Ethnobiologies of Ruin and Resurgence: Labor, Ecology and Land System Transformations off the Transamazon Highway, Brazil
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Ethnobiologies of Ruin and Resurgence: Labor, Ecology and Land System Transformations off the Transamazon Highway, Brazil

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Land frontiers in the Brazilian Amazon continue to be dominated by the expansion of cattle ranching and large-scale deforestation events. Theory on smallholder agriculture argues that the agroecological intensification of land use – which would counteract land extensive speculation – depends on population pressure and land scarcity. This region has a low population density, however, which would mean that agroecologically intensified systems of land use cannot be explained by local adaptation alone. Instead, social organizational factors spanning multiple political and ecological scales can induce land system changes. Further, phenomenological anthropology supports the hypothesis of human ecological survival and sustainability in cultural learning processes. As such, how can alternative land use and livelihoods emerge and effectively counteract pressures of speculative deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon? If so, how – based on what economic, cultural and ecological factors? What implications would emerge in terms of human labor’s relation with global environmental change, for tropical forest conservation and restoration, and in continuity with Indigenous forest agriculture?

This research used participatory observation, remote sensing analysis, oral histories, botanical history, ethnobotanical and socio-economic surveys to assess socio-ecological relations and land system changes across a variety of land holdings along the Transamazon highway. The municipality of Medicilândia, Pará – a major producer of cacao seeds for commodity markets –was singled out for its unusual history of failed state sugarcane plantations, which were subsequently re-consolidated into smallholding cacao agroforestry. Remote sensing analysis was conducted to identify land use/cover historical trajectories on individual holdings and across landscapes as a whole. The research found that a new class of ‘true’ smallholders are emerging in the region, who cultivate significant agrobiodiversity in more concentrated patterns of agroecological management. As a native Amazonian tree, cacao’s history is both social and ecological, and endemic fungal ecologies both threaten production while encouraging this crop to be managed at small scales. Further, cacao production is not limited to high fertility ‘terra roxa’ soils (Nitossolo Vermelho), which the state originally deemed the only soil suitable for development. Medium fertility Argissolos (Ultisols in the USDA terminology) are also viable for production and extend over hundreds of thousands if not millions of hectares. The findings – historical, socio-economic and ecological – suggest that the role of smallholding cacao and other agroforestry systems in more equitable rural development, connected with tropical forest conservation and restoration, could be significant.

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