-climatic cultural zone. This transcultural space of the knowledge flows shaped a multipolar network of environmental-climatic information that circulated through different social strata via diverse communication strategies, languages, and genres. Clearly, asymmetries existed with regard to printed knowledge, which was overwhelmingly produced in Germany. Scientific networks thus depended mostly on European sponsors, and Latin American elites enthusiastically embraced European civilization-building projects.

Unlike scientists and belletrists, colonists faced fewer problems in bypassing academic science and did not feel the pressure to extend European civilization still further across the world. They produced and disseminated huge amounts of knowledge mostly by writing letters to their families and friends in Europe or elsewhere. Women were especially involved in drafting, summarizing, and sending environmental-climatic knowledge from overseas back to Germany. By attending to the responsibilities involved in keeping family ties alive, they assumed a leading role in this task. Newspapers—founded by individuals, companies, or associations in order to assist migrants—afforded additional media spaces for the circulation of knowledge. Similarly, businessmen and scholars took an active part in knowledge flows by establishing organizations on a global scale such as the Central Association for Trade Geography and for the Promotion of German Interests Abroad (1878), which included acclaimed members of the German-Brazilian intelligentsia and local entrepreneurs. By observing all this knowledge through the lens of a cultural zone, it may be possible to challenge traditional assumptions that have alleged the passivity, incompetence, and unpreparedness of German colonists when faced with the natural environment of subtropical South America. Global links also come to the fore and may challenge more localist approaches in the literature.

“Statistical table of the number of letters from settlers from the Santa Cruz colony and the Monte Alverne colony sent to Europe in the year 1866 through this board” (the Diretoria da Colônia de Santa Cruz). Source: Arquivo Histórico do Rio Grande do Sul (Porto Alegre): Caixa 34, Maço 64, October 29, 1867.

Environmental-climatic information within the system of the cultural zone was generally available via written sources and interpersonal contacts. With regard to the former, the diversity of actors and genres was astonishing. Written accounts were enhanced by the development of both new and old media in Germany, including general newspapers, thematic newspapers, emigration literature, and advice books. Migrant letters also belonged to the written-word arena. They comprised one of the most efficient methods for environmental-climatic knowledge transfer since missives between family members enjoyed a high level of credibility. While intellectualized travelers, scholars, and clergymen also carried high levels of credibility, colonization agents and merchants possessed limited reliability within the zone. Interpersonal contacts mostly relied on immediate social relations in South America, the assessment of which proves difficult to track down, since orality prevailed. Interethnic exchanges took place on a daily basis and framed channels of knowledge exchange between locals and newcomers. In state-sponsored colonies, for example, migrants were generally welcomed by local staff, who often brokered linguistic and cultural differences, many of them being foreigners themselves (mostly German) who had nurtured friendly relations with the surrounding communities. Information on local crops, land clearance techniques, precipitation, building materials, and the use of native plants, for example, were the subjects of such interactions. At the same time, physical and symbolic violence against native societies and customary tenants also shaped knowledge once European colonization demanded the displacement or even the genocide of indigenous groups,9 whose knowledge was very often dismissed.

Nationalism and global power also shaped the German-Brazilian environmental-climatic zone between the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Germandom, traditionally confined to linguistic, religious, and ethnic-national belonging in the literature, played an important role in translating environmental-climatic knowledge. Most German migrants who disembarked in Brazil integrated with the already established German farming strata, and very soon proponents of Germandom grasped that maintaining some sort of “national spirit” in the Brazilian lands could only be achieved through agricultural success. Indeed, Germandom helped get information to the colonists, although it also sought to impose a German national-liberal and scientific agenda on the settlers. A frequent Germandom approach was to condemn German-Brazilian agricultural technology (Roçawirtschaft) as primitive. The intensive use of fire on forest resources and the colonists’ rejection of modern, cereal-based agriculture figured here as the main causes behind the loss of Germanness because German-Brazilian migrants appeared to ignore German scientific supremacy in the realm of agricultural technology. Moreover, themes from German agrarian romanticism were raised as distinctive symbols of a national character. At least from the 1860s onwards, there was a campaign to situate the colonists within the technical pattern of rational agriculture and forestry practiced in a number of German states, thereby reflecting an attempt there to move the peasant (Bauer) and estate owner (Gutsbesitzer) toward a national community of farmers (Landwirte) in the unified Germany.10 Colonists in Brazil generally rejected these appeals, conducting agriculture and using forests according to their own perspectives. Nonetheless, the tense relationship between the romanticized German forest folk (Waldvolk) ideology and the realities on the ground of the German-Brazilian virgin forest folk (Urwaldvolk) remained strained until the Nazi period.11

Brazilian-German agriculture implicitly criticized in Germany with an image of a roça, a parcel of land for farming cleared using slash-and-burn methods. Source: Johann Jakob von Tschudi, Reisen Durch Südamerika. 5 vols. 3. (Leipzig: Brockhaus, 1867), iii:107, via HathiTrust.

In comparison to subsequent European forest colonizations in subtropical South America, German migration proved efficient in managing a set of useful applied botanic, agronomic, and climatic knowledge. Whereas Italians, Poles, and Ukrainians increasingly restricted themselves to their former agricultural practices, Germans engaged more intensively in tropical and subtropical crops. I would suggest that this conspicuous difference may be traced back to the establishment of an active environmental-climatic cultural zone, which facilitated the exchange of knowledge and helped to diminish agrarian complexities. The quick ability Germans evinced in mastering the native South American agronomic repertoire was soon noticed through contemporary sources, for example. There were many operators in this cultural zone. While it is hard to be precise about its center, nodes may be observed in a number of places. The migrants themselves, often forgotten in terms of their importance regarding the dynamics of knowledge, played a major role with their letters and other missives, which conveyed the bulk of the environmental and climatic knowledge circulating between central Europe and subtropical South America.

Eduardo Relly is an environmental historian and a postdoctoral research fellow at Friedrich Schiller University Jena. He is currently engaged in the project Ownership of Genetic Resources: On the Appropriation of Traditional Knowledge in the Bioeconomy. He is also writing a monograph on social capital, the environment, and German immigration in southern Brazil.

  1. See Francisco S. Noelli, “A ocupação humana na região sul do Brasil: Arqueologia, debates e perspectivas, 1872–2000,” Revista USP, no. 44 (December 1999 / February 2000): 218–69; and Mark Robinson et al., “Uncoupling Human and Climate Drivers of Late Holocene Vegetation Change in Southern Brazil,” Scientific Reports 8, no. 1 (2018): 7800. ↩︎
  2. Fiona Bateman and Lionel Pilkington, “Introduction,” in Studies in Settler Colonialism: Politics, Identity and Culture, ed. Bateman and Pilkington (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011), 1–9. ↩︎
  3. See Sílvio Marcus de Souza Correa and Juliana Bublitz, Terra de promissão: Uma introdução à eco-história da colonização do Rio Grande do Sul (Santa Cruz do Sul: EDUNISC, 2006); and Paulo Zarth, “A Estrutura Agrária,” in História geral do Rio Grande do Sul, vol. 2, Império, ed. Helga Iracema Landgraf Piccolo et al. (Passo Fundo: Méritos, 2006), 187–214. ↩︎
  4. Simone Lässig, “The History of Knowledge and the Expansion of the Historical Research Agenda,” Bulletin of the GHI, no. 56, Fall (2016): 29–58, ↩︎
  5. See the concept of “reading revolution” in Thomas Nipperdey, Deutsche Geschichte 1800–1866: Bürgerwelt und Starker Staat, 3rd rev. ed (Munich: Beck, 1994), 587–88; and René E. Gertz, “Imprensa e imigração alemã,” in Imigração & Imprensa, ed. Martin N. Dreher, Arthur B. Rambo, and Marcos J. Tramontini (Porto Alegre, São Leopoldo: EST Edições, Instituto Histórico de São Leopoldo, 2004), 100–122. ↩︎
  6. David Larsson Heidenblad, “Mapping a New History of the Ecological Turn: The Circulation of Environmental Knowledge in Sweden 1967,” Environment and History 24, no. 2 (2018): 265–84. ↩︎
  7. Verena Winiwarter, “Land Use and Agrarian Knowledge as Topics of Early-Modern Environmental History,” in An Environmental History of the Early Modern Period: Experiments and Perspectives, ed. Martin Knoll and Reinhold Reith (Wien: Lit, 2014), 55–59. ↩︎
  8. Julia Tangermann and Alex Kreienbrink, “Umwelt- und Klimamigration: Begriffe und Definitionen,” Kurzdoziers: Migration und Klimawandel, Bundeszentrale für politische Bildung, March 1, 2019, ↩︎
  9. For more details, see Stefan Rinke, “‘No Alternative to Extermination’: Germans and Their 'Savages' in Southern Brazil at the Turn of the Century,” in Savage Worlds: German Encounters Abroad, 1798–1914, ed. Matthew P. Fitzpatrick and Peter Monteath (Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 2018), 21–41. ↩︎
  10. For details, see Frank Uekötter, Die Wahrheit ist auf dem Feld: Eine Wissensgeschichte der deutschen Landwirtschaft (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2010). ↩︎
  11. See Hans M. Porzelt, Der deutsche Bauer in Rio Grande do Sul (Ochsenfurt am Main: Fritz & Rappert, 1937). ↩︎
Suggested Citation: Eduardo Relly, “Germans Go Subtropical: Migration and the Quest for Environmental-Climatic Knowledge in South America,” History of Knowledge, July 16, 2021,