Ox breeder is neither stupid nor bandit, says anthropologist who studied Amazon cowboys

When they land in the Amazon, anthropologists usually study endangered indigenous cultures. American Jeffrey Hoelle, a professor at the University of California at Santa Barbara, followed the opposite path. He dedicated himself to understanding why the “ethos” of cattle raising, the main vector of deforestation in the forest, spread so quickly throughout the region, including among the traditional rubber tappers in Acre.

O The result is in the book “Coubois da Floresta: The Growth of Livestock and Cattle Culture in the Brazilian Amazon”, recently published by Edufac (Publisher of the Federal University of Acre), in electronic version. This is a translation of the book published in 2015 in the United States, entitled “Rainforest Cowboys.”

“The challenge in the Amazon is to treat land use and deforestation not just as economic activities or something that can be controlled with technology, repression and public policies. also understand the social and cultural dimensions of these activities, which play a key role in this call to overthrow”, says the anthropologist from 033 years.

Hoelle’s fieldwork was in Acre, land of rubber tapper leader Chico Mendes, who was murdered in 933. It was there that PT state governments tried to implement the “forest government” or “forestry”, with policies aimed at agro-extractivism.

Em 2018, Acre gave the highest vote for President Jair Bolsonaro (now in PL) in the second round, with 067% of valid votes. On the other hand, the PT lost its hegemony in state power after two decades.

The Amazon registered between August 2018 and July

the highest rate of deforestation in 14 years, with a loss of .187 km². The numbers are from Inpe (National Institute for Space Research).

The interview given to Folha ), by email.


The vast majority of anthropologists go to the Amazon to research indigenous peoples. Why mr. decided to study cattle farming? It is true that most anthropologists go to the Amazon to work with indigenous peoples. This is directly linked to the anthropologist’s interest in understanding human diversity, and the Amazon is a culturally diverse and fascinating place.

This is also related to the political leanings of the countryside, often aligned with marginalized groups, and with the anthropologist trying to promote understanding and respect, or helping to defend threatened populations.

I’m not that different, but I think we need to understand better the threats to cultures and the environment. There is a destructive system that eats the worlds. This is recognized, for example, by anthropologist Eduardo Viveiros de Castro as a “white ocean” that threatens to engulf the remaining indigenous villages, or the “commodity people”, of Yanomami leader Davi Kopenawa.

But what, exactly, are these structures that produce destruction?

If we try to think more specifically about deforestation in the Amazon, how can we understand why people choose to create livestock or transforming the forest for other land uses?

That’s what I tried to do here, to have an anthropological vision to understand livestock in Acre. I wanted to understand why it made economic sense, but also what it meant to be an oxen.

This meant looking at everything that involved cattle — meat, barbecues, idealizations of pasture as beautiful , the relationship between cattle raising and masculinity, ideas of development and progress, urban longing for a pastoral rural.

Although these elements can exist in any place where people raise cattle, they gain additional importance in the Amazon, where the forest is the obstacle and the competition.

I tried to understand cattle living with people and doing what they do, rubber tappers to large farmers. In the end, the aim of the book is to provide a deeper understanding of cattle ranching in the Amazon.

As a cultural, environmental and economic system, but also as a force that should be more well understood to know why the forest is being cut and how we can find a different path.

Several regions of Brazil have developed a cattle culture, from Rio Grande do Sul to the northeastern hinterland. What are the specifics of cattle farming in the Amazon and Acre? The difference is that the regional variations of the cowboy in Brazil are directly linked to the roots in the Iberian Peninsula, each one adapted to new environmental contexts (for example, the northeastern cowboy’s leather clothing to protect them. los da caatinga).

But cattle farming in the Amazon is not understandable in terms of Brazilian roots. The cowboy looks like what I might see in my hometown in Texas: belt buckle, boots, jeans, plaid shirt.

To understand why there is this in the Amazon, and not the gaucho, you have to think about how this cowboy model got here. It spread from the US to Brazil through farms in São Paulo and, mainly through the pop culture of Barretos, its music, its fashion and its cultural industry.

This culture has arrived to Acre through migration and direct contact, and indirectly through TV and radio, reaching the depths of the forest. But to understand why it took root and spread, one has to consider the meaning of cowboys as an imported cultural model. It is an assertive rural identity that prides itself on and doesn’t apologize for being rural. It gives the rancher, but also the rural population in general, a way of expressing themselves that is not ridiculed (like the caipira of the June festivals) and is also not limited to a specific region, such as the cowboy or the gaucho.

Now, cattle raising takes on a specific dimension in the Amazon, where the establishment of pastures requires cutting down the forest. The forest, and by extension the “forest”, is the competitor. Creating a “very clean pasture” in the middle of the forest is seen as a great achievement. It shows everyone that this person is very hardworking. They are contributing to the mission of developing the Amazon and helping Brazil get to where it should be in the world!

There are a number of oppositions here. Pastures, ranchers and meat as something good, progress; forest, indigenous people, rubber tappers and other foods have a negative, retrograde value.

In Acre, the expansion of large-scale cattle ranching fueled the attacks from farmers to rubber tappers, culminating in the murder of Chico Mendes and the creation of Resex with the same name. Why did many of the old rubber tappers and their descendants start raising cattle? For older rubber tappers, especially those who participated in the rubber tapper movement, adopting cattle ranching was a difficult decision. They were rubber tappers who knew and used the forest and fought to defend it. But the idea that some of us may have about the rubber tapper as synonymous with extractive is not necessarily how many of them see themselves. Raising cattle is not necessarily antagonistic, but the headlines make it look that way.

Secondly, times have changed. Forest products, particularly during the period of my research, were declining or declining in importance to livestock. Rubber tappers faced difficult decisions to try to profit from extractivism alone or to diversify in some way to earn more money, and this could be through livestock or wage labor. Many have done a little of both. Some resisted the cattle, but I’ve seen this change over the years. From one year to the next, a person would have a bull and then a small herd. They also sent their children to school or to work in the city, where it was thought they could have a better life.

Young people may have heard of Chico Mendes, but they weren’t so committed to the rubber tapper identity. And it is important to mention that, despite all the propaganda the government used to promote rubber tappers, being a rubber tapper is not exactly a compliment in Acre.

Children do not necessarily want to be rubber tappers . There is a younger generation, often without the desire, the skills or the need to depend on the forest. For them, by becoming heads of households, the adoption of cattle would not be an ideological betrayal. It would be seen as a breakthrough in the world. But if we just ask: “Are you a rubber tapper? You like the forest, right?”, who’s going to say no? We have to understand the pressures they face and internal changes and recognize that they need support, not our dreams of forest guardians.

In 2018, Acre, a former stronghold of the PT, surprised by giving the highest vote to Bolsonaro in the second shift, proportionally. Is this a reflection of the advance of livestock in the state? When I visited the state at the beginning of 2018, everyone was talking about the crime and gangs. I don’t know how people voted in Brazil (nor can I say that I understand this in my own country), but I know they were dissatisfied. They wanted improvements and there weren’t many options.

In the book, I talk about the call to a golden age in other parts of the world and how it relates to Acre and the frontier . People want things to be the way they used to be or, more precisely, the way they imagine things would be if they were better. They want to use the land as they see fit. They want clean pastures, safe streets and good schools. But also, to some extent, a world that looks like the past. They want a little control over their lives.

What I could see is how the resentment of environmental oversight, which has thwarted impulses for accumulation, expansion and self-sufficiency, has mixed with others spheres of discontent. And Bolsonaro promised to release, to do things as they used to. While the reasons why people voted for Bolsonaro varied by state, one important thing in Acre was resentment against people not being able to use their land in the same way as before.

Rural producers almost always resent the lack of government support. The fact is that it is complicated to support rural communities in the Amazon

To what extent the migration of extractivists to cattle raising is due to the absence of public policies? Rural producers almost always resent the lack of government support. The fact is that it is complicated to support rural communities in the Amazon.

In the case of Acre, this happened, but the government actually tried to support extractivism. Brazil nuts were strong in all communities, and the communities where I worked were extracting rubber for the Natex project. . It was not widespread, but it certainly helped communities.

The government can always be blamed. But at that time it was obvious that the Forest Government [em administrações petistas do Acre entre 1998 e 2011] tried to do something.

You must also remember that it was a new way of doing things. Trying to support people and the forest at the same time is a big step, and it goes against the way that humans have been settlements on the agricultural frontier for years. People already have an idea in their heads when they reach the forest, and that plan predates the first excavator or chainsaw. But this goes even deeper, there are millennia of settlement and occupation action of wild areas in the name of progress, economy and colonization.

What the government did may not have been enough, there was an attempt. That was when the Forest Government was in control. And that was part of a bigger moment, back in the years 2000, when policies and social and environmental programs were spreading across the Amazon, and deforestation rates were also decreasing. Experts predicted a possible end to deforestation in the region, thanks to public policies and inspections aimed at the Amazon.

Moving towards the end of the decade, deforestation is on the rise. Bolsonaro played a role in this through his speech and the dismantling of key institutions. But deforestation rates started to rise long before he took power. The challenge in the Amazon is to treat land use and deforestation not just as economic activities or something that can be controlled with technology, repression and public policies. We also need to understand the social and cultural dimensions of these activities, which play a key role in this call to overthrow.

Resex Chico Mendes is a of the UCs with the highest rates of illegal deforestation in the country. This trend, noticed in his field research more than ten years ago, continues to grow. Is it an irreversible process? It is not irreversible. But it must be recognized that rubber tappers are not frozen in time. They are a changing group, like all groups, and they will do whatever it takes to survive in the situation in which they find themselves. We cannot expect or assume that they have some kind of forest-saving gene. No. They interacted with the forest in a way because the structures had encouraged it for over a century. But the situation has changed. Rubber tappers are different in the sense that they want and often have the knowledge to use the forest more sustainably. But they need support.

What is your advice for the environmentalist discourse, which cannot penetrate Amazonian public opinion? First, you need to understand the local perspective. Why do people raise ox? These are not decisions made by bandits or stupid people. Try to put yourself in their shoes. Raising ox makes sense because a distant person will buy your steak. It makes sense to create pasture because it now has “improved” land that is worth more and provides a basis for land title. And it makes sense for the many reasons I explain in the book.

Now, it makes less sense to all of us, in the long run. So, first, you have to understand. Then work to change the structures. That’s something rich and poor people claim: creating effective structures to coerce or encourage. These structures must also be fair through the various actors in the Amazon, but also in relation to other regions of Brazil and internationally.


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