Asked if we would not be better today if Brazil had been colonized by the Dutch or the French, a professor of History at USP used to answer: “There is no beautiful history of colonialism”. Secrets of Putumayo, documentary in Aurelius Micheles, showing in cinemas, illustrates, in an impressive way, the brutality of the colonialist expansion policy, whatever it is or the country that promotes it. The film evokes English colonialism in the Upper Amazon, in the Putumayo region – on the border between Ecuador, Colombia and Peru – one of the bloodiest chapters in the history of rubber exploration in the Amazon.
Secrets of Putumayo is based on the diaries left by the Irish poet, diplomat and activist Roger Casement (1864-1916), at the time serving in Brazil as consul of the British Empire. Casement traveled to the site to investigate complaints and found (and also photographed) the atrocities to which indigenous people were subjected in the process of extracting latex. Casement is voiced by actor Stephen Rea.
Secrets of Putumayo it turns out to be a great work. Both by the force of the images and the text interpreted by Rea and by the sad relevance of his denunciation. It links different moments in history, from Belgian colonialism in Africa to the brutal methods of the Peruvian Amazon Company that resulted in thousands of indigenous deaths in the Putumayo region. It extends to the present day, with the “flexibilization” of environmental protection laws and guarantees for indigenous territories in the Brazilian Amazon, which make room for new genocides. It was (and is) profit at any human cost and not the alleged civilizing purposes that guide empires in their foreign interventions.
In addition to denouncing the genocide of native peoples, Secrets of Putumayo brings back the central figure of Roger Casement. Combining his experiences in Africa and America, Casement can be seen as a pioneer in the defense of human rights. O Roger Casement’s Amazon Diary can be read in a careful edition of Edusp (2016). Aurélio Michiles himself, in partnership with Mariana Bolfarine and Laura PZ Izarra, edited the beautiful book that accompanies the release of the film, Secrets of Putumayo (Beehive, 2022).