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Journal of Political Ecology: 
Case Studies in History and Society


  VOLUME 8 (2001)

Rainforest Exchanges: Industry and Community on an Amazonian Frontier, by William H. Fisher. Washington and London: Smithsonian Institution Press (2000), xii, 222 pp.


Reviewed by Gay M. Biery-Hamilton, Department of Anthropology and Program of Latin America and Caribbean Affairs, Rollins College, Winter Park, FL.


"Nuance" is the first word that comes to mind after reading Fisher’s Rainforest Exchanges, because the author satisfyingly integrates change throughout his story of the Bakajá Xikrin, a Kayapó group in the Amazonian State of Pará in Brazil. Most ethnographies integrate the material only at the end of the book. I used it in one of my undergraduate classes about the Brazilian Amazon and the students liked the book very much. The material triggered many thought-provoking discussions in class. The book is an outstanding ethnography and also an excellent tool for students to examine all types of issues about indigenous peoples who have to negotiate their interests within a continually changing wider regional, national and global arena. It stimulates students to interact with the instructor and each other in class.

For example, Fisher argues that we should not see the Kayapó as consumers of trade goods allured by their desire for them. Nor should we take the view that trade goods are inherently corrupting to pristine indigenous cultures. Fisher’s main contention is that they acquire trade goods into their society based on their social conditions. Thus, we gain a better understanding of why the Kayapó trade their precious natural resources for these trade goods, rather than viewing them either as corrupt Indians who inevitably want to modernize by embracing consumerism, or as helpless victims caught up in a maelstrom of outside interests. Students have differing opinions on this issue. The challenge is to demonstrate to them that a scientific argument, backed by strong supporting evidence, is not just mere opinion, and thus, one opinion is not as good as another. Delightfully, in every chapter, Fisher presents abundant evidence that supports his argument by focusing on the Bakajá Xikrin, among whom he conducted fieldwork on and off for more than ten years, and also by comparing them with other well-studied Kayapó groups.

The Kayapó have interacted with Brazilian society for almost two centuries, and have been involved in trading natural forest products, such as rubber, animal skins and Brazil nuts, for European goods. Over that time they have had to learn to come up with new strategies to gain trade goods in an unpredictable boom-bust economy that is based on the extraction of forest products. Further, they have had to contend with living on an uncertain "hollow frontier," which consists of overlapping social groups competing over extractive natural resources under intermittent periods of legal and administrative control. This type of frontier is contrasted with a solid-moving one based on an expanding productive economy that eventually comes under the firm control of the state as happened in the United States. This hollow frontier in Brazil remains significant today because the Xikrin cannot depend on the underfunded Indian agency, FUNAI, to adequately provision them or protect them from encroaching outside groups, such as loggers, gold miners, ranchers and small farmers. Throughout the past few decades they have become more dependent on trade goods, and the lack of agency support has stimulated the Xikrin to depend on their own abilities to negotiate agreements with loggers and gold miners in exchange for needed goods. The landscape in which natural resources are extracted for trade goods is not merely ecological and economical, but also political in that the Xikrin have different degrees of power to influence their dealings with outsiders depending upon the group in question and the situation, specifically when FUNAI decides to support or thwart their efforts and the agency’s own power to do so. In answer to why illegal logging continues on Kayapó land, for example, Fisher writes:

The power of the wealthy in a land where everyone—including it must be said, local government agencies—is impoverished, is hard to overestimate. They retain what amounts to a practical monopoly on means of communication and transportation in the area. Through their political influence elites ensure that local government agencies that could exercise a restraining influence are kept underfunded and essentially irrelevant. (p. 160)

Political processes within Kayapó society also influence the exchange of their natural resources for trade goods. In fact, one of the most beautiful things about this account is that Fisher demonstrates the heterogeneity of interests between the Bakajá Xikrin themselves, according to whether they are chiefs or commoners, men or women, young or old. Instead of viewing the Bakajá Xikrin as a homogenous group that operates by a common cultural logic, Fisher gives numerous examples of the contradictions, tensions and differences of opinion among group members, because he grounds his study in social organization, using a political ecology approach.

For example, chiefs are placed in an increasingly difficult position of having to supply trade goods to influence and maintain the respect of their followers. In order to retain their position they actively work to limit the avenues for commoners to obtain trade goods on their own, and they use manufactured items to encourage people to work for them in gardening, hunting and fishing activities. Yet commoners do not like the exercise of that influence over them as the chiefs have gained power and wealth in recent years. They especially do not like the growing economic and power disparities that they see between themselves and chiefs, and actively resist attempts by the chiefs to make them work for "the common good," which they see as adding to chiefly provisions. For example, chiefs control the means of production for making manioc flower and for the larger hunting, collecting and fishing expeditions. They also try to make commoners work in the collective gardens. No one willingly works in these gardens because it takes away time from ones’ own subsistence activities, and they know that the chief will control the product. Women especially resist because it undermines their control over their labor, time and product, and increases male authority, along with that of the chief. Yet, people must work in collective activities organized by the chief if they want to remain in good favor and be able to receive the trade goods that the chief controls. Despite the increasing wealth and power of the chiefs, commoners are still able to put pressure on chiefs to redistribute their wealth, especially in the ritual naming ceremonies for children. By complying, chiefs gain prestige, yet they find themselves in a difficult moral situation according to Xikrin standards. Fisher states:

The expectations created by the Xikrin social organization put chiefs in a position where they must supply goods to commoners but simultaneously are de-authorized from converting surplus produced by commoners into the means of social control. (p. 125)

Fisher points out the different perceptions between commoners and chiefs about the redistribution process. Chiefs emphasize how they are redistributing goods according to the "morality of kinship," for the good of the community, yet commoners calculate the generosity of chiefs in terms of who "pays well" (p. 187). The chief’s role is viewed differently between commoners and chiefs reflecting the changes in recent years. Fewer men aspire to be chiefs because of the increasing contradictions of the position. They must be able to negotiate relationships with outsiders and among their own people as able leaders who can coordinate both secular and ritual activities, which involve these trade goods. In order to obtain trade goods they must sell the natural resources within Xikrin land holdings and be able to control the negotiations with outsiders, in order to maintain the respect of commoners.

Tensions and contradictions exist between men and women, also, because women perceive that recent changes are affecting them negatively. They only obtain some foods, especially game, through their relationships with men, especially their spouses. This becomes significant with the rise in female-headed households in recent years and with the increasing self-sufficiency of young men who are able to acquire trade goods from the chiefs. Further, some chiefs now hire poor Brazilians to work as gardeners, which undermines domestic production by women because of the potential breakdown of the chiefs’ reciprocal obligations to them. Women actively resist chiefly authority to redistribute by appealing to FUNAI to give goods directly to individual workers, including women, rather than to the chiefs. They also refuse to work enthusiastically in the chiefs’ collective gardens, despite the encouragement of their male kin, because only the men would receive the trade goods for their cooperation. Fisher points out that women do not oppose the influx of trade goods into their society, but they resist their increasing dependence upon men and the chiefs for trade and subsistence goods. Thus, we should see the divergence of men’s and women’s opinions and initiatives "as part of a complex interplay of contradictory social trends rather than as something given by a cultural charter for masculinity or femininity" (p. 192).

These examples only scratch the surface of Fisher’s highly readable and nuanced text. He reminds the reader of the importance of recognizing that a political ecology approach must include the social, historical and political as well as the natural environmental. It is only through using such an approach, he argues, that we can truly understand why such groups as the Kayapó continue to allow the extraction of natural resources upon which their livelihoods depend, and to assist them in coming up with viable alternatives. Fisher makes the case that any solution-making process must recognize the external and internal political economies involved.