Over the course of four years, UCSB anthropologist Jeffrey Hoelle spent a total of 18 months in Acre, Brazil tapping rubber and rounding up cattle while studying the social dynamics contributing to deforestation in the Amazon Forest.
Hoelle recently published his research in an article titled “Black Hats and Smooth Hands: Elite Status, Environmentalism, and Work Among the Ranchers of Acre, Brazil,” and next year, the scholar will release a book titled The Hoof of the Bull: The Rise of Ranching and Cattle Culture in Acre, Brazil, in which he will compare his research in the Amazon with studies of cattle raising in East Africa and India.
For over a century, rubber tappers have collected sap of rubber trees in the rainforest. Since the 1970s, however, the demand for natural rubber has decreased, and many people have turned to converting the rainforest into pastures for cattle, causing serious environmental concerns, according to Hoelle.
“I learned cattle raising was the leading cause of deforestation in the Americas, so I wanted to better understand cattle ranching from their point of view,” Hoelle said. “I tried to learn how different people used cattle and why it made sense for the rubber tappers who lived in the forest to shift to cattle ranching.”
For the duration of his study, Hoelle conducted interviews and surveys but also lived and worked with rubber tappers and ranchers, sometimes living with no electricity and with local creeks as the only source of water.
In spite of the rugged conditions, Hoelle said his primary concern was getting to know the people of the region.
“At first … they let me stay with them, but they didn’t really trust me,” Hoelle said, “So … anything the group did, I did it with them, and gradually I came to understand their perspectives, what they did, and what the challenges were in their lives. I was able to better understand their reality because they opened up to me.”
While there is tension between the rubber tappers looking to preserve the rainforest, and the colonists who are cutting it down, the lines between the two groups are not always defined, according to Hoelle. In fact, Hoelle said more wealthy ranchers do not always end up causing more deforestation since the government can more easily monitor their large properties and impose restrictions.
“A lot of other people, poor people, are doing it,” Hoelle said. “So they’re contributing to deforestation a lot now.”
Hoelle said while there is a lot of positive development in the region, there are currently not enough alternatives for those who urgently need to have livelihoods to feed their families.
“They don’t have the support or infrastructure to do other things,” Hoelle said.
Susanna Hecht, a professor in the Department of Urban Planning at UCLA who specializes in tropical development in the Amazon Basin and Central America, said Hoelle’s research is relatively unique because it delves into the emergence of a small-scale livestock sector — an area not typically studied in relation to deforestation.
Hecht said Hoelle’s research also draws attention to changes in the crop selections of South American farmers, as the region’s agriculture has recently faced price falls.
“There’s been this really big shift in much of Latin America, which is that grains which used to be the purview of small farmers, are now produced industrially,” Hecht said. “One of the things that [has] happened is that the price of grains has gone down. Also, forest products — such as rubber and Brazil nuts — also haven’t held their prices very well.”
Dropping prices in Latin American agriculture has caused the region’s inhabitants to look for other occupations.
“What that means is that people have to do other things, they have to diversify, and many people go into cattle because the entry costs are low, the labor costs are low and culturally, it has a lot of stature.”
According to Hecht, deforestation has declined by nearly 70 percent within the past decade, but migrants from the northeastern region looking for work are naturally drawn to cattle ranching.
“In terms of Amazonia, you’re seeing a net contraction, at least in Brazil, and livestock as an expanding frontier, compared to what it had been in the past,” Hecht said. “So we’re in the middle of a structural change.”
Hoelle said his research enables him to see past many of the negative stereotypes of ranchers, allowing him to understand the pertinent cultural factors of the region at a time when deforestation’s effects on climate change is attracting more public concern.
Geography professor David López-Carr said Hoelle’s research has provided a deeper sense of understanding on how humans have impacted the environment of the Amazon.
“Arguably, there is no greater human impact on the face of the earth than the conversion of forests for pasture to raise livestock,” López-Carr said. “Hoelle’s in-depth research with cattle ranchers helps us understand the culture of this ecologically important group and how human culture is inscribed on the landscape in this Amazonian context.”
According to Stuart Tyson Smith, chair of the Anthropology Department, Hoelle’s work has offered insight on how locals relate to the changing conditions of their environments.
“It’s a cutting-edge area of research in anthropology [regarding] issues that are of concern to the world, particularly to the Amazon but also the interaction of people and preserves,” Smith said. “The development side of things is very important for understanding how the local people view these things, and that’s how you can make it sustainable — by understanding what the dynamic is.”
A version of this article appeared on page 4 of February 28th, 2013’s print edition of the Nexus.