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Anthropologist Studies Rise of Amazon Cowboys

Award-winning paper examines ranching in the rainforest

12/15/2011
Jeffrey Hoelle, Ph.D

​DENVER - Growing up in San Angelo, Texas, Jeffrey Hoelle knew a thing or two about cowboys.

He knew their culture, their clothes and the allure they held for even the most sophisticated city dweller.

His father, a CPA, even bought cattle.
 
“Just to have them,” said Hoelle. “He felt that owning cattle was part of being a Texan.”
 
Now an adjunct professor of Anthropology at the University of Colorado Denver, Hoelle, Ph.D., is writing a book about cowboys of a different sort - those deep in the Amazon rainforest.
 
“Cattle raising is the leading cause of deforestation in the Amazon,” he said. “I set out to understand why ranching is expanding but even more I wanted to understand the appeal of owning cattle. I wanted to know how it conveys status and prestige that other land uses do not.”
 
To find out, Hoelle headed for the Brazilian state of Acre where he lived with ranchers, small farmers and forest dwellers who extracted rubber from trees. These so-called `rubber tappers’ are often lionized in the U.S. and around the world as defenders of the rainforest living as one with nature as opposed to the forest-clearing ranchers. But the longer he stayed, the more Hoelle found a far more nuanced cultural reality.
 
Perhaps most significant was how the rubber tappers themselves were changing, a subject he writes about in a new paper set to be released this month in Culture, Agriculture, Food and Environment.  It has already won an award from the American Anthropological Association.
 
Hoelle observed how the rubber industry had declined while cattle raising had expanded with perhaps inevitable results.
 
“Some of the rubber tappers have become cowboys,” he said. “They have seen their status increase as they own more cows. Right now, tapping rubber simply can’t compete with the economics of raising cattle.”
 
Over the last four years, Hoelle has made frequent trips to Acre to study the cowboys and their land use. They don’t call themselves gauchos or vaqueros like other cattlemen in South and Central America, they prefer cauboi or cowboy.
 
“They are highly influenced by the U.S. They wear the same kind of clothes as American cowboys – shiny belt buckles, tight blue jeans, and low-cut boots,” Hoelle said. “Some even use snuff and listen to contri (country) music which includes a translation of `Achy Breaky Heart’ into Portuguese.”
 
While in Brazil, he wrote columns for his hometown newspaper, the San Angelo Standard-Times entitled, `Postcards from the Amazon.’
 
In one column, he talked about Bahiana, a woman who left a traditional life in the forest for one in the city. After a rocky start, she grew to appreciate urban comforts which made Hoelle question his own attitudes.
 
“My preference for a tranquil `pure’ life in the forest is based on daydreams made possible by good health, education and financial security,” he wrote. “It is a romanticism disconnected from the everyday trials of living in the Amazon, or anywhere else in the countryside for that matter.”
 
Hoelle also chronicled the life of hardworking Chico who built one of the most innovative ranches in Acre.  In another time and place he might have been considered a pioneer, Hoelle said, but these days Chico is often seen as a villain by the outside world.
 
According to Hoelle, much of the rainforest is now being consumed by smaller ranches, not large-scale cattle operations. Yet he said it’s important to get beyond stereotypes and recognize that the Amazon is a real place with real people, not caricatures of good and evil. And they are behaving in a way that makes sense as the market is currently structured.
 
“Many of them feel that we are demanding they save things that we won’t save,” he said. “Many of the ranchers, especially, see us as hypocrites who cleared our lands generations ago and now want to stop them from doing the same. Landowners in Amazonia are required by law to maintain 80 and 90 percent of their land as forest. We benefited in the past from `taming the frontier,’ but now that preserving the forest is considered a good thing, they are being asked to sacrifice.”
 
Hoelle said people across Acre are increasingly positive about raising cattle. Even those who defend the rainforest acknowledge that it’s often an easier way of life.
 
“A cattle-centered vision of the rural lifestyle, celebrated in festivals, music and dress has entered the region and is growing alongside the cattle in the fields of small-holders,” Hoelle wrote in his latest paper.
 
In the end, he said, understanding the cultural, economic and political reality of cattle ranching could lead to a more nuanced view of why it is expanding in Amazonia and how that may impact the future of the rainforest.
 
Hoelle is currently teaching `Culture and the Human Experience’ at CU Denver.
     
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