The Brazilian Cash Cow: How Cattle Ranching is Outsizing the Rubber Industry in Amazonia

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By Natalie Overton, Living Lab Intern, UCSB Sustainability

Our view of nature as both a canvas and a medium for human expression quietly permeates our everyday lives. From eating a celebratory steak to admiring the expansive manicured lawns in wealthy neighborhoods, we associate social status and identity with our ability to tame and utilize nature. The human relationship with nature is one of the most fascinating aspects of Anthropology, as Dr. Jeffrey Hoelle continues to discover through his studying of cattle ranching dynamics in Brazil.

Dr. Hoelle is currently an Associate Professor of Anthropology at UCSB. Walking into his office, I felt like I was in a rainforest: the deep blue walls and the palm tree lamp felt like a separate world, an escape from our conventional perception. This office fit him perfectly, as his work centers around understanding the lives of people in various cultures and their relations with nature.

It requires a major shift in perspective to see why people do and believe different things, how value is so subjective, and how different societies build off that fundamental variation. To think the way Dr. Hoelle thinks is to part from your own learned values and knowledge in order to submerge yourself in another lifestyle. It felt like I’d not just left the Humanities and Social Sciences Building, but I felt like I’d left the country.

His book, Rainforest Cowboys: The Rise of Ranching and Cattle Culture in Western Amazonia, came out in 2016. He spent a lot of time in Acre, a wedge of Brazilian land nestled between the borders of Peru and Bolivia. Historically home to rubber tappers and indigenous peoples, Acre was being quickly overtaken by cattle ranching. During the 1970’s and 80’s, rubber tappers resisted the ranchers, but cattle raising continued to expand. “From 1998 to 2008, the count of cattle in Acre itself increased by over 400 percent, the greatest increase in all of Brazil,” Dr. Hoelle’s book notes. A significant portion of this growth came from those with no history of cattle raising, including the rubber tappers themselves.

“This is what I’m trying to understand,” Dr. Hoelle tells me, leaning forward, “What is this dream of owning cattle that people have that drives them to seek out and raise cattle even when it doesn’t make economic or ecological sense?”

Here comes his buzzword: “Cattle culture.” As Dr. Hoelle defines it, it is a collection of “ideas and cultural practices that indirectly and directly valorize a cattle-centric vision of rural society.”

Cattle are worth more than the Amazon rainforest, both economically and culturally. His term “cattle culture” emphasizes the fact that in order to fully understand this shift, we need to address the cultural importance first and foremost. “That’s really what’s missing from the study of Amazonian deforestation but also from a lot of environmental problems,” he tells me. “Culture in general tends to be absent from a lot of our analysis of why people destroy nature or over-consume.”

This is especially relevant in developing policies aimed at disincentivizing Amazonian deforestation. Without attending to cattle’s cultural value, policymakers end up passing legislation that just doesn’t work. “There are policies that encourage people to transform forest into pasture, either through subsidies or indirect incentives,” Dr. Hoelle says, “even if they are intended to preserve the forest.” The fact that people will navigate legal constraints to effectively turn a policy on its head indicates that cultural value plays a vital role in the rise of the cattle industry, one which cannot be ignored.

As the cultural and economic value of cattle raising has skyrocketed, the rubber tapping lifestyle in Brazil is shrinking. Traditionally, rubber tappers would live in allotted portions of the Amazon rainforest, harvesting brazil nuts and tapping rubber to meet certain daily quotas. Now, however, most of this rubber tapping happens in Southeast Asia on big rubber plantations. “It’s sort of that rationalized production where you go tree by tree,” Dr. Hoelle says about the much more productive method that has essentially pushed Brazil’s rubber production out of the international market.

Brazilian rubber tappers have traditionally maintained biodiversity, recognizing the value of intercropping and maintaining the forest to stabilize their crop. “That’s what forced the rubber tappers to preserve the forest,” he concludes, “because they needed these buffers between the [rubber] trees that had a value. But rubber doesn’t have a value anymore.”

This is where the consistent and reliable economic value of cattle raising comes in: “If they had cattle, they had the assurance of a piggy bank—something they could sell whenever they needed the money,” explains Dr. Hoelle. This kind of economic security is welcomed by parents raising children. Being able to provide for one’s family and have a steady source of income has its own cultural value, especially in the face of the modernizing movement rolling through the Brazilian countryside.

This goes against Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, which indicates that only richer people would prioritize preserving nature. It doesn’t take into account the cultural ideals that influence our priorities—for these Brazilians, the rich want to consume meat and show off. The hierarchy, something we all learn when studying basic environmental policy, assumes that the environment will become an ideal objective at some point. That might not happen. Priorities are influenced by culture, and as long as our culture so deeply values beef consumption, our economies and policies will follow suit.

At this point, our conversation has taken a sociological turn: in what ways is meat tied into our social identities? “There are these ideas of being a strong person, or a strong man, and that’s intimately linked with beef, especially,” says Dr. Hoelle. Consuming meat is masculinized, and being consumed is feminized. “In Brazil, these ideas of masculinity, of being modern, of being strong, they’re all very much tied to what you eat,” he says. This understanding of men as consumers, tamers, developers, modernizers, and dominators translates directly into how we relate to our natural environment. “Although you may find the forest beautiful or environmentally important, people there see it as this dark, dirty, backwards space of animals or people who are less modern or developed,” Dr. Hoelle says.

The landscape we produce reflects something about who we are, and it’s not just in Brazil. “Even though we are searching for sustainability in some ways, we nonetheless continue to judge people based on the extent to which they actually impact or shape nature,” Dr. Hoelle reminds me.

“We’re very attached to this idea of a perfect landscape. This idea of making a mark on nature, it’s key to where we got as a human society… But we can let off the gas now, in fact, our survival depends on it,” says Dr. Hoelle. To take it a step further, people who shape their surroundings are more…human. “In America, the landscapes that people create are really linked with how they’re seen on an evolutionary scale,” he says. Thus, in Brazil, agriculturalists and cattle ranchers especially “feel that they’re bringing civilization to the frontier, displacing those who have had a lot of time to live in this area and not proven that they are worthy of using this land in a way that’s productive.”

So what’s the solution? How can we protect the environment, taking into account this strong cultural drive to ‘use’ it? Some policies have essentially paid people to not use their land, and while this may work in the short term, it comes ridden with potential pitfalls.

“If that is more profitable than cattle raising then that’s one thing,” he says, “but then you’re putting a value on the forest,” which rewards big landowners. This incentivizes buying more land, so eventually the rich would just buy up all the land, and we end up in a situation where a very few people own most of the land. Where does everyone else go?

“It’s all linked. You can’t really have sustainability unless you have equality,” Dr. Hoelle  emphasizes. “If some people, because of race or class, are above others, then you’re going to continue to have the same relationship of domination that’s also expressed on the environment.”