Lessons from the Amazon

Professor Lêda Martins leads Tara Beatty '08 and Marcus Berkowitz '08 on a research expedition to Brazil where they examine the daily lives of the Macuxi and learn how these indigenous people live in the Amazon.

Seu Jerônimo's home was a beautiful structure made of wooden poles and walls layered with palm fronds. The dirt floor was tightly packed and protected by a high thatched roof. The surrounding grass had been burned to keep the yard clean. Just off to the side there was a well and a palm-frond structure for showering. The sun beat down on everything.

“After I arrived at my host family's home in the Macuxi villages of Boqueirão and surveyed my surroundings, I kept waiting for something to shock me,” Tara Beatty '08 recalled. “When would they do something that I would be alarmed by? I waited and waited and nothing ever happened. Over time I learned that the Macuxi are made up of individuals who each have a story, a family and a daily pattern,” Beatty said. “I suppose I would have said that before, but now I really know it.”

amazon group

From right to left: Assistant Professor of Anthropology Lêda Martins, Marcus Berkowitz '08, Tara Beatty '08 and Scripps College Visiting Assistant Professor of Anthropology John Norvell

Indeed, tracking the daily patterns of the Macuxi was the crux of the research project. Led by Assistant Professor of Anthropology Lêda Martins, Beatty and fellow Pitzer College student Marcus Berkowitz '08 traveled to Brazil during the Fall 2006 semester to investigate the nuances of the Macuxi's day-today lives in relation to their natural resources.

Supported by a National Science Foundation grant, Martins and the students joined the efforts of the Brazilian Institute of Environment and Renewable Natural Resources, which planned to conduct a survey of the social-economic aspects of three Macuxi villages and their use of natural resources. Those villages, Boqueirão, Aningal and Mangueira, which are located around the ecological reserve of Maracá, served as the control sample for their project.

Martins, Beatty and Berkowitz concentrated in particular on how the Macuxi's hunting practices and what they ate was indicative of their relationship to the natural environment. By inquiring into the Macuxi's hunting patterns, they were also able to examine larger questions such as how the market economy of the surrounding towns and the presence of cattle ranchers affected the Macuxi's use of natural resources.

Since these Macuxi villages are part of a large portion of the unstudied and largely unmanaged Guyana Shield forest-savanna transition, studying the indigenous peoples' living habits is crucial to the preservation of the land and its resources. The area, which varies from dry savannas through wet forests to mountainous forest habitats, represents one of the last wilderness areas on Earth. For this key ecological area, the future of biodiversity in the Amazon lies in the hands of indigenous peoples like the Macuxi.

The Macuxi

A Boqueirão elder teaches Marcus Berkowitz '08 how to fashion a fan that every village family has and uses for their fires.

(left to right):Beatty and Berkowitz with Beatty's host family in Boqueirão; A Boqueirão community health agent and her daughters make a casava root product called farinha, which is the staple food of the people.

The Macuxi, a Carib speaking people, are agriculturalists and hunters who live in the Mount Roraima region of the state of Roraima in Brazil's Amazon Rain Forest. This area is in the northeast of the state near Brazil's border with Guyana and Venezuela. Not including those who live in urban centers, there are approximately 20,000 Macuxi in Brazil and approximately 10,000 in Guyana. Rather than living in the forests, they prefer to use the forest for gardening and hunting purposes only and build their houses in the open spaces of the savanna.

In the 1940-50s the Macuxi territory was heavily colonized by private cattle ranchers who erected fences at will and took possession of enormous properties that either encompassed Indian villages or severed Indian villages from their gardens and hunting territories in the forests. Since the ranchers were at odds with many of the Macuxi's traditional hunting practices, which included burning the savannas to push the animals in different directions where hunters would be waiting, the ranchers went to great lengths to maintain complete control over the land. As a result of these conflicts, the ranchers, with the assistance of the army and state police, and impunity of the local government, waged a campaign of intimidation and destruction against the Macuxi.

Beginning in the 1960s the Macuxi organized a fight for their rights and to expel the ranchers. After more than thirty years of struggle, indigenous peoples including the Macuxi celebrated the final recognition of their title to their ancestral land of Raposa Serra do Sol in the northernmost Brazilian federal state of Roraima in 2005. Brazilian President Lula signed the presidential decree that assigned a territory measuring nearly 2- million hectares to 15,000 indigenous Brazilians. The research conducted by Martins, Beatty and Berkowitz occurred in small Macuxi territories outside this large reserve where the presence of cattle ranchers is still felt.

Preparation for the Field

“You have to understand that these students did something that is so difficult—to go to the Amazon and live and do research among Amazonian Indians is extremely complicated—legally, politically and logistically,” Martins said. “The Macuxi territory was the last large territory to be recognized by the Brazilian government and it was one of the most controversial territories in Brazil. There was enormous political pressure not to demarcate the territory. So what we did was very precious.”

The first obstacle Beatty and Berkowitz had to overcome was physically entering the country with an appropriate visa. With assistance from Vice President of International Programs Carol Brandt and the Pitzer Study Abroad program, an exchange agreement between Pitzer College and the Federal University of Roraima (UFRR) was signed, which granted Beatty and Berkowitz undergraduate students visas to study and conduct supervised research in Brazil.

Once Beatty and Berkowitz arrived in Roraima in July 2006, they immediately began working on their fluency in Portuguese and resided with host families in the town of Boa Vista. They spent approximately two months in Boa Vista acquiring proficiency in Portuguese and familiarity with regional issues. During this time Martins and the students started working on the specific anthropological methodologies to be used in the Macuxi villages.

Martins and the students began to plan the survey in the three Macuxi villages in September, and in October they made their first trips to the villages to obtain permission from the leaders and village members to conduct the research. Due to internal politics within the villages, Martins had the students conduct research in Boqueirão and Aningal, while she worked alone in Mangueira.

The Interviews

Tara Beatty '08 interviews a villager in Aningal.

Berkowitz interviews an Aningal man about his eating habits using a series of native animal cards.

As Martins drove them into Boqueirão for the first time, Beatty and Berkowitz admit they were terrified. They had packed their suitcases carefully with outdoor gear like quick drying zip-off pants, but they still had no idea what awaited them. Their first stop was the house of the village headman. He greeted them with a toothless grin as they piled out of the truck and invited them to sit on benches in front of his house. “My stomach was all knotted up and it seemed like everything was taking so long, but I soon learned that time runs at a different speed here,” Beatty said.

Beginning in Boqueirão, the students stayed with Macuxi families, each student in a different household for three weeks. Beatty and Berkowitz were paired with students from the local school who accompanied them on most of the research activities, including interviews and household visits. The coresearchers greatly assisted the Pitzer students, helping them understand the Portuguese spoken by the Indians, finding the houses to visit (Macuxi communities tend to spread out over a large area) and integrating them into the community.

In Aningal, the arrangements were different. The students were not paired with other students from the village since the school was in recess. They did not stay in family households, but rather stayed in the center of the village for one week. The core of the research plan, however, was the same: they divided the households among themselves and visited each to conduct the interviews in the same way as they had done in Boqueirão.

While in Boqueirão and Aningal, the students' daily routine began with waking around 5:30 a.m. and visiting two or three households in the morning before people left their houses to garden, hunt or fish. The students returned for lunch and to rest in the early afternoon. They would go out again to conduct interviews in the late afternoon when the families returned home.

Beatty and Berkowitz noted, with a smile, that the interviews ranged anywhere from forty-five minutes to eight hours. Berkowitz remembered one interview in which he chatted with a man for two hours, ate peccary, took a nap, peeled manioc and cut sugar cane, all while he tried to incorporate his questions and gradually gain the trust of his interviewee after nearly eight hours.

What was the Macuxi's sense of humor like? How much eye-contact should they make? At first the students felt impatient and wanted to plow through the interview questions, but with Martins' guidance they learned to adjust their expectations. They had to slow the pace of the interview and adapt to the cultural intricacies of each household. Martins urged them to a enjoy bowl of farinha and milk, when offered by a family, or try bananas from their gardens. One method Beatty used to establish a more relaxed manner was pulling a small piece of thatching from a home's roof and playing with it whenever possible to keep her hands occupied.

“By watching Professor Martins' example, we were able to learn the tempo of conversation with the Indians,” Beatty said. “We learned how to make an interview flow: when to change the order of questions and when to ask for more detail. This close work with a faculty member gave us much more confidence in our own work. She was able to bring the theoretical aspects of anthropology to life.”

The Survey

At first these twenty-year-old American students with basic Portuguese language skills felt awkward asking villagers whether they preferred anteater to armadillo. To them this seemed like a fair question, but they soon learned that it was not. No one in their right mind ate anteater, but everyone loved armadillo. Yet, they still asked the question to probe if anteater had ever been eaten in the past.

The biggest challenge for the students was crafting a survey that acknowledged such obvious preferences, prioritized research interests, and combined questions in a non-repetitive fashion that still captured the various angles of all parties involved. Were they hunting the same animals as their parents? Which animals did they previously think tasted terrible, but had now assimilated into their diets as other animals disappeared?

“We certainly learned how to work within serious research constraints when formulating our questions,” Berkowitz stated. “We only had so many questions that could be asked, because otherwise the participants might get restless and not answer the questions as well as possible. We had to cover a variety of topics and at the same time be culturally sensitive to the Macuxi's knowledge of Portuguese and level of comfort when discussing certain issues,” he said. In order to solicit genuine answers, rather than coaxing their interviewees, the students aimed to be as creative and specific as possible with their questions.

Together they constructed a ten-page survey in Portuguese that generally asked what resources the Macuxi relied on from the Amazon. In addition, they used a series of thirty-two cards with pictures of different animals and went through one by one and asked which the Macuxi ate and which they didn't. They also drafted questions that probed the Macuxi's taboos regarding food. The Macuxi have a spiritual connection to food, that is they believe that all animals in nature have a father/mother. Macuxi shamans still connect with these spirits to attract and expel certain kinds of animals from the territory. For the Macuxi, though, their spirituality is very difficult to talk about. They keep their beliefs very private and cringe from sharing them for fear they will lose the support of Christian groups.

The Results

“I discovered how fascinating research is,” Beatty continued. “Research is really about going out there and living something, loving it and caring about it. And figuring out how you can make that interesting and applicable to other people's lives.”

In Summer 2007, Martins and the students returned to Roraima to share their research with the Macuxi community. They put together a database in Spring 2007 and meticulously coded the data collected in the surveys. They had not yet drawn final conclusions from their data upon returning to Brazil, but they considered this an opportunity for the Macuxi to respond to the data and to help clarify any points of confusion. The most important component to returning was that they had promised to present the results, and it was crucial for them to follow through.

“The fact that we went back will set a precedent for how the Macuxi deal with future researchers,” Martins said. “Even though we worked in only three villages, I think the word will spread throughout the area. I believe we established a new history of how to best work with indigenous communities.”

This fall Martins and the students have been conducting a careful, correlative analysis of the data and are beginning to draw interesting conclusions about the Macuxi's use of natural resources. For example, for the Macuxi the manner in which hunting takes place and the spiritual practices undertaken therein are spoken of differently based on each individual's faith. Those Macuxi of either Protestant or Catholic faiths speak of the spiritual act of hunting differently. Most Protestant Macuxi admit they no longer ask permission from the “guardian” or spirit of each animal species to hunt and their spiritual link to the forest seems to be disappearing. Catholic Macuxi, on the other hand, have found their faith more accommodating of their traditions and many continue to seek the permission of the animal spirits to hunt.

Results such as these fit into the larger debate regarding indigenous peoples and their relationship to the natural environment. From the '60s until the mid '80s indigenous people were seen as the saviors of the rainforest and its natural resources, but by the late '80s indigenous people began to be seen as destroyers of the environment. Some researchers concluded that indigenous people would exploit their environment for personal gain as soon as they had the opportunity. So it is within this highly polarized debate that Martins hopes their conclusions will contribute and offer a more balanced, realistic account of what the relationship entails.

—Emily Cavalcanti