Tristes Tropiques – Letter From Acre, Brazil

by Christie Klimas

I am finishing up a short stay in the southwestern Amazon region and my thoughts have led to a blog post.  I was talking with a colleague who is headed back into some of the forest communities in which he worked ~5years ago. In many, he and his wife installed permanent plots to monitor timber species. He was saying how in many cases he has heard that these “permanent” plots have not lived up to their name. There is a constant economic incentive to clear for timber or pasture (for cattle – a cash crop). Even in areas where land tenure is based on maintaining forest cover, deforestation has exceeded the legal limit (Vadjunec et al. 2009). He mentioned that it is sad that this may be one of the last places where people make this choice…because there are few places left that have this option of maintaining forest cover or not. Indeed, Acre can be considered remote. There are still areas here that do not have the imprints of western culture (see here). Yet, indigenous groups are using technology to fight for their rights to land (see here) and Acre hosted a conference on how globalization would affect indigenous groups in 2001 – attended by many local tribal leaders. And I am constantly surprised with the love of Coca-Cola (though it is admittedly better here where it is made with sugar) as opposed to juices from the tasty tropical fruits that grow locally.

 

Upon arrival in Rio Branco, this conversation came flooding back to me. In the year and a half since I last visited, much has changed. There are new supermarkets, new restaurants, new shopping centers, new roads and new hospitals. The supermarkets are advertising that they now sell pre-made sushi. I have heard that there is now Mexican food in the new shopping center. The traffic has increased to fill the new roads and construction continues (a friend estimated that 1,000 new cars are sold annually). An international bus terminal is almost complete and will be inaugurated soon after I leave. There are parks and paintball. I do not begrudge Acre this development. It remains a poor state and has maintained much of its forest cover even with this new development. What worries me, however, is whether this development will lead to a loss of much of what I love in Acre. Locally called calor humano, it means the warmth of people. This is still a region where most jobs include a 2-hour lunch break (1 hour for commuting back home and 1-hour for eating). Even my research partner institution has a 1-hour onsite lunch break – and this is not a break in name only. Many workers have hammocks, beanbag chairs and pillows in their office to rest post-lunch. And the other day, there was an impromptu concert outside with instruments that employees had brought from home. I remember that I thought this was an unnecessary luxury on my first trip to Brazil, but I have done an about face on this issue – this lunch solidifies relationships between individuals, brings families together and is a break from work after which many return refreshed and more productive (though there is also ample time to poke fun at American researchers for their ineptitude at crossing “bridges”) 1. There are places in Brazil where a true lunch hour is no longer standard practice – traffic in São Paulo no longer permits this and I have heard that lunch breaks are more similar to the American practice of eating while responding to e-mail. I doubt that my main concern is the loss of a true midday break – instead, I wonder what development means for Acre in terms of deforestation, cultural changes and altered social norms. While we cannot know the future until it arrives in the present, my rapid re-immersion in a still changing Amazonian state has led me to question where we are going and what “it” will look like when we get there (a question that is not limited to the state of Acre).

What is gained and what is lost with our choices? Much will not be known until after the fact. Yet I wonder if our goals now are worth the cost. And does it matter – in that would we make different choices if we knew the consequences beforehand?

And to finish (and end on a positive note) – here’s a 2012 video that shows the best part of traveling – meeting new people, seeing new cultures and returning to your own with a fresh perspective (see here).

 

1Bridges – pencil thin walkways made from fallen trees which usually connect two land areas with a large water-filled chasm between. Caution – these “bridges” may be irregular, slippery when wet and may shift during crossing.

 

Vadjunec, J.M., Gomes, C.V.A., Ludewigs, T. 2009. Land-use/land-cover change among rubber tappers in the Chico Mendes Extractive Reserve, Acre, Brazil. Journal of Land Use Science. 4, 249-274.

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1 Comment

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One response to “Tristes Tropiques – Letter From Acre, Brazil

  1. Christie,
    Thank you so much for the fascinting post and links. The social lunch hour is a great loss. And thank you INC for providng time and space for “calor humano.”

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