- Rainforest Cowboys: The Rise of Ranching and Cattle Culture in Western Amazonia by Jeffrey Hoelle
Research related to tropical deforestation in the Americas has grown from a few seminal articles in the 1970s into one of the most popular topics among Latin Americanist geographers. While cattle ranchers often figure prominently in that literature, the equally popular political ecology approach that dominates such research can represent them rather simplistically, as a monolithic force that destroys rainforest and its native cultures instead of as a social group with its own varied cultural dimensions. With this book, Hoelle joins others who have begun to remedy that considerable gap in the literature by focusing on what he terms “cattle culture” and how it modulates the social interactions of ranchers, cowboys, agricultural colonists, rubber tappers, environmentalists, and government officials in the Brazilian state of Acre.
In Acre, highway BR-364 reaches the frontier between Brazil, Peru, and Bolivia near the headwaters of some of the Amazon’s major tributaries. Homeland to the Kulina and many other native peoples, dominated by rubber barons during the nineteenth century, fiercely disputed by Brazil and Bolivia in the early twentieth century, Acre became emblematic of Amazonian social movements in the 1980s through the activism of Chico Mendes. Born in Acre in 1944, the union leader and environmentalist also died there, shot to death in his home by a cattle rancher in 1988. The international media portrayed Mendes as the protagonist, a martyr for the rainforest, and thereby did much to increase popular sympathy for the establishment of reserves to protect the environment, native peoples, and rubber tappers from the agricultural colonization and ranching that was [End Page 163] proliferating along the system of highways the Brazilian government was building to promote colonization and development of the Amazon basin. At the same time, the media narrative established ranchers as the antagonists: not only as the destroyers of the rainforest, but also as the murderers of its defenders. That narrative encouraged researchers to focus on the social movements, indigenous peoples, and the environment while essentializing ranchers as one-dimensional villains.
Hoelle’s research reveals cattle ranchers and their employees as a much more complex group, with a fascinating culture that hybridizes elements from the gaúchos of southern Brazil with those from the vaqueiros of the Sertão of the northeast as well as with yet other elements from North American cowboys. Acrean caubois thus listen to traditional música sertaneja but also to the fusion genre of contri, sip herba maté tea but wear big belt buckles and other symbols of what they call the Texano style, and love their rodeos as much as gathering at their churrascos to eat steak.
Extensive field work that incorporated landscape interpretation, interviews, participant observation, questionnaires, oral histories, and qualitative and quantitative analysis reveals how social groups such as agricultural colonists and rubber tappers have adopted various aspects of that cattle culture as they increasingly began to raise cattle in the 1990s. Their adoption of some couboi practices, perceptions, and symbols is not necessary to the economic integration of cattle herding into agricultural and extractive land uses and therefore suggests the entwining of cultural, economic, and political processes. Agricultural colonists, for example, began to equate the vida contri of the ranchers with economic success, bought cattle, began to wear cauboi hats, and consider pasture a more ideal landscape type than fields of crops, signaling a cultural as well as an economic shift. Even environmentalists, who disparage cattle ranching and consider forest the ideal landscape type, eat beef an average of nearly four days per week and have adopted various other elements of cattle culture. One environmental lawyer even opened a store named Cowboys Ranch so that all of the trappings of cattle culture–from hats and lassos to boots and smokeless tobacco–would be available to the urban caubois de vitrine (store-window cowboys) who hang out at the...