Front Cover
 Title Page
 Table of Contents
 Maria Pretinho made invisible:...
 Dona Valeriana Parga made visible:...
 Dona Vitalina Andrade making the...
 A quantitative analysis of gender...
 Reflections and conclusions: Gender...
 List of references
 Biographical sketch

Title: Rupture and resistance
Full Citation
Permanent Link: http://ufdc.ufl.edu/UF00080850/00001
 Material Information
Title: Rupture and resistance gender relations and life trajectories in the babaçu palm forests of Brazil
Physical Description: Book
Language: English
Creator: Porro, Noemi
Publisher: University of Florida,
University of Florida
Place of Publication: Gainesville Fla.
Publication Date: 2002
Copyright Date: 2002
Subject: Babassu -- Brazil   ( lcsh )
Forests and forestry -- Brazil   ( lcsh )
Human settlements -- Brazil   ( lcsh )
Anthropology thesis, Ph. D   ( lcsh )
Dissertations, Academic -- Anthropology -- UF   ( lcsh )
Genre: government publication (state, provincial, terriorial, dependent)   ( marcgt )
bibliography   ( marcgt )
theses   ( marcgt )
non-fiction   ( marcgt )
Spatial Coverage: Brazil
Summary: ABSTRACT: This ethnography of the people living in babaçu palm forests of the Mearim Valley, in the Eastern Amazonian state of Maranhão, Brazil, is a study of social relations among men and women struggling for their ways of life in a context of social antagonism. I focus my analysis on trabalho livre, a form of labor that emerged from a material and symbolic set of social relations from which gender relations cannot be dissociated. Supported by political economy and feminist frameworks, I present my findings through five life trajectories, examined in different social contexts. Multiple forms of gender relations intertwined in these trajectories are made invisible by Development discourses, promoted through policies and projects that affect their gendered, ethnic-based, peasant ways of life. Adding to the study of gender in the field inhabited by grassroots organizations, NGOs, and development agents, I also investigate gender relations among the so-called nonparticipants of development projects. This dissertation suggests that discourses and practices that consider gender relations to be the result of a single, continuous, and all-encompassing history may be present not only in dominant sectors, but also in the social movement itself. Discursive and nondiscursive practices that promote uniformity, discipline, regulation, and overall control over ways of life, including ways of living gender relations, on behalf of
Abstract: predefined sustainable developments or feminisms, perpetuate power relations that hold women and men in relations of domination. I conclude that peasant gender relations in the Mearim valley are intrinsic and integral parts of dialectical constructions of gender in impersonal "dominant sectors," but also in the realm of the social movements, where I circulate as a member of society, a researcher and a practitioner. I suggest, therefore, continuous scrutiny in both spheres through "thick" ethnographic research, aiming at a self-critical reading of a multi-faceted general history that has been denied and made invisible by the total history of global and national society.
Thesis: Thesis (Ph. D.)--University of Florida, 2002.
Bibliography: Includes bibliographical references.
System Details: System requirements: World Wide Web browser and PDF reader.
System Details: Mode of access: World Wide Web.
Statement of Responsibility: by Noemi Sakiara Miyasaka Porro.
General Note: Title from title page of source document.
General Note: Includes vita.
 Record Information
Bibliographic ID: UF00080850
Volume ID: VID00001
Source Institution: University of Florida
Holding Location: University of Florida
Rights Management: All rights reserved by the source institution and holding location.
Resource Identifier: oclc - 80037360

Table of Contents
    Front Cover
        Front Cover
    Title Page
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    Table of Contents
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    Maria Pretinho made invisible: Social blindness in the construction of gender in Lago Do Junco, a municipality in the Mearim Valley
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    Dona Valeriana Parga made visible: Development projects in the construction of gender in Monte Alegre, a village in the Mearim Valley
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    Dona Vitalina Andrade making the "self" visible: Articulated ethnicities in the construction of gender among the Andrades, a family in the Mearim Valley
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    A quantitative analysis of gender relations in a peasant economy in the Mearim Valley
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    Reflections and conclusions: Gender relations in the Mearim Valley
        Page 306
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    List of references
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    Biographical sketch
        Page 364
Full Text













Copyright 2002


Noemi Sakiara Miyasaka Porro

To Roberto, Felipe, Pedro and Ana.


I am deeply grateful to the people whose trajectories I had the privilege to cross

throughout my journey in the babaqu palm forests in Brazil. Through a symbolic

recognition of dona Vitalina Andrade and senhor Manoel Rodrigues de Sousa, I

acknowledge my extended gratitude to each and every man and woman whose insightful

and humorous companionship guided my learning path through the Mearim valley.

During my years as a practitioner and a fieldworker, I was supported by several

grassroots organizations, especially ASSEMA, Movimento Interestadual das

Quebradeiras de C6co Babaqu, Cooperativa dos Produtores Agro-Extrativistas de Lago

do Junco, Associacao das Trabalhadoras Rurais de Lago do Junco, associations, unions

and parishes of Lago do Junco, Esperantin6polis, Sao Luis Gonzaga, and Lima Campos.

During my years as a student, my chair and friend Dr. Marianne Schmink wisely

mentored my academic trajectory and return to professional life. Dr. Peter Hildebrand,

Dr. Anthony Oliver-Smith, Dr. Alfredo Wagner, Dr. David Wigston, Dr. Irma

McClaurin, and Dr. Stephen Perz joined the hard job of my intellectual guidance. I have

enjoyed both the freedom to hold my own opinions, and the challenge of defending them.

My Ph.D. program at the Department of Anthropology at UF was financially

supported by the Hewlett Foundation, the Charles Wagley Fund, the Florida-Brazil

Institute, the Tropical Conservation and Development Program, the Center for Latin

American Studies at UF, the Inter-American Foundation, the Research Foundation /

SUNY / World Wildlife Fund/ USAID, the Compton Foundation/ Department of Botany,

the 0. Ruth McQuown Fund/ Women Studies Program, and the Department of

Anthropology at UF. Practical aspects of my education came also from occasional jobs

offered by the Center for International Forestry Research, the WIDTECH, ICRW, DAI,

USAID program and the Forest Stewardship Council. Special thanks are due to Dr.

Charles Wood, Hannah Covert, and the entire administrative staff at the TCD program

and the Center for Latin American Studies, for their caring support during many years.

I want also to recognize dona Dij6 Bringelo, Antonia de Brito, Leonice Pereira,

Carol Magalhaes, Luciene Figueiredo, M. Alaides de Souza, Sebastiana Sirqueira,

Diocina Lopes, frei Adolfo Themme, Rosana and Ebine, Alfredo Wagner, Domingos

Cardoso, Joaquim Shiraishi, Querubina Neta, Jaime de Oliveira, Raimundo Vital,

Francisco de Paula, Gl6ria Gaia, Helciane Arafijo, Cynthia Carvalho, Patricia Nunes,

Dada Chagas, Valdener Miranda, Teresinha Alvino, Ildeth Sousa, Jodo Valdeci, Lindalva

Careiro, Maria Jose Pereira, Raimunda Gomes, Manoel Ferreira, Antonia Moreira,

Magna Cunha, Antonino Sobrinho, d. Zezeca and d. Dade, Dora Herminio, M. Jos6

Gontijo, Barbara Goraeb, Paul, Joelma and William Losch, Mariana, Jorge and Andres

Aragon, Elli Sujita, Richard Wallace, Kristen Conway, Mrs. Bernice, Sarah Fedler, Erva

Gilliam, Rhonda Riley, Carol Colfer, Omaira Bolanos, Diana Alvira, Vicky, Vincent and

Clara Reyes, Kuniko Chijiwa, Dorothy Stang, Kevin Veach and Carmen Roca. The honor

of their friendship has pushed me to learn about the ways of life in the Mearim valley and

about my own ways through life.

To my grandparents Shigeru and Koyuki Sakiara, my parents Kazuco and Shiro

Miyasaka, and in-laws Ada and Antonio Porro, I extend my deepest gratitude. With

Pedro, Felipe and Roberto Porro, I celebrate the joy of being alive and together.


At any rate, when a subject is highly controversial and any question about sex is
that one cannot hope to tell the truth. One can only show how one came to hold
whatever opinion one does hold. One can only give one's audience the chance of
drawing their own conclusions as they observe the limitations, the prejudices, the
idiosyncrasies of the speaker.

Alas, laid on the grass how small, how insignificant this thought of mine looked;
the sort of fish that a good fisherman puts back into the water so that it may grow
fatter and be one day worth cooking and eating. I will not trouble you with that
thought now, though if you look carefully you may find it for yourselves in the
course of what I am going to say (Woolf 1981: 4-5).

Through this ethnography, I intend to show how I came to hold my opinion about

gender relations. It meshes narratives by people living in the babayu palm forests and

accounts of my own journey throughout the Mearim Valley, in the Amazonian state of

Maranhdo, Brazil. It focuses on social relations among men and women struggling to

control their ways of life in a context of social antagonism. In the situations studied with

support of political economy and feminist theoretical frameworks, local discourse and

practice of gender relations often contradict development approaches. My aim was to

investigate gender relations through these contradictions. This investigation required a

consideration of discourses labeled as "gender and development," currently involving the

scenario of sustainable development in the Brazilian Amazon; and affecting gendered,

ethnic-based forms ofbabaqu forest livelihoods.

This dissertation also takes me one step closer to my dream of becoming an

ethnographer. After some preliminary ethnographic experiments, I realized that I had to

include myself as part of the data into the analysis to better explain my findings. Far from

intending to write an auto-ethnography per se, I could not pretend an "objective" outsider

standpoint either, but integrated some elements of my own life experience in the Mearim

valley as a research strategy to validate and share my learning.

Warned by the postmodern critique about the problems regarding the authoritarian

representation of the "Other" (Marcus and Fischer 1986), I applied to myself as an

ethnographer that constant exercise of questioning proposed by Foucault (1972: 50-55):

Who is writing? What kinds of qualification does the author have? From which kind of

social relations does her enunciation emerge? What are the institutional sites from which

she writes? What tools do these institutions provide to her? I offer, therefore, my reading

and analysis of the situations studied, while positioning my authorship as a woman, a

married mother, a Brazilian descendant of Japanese peasants, a grassroots practitioner

and a scholar trained in an American university.

In 1983, I graduated as an agronomic engineer with a concentration in Ecology, at

the University of Sao Paulo, Brazil. Having nothing like the political resistance of the

1960s, "left wing" students turned to alternative agriculture, agro-ecology, and adaptive

technologies as our ways to come together to oppose "conservative modernization"

driving the development model that predominated in Agronomy schools at those times.

To celebrate graduation, a dozen of these half "greens," half anarchist graduates opted for

a trip to the Amazon of the rain forests, of the resisting Indians and peasants.

After our planned tour together through major research institutions and sites, my

boyfriend, Roberto Porro, and I decided not to return with the group; and crossing the

states of Amazon and Pard by river, we ended up in a peasant village on the coast of the

state of Maranhao. We were enchanted by their unique, humored way of life. Their

village was the reversal of images of the rural isolation of individual farms, which

presumably would prevent them from joining unionized proletarians in the revolution

imagined in our rural sociology classes. At any rate, after hanging around with fishermen

and agriculturalist peasants, we thumbed back to the South. However, this first

experience in a peasant village had already hooked us, especially when we learned that

our host was murdered soon after we left, because of a conflict over his land, and that the

whole village would be relocated to make way for the future Air Space Launching Base

of Alcantara.'

We began to make plans to marry, head back north, run a nice goat farm in a

peasant village in the forest, and live an ecologically and socially sound life by a riverine

beach. It was only 2 years later, already married and with a baby boy, when we met a

Franciscan friar who invited us to work on an agricultural project in the state of

Maranhao. Finally, in 1986, we indeed moved up north, not to run our own goat farm in a

nice forested area, but to work with a dynamic social movement of peasants facing

agrarian conflicts in the Mearim valley, a so-called former expansion frontier, mostly

covered by degraded secondary growth, palm forests, and pastures. Roberto was hired by

the Franciscan friars to coordinate a German-funded agricultural project based in the

municipality of Lago do Junco, which was closely involved with the CEBs, Eclesial Base

Communities, inspired by Liberation Theology. A semi-boarding school, also linked to

the pastoral movements, hired me to manage a Belgian-funded educational project for

peasant teenagers in the neighboring municipality of Po9go de Pedras.

'For the case of the Air Space Launching Base of Alcantara, see Almeida's (2001:137-141)
Human Rights in Brazil 2001.

In the years in which agrarian conflicts involving disputes over land tenure and

property rights took place in the Mearim valley, throughout the 1970s and 1980s,2 the

Franciscan friars supported villages in their struggle for recognition of their right to the

land. While most of the villages were swept away, some achieved their rights through

open conflict, and eventual governmental action through so-called Agrarian Reform,

being mistakenly denominated thereafter as "settlements."3 Still other villages managed

to negotiate and purchase the land from the pretense landlords. This movement became

locally known as the Mutirdo or A Luta, the collective struggle.

The villages, however, either "reformed" or not, continued struggling against the

effects of land concentration. Since Agrarian Reform was not massively applied in a way

that its effects would be felt even in nonreformed land, these reformed areas became

islands in a sea of landless situations, suffering pressures on their resources. By the mid

1980s, the People of the Mutirdo, or People of Struggle, began to discuss how to remain

on their "reformed" lands. Again, with the support of the church and NGOs, they chose

among the few available alternatives for experimenting with projects to collectively

organize their formal land tenure, production, and commercialization. For 3 years, we

were involved in this process, carried out in the realm of the Catholic church.

In 1989, after leaving these jobs, already with our second son, we moved to

Pedreiras, a more central town in the Mearim valley, to participate in the founding of a

grassroots organization, formed by people who had fought for the land, and opted for

2 See Almeida, A. 1990. The State and Land Conflicts in Amazonia: from 1964 to 1988. In The
Future ofAmazonia: Destruction or Sustainable Development?eds, D. Goodman and A. Hall.
3 According to INCRA, settlement is the process that follows land expropriation and tenure
emission, which involves plot demarcation, credits for food, housing, agricultural inputs, and
productive activities, in addition to infrastructure such as roads, electricity, water and schools
(INCRA 1984, INCRA 2001).

managing their resources also through economic projects carried out in the realm of the

social movements. Maintaining a partnership with the church, we dreamed of an

organization directed not for, not with, but by the peasants themselves. A board of

coordinators was elected among leaders related to the unions and grassroots organizations

from four municipalities of the Mearim Valley: Lago do Junco, Esperantin6polis, Sao

Luis Gonzaga, and Lima Campos. This assembly of grassroots leaders founded ASSEMA

- Association in Settlement Areas in the State of Maranhao.

Roberto and I became their professional volunteers (and later, employees) and soon

after were joined by a teacher, Luciene Figueiredo; and an agricultural technician, Jaime

Conrado. First CESE Coordenadoria Ecumanica do Servigo, and soon after, OXFAM,

Inter-American Foundation, and Ford Foundation funded ASSEMA's projects. Later,

Misereor, Terre des Hommes, Bread for the World and IBAMA supported the group with

their resources. Currently, Action Aid, Grassroots, Christian Aid, Coer Unite and DED

have joined efforts, and further government-funded projects, PROCERA and PDA, have

been carried out. Accessing their rights to public resources, as was written in the Agrarian

Reform Plan, involved a concomitant process ofpoliticization, since the formal Land

Reform program was anything but what was actually happening on those lands. In this

process, clashes and convergences among diverse cultural, economic and political

backgrounds, including ours, were constant at each step. Throughout this learning

process, ASSEMA was my classroom for a meaningful 52 years.

In 1994, we left for Bel6m, the largest capital in the Amazon, but continued to

provide occasional services to ASSEMA. After 8 years managing rural development

projects as a practitioner, Roberto felt the need to go back to academia, and moved to the

US for a short-term non-degree program. After being apart for 2 months, I ended up

quitting my 7-month-old job as a consultant for a German cooperation agency in Bel6m,

and joined Roberto and the children in the US. As an unemployed spouse without a work

permit, I also ended up going back to academia. In 1996, while working on my

2-year-long master's program in Tropical Development and Conservation, I fell in love

with Anthropology. I marveled to find a discipline concerned with theoretical and

empirical instruments to deal with the realities I still could not explain. What began as

"something-to-do-while-waiting-for-my-husband," turned into a lengthier pursuit in

Anthropology, not surprisingly trying to figure out the mysteries of gender relations.

As a late novice introduced to the discipline at the Ph.D. level, I jumped into the

ethnographies, enchanted with the methodological field procedures providing insightful

conceptual findings. I was fascinated to review the unexplainable situations lived as a

practitioner, now supported by the theories that, although based on distinct, idiographic

situations and empirical evidence, were made anthropologically meaningful by the

ethnographer. I began to dream of being an ethnographer. So, after 3 more years of

coursework and research, there I was, once more going back to the field for the last

summer of my field research. But so many things were still missing to unleash the magic

of being an ethnographer. Still, I open my dissertation by describing that entrance to the

field, as ethnographers usually do.


A CK N O W LED G M EN TS ................................................................................................. iv

P R E F A C E .......................................................................................................................... v i

A B ST R A C T ................................ ................... ......................................... ..... xv


1 IN TR O D U C TIO N ...................................................................................................... 1

Going Back to the Mearim Valley: the Research Setting......................................... 1
Looking for M y Research Site....................................... ................................. 1
Finding the Site of Trabalho Sem Patrao, Work without a Boss .......................... 3
Who They Are and Who I Am: the Formation of the Object of Research................... 6
The Researched: W ho They Are..................................... ............................... 6
The Researcher: W ho I Am ................................................. ........................... 19
The Research Relation: Researcher and Researched in the Same Text................ 22
Where Should We Walk Through: the Theoretical Framework............................... 27
Gender in an Operative Field of Knowledge ..................................... ............ 30
Gender in an Anthropological Field of Knowledge............................................. 35
Gender in an Interactive Field of Knowledge.................................... ........... 41
Walking My Path: the Ethnographic Dissertation .................................... ........... 46
Research Questions and Design............................................... ...................... 52
Research M ethodology ....................................................... ........................... 56
C chapter O organization ........................................... .................................................. 58

TH E M EARIM VA LLEY ........................................................................................62

Introduction: the Trajectory of Maria Pretinho Made Invisible.................................... 62
Entering the Field for the First Time ............................................... ..................... 66
Arriving at the Town of Lago do Junco: No Signs of Maria Pretinho................. 66
Getting a ride with the church to get on the road with the people .................66
There werefazendeiros on this road...........................................................69
There was a church project on the top of the hill................................... ..78
Proceeding Toward the Interior: the Margins that Were Centers...................... 81
A state of disconnected structures.................................................................81
A state of nonstructured connections.......................................................88

Learning a W ay of Life ......................................................................................... .. 92
Men and Women in the Making of Roga......................................... ............ .. 92
T he practices ............................................................................................ . 92
T he sym bols ..................................................... ......................................... 100
Men and Women in the Making of a Social Movement.................................... 104
Conflicts, agreements and an unsolved state ............................................. 104
From Mutirao to union, associations and cooperatives ............................... 13
Men and Women in the Making of a Municipality............................................ 119
Looking for Maria Pretinho in the numbers ................................................119
Looking for Maria Pretinho in local discourses...........................................123
Conclusion: Social Blindness in the Construction of Gender................................... 128

IN THE MEARIM VALLEY ..............................................................................131

Introduction ........................................................................................................ . 131
The Construction of Gender in the Formation of Monte Alegre .............................. 133
Contextualizing the Narrative .............................................................................. 133
Listening to the N arrative ................................................................................... 136
Reading the N arrative ......................................................................................... 146
T im e of captivity ............................................................................................155
Time of "being owner of one's self......................................................... 162
Tim e of struggle........................................ ........................................ 169
The Challenge of Gender in the "Development" of Monte Alegre ........................ 173
The Visible and Invisible Matters that Led the Development Projects to Fail.... 173
Productive projects......................................................................................... 178
Infrastructural projects ................................................................................. 80
The Visible Women Who Assumed the Debts .................................................. 182
Conclusion: Social Visibility in the Construction of Gender ................................. 187


Introdu action ................................................................................................................. 197
The Construction of Gender in Dona Vitalina's Family........................................... 202
The Pargas in the Construction of Gender in Dona Vitalina's Family..................... 221
The Sakiaras in the Construction of Gender in Dona Vitalina's Family .................. 230
C conclusion ......................................................................................................... . 249

ECONOMY IN THE MEARIM VALLEY ...............................................................251

Introdu action ..................................................................... ...................................... 25 1
M ethods..................................................................................................... . ... 252
Theoretical Perspectives .................................. ....... 254
Applicability of the Gender Concept ................................................................. 255
On the Economics of the Family and of the Village....................... ........ 260
On the Economics of Gender Throughout the Life Cycle ...................................... 267
Raising Boys and Girls: "Girls Are Put on Girls' Work and Boys on Boys'
W ork"......................... ... ................. ....................... ...... 267
Growing as Young Women and Young Men: "The Older Ones Tried, But as
the Work Got Heavier ... out of School!" ......................................... 273
Becoming Men and Women: "When You Marry, Then, the Roga is Yours;
You Are the Owner of Yourself........................................ 277
Getting Old: "The Old Woman Having her Little Social Security...It Doesn't
Solve Everything, But It Helps at Lot!"......... ................... 287
Shared Notions and Symbols in the Construction of a Gendered Economy ............ 295
C conclusion ........................................... ..... .. ................ ......... ....................... 303

M EA R IM V A LLEY ........................... ........................... ....... ..........................306

Introdu action ................................................................................................................. 306
Leaving the Mearim Valley One More Time ............................... ......... 309
Rites of Death in the Land of the Landlords..................................... ... 310
Trabalho Livre within and outside Terra Liberta........................................... 319
Answering Research Questions ........... .............................................. 321
What Forms of Gender and Other Social Relations Are Made Invisible
(by the V various A ctors)? .......................................................................... 321
How Are Gender and Other Social Relations Transformed in Times of
Conflict, Struggle and Political Resistance? ............................ ..... 327
How Do Multiple Forms of Gender Relations Combine and Evolve in
Specific Trajectories of Village Formation and Struggles?..................... 335
Conclusion: Gender Relations in the Mearim Valley................................... 341

LIST OF REFERENCES ........................................................ 351

BIOGRAPHICAL SKETCH .............................................................................364

Abstract of Dissertation Presented to the Graduate School
of the University of Florida in Partial Fulfillment of the


Noemi Sakiara Miyasaka Porro

December 2002

Chairwoman: Dr. Marianne Schmink
Major Department: Department of Anthropology

This ethnography of the people living in babaqu palm forests of the Mearim

Valley, in the Eastern Amazonian state of Maranhao, Brazil, is a study of social relations

among men and women struggling for their ways of life in a context of social

antagonism. I focus my analysis on trabalho livre, a form of labor that emerged from a

material and symbolic set of social relations from which gender relations cannot be

dissociated. Supported by political economy and feminist frameworks, I present my

findings through five life trajectories, examined in different social contexts.

Multiple forms of gender relations intertwined in these trajectories are made

invisible by Development discourses, promoted through policies and projects that affect

their gendered, ethnic-based, peasant ways of life. Adding to the study of gender in the

field inhabited by grassroots organizations, NGOs, and development agents, I also

investigate gender relations among the so-called nonparticipants of development projects.

This dissertation suggests that discourses and practices that consider gender

relations to be the result of a single, continuous, and all-encompassing history may be

present not only in dominant sectors, but also in the social movement itself. Discursive

and nondiscursive practices that promote uniformity, discipline, regulation, and overall

control over ways of life, including ways of living gender relations, on behalf of

predefined sustainable developments or feminisms, perpetuate power relations that hold

women and men in relations of domination. I conclude that peasant gender relations in

the Mearim valley are intrinsic and integral parts of dialectical constructions of gender in

impersonal "dominant sectors," but also in the realm of the social movements, where I

circulate as a member of society, a researcher and a practitioner. I suggest, therefore,

continuous scrutiny in both spheres through "thick" ethnographic research, aiming at a

self-critical reading of a multi-faceted general history that has been denied and made

invisible by the total history of global and national society.


Going Back to the Mearim Valley: the Research Setting

Looking for My Research Site

A sea ofbabaqu palms waved, little dots in a green landscape as I landed in the

capital of Maranhao, announcing this half Amazonian half Northeastern Brazilian state.

As soon as the airplane opened its doors, humidity and heat penetrated my clothes and

soul, warning me that I had finally arrived in the so-called Middle-North region, on a

summer afternoon of 2000. I had just finished with those bureaucracies of research forms

and permits, and was anxious to begin my dissertation fieldwork in the Mearim Valley,

300 km south from the coastal capital Sao Luis, about 6 hours by bus on a lousy road.

The valley is part of extensive and highly homogeneous babaqu palm forests that

cover more than 18 million hectares in northern and northeastern Brazil (MIC/STI 1982),

in which an estimated 500,000 families' live on agricultural and extractive activities

(Figure 1-1). My goal was to understand interactions among locally observed gender

relations, and discourses and practices promoted by Agencies of Development, related to

"gender and development." As a student in Tropical Conservation and Development and

later in Anthropology, I had returned every summer to the so-called babaqu forest region.

Even so, at each arrival, the homogeneous greenness and architecture of these palm

'The number of people working with babaqu extraction is estimated at 500,000 families
throughout Brazil (Anderson et al. 1991:9), with 300,000 families in the state of Maranhao alone
(Associag9o Brasileira das Indfstrias de Babaqu, cited in Almeida 1995:48, Anderson et al.

forests still surprises me. This time, however, the full realization that I had indeed arrived

at my research site came only later on. Somehow, my anthropological training was asking

for evidence other than the geographic signs.

Figure 1-1. Map of Brazil showing areas of occurrence of babagu palm forests, and detail
of the different ecological regions of these forests in the map of the state of
Maranhao. The research site is located in the designated Regido dos Cocais.
Source: MIC/STI 1982

On obtaining different departure schedules from each person I had asked, and in

spite of a crazy race from the airport to the bus station, I ended up missing the last bus of

the day from the capital, to the Mearim Valley. Forced to stay until the next day, I headed

to the closest hotel, but had to argue with the cab driver who tried to rip me off. I felt that

I had begun to fully participate in that arena of no schedules and no rules governing the

institutionalized informal economy. Next, trying to gain some time in this unplanned

extra day in the capital, I thought of contacting some public officers at the governmental

institutions related to my research, but the room telephones of my affordable hotel were

simply mute: another sign of decline common to many small enterprises shadowed by the

globally franchised hotel chains. At the moment, anxious to get to my geographical site,

these signs, which later helped me to understand the social site of my research, were only

distressing difficulties to overcome.

There I was then, sweating on the sidewalk in front of my hotel, in the midst of the

intense and noisy traffic of Guajajaras Avenue, under a vandalized public phone shelter. I

knew better than to expect a public employee to talk to someone calling in the last

working hour of the day. My next move was to reach colleagues and friends, but seconds

of local calls to mostly cell-phone holders swallowed all the units of my modern

magnetic telephone card, as I heard "try later" from professionally anonymous voices of

different private companies. It was nothing close to the paradise of efficiency promised

by the Brazilian privatization policies. I would soon learn of similar situations for the

privatization of water and electricity.

It began to rain on this hot day of July. Putting aside my unsuccessful attempts to

make my research days efficient, I finally gave up on my list of contacts. Protected by the

telephone shelter, I relaxed and freed my eyes for the world.

Finding the Site of Trabalho Sem Patrao, Work without a Boss

Two men who could be categorized as a mulato and a caboclo2 were pulling an old

wooden wagon full of cardboard, broken furniture, and old rusty metal, disturbing the

already chaotic traffic in the large avenue. As a burned car seat fell from their load, rusty

springs popping out of the incinerated cover, passing students warned and cheered the

men. As one of the men managed to hold the traffic, the other choreographically ran back

2 Mulato and caboclo are designations in the regional race-based social categorization indicating
the offspring of white and black, and white and indigenous parents, respectively.

for the seat, throwing jokes to a mass of irritated drivers. Ei, patraozinho, calma ai que

sem assento meu carro ndo anda! "Hey, little boss, calm down there 'cause my car can't

run without a seat!"

The obnoxious junk disturbing the busy flow of modern life was a treasure they

could not afford to leave behind. I guessed at the meager payment they would get for this

stressful job to feed the many children I imagined for each man. However, looking at this

uniquely cheerful while humiliating memento, I was completely certain that it was not

my imagination: I had finally arrived, not to my geographic, but to my social site. There

it was: the site of people living by trabalho sem patrdo, work without a patron. Through

the years I have lived and researched in the Mearim valley and other sites in the Amazon,

I came to learn of ways of life3 carried out by social groups who are related by central

symbolisms and practices aiming at freedom from the control of a boss.

By experience, I just knew that the expressions, words, laughs and attitudes

exchanged were all about the people I wanted to understand. In the same way I could see

the unmistakable geography of the babagu forests and the easily recognizable economic

context common to most of the so-called developing countries facing globalization, I

could also clearly identify the subjects of what I wanted to research. It was something

about that unique form of resistance, not defined by race, origin, geographical location, or

type of economic activity, but this time expressed by that humored defiance, common to

ways of life based on trabalho sem patrdo. It seemed to me that this commonality leads

to the formation of a people, which in the case of the Mearim valley, has emerged from

trajectories of slavery, detribalization, and forced migration.

3 Ways of life are "ways that human beings have to construct their lives throughout the process of
living them" (Geertz 1983:29)


Being part of a stream dominated by modem, even imported cars, they push

wagons. Swallowed by chaotic traffic rushed by globalized economies, they go against

the flow, struggling for what is meaningful to them. Although they have never managed

to effectively challenge the oppression, they were never completely dominated by it

either. Swallowed but never homogenized, marginalized but not entirely excluded, they

are in the cities and they are in the countryside. They are seen even in modem factories,

but they also slash and bum forests to produce. They consume their underclassified type

of rice, but also fancy satellite dishes for TVs run by old batteries. And, as we will see

later, levels of income, location of dwelling, types of occupation, and overall

categorization by development parameters do not help much to understand their gender


Through this event on the very first day of my field research, I realized that the

crucial problem to make the right entrance to my study was to clearly delineate the object

of my research, and to clarify the fields of knowledge in which I would work. Depending

on how I made my delimitation, I could be either creating artificial boundaries, validating

nonexistent objects of research, or erasing subjects and livelihoods just because they were

not behaving accordingly, or staying where I did not expect to find them. All these noises

of the globalized life were distracting me from listening to the voices I needed to hear and

making invisible what I should see. I had not even approached the Mearim Valley; how

could I be so sure that they were around? Why am I saying "they," myself a Brazilian,

and they not having any other "official" identification than that? Do we not speak the

same language and use the same clothes made in China, paying with the same currency

devalued by the global financial market? Who are these people, the subjects of ways of

life I am willing to research, after all? And who am I to dare studying a people for whom

I could not even figure out a proper identification?

Who They Are and Who I Am: the Formation of the Object of Research

The Researched: Who They Are

When someone asks what is the object of my research, I cannot simply answer that

it is the culture of "the Guajajara" or "the Canela" as would the anthropologists who

work with these indigenous groups with a recognized social identity. There is a Guajajara

nation and a Guajajara territory; each Guajajara knows who belongs to it, and in a general

sense the meaning of being a Guajajara pervades every dimension of the interpretation of

their lives, including gender relations.4

This is not the case of the people I am talking about. Anthropologists mostly

conceptualize these people as peasants, for their distinct mode of production is articulated

with market oriented or capitalist modes.5 Marx (1967:761) referred to peasants as related

to a petty mode of production, "where the laborer is the private owner of his own means

of labor set in action by himself." Distinguishing them from farmers, in the first volume

4 For indigenous groups without an officially recognized ethnic identity, like many groups based
in the Northeastern territories, there are attempts to recognize the significance of their ethnicity.
Debates in contemporary anthropology that challenge excluding concepts such as "closed tribe"
and "indigenous people" have intended to redeem their invisibility. See Oliveira Filho 1998.
5 Along the line of the classical concepts, Alfred Kroeber provides a definition: "Peasants are
definitely rural yet live in relation to market towns; they form a class segment of a larger
population, which usually contains also urban centers, sometimes metropolitan capitals. They
constitute part societies and part cultures. They lack the isolation, the political autonomy and the
self sufficiency of tribal populations; but their local units retain much of their old identity,
integration and attachments to soils and cults" (1948:284). Another example is Raymond Firth's
definition in which peasants are "a socio economic system of small-scale producers with a
relatively simple, non-industrial technology" (1964:17) involving a "set of structural and social
relationships rather than a technological category of persons engaged in the same employment"
(ibid:18). A third example is Eric Wolf's definition expressing dialectical relations: peasants are
"rural cultivators whose surpluses are transferred to a dominant group of rulers that uses the
surpluses both to underwrite its own standard of living and to distribute the remainder to groups

of Capital, Marx presented the petty mode as a transient mode, to be dissolved as the

"historical process of divorcing the producer from the means of production," or the

primitive accumulation, evolved (1967:714). Otherwise, society would be fated to

mediocrity and narrowness, because "this mode of production presupposes parceling of

the soil and scattering of the other means of production ... (I)t excludes co-operation,

division of labor within each process of production, the control over, and the productive

application of the forces of nature by society, and the free development of the social

productive powers" (1967:761-2).

A more idiographic view of diverse peasant social groups worldwide would show

diverse social situations in which peasants adopt a common use of land, and

cooperatively organize their productive powers according to socially established rules.6

Besides, the development of the social productive powers entailed a diversity of

interconnected modes. De Janvry, using Marxist analytical tools, argued for an

integrative view to explain the situation of the peasantry, condemning dual segmentations

such as growth and stagnation, poverty and wealth, development and underdevelopment,

as proposed by the neo-classic and Modernization theorists. He opted for a dialectical

perspective, accounting for societies' contradictions, conflicts, movements, and changes,

analyzed through historical materialism. De Janvry constructed models of articulated and

in society that do not farm but must be fed for their specific goods and services in turn" (1966:3-
6 It is important to note that Marx's analysis is based on a historical approach specific to the
Western European peasants in a given period, and that this view varied throughout his process of
theoretical construction. See letter to Vera Zasulich in 1881 (Shanin 1983). Therefore, in the third
volume of Capital, he even considered the possibility of peasants making the full development of
the capitalist mode more difficult (1967:196). This suggests that the evolution of each peasant
group should be analyzed in its own time and place, in their unique interaction with other social
groups throughout history. This is even more necessary for peasantries such as that of the Mearim

disarticulated economies to show how economies worldwide are connected according to

a capitalist rationality: peasants would be a class or part of a class with a specific

economy that is articulated with a capitalist economy.7

However, in practice, in the research environment and activism where I circulate,

peasants are mostly identified now by the economic activity that is meaningful to the

market (in an overall process of development), or to conservation (in a process of

sustainable development): seringueiros, quebradeiras de coco, marisqueiras, etc. (rubber

tappers, babacu nut breakers, shellfish gatherers). Such identities, at least originally, were

not defined by themselves, but ascribed by sectors that benefited from them:

seringalistas, marreteiros, bodegueiro, fazendeiros, mercador (situational designations

for landlords and merchants). Later, the subjects transformed these ascribed

identifications into self-designated political identities, and agents with interests in

conservation, sustainable development, and social change reinforced the significance of

these activities and management systems.

Attention to this mode of identification is crucial in delineating the object of my

research on gender, as it implies an instrumentality toward a preconceived end that

defines a specific research perspective and visibility. As a practitioner, a master's

degree-holder in conservation and development, a would-be gender expert, it is

valley, whose social genesis occurred in the realm of conflicts such as slavery, detribalization,
and forced migration.
7 According to him, in articulated economies, there is a social division of labor, with a sectoral
articulation between production of capital goods and consumption goods. Such production
provides returns to capital and returns to labor, which are socially distributed among the
articulated social classes. In disarticulated economies, the modem production sectors are directed
to exports or industry with import of capital and technology, and provide returns only to capital
(and the distribution of capital will depend on the balance of payments between importers and
exporters, which is dependent on the terms of trade in the international market). The returns to

instrumental to view the women I am studying as quebradeiras, because of their potential

for sustainable management and as agents of change in gender relations. But, is

quebradeira the woman herself, an integral member of her people, whose identity is

submerged to all aspects of this people's social life? Or is quebradeira just an

identification that responds to my interests and fits into my research inquiry? Surely,

there is no problem in studying a fragment, or an aspect of something; however, I need to

be clear that this selected aspect is only one part of a person's identity; the part that I am

interested in.

Alternatively, I may say that I am studying people who live in the Mearim valley,

slashing and burning their roqas,8 clearing pastures, and selling babaqu kernels. Local

merchants, governmental agents, and union leaders would identify them as rural workers

or producers. For breaking babacu fruits, extracting so-called nontimber forest resources,

and defending palm forests, conservationists and militants would identify them as

traditional people, or forest dwellers, stressing the fragment of their lives that intersects

with common interests. However, they are also mining gold in Suriname, or slashing

primary forests along the Transamazon in Para, or remodeling buildings in Sao Paulo.

They have also trespassed and blurred, physically and culturally, the lines between their

rural villages and urban Amazonian towns.9 Although I interviewed people who barely

exchanged ideas with someone in a neighboring village, I also talked to people who

labor are provided only by the traditional sector of production of wage-goods. In this economy,
the capacity for consumption is defined in the exterior and by the elites' demands for luxuries.
8 Rogas can be viewed as the physical gap in the forest, where people cultivate rice, corn, beans,
cassava and a variety of other vegetables such as squash, okra, tomatoes, cuxa and cucumber.
Roca also implies a complex social organization and results in the maintenance of a way of life
(Porro 1997).
9 See IBGE's concepts of rural and urban in Census 2000 (IBGE 2000a).

explained to me how a letter of exporting credit works, and for whom New York or Bonn

are becoming just extra places for negotiating their so-called 'eco,' 'green' products.

In trying to delineate the object of my research gender relations of a people

through an anthropological inquiry I looked for help in the classic ethnographies. When

I first opened Argonauts of the Western Pacific, I was delighted by Malinowski's

description of his entrance to the field. He told how he landed on a tropical beach of the

Western Pacific close to a native village, saw the launch that had brought him go sailing

away, and faced the uncertainties of living among the "savages," without a cell phone,

e-mail account, GPS, and the like."1 Despite these uncertainties, anthropological research

at his time allowed him the certainties of territory boundaries, ethnic identities, culturally

defined occupations, and all sorts of material culture represented by specific pottery,

basketry, architecture and so on. He knew that the Mailu would be at certain places,

doing certain things, speaking a certain language, because these were the very definition

of being a Mailu.

In the Nuer's case, similarly, at least the ethnic boundaries were clear. According to

Pritchard, by 'people' he meant "all persons who speak the same language and have, in

other respects, the same culture, and consider themselves to be distinct from like

aggregates" (Evans-Pritchard 1940:5). Unlike the Nuer or the Mailu, the Motu, or the

Massim, the subjects of my research do not have a definite territory, a distinct material

culture, or even a proper name delimiting an identity per se. If I call them peasants (for

lack of a more precise identification) I discover that the peasant concept, which

supposedly served to examine this social category, is under scrutiny (Kearney 1996).

Unlike campesinos (peasants in other Latin American countries), in their discourses the

interviewees do not identify themselves as camponeses (the Portuguese translation for


Historians could trace the subjects of my research as the descendants of enslaved

natives of different African tribes in the Guinea Coast, Cape Verde, Angola, Luanda and

Benguela, and probably from Sudan or Ethiopia, and of detribalized individuals from

swept away, distinct, indigenous nations such as Timbiras, Kanela, and Guajajaras. They

were miscegenated with Europeans mostly from Portugal, France and Holland, and with

Lebanese. Does the lack of language, material culture, or other visible distinction from

"like aggregates," mean that there are no "people" to be anthropologically studied? Did

they disappear as a people, a social group with a distinct ethnicity?

As I began my dissertation, my anthropological intention was to discuss gender

relations in the realm of a people's culture. However, how could I do that if the subjects

of my research seemed just the leftover descendants of already disappeared peoples? As a

contemporary anthropologist without a "Kanela nation" to study, should I study them as

the "poor," as an interviewee referred to themselves as "the nation of the poor"? The

"landless," the "displaced," the "traditional"? Should I adopt emergent political and

occupational identities such as "quebradeiras de c6co babagu" or "seringueiros"? And for

the sake of my interests in gender and conservation issues, should I study them in a

fragmentary fashion, electing the "women" (or the "extractor women") as another

endangered category? Would their gender relations be different from those of other

equally poor, landless, traditional women of Brazilian society, just adapted to their

economic specifics?

10 See Stocking (1992) for other views of Malinowsky's entrance in the field.

These questions that troubled my research are nothing new, and probably noticed

also by the development agencies and grassroots organizations acting everywhere in the

Amazon. What to do with these surely noticed, but poorly identified, and little known

peasantry as a people? What are the ethnic boundaries defining them as a people?

Although pointing out a necessary attention to diversity and cultural matters, too often

these concerns are overcome by the rhythm and demands of development projects, which

apparently erase them. Nonetheless, I believe these questions are at the core of the

consistent failures of projects and policies aiming at sustainable development goals

supported by "gender and development" initiatives. To understand their ethnic

boundaries, which delimit the meaning of being a people, may tell us why they do not

participate, or participate in terms that clash with terms imposed by development


In this search for approaching gender as something meaningful to an

anthropologically defined people, should I go for an archaeology of what is still

identifiable in a past culture, excavating clues to figure out their pristine gender relations?

Has the core of their cultural realm faded, if it ever existed, in the vagaries of an

uncertain citizenship said to be provided by the Brazilian nation-state, so much that they

do not even have a culturally defined identity?

Contemporary anthropology has for quite a while been changing its focus from

ethnic as exotic, to ethnic as belonging to a social group defined by criteria not always

based on material culture, geographic location, or specific activities, but historically and

socially constructed meanings that may or may not involve these. Barth was the first to

develop the concept of ethnic boundaries to deal with social groups defined by ethnicity,

instead of looking at the fixed structure of a society and the organic functions of its

cultural parts. As a student of Leach and Firth, Barth considered some of the more

dynamic concepts offered by structural-functionalists of the 1940s and 1950s. However,

along with Gluckman, he was primarily involved with the foci of the anthropology of the

1960s: social change and its dynamic processes (Barth 1969; Previtera 1995).

According to Barth (1969:15), "ethnicity is a form of social organization; this

implies that the critical focus for investigation becomes the ethnic boundary that defines

the group rather than the cultural stuff that it encloses; the critical feature of ethnic group

is the characteristic of self-ascription and ascription by the others." Barth distinguishes

ethnicity from culture for its intrinsic interacting approach, in contrast with a more

inertial and constraint-like weight of knowledge and value inherent to the construction of

the concept of culture (as for example: Durkheim's "social law" or Tylor's definition of

culture). 1 Rather than behavioral or trait patterns, ethnicity is used to learn why and how

the subjects opt to identify themselves with a given social group, and to agree on criteria

of differences and similarities in specific social situations.

The concept of ethnicity is constructed allowing greater attention to agency,

diversity of interests, and levels of collectivity, which are more coherent with our

material existence in which "actors are forced to intentionally act, modifying

preconditions in a dialectical interaction," (Barth 1969) while still maintaining the

significance of symbols and meanings. In Barth's conceptualization, the historical

1' Tylor defines culture as a "complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, law,
custom, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society" (1871,
cited in McGee and Warms 1996:26). Durkheim stated that the object of study of sociology were
'social facts,' which were not biological or psychological phenomena, but "a category of facts
with very distinctive characteristics, it consists of ways of acting, thinking, and feeling, external
to the individual, and endowed with a power of coercion, by reason of which they control him"

approach should not be confounded with historicism or historical determinism, and

concepts related to structuralism and functionalism may serve only at the micro-level, to

avoid fatal distortions. Therefore, for the purpose of this dissertation, the Mearim valley

as a geographic place is just a point of departure to design the operational limits of my

research site, as it is then defined much more dynamically by the ideals, the discourses

and practices of a people struggling for trabalho livre to indicate their ethnic boundaries.

Trabalho livre or trabalho sem patrio is a concept of labor that emerged from

multiple life trajectories intertwined with the history of the Mearim valley. This form of

labor is the foundation of the ways of life of a people, who have struggled throughout

slavery, forced migration, and agrarian conflicts. Trabalho livre is both the cause and the

consequence of ways of life in which these social actors make themselves "illegible" to

the authorities and dominant sectors. Through trabalho livre, peasants in the Mearim

valley struggle to free themselves from dominant manipulation. As Scott (1998:183)

affirms, "legibility is a condition of manipulation." Trabalho livre entails a material and

symbolic set of social relations, from which gender relations cannot be dissociated, and is

based on principles of autonomy in the control over their family labor, and in the

common use of land and forest resources, which demarcate their ethnicities.

Having dealt with the theoretical problem of establishing the boundaries of my

object of research, there was still the question of the very formation of this object. I draw

on Foucault's (1972) work to carry out this discussion, essential to the opening of this

dissertation. He uses as an illustration the discourse of psychopathology since the

nineteenth century in Europe, and the formation of its object of research. Foucault said

that, in our attempts to delineate the object of our studies, by the practice of our own

(1895, cited in McGee and Warms 1996:86). See Durkheim's (1895) Rules of the Sociological

discourses, we end up in fact creating, forming an object in its own, which is not the very

object that we intend to study. "This formation is made possible by a group of relations

established between authorities of emergence, delimitation, and specification .... These

relations are established between institutions, economic and social processes, behavioral

patterns, systems of norms, techniques, types of classification, modes of characterization;

and these relations are not present in the object" (1972:44-45).

I give an illustration of my reading of Foucault. In a conference on tropical

conservation and development held at UF in 2002, a scientific authority, advocating for

the establishment of parks to preserve nature, showed apparently convincing pictures to

demonstrate the efficiency of parks in protecting forests against the advancement of

shantytowns, and challenged the participants to refute the unquestionable right of the

future generations. A hanging question in my mind was: whose future generation? If

one's child is dead of hunger today, because land is so concentrated, whose will be the

right to see a forest in the future? Above all, who are the authorities delimiting and

classifying types of nature to preserve, and selecting types of people to enjoy them in the


Although any one of the individuals living in the pictured shantytown was

consuming much less energy and resources than any of those privileged to leave

descendants to visit the park in the present and future, the rate of energy and resource

consumption was not the institutionalized mode to select and characterize them. A picture

showed the clear boundary between the park and the shantytown, but no questions arose

about boundaries between the "green" discourse and the

Method and Tylor's (1871) The Science of Culture. In Primitive Culture. London: John Murray.

laptop-paper-battery-air-conditioning-frequent-flyer practices of any of us participating in

the conference.

Sustainability (the capacity of reproduction of resources and relations within a

given system) is a result of specific relations between people and nature; relations based

on short- and long-term conservation practices involving social and natural resources.

However, most likely, relations extraneous to these mentioned relations that form

sustainability itself (the real thing) delineate the formation of sustainability as an object

of research. Surely relations that I am calling extraneous to sustainability itself (relations

among scientific, political, or social leader authorities) do influence how people are going

to relate with nature. However, these relations (relations that I myself live as a scientist, a

consumer, a member of the privileged classes) should not define the formation of my

object of research. Rather, these relations should be scrutinized in my research. They are

part of my data, but do not define them.

In the process of choosing and delineating the object of my research, while

selecting my bibliography, courses and advisors, which provided me with specific

theoretical and methodological instruments, I made use of concepts related to my

trajectory as a practitioner and a candidate for a doctorate. By working under the

guidance of the church, NGOs, and agencies of cooperation, conservation, and

development; and by listening to and reading the recommended authors and authorities

(conservationists, development and gender experts), I absorbed whole constructions of

what is development and what is underdevelopment, what is nature and what is

conservation, what is a woman, what is a man, and what their relations should look like,

what is global and what is local. I selected the necessary concepts and methods used for

these constructions.

The social genesis and application of these selected concepts should be scrutinized

in order to clarify their relations to the proposed object of my research: gender relations

associated with trabalho livre, in the face of development discourses. As Foucault

exemplifies, when the psychopathologist authorities attempt to objectively define, let's

say, 'madness without delirium,' they actually create it as an object by the means of a

related discourse sustained by the power of their authority. Can the words of this

discourse actually create a real 'mad man without delirium'? As Escobar (1991) invites

us to think, can imposing discourses of development create a real 'underdeveloped'

people? These are the relations between discourses and things one is led to think about

when proposing an object of study.

As I wanted to study gender and discourses related to "gender and development," I

attempted to delineate women, men, and Amazonian nature. Actually, beforehand, I had

in my mind a state of "disease," in which endangered nature and women were in troubled

relations, and my study was supposed to be part of an intervention to fix them. Aimed to

delineate the object of my research, by the force of the techniques, procedures, and forms

of visualization and selection of my instruments of research, I vested my authority as an

experienced grassroots practitioner and Ph.D. candidate, to enunciate and form my

object, and imagined that the models, structures, instruments, and data constituting my

object of research were the actual people I am trying to understand.

Foucault suggested that I should not, in search of the real 'thing,' try to destroy

these creations or the 'discourses' I have constructed to form the object of my research.

Rather, I should discover how and why 'gender relations among Amazonian peasants in

the context of sustainable development' became the object of my research. What are the

relations established between the author and the object of my research? How were the

concepts used in this selection originated? Why am I using this and not that discourse in

describing my object? I should not deny or deviate from the fact that I have indeed

created a discourse and object, as an image of the 'thing' that I wish to understand,

because "in analyzing the discourses themselves, one sees the loosening of the embrace,

apparently so tight, of words and things, and the emergence of a group of rules proper to

the discursive practice"(Foucault 1972:49). Answering these questions, I learn about the

"practices that systematically form the objects of which (I) speak" (1972:49) and then I

get closer to an understanding of them.

Therefore, as I begin my dissertation, I assume that my ethnography is about people

whose identity and history have been denied and made socially invisible by the global

and national society. It is about people who are currently struggling to control their ways

of life, in which trabalho livre is an ideal pursued, and lived in their everyday practices.

Trabalho livre is indeed the basis of their mode of production, and therefore, delineates

social class, but more than that, it is the basis of their mode of living, including living

gender relations. They may strategically assume multiple identities, which may be

situational and strategic, but these are all based on principles delineated by their ethnicity,

which profoundly affects and is affected by their struggles for these ways of life. In

conflicting contexts, I focus on gender relations as part of their ethnic principles,

expecting to figure out who they are.

In my ethnography, I also intend to approach who they are (by scrutinizing the

relation between the researcher and the researched); and therefore to disclose who I am

(the position of the ethnographer and the author). The relativity between the author and

the people studied clarifies the text I intend to produce. This research strategy deals with

the pertinent critique of the authoritarian and omnipotent author (Clifford and Marcus

1986, Rosenau 1992).

The Researcher: Who I Am

As an agronomist whose debut in anthropology came late in her working career,

still struggling with the possibilities of modem ethnography, I marveled at the validity of

idiographic accounting obtained through systematic direct and participant observation. I

was shocked at some of the pertinent critiques by those labeled as postmodernists and

poststructuralists. Yearning to land on a solid theoretical field where I could safely solve

accumulated questions, I got trapped in debates in which critiques failed to replace a

defeated explanation by another paradigm. Rather, it could well be that there would be no

paradigm after all (Clifford and Marcus 1986).

Within this diffuse theoretical and methodological mode currently reigning in the

discipline, I still believed that my long-term concern for answers to lived experiences

would help me to clear the path for my inquiries, separating preposterous provocations

from fertile critiques. However, it was again the reading of classical ethnographies that

helped me to craft my formation as an ethnographer. I take Malinowski's example again

to illustrate my point. The publication of some personal accounts after his death show

how relations between researched and researcher may affect research results. At the level

of impressions, my disappointment with Malinowski's racist or sexist remarks in

disclosed private writings clashed with my enchantment with his work as an

ethnographer.12 The fact that he did not use the same derogatory terms in his published

ethnography as he did in his private diary, shows that even at that time, they were like

hidden sins, not appropriate for an author, especially an anthropologist. At the research

level, however, the contrast between his ethnography and his private accounts13 led me to

investigate my own "hidden sins." It compelled me to hunt for my camouflaged "ghosts,"

which the contemporaneous world does not allow me to see, as in these

development-oriented globalized times, they are taken as natural or acceptable, just as

many of Malinowski's remarks were not so "politically incorrect" in his colonial time.

In a letter to his future wife, on November 10, 1917, he wrote: "Morover, it seems

so absurd to write things about the kula, when any nigger walking about the street in a

dirty lavalava might know much more about it than I do!" (1995:48).14 His distress was

to realize that, in spite of all sorts of ignorance he attributed to the subject, and in spite of

all the knowledge on his own side, the subject knew what he did not: the secret of the

economics of kula. Today, the opposite happens; rather than distress, the so-called

politically correct researchers are ready to recognize that, in spite of all the social and

material deprivation that local people have suffered throughout history, they hold what

we do not: local knowledge. There is now a sense in which local people have become

respected for their potential contributions to scientific research. We expect that such

knowledge will be the key to great achievements, be it a community-based sustainable

12 See Stocking 1992 and Malinowski and Masson 1995.
3 By the end of the 1930s, in London, Malinowski had the opportunity to eliminate some of his
letters, but instead he highlighted parts, ordered them, and kept the letters with his other papers, in
his office and his house (Malinowski and Masson 1995).
14 The kula is a form of inter-tribal exchange involving the circulation of symbolic and material
goods among partners throughout the Trobriand Islands. The economic anthropological analysis
of this practice led to understand the complex institutions and principles among the Trobrianders.
See Malinowski 1961.

forest management or fairness in noncapitalist gender relations leading to better resource


However, during my research I came to realize that my hidden sins emerged when

there were indications that these local people might not hold in and by themselves, the

key to the desired "sustainable management" or "gender and development." I was

troubled to learn that the key is not the imagined isolation of closed traditional people,

but the unveiling of more complex and inclusive realms and relations. I recall the distress

of a young forester who told me almost in secret: "To tell the truth, these seringueiros,15

traditional rubber tappers, do not mind cutting their forests as long as good money falls

into their hands!" I also was confused to realize that regarding outcomes in the grassroots

organizations, women in decision-making positions were not much different than men.

Contemporary notions of racial or female "inferiority" permeated Malinowski's

private writings, and had consequent implications in his ethnography: erasing women

from it. I realized that a contemporary assumed and discoursed type of "superiority" of

women, forest dwellers, or communities also permeated my writings, and these had

implications for my research: invention of an object of research. Investigating why was I

assigning superior positions to certain categories, with which expectations and charges, I

found it necessary to include my Self in the investigation.

In the process of examining not only anthropological Others, but also my Self, by

contrast and comparison, I could trace cultural differences and similarities, and above all,

15 During the rubber boom, rubber tappers lived from extractive activities that did not harm the
Amazonian forests. After the boom, greater labor allocation was directed to agriculture, as tappers
needed to survive without the cash from this extractive product. As political and economic
conditions changed and cattle ranching, agriculture and timber extraction took greater shares of
the forests, conservationist discourses pointing to "traditional" rubber tapping as the key to
conserving the forests clashed with current strategies adopted by the rubber tappers.

elicit the connections between Self and Other that make and continuously reproduce

discourses of them as distinct and isolated social entities. In my pursuit to understand

gender relations, I tried to establish the connections between the subjects and my

discourses and practices on gender. I wanted to understand why and how we, researchers

and practitioners, invest so much on gender issues of the Other to promote the social

changes we, as untouchable authors, want and take for granted as desirable for all.

Another way to avoid paradigmatic authority was that proposed by Marcus and

Fischer (1986), treating anthropological inquiries as experiments, freeing us from the

authority of paradigms and, picking a concept here, a method there, trying new ways of

doing anthropology. A decade and a half has passed and neither a new paradigm nor a

nonparadigmatic era has been established yet, allowing us to still talk about an

experimental phase. However, while experimentation allows greater freedom from the

paradigms and also results in less authoritative findings, it may also imply less

commitment, greater illusion of manipulation, and less consequential statements. By

putting my own experiences in as part of the research, I attempt to transform the

experimental character of the research into experiential, which stresses taking part and

responsibility for it. With the lightness and humbleness of the experimental perspective, it

is carried out with the commitment of the undeletable nature of interconnected lived

experiences. In this manner, I can keep surveillance, not on the author herself, who must

be free to write, but on the ghost of authoritarian authorship.

The Research Relation: Researcher and Researched in the Same Text

As a practitioner, I have been beaten so many times as a consequence of misreading

multiple realities as my own, that the postmodern warning about the problems of

ethnography as the "real" description of a culture was a readily accepted critique. It

sounded fair enough to have in mind the image of a text, a simple although expectedly

useful, representation of the results of my fieldwork. As the research advanced, I

confirmed that the distance between myself, as an author, and the subjects, whose

realities I was aiming to represent as a text, was indeed immense. Whatever efforts for an

accurate, at least valid representation of the subjects' realities would not reach that

objectivity prescribed by Piaget. "Objectivity consists in so fully realizing the countless

intrusions of the self in everyday thought and the countless illusions which result -

illusions of sense, language, point of view, value, etc. that the preliminary step to every

judgment is the effort to exclude the intrusive self" (Piaget 1972:34, cited in Keller

1985:117). So, as I could not exclude it, I found it better to include the self at once, and

keep on eye on it.

This does not mean that I want to go "native," considering that we are all Brazilians

so to speak, as I still think that the distinction Self-Other is a useful research strategy,

which does not necessarily lead to dualisms, 16 but helps to understand how these distinct

parts can be connected. Besides, as Rosaldo said so well, "not unlike other ethnographers,

so-called natives can be insightful, sociologically correct, axe-grinding, self-interested, or

mistaken" (1989:50). Nonetheless, while trying to make sense of my collected data, I

realized that the distance between subjects and me was not qualitatively like that between

a text and a neutral and impersonal author.

It might have been if I was writing this dissertation after the first year and a half of

living in Maranhao. But along the way, occasionally, there were those snaps in our

sociologically distant lives in which the author was thrown into the text and the

characters just absorbed her as part of the script. I might just be thrown back out as

suddenly as I was in, but my authorship would never be the same again. Actually, the text

itself was changed, not only by the impersonal sequences of economic, social or

ecological processes, but also by a minuscule, and yet detectable, and therefore

analyzable, participation of the author, transformed then into actor. The anthropological

and sociological distance between the actual subjects remained, indeed, but shared

experiences made it acquire different meanings, calling for a more holistic approach,

greater historical responsibility, and ultimately demanding self-critique.

In methodological terms, the figures of an authoritarian, neutrally positioned author

and a bi-dimensional, flat text became imprecise, and called for other methodological

devices. I propose for this dissertation a methodology fit for practitioners and applied

anthropologists turned into ethnographers, in which the concept of shared experience is

used for analytical purposes. I agree with Rabinow (1982) that a story is only worth

telling when essential and interconnected changes happen to both researched and

researcher, as an integrated, shared experience turned into a text.

I am not claiming that the resulting text, the telling of an experience or the

description of its circumstances, is a unifying reality for both researcher and researched.

Rather, I suggest greater attention to shared experience as a strategy to simply deal with

multiple realities, and the understanding of one experience as thresholds to other

experiences, especially those in gender relations, as they are an essential and complex

part of social life. As Turner (1982:84) says, "in social life cognitive, affective and

volitional elements are bound up with one another and are alike primary, seldom found in

their pure form, often hybridized, and only comprehensible by the investigator as lived

experience, his/hers as well as, and in relation to, thiss"

16 See Kearney's (1996) differentiation between the modernist Self and non-modernist Self.

In addition, being the author and simultaneously part of the text, I propose to

enhance the notion of text with the idea of environment, not in a biophysical, but in a

virtual sense, suggesting a more interactive and multi-dimensional text. With the same

figure of speech that I say that I am producing my dissertation in a Windows

environment, I invite the reader to read and experience my text as a virtual environment

that I assumedly created for representation matters. However, approximating my being

part author and part actor, I share the view of my experience as perceived by myself in an

attempt to explain why I presented my text as I did. In this way, I invite the reader to

think about why s/he reads it in the way s/he does. The following narrative may illustrate

my proposition.

We had arrived in Lago do Junco in 1986, a year of drought. People were not fully

recovered from the much more severe drought of 1983, so that it had a cumulative effect.

An examination of economic, environmental and sociological data for that period could

show the effects of the meager "subsistence" fields, rogas. These effects could also be

seen in the squalid legs and arms of the many have-nots of Lago do Junco, who used to

visit me at the time. After the first months of our arrival, as a young mother in my mid

twenties and the wife of the coordinator of the priest's project, I thought I had reasonably

overcome the initial stage of "culture shock," and begun to situate myself in that dynamic

position in-between charity and assistance, and social practice and advocacy.

But when Maria Mandioca came for the third time in a short period to visit me with

her many emaciated children, once again, at their sight, I sent my thoughts to Biafra,

unbearable as it was to admit starvation with names and known faces so geographically

close, within my own country and my home. My bemused distress contrasted with

Maria's singular sense of humor, so it was hard to make sense of the positions of our

relationship. Even then, I had the impression that she had come more for the fun of

watching my weirdness than anything else, which made our perceived positions not quite

hierarchical. With my own healthy baby playing and running around, I had taught Maria

to treat Simone, her undernourished, dehydrated younger baby, following the directions

of the nationwide campaign of a homemade antidehydration mix. I had shared some food

that I knew was just a cloak for their hunger and my guilt. On this third visit, however,

Simone arrived already shivering from a burning fever. While waiting for transportation

to the infirmary in the neighboring town, following the instructions left by the doctor

working in the project, I bathed her skeletal little body to cool down the fever.

The experience of caressing her denied babyhood wrapped in that scaly, flaccid

skin changed my life, my reading, and my authorship for well beyond her death, hours

later. For a snapshot, a lapse in the social order compressed the infinite distance between

hers and my safe, fully lived life into a single point of shared experience of social

impotence. All the material and historical conditions remained, but the author perceiving

and interpreting them changed. Was it just an intellectual experience, at the expense of

her experience with death, which I am writing down without her informed consent? I do

not know. But what I know is that it is exactly this undeletable lesson of "not knowing"

that made this experience a transforming door to the next experience. This experience, an

unstructured environment of social nonsense, turned into a text, undeniably, and ever

since questions and ridicules the authority and power of my authorship, because for a

moment I was part of a text. Thinking about it now, I believe her death did not enunciate

a postmodern death of the author (Rosenau 1992). Rather, this experience preannounced

the painful and lengthy delivery of an author-actor with a specific combination of power

and powerlessness of her own. Writing about shared experiences is therefore based on the

awareness of such a combination, which demands shared responsibilities and risks, and a

careful selection of a theoretical framework.

Where Should We Walk Through: the Theoretical Framework

The ultimate anthropological advice I got from professors and literature before

leaving for the field was to care for the diversity, to expect the unexpected, and to listen

to divergences. Surely I had lots of these, but I was also amazed to hear women in social

movements in different sites in the Amazon, and probably the world around, repeating

the exact same words I had read in my books: "Sex is a biological construction! Gender is

a social construction! Without gender, no sustainable development!" What social

construction is gender after all, to be spoken of so uniformly everywhere? How was this

"common" discourse formed? Or how was it broadcast? By which means were the

notions of gender and sustainable development germinated? What presuppositions did

they involve? From which positions and by whom were they first and continuously

spelled out, impregnating a totalizing language and history of gender relations? Do these

reverberating slogans carry the same goals and effects everywhere? Or do they collide

with other equally powerful (and imposed or proposed) discourses, then being restricted

to certain places, certain social groups, and hierarchies of interest? And above all, what

local discursive and nondiscursive practices do they supplant?

The different situations in which I heard these uniform discourses were

circumscribed to the organized social movements. They belonged to dialogues carried out

in the interface between local social movements and development initiatives. However,

even in these contexts, this uniformity is questioned. During my fieldwork, I had the

opportunity to participate in some of the "women's meetings" promoted by NGOs or

grassroots organizations. In one of these meetings, dona Zl6ia, answering what gender

meant to her, without a pint of irony or cynicism, said: "Genero? G&nero prd mim d o

arroz, ofeijUo, o milho!" Gender? Gender for me is rice, beans, corn!" In Portuguese,

gender is translated as genero, which is indeed a form to categorize men and women, but

genero can be also used in the expression genero alimenticio, meaning edible genre.

Her observation led me to think that: Some women have made the option to really

get into the gender discussions carried out within the social movements as a means to

find new ways to deal with relations between men and women. But some other women

wanted less interference and control in the way they were struggling against their men,

and more support on the obstacles against their struggles for survival with their men.

Nonetheless, the discourses in unison on gender as a solution for the malady of

underdevelopment somehow superseded any discontinuous or dissonant discourse,

presenting all women as a same "Third world woman" speaking about the same gender.

In the literature, authors have also pointed out these differences in meanings and

discourses, which, because of power differentials, result in economic and ecological

material changes. For example, Niekisch (1992) talks about how Europeans' views on

nature have been imposed on forest management of tropical ecosystems originated from

diverse peoples and histories. Through the direct translation and extrapolation of their

terminology and categories, European forestry aiming to engineer the use of forests for

selected marketable timber, reduced a multitude of complex components and species and

relations, labeling them as nontimber forest products. In this mode, entire forests of

babaqu palms were dislocated from center stage, as nontimber sources, and for better or

for worse, to the margins of the focus of attention of investors and donors. These

powerful extraneous discursive and nondiscursive practices driven by market

development began to permeate local ones, daunting local practices of gender relations

and development. Women, who mostly do not participate in timber extraction but in

"nontimber" extraction, were turned into "non-men," being defined by what they were

not. Gradually, even in the so-called community-based forest management projects, flora

and fauna were thereafter designated as "timber and nontimber." And the same happened

with the diverse social groups and relations among them, then reduced into "managers or

non-managers," "participants or non-participants," "organized or disorganized,"

establishing a common language and totalizing history for tropical forests and peoples

around the globe.

I therefore sought a theoretical framework that did not reproduce these discourses

as truths, but rather recognized them, and identified the genesis and use of related notions

and concepts, analyzing them in the different fields of knowledge related to my research.

I discuss the notions of gender here as belonging basically to two distinct fields of

knowledge. One is constructed in close relation to the operative processes of

development as a policy defining international relations, which encompasses agencies

and institutions focusing on so-called poverty alleviation in the Third World. Attention to

women, and later to gender, is an intrinsic and integral part of this operational realm,

where overall debates are about efficiency in reaching development goals.

The other field of knowledge is related to theories and conceptual frameworks

constructed within specific disciplines, and therefore, more subject to debates in which

the ideologies involved are also the object of scrutiny. Development is examined mostly

as an expression of liberal neo-classical economic thought, and expansion of capitalism
by Western powers. Regarding gender in Anthropology, if before it was confined to

I chapters on marriage and kinship, attention to gender aims increasingly to understand the
inequalities and conflicts brought about by economic and ecological changes. Going
I deeper in this disciplinary field, the gender question mobilized anthropologists and
I feminists to analyze inequalities and conflicts among the very scholars, men and women,
speaking from the so-called First and Third Worlds. In sum, as we will discuss next, this
I is a field of knowledge marked by strongly opposing views of gender and development,

I and by a myriad of positions on how to deal with them.
Gender in an Operative Field of Knowledge
U In this operative field, knowledge is produced by elaborating on the success or
I failure of an intervention at either micro or macro level, or envisioning the application of
future actions, aiming to establish development policies. 17 Therefore, permeating the
I research, there is usually an implicit intention of intervention, and attention to gender is
I viewed as a way to operationalize these interventions, as for example, control over
reproduction: "Gender bias is also the single most important cause of rapid population

I growth" (Jacobson 1992); or economic distribution: "gender is a major social factor in
I achieving growth and equity, therefore projects need to mainstream gender" (Moser et al.
3 As institutional bodies ruling this field of knowledge, I selected as major examples
I acting in the Mearim valley: the World Bank (via Northeast Integrated Development
Program and Rural Poverty Alleviation Project Maranhao) and UN (via UNDP and

17 For a thorough analysis of the 'women and development' and 'gender and development'
I approaches, see Kabeer's Reversed Realities (1994).


UNICEF). These institutions spell out their gender discourses within an overall

development discourse through conferences, policies, programs and decades of

development, affecting governments and NGOs. "This apparatus came into existence

roughly in the period of 1945 to 1955 and has not since ceased to produce new

arrangements of knowledge and power, new practices, theories, strategies, and so on. In

sum, it has successfully deployed a regime of government over the Third World, a space

for subject peoples that ensures certain control over it" (Escobar 1995a:9).

Regarding gender, the knowledge produced in this field had a major pioneer in

Ester Boserup, who had worked for the Danish government and later for the UN

Economic Commission for Europe. Her intercontinental analysis of agriculture and

technology reflected the goal of intervention, both by controlling reproduction and by

educating girls so that they would not become "inferior workers" (Boserup 1970:220).

Throughout the decades of development, this focus on women, initially assumed by

sectors or programs within these international institutions, such as WID (Women in

Development), was gradually transferred to gender, assumed by both WID and GAD

(Gender and Development).

In initial stages, WID addressed women as homogeneous and isolated targets,

seeking to integrate them more efficiently in a development process. Taking development

as a given, the WID approach intended to understand the specificity of women's roles,

their responsibilities in production and reproduction, assuming women as a homogeneous

category. WID aimed to increase productivity by improving their access to and control of

resources and benefits. The main idea was to make the process of development more

efficient. After about a decade, GAD emerged, approaching women in their socially

constructed relations with men, taking into consideration other social relations (ethnicity,

class, age, race). This perspective resulted in a potentially more conflicted approach, in

that it addresses subordination and inequality, which not only challenges power relations

between men and women within the household, but also power relations in the

development process itself. GAD, since its conceptualization, aimed to introduce social

change (Moser 1993).

In theory, these are the distinctions, and the critiques to WID seem very pertinent.

Though both originated in the context of UN conferences, GAD emerged in 1995

informed and departing from the experiences of WID, which was originated in 1975.

Currently, the groups who are still labeled as WID use mostly the same conceptual

frameworks and practices as GAD, leading me to think of them more as phases than

contrasting approaches. For example, Tinker (1995), who was viewed as pro-WID, wrote

against sectoral programs that isolate and fragment women's lives, advocating for an

inclusion of men in domestic issues. On the other hand, practitioners working with GAD

often ask why they speak of gender when in practice they are working with women only.

In 1999, the World Bank personnel were still unclear about GAD since "World

Bank policy documents on gender lack a common conceptual rationale, language, and

underlying policy approach" (Moser et al.1999:5). The solution was to make a sort of

manual with text boxes, lists of orderly, synthesized findings, and tables. As Moser states

from the beginning of her work, it was a "desk study." After all, "incorporating gender

analysis and gender informed strategies into the Bank's lending and nonlending

operations and research programs is an effective method of improving both the

performance and relevance of World Bank projects" (World Bank 2000).

I understand that many relevant concepts arose from the contexts of UN and World

Bank efforts in implementing GAD, and that they inform aspects of my own research.

However, as an approach I do not think it is fit for ethnographic, long-term, in-depth

anthropological research, because it has at its foundation the aim of a priori intervention

and, to my knowledge, its construction is not based on adequate fieldwork. "This (GAD)

is essential to ensure consistently effective and sustainable interventions" (Moser et al.

1999). In this time in which we are searching for a plural conceptualization of gender,

how can I use a definition of gender, neatly confined in one of the many text-boxes of

manuals, determined a priori, in desk studies in the World Bank's offices? Besides, GAD

is not for just any women, GAD is for women in "underdeveloped" countries. In this

sense, women who do not perceive themselves as "underdeveloped" or in need to be

"developed," have to find their own ways to conceptualize gender, because "GAD

identifies gender as an integral part of a development strategy" (Moser et al. 1999:3). As

an approach, I believe that both WID and GAD are overall approaches to resolve the

UN's and the World Bank's projects, and not necessarily people's projects.

Diverse actors circulate in this field of knowledge. Among them, Tinker (1990,

cited in Kabeer 1996:12) identifies those operating in a pragmatic mode, related to a

mission and agenda viewed as concrete, current, and urgent. The operational and

pragmatic character of their production led Tinker to assume non ideological intentions.

This assumption was rightly criticized by Kabeer, because it necessarily implies a

totalizing, unifying world-view, which makes its hegemonic agenda seemed to be

accepted and adopted for all, "dispensing with the need to spell out the theoretical

premises on which it is founded...However, no advocacy, scholarship or policy is

entirely free from theory or innocent of ideology" (1994:12).

In this field of knowledge, operational definitions such as these spelled by the UN

emerged as central discourses: "There are two kinds of differences between women and

men: sex and gender. Sex is determined by the physical differences exhibited by females

and males. Gender refers to the socially determined differences between the two sexes:

the relationship between women and men and their social roles in their societies or

communities. Gender roles arise from the socially assigned differences between women

and men. Perceptions about men vis-a-vis women are changeable and vary with class,

race, caste, ethnicity, religion, and age and also with time" (UN 1999).

In spite of these apparently straightforward, neutral, ideologically exempted

operational definitions, we can identify specific intentions in the rationales to apply these

definitions. In these rationales we can better recognize elements and intentions related to

the world-view criticized by Kabeer, as in this example given by the World Bank.

"Incorporating gender analysis and gender informed strategies into the Bank's lending

and non lending operations and research programs is an effective method of improving

both the performance and relevance of World Bank projects. If projects in Latin America

and the Caribbean are to effectively achieve this, they should consider whether men's and

women's demands, preferences and existing opportunities differ and, if so, ensure

projects and services are tailored to the needs of both."'8

However, how development not only tailored projects and services to the people's

needs, categorizing them and planning responses, but also tailored the needs themselves,

18 (www.worldbank.org/gender 1999)

was discussed in Escobar's work, which belongs to the second field of knowledge


Gender in an Anthropological Field of Knowledge

The field of knowledge regarding gender and development here discussed was

constructed within the discipline of Anthropology almost contemporarily to the "gender

and development" in the operational field, and marked by conflicting positions. 19 By the

end of the 1960s, Hymes (1969) was already urging anthropologists to challenge

development. In the 1980s, Murray (1987:235) published his positive view on a

development project "rooted in anthropological research and whose very character was

determined by ongoing anthropological direction and anthropologically informed

managerial prodding." Meanwhile, Bennet (1988) discussed the ambiguity common to

anthropologists either participating or non participating in development processes

involving the subjects they used to study. In the beginning of the 1990s, Escobar (1991)

criticized Murray's work, initiating a series of publications against development in Latin


In the meanwhile, at the time the absence of women in the first decades of

development began to be questioned, socio-cultural feminist anthropologists were also

shaking the static and harmonious ethnographic male-centered household built by male

anthropologists. Ortner (1972) questioned Radcliffe-Brown and Levi-Strauss. Leacock

(1977) and Leacock and Etienne (1980) challenged Evans-Pritchard, Levi-Strauss, Harris,

and Meillassoux. Using different arguments and perspectives, male anthropologists were

attributing the supposedly universal subordination of women to biological reproductive

19 See Gender at the Crossroads ofKnowledge: Feminist Anthropology in the Postmodern Era,
by Leonardo (1991) and Feminism and Anthropology, by Moore (1988).

causes. In coherent structures and organic functions of a society, they marginalized

women as social actors and objectified them as reproducers.

New readings on Marx by Leacock and Sacks, on Weber by Rosaldo, on Lacan

and Freud by Chodorow (Leonardo 1991) set the stage for gender in this anthropological

field of knowledge. Although the study of gender relations in Anthropology shares

notions and methods that emerged in the operative field of knowledge of gender, its focus

on the production of theory, concepts, methodologies, research strategies, and analysis of

empirical observations tends to be less compromised with development goals. In cases of

a more applied perspective, the interventions are not directly driven by development

motifs as goals, and often there is advocacy against development actions and institutions.

Although also informed by the operational approach, and sometimes funded by the same

agencies, it has mostly followed a pace and pursued inquiries diverse in nature and


Departing from restricted chapters on marriage and kinship, ethnographers began to

listen to women's voices, and question their invisibility not only in reproduction and

production matters at domestic level, but also in public and political domains. In addition,

contributions from scholars of gay and lesbian, black, and colonized backgrounds

challenged monolithic conceptualizations of gender, demanding a more plural

conceptualization of gender as a departure from total discourses led by Western white

feminists. Furthermore, this conceptualization is better seen as the "coming out" of other

feminisms, which existed long before the emergence of Western feminism, in the lives of

people around the globe. It emerged for broader audiences in the wake of the deep social,

economic, and cultural changes, contemporaneous to women's movements and the

reorganization of the leftist movements beginning in the 1970s, and evolving into new

forms since then. The emergence of new conceptualizations of gender, gestated and

delivered by several sectors of diverse social segments, especially the black, lesbian and

gay movements, and movements of women oppressed by colonialism and development,

has been expressed in this disciplinary field of knowledge by a multiplicity of critiques

and new theoretical constructions.

Beginning with de Beauvoir's (1993) famous phrase: "we are not born women, but

become women," the conceptualization of gender as a social construction distinct from

biological sex has endured several intellectual inquiries. De Beauvoir unmakes

essentialist constructions of the social category women, showing that becoming a woman

is a project that one undertakes within a field of social relations, which are established in

such ways that limit the female subject from her birth. Given such limitations, although

not nature-based, but observed in most if not all societies, Western feminists assumed a

sisterhood among women. The idea of sisterhood is based on the premise of a single

gender identity, constructed in opposition to men, and related to women's universal

subordination, cross-cutting class, race, age, sexual orientation or ethnic categorizations.

However, white Western feminists were challenged by a new conceptualization of

gender, which is associated with the concept of identity as self-ascribed and ascribed by

society (Terborg-Penn 1987:50). The alleged universal experience of being a woman was

questioned by the black women's movement because being a "black woman" is different

than just "being a woman" or just "being a black person," since one's identity is not

dissociable. (And this is a major concept for my dissertation, since I view peasant identity

based on trabalho livre, as inseparable from one's identity as a woman or a man). Black

feminism was then constructed as a distinct, disruptive feminism, because if white

feminism is a form of liberation that does not effectively problematize racism, it can be

viewed instead as a form of oppression. Besides, social experiences in slavery,

colonialism, neo-colonialism, apartheid, and underdevelopment surely bred distinct

feminist practice and theory. According to Sudarkasa (1987), gender differences related

to African societies are not necessarily hierarchical, leading to less oppositional relations

between (black) men and women, and distinct conceptualization of gender.

By contrast, the lesbian critique against the white Western feminist concept of

gender was exactly because of its association with identity, in the sense that identity

indicates a commonality toward one main unit. Advocating against gender as a binary,

lesbian gender theory criticizes gender identity for agglutinating a diversity of gender

relations toward only one of the two units taken for granted by society in general. Phelan

(1994) criticizes de Beauvoir's distinction of women from men by placing women in a

position of "missing something," something which should be regained in the field of

social relations. Feminists moved by Beauvoir's thoughts struggled to achieve "equality"

to men's rights (actually, equality to dominant men's rights). Instead, Phelan (1994:2)

states, "we can never be free to be other than what we are; we can never be 'men' as well

as men can, and we will never be 'women' just as heterosexual women might be."

Therefore, their concept of gender does not hold a binary, but a multiplicity of identities,

and I could see the rightness of her point in several situations in the Mearim valley.

As a third major trend, the conceptualization of gender among women oppressed by

colonialism, development, and globalization presented also a multiplicity of expressions,

even within each country, region, or village. Such conceptualization was deeply

connected to their situation of women exploited by peripheral capitalism, and had a very

informal character. Let's take as an example the women's urban movement in Sao Paulo,

which began as popular mobilizations for practical needs, but in the 1970s and 1980s

transformed into gender-specific strategic interests. At that point, disagreements

regarding a "hierarchy of oppressions" began to divide women as feminist,

partisan-feminist, antifeminist, antipartisan, women-only and men-and-women

movements (Alvarez 1990: 110-136). In Caldeira's (1990:47-75) research with urban

Eclesial Base Communities, heterogeneity of expressions is also a key to understand how

the emergence of gender issues among women provoked wide cultural changes.

These changes led to new forms of political mobilization, many times, displacing

traditional categories such as class, parties, and formal institutions. This was overly

chaotic to Western feminists' understanding, and was regarded as false consciousness,

not feminism, and politically immature. To which, Corcoran-Nantes (1993:155) responds

that women's mobilizations have intrinsically intertwined gender and issues of family

struggles to survive, so essential for developing countries; "whether they choose to

describe these as feminist or not is irrelevant. What is important for women of the

popular classes is that their concerns are firmly on the political agenda." I believe that

Latin America's conceptualization of gender is one that better questioned the Western

feminist "displacement of the production paradigm."

In sum, this plural conceptualization of gender defied the view of the white

woman's experiences as representing all women's experiences, and white Western

feminisms as representing all feminisms. However, the question posed by Benhabib and

Cornell (1987) remains not clearly answered in practice: how can this discourse of

universal sisterhood be compatible with the feminist ideals of social change, since it

erases other essential differences determining women's subordination? On the other

hand, with such a plurality of perspectives, is it still possible to conceptualize gender as a

principle ordering societies, and feminism as an attempt to re-order it?

bell hooks states that all white males oppress white females and black men and

women, all white females oppress black men and women, and all black men oppress

black women. Therefore, gender differences would be undermined by race. Latino,

Asian, and African women might say that all, whether black or white, male or female,

privileged members of economic systems sustaining the capitalist "core" in the so-called

First World are oppressors of all subordinated members of peripheral capitalism. It

follows that globalized relations would undermine the transformational political character

imbued in the conceptualization of gender.

Mohanty provoked a harsh debate that symbolizes the fragmentation caused by the

plural conceptualization of gender in "Under Western Eyes: Feminist Scholarship and

Colonial Discourses," in which she revealed the causes and consequences on theoretical

as well as practical grounds of maintaining the sisterhood. Two years later, Mohanty

(1993, cited in Gallin, Ferguson and Harper 1995:3) proposed the idea of "imagined

communities." This is a concept, strategic and temporary in character, to create

"imagined communities of women with divergent histories and social locations, woven

together by the political threads of opposition to forms of domination that are not only

pervasive but systemic." If these imagined communities of women will work, it has yet to

be seen, but at any rate, the importance of gender has come a long way, attaining its own

space in the academic debates.

Gender in an Interactive Field of Knowledge

The construction of a critical thought for my anthropological inquiry began with a

historical materialist perspective, structured under a Marxist orientation, since I viewed

negotiations on the contradictions of gender relations as part of struggles for social

change. The explanatory power of this approach helped me to safely work on the

articulations between and contradictions within the different modes of production in the

Mearim valley. This was my point of departure to understand the peasantry in the

Mearim Valley, because I wanted to understand gender relations as integral parts of

overall social relations, keeping a distance from the Western Feminist 'displacement of

the production paradigm' and essentialist assumptions (e.g. Shiva 1988, Mies et al 1988),

and relations of production seemed a fundamental aspect in explaining my observations.

However, the social relations related to production that the Marxist approach

allowed me to grasp had broader and rougher tuning than those required to understand

gender as part of social relations of specific peoples, and class alone did not suffice to

explain both the gender contradictions internal to the social units lived by these peoples

and among different sectors within the working class. Foucault has referred to Marx as

one of the pioneers in breaking with history as a coherently arranged continuum, bringing

conflict and contradiction as disruptions to the unison history told by a supposedly

cohesive subject named humanity (1972:13). Nonetheless, my stay in the villages of the

Mearim valley showed further and less sharply defined contradictions than class

struggles. Surely the concept of class could be further elaborated; as in terms of gender,

Engels had said: "The first class opposition that appears in history coincides with the

development of the antagonisms between man and woman in monogamous marriage, and

the first class oppression coincides with that of the female sex by the male" (Engels

1972:129). However, in spite of this attribution of original "sin," in the form Marxism

was worked out, unequal class relations minimized gender inequalities to the point of

considering women's struggles against male dominance to be a false consciousness,

disturbing class struggles against capitalism (Maguire 1984). An illustration of this

perspective was the opposition assumed by the union movement in the Mearim valley,

when grassroots women's organizations began to emerge in the late 1980s, alleging that

they were dividing the movement. Later, when it was seen as unavoidable, somewhat

marginal or cosmetic secretariats of women were created.

Kabeer discussed how Marxist feminists (e.g., Safa 1980) attributed oppression of

women by men mostly as a consequence of capitalist oppression of both, and contrasted

these findings to other scholars (e.g., Mies 1980) who attributed women's oppression to

men, especially white men, not as part of a class, but as male human beings in essentialist

terms. The author considers that both approaches "present women as having no choice at

all in the face of overarching structures of power" (1994:54). Indeed, according to

Rakowsky (1995: 286-294), the reactions to the current economic changes promoted by

capitalism cannot be categorized either by class or by gender alone. As economic

exploitation and consequently men's and children's dependence on women increased,

reactions from men varied immensely, ranging from greater valuation of women to

greater violence toward women, and these were results of numerous interacting factors,

varying according to social situations. In addition, as the collection edited by Mohanty,

Russo and Torres (1991) shows, the choices by the so-called "Third World" women

presented a diversity among themselves and a politics of their own to negotiate.

In the same way, the gender contradictions and disruptions that I observed in the

Mearim valley were so fluidly mobile, with such a dynamic permeability, that I felt class

and even the sharply defined binary man-woman categories, demanded further

investigations. I indeed found help from the intellectual investments and the knowledge

accumulated by Marxist feminists (Etienne, Leacock, Leach, Saffiotti) who provided

questioning useful to organize an initial structural framework for working on gender

relations. These are clearly both cause and consequence of merges and clashes among

antagonistic social categories, intra and inter classes. However, the more idiographic my

fieldwork became, the greater the levels of abstraction it demanded. Although my path of

thinking could not dispense with intellectual instruments similar to those that made class

and class relations such explanatory levers, I intended that they work rather as launching

platforms than paradigmatic constraints.

For example, Saffiotti (1977) saw in the intrafamily gender relations in so-called

precapitalist societies, in which women's labor was, although voluntarily and informally,

extracted and alienated from them, the open door for the entrance of the capitalist

relations. I indeed observed several situations in the Mearim valley in which women

received unfair returns for their work, and registered histories telling how these processes

were carried out through several generations. But I also observed situations in which

these intragroup contradictions, rather than propitiating an automatic, free pass to

capitalism, were integral parts of ways of life negotiated among their insiders on a daily

basis. The continuous resilience of these ways of life, with all these internal

contradictions, demonstrates that these social groups have specific forms of resistance

and are not presomething, but, although articulated with capitalism, have an evolving

path of their own. Therefore, talking about gender demanded a finer compass to guide the

understanding of the categories and relations, which compose the discursive practices

swaying the fields of knowledge through which I need to walk.

Coming from experiences lived at the grassroots, observing the contradictions and

mobility of everyday decisions being negotiated between genders vis-a-vis those among

families, sectors of villages, and classes, I decided to begin by organizing my data

according to a Marxist orientation. However, I intended to maintain an open framework

of investigation, in which incompatibilities and divergences were neither forced to fit into

a class model nor erased if they did not fit. Rather, they should be identified and

questioned for the importance of their presence. For example, as I observed women-only

couples leading the most-poor households, I would not discount the experience because

they were only two couples out of sixty in the village. Rather, they became thresholds to

understand the dynamics of contradictions and ruptures of gender norms that make a

village a unit. In another example, I would not attribute false consciousness to those

engaged in interclass alliances or dependencies, because little-known relations (e.g.,

compadrios, resource trading, and especially gender relations) adding to relations of

production may be at play.

In different scales, several attempts to solve these unknown relations have been

made. In the field of knowledge driven by development, for example, the UN has

established the Human Development Indices (HDI), which intends to more accurately

measure well-being than the conventional GDP and GNP. Improvements to incorporate

gender-equity-sensitive indices (GESI) were proposed to the UN as a way to account for

diversity (Anand and Sen 1996). However, we need to be aware that statistical indices on

national data sets, which guide policies driving the agencies of development, cannot

capture thoroughly the nuances in gender inequalities. For example, unlike cases in

Africa, where girls have lower schooling, or in India, where girls and women have higher

mortality rates, Brazil's basic data show the opposite. Do these data indicate that

Brazilian women, especially in the North and Northeast deserve less attention than others

labeled as Third World women, or that men should be automatically prioritized as the

object of development policies instead?

During a discussion with women in the Mearim valley, I talked about the data

shown in the table below, to foment our debate on gender inequalities. Women were

surprised with these data, as if accepting that women in their region have better literacy,

schooling, and life expectancy rates than men's, would damage the discourses sustaining

their movement. My intention was to further discuss these important data, but placing

them in the realm of the complex social relations that produce them.

Table 1-1. Basic indicators for Brazil, north and northeast region
Illiteracy rate for Schooling rate Life expectancy Infantile Infantile mortality rate for
people 15 years for children 7 to at birth (2) mortality rate/ 5 year-old and below/
old and up (1) 14 ears old (1) thousand (3) thousand (4)
Men Women Men Women Men Women Men Women Men Women
Brazil 13.3 13.3 95.3 96.1 64.6 72.3 39.4 30.0 65.5 56.0
North 11.7 11.5 95.3 95.7 65.3 71.4 37.8 27.3
Northeast 28.7 24.6 93.2 95.0 62.4 68.5 58.9 46.3 105.7 86.1
Source: (1) PNAD 1999 [CD-ROM]. Microdata. Rio de Janeiro: IBGE, 2000. Data for illiteracy and schooling exclude
the rural population of Rond6nia, Acre, Amazonas, Roraima, Para and AmapA. (2) Estimations for 1999 extracted from
document IBGE/DPE/DEPIS "projection of population of Large Regions by sex and age 1991 2020." (3) Source:
IBGE/DPE/Departamento de Populaq o e Indicadores Sociais. Divisao de Estudos e Andlises da DinAmica
DemogrAfica. Projeto UNFPA/Brazil (BRA/98/P08). Sistema Integrado de Projeq6es e Estimativas Populacionais e
Indicadores S6cio-DemogrAficos. Estimations obtained by applying indirect demographic techniques for mortality on
information on survival of born alive children provided by women and collected by PNAD 1996. Because of the
technique applied, the results of these estimations refer to 1993/94 and not to 1996. (4) Same source as 3), but data
refer to 1996.

We concluded that models that take these indices, or their interpretations, as sole

reasons for emphasizing attention to gender cannot respond to the gender inequalities that

oppress women and men in the Mearim valley. Rather, we needed to ask ourselves, why,

in spite of these indices, local discourses either by men or by women elicited male

dominance and disadvantages in being a woman? Why, although well aware of the

Brazilian indices, agents of development keep a strong discourse on gender, focusing on

women and development? The apparent convergence between the social movements and

development agencies' discourses seems to form a coherent logical discursive body. Why

then are women (at the margins of the so-called social movements) so reluctant or

indifferent to participate in the proposed endeavors to develop themselves, discontinuing

the logic established by the convergent discourse? I believe that part of the answer is

related to the ruptures and discontinuities discussed by Foucault.

Walking My Path: the Ethnographic Dissertation

Foucault suggests that to study certain discursive practices and the knowledge they

form, one should examine related phenomena of rupture and discontinuity. As I identified

certain discrepancies between the academic explanations about gender and my field

observations, I decided to initiate my research looking at gender as discursive and non

discursive (policies, programs, projects) practices. I began an examination of these

practices by both international agencies of development and grassroots organizations

involved with peasant movements in the Mearim valley. I traced them in both my

literature review (including academic work and products emerged from operative

grounds) and fieldwork. I found that while development agencies and NGOs and formal

grassroots organizations have quite convergent discourses regarding gender and ways to

operationalize it, a diversity of life trajectories has expressed discontinuities,

interruptions, and even colliding discursive and non discursive practices. In Monte

Alegre, for example, life trajectory narratives and the daily living of men and women

expressed a form of social organization that breaks with either victimized women or

women empowered by extraneous agencies. Explanations for the myth of the male

breadwinner (Safa 1995) and the myth of the housewife (Fortmann and Rocheleau 1985,

Thomas-Slayter and Rocheleau 1995) gain new perspectives from those matrifocal


I had looked for support in the historic approach, trying to identify the historical

events and periods, and the social structures and conjunctures, through genealogies and

historical archives, to explain the observed gender relations, but the fluidity and the

contradictory character of the relations did not allow a direct cause-effect explanation,

suggesting rather discontinuities. Foucault questions conventional procedures of

organizing data in periods and hierarchies, which systematize observations into

structurally organized units, composing continuities preestablished by disciplines such as

history, economy, and sociology. He argues against the reduction of all phenomena and

all diversity within societies to one single "face" that fits the logic of certain continuous

sequences of periods and structures in history. He calls this total history, and argues for a

general history, which would account for all the different and discontinuous trajectories

lived by diverse social groups (Foucault 1972:9-10).

I am ethnographically studying a peasantry whose very origin emerges from the

disruption of cultural processes previously carried out by diverse indigenous and African

societies. Therefore, I agree that ancient, modem or contemporary history as

conventionally taught in the Western mode, and the documents available to me by the

writers of this history, should not be sources of automatic and direct reading in

understanding the emic perspective of the subjects. According to Foucault, "history is one

way in which a society recognizes and develops a mass of documentation with which it

is inextricably linked" (1972:7). If this is true, people who are excluded as subjects of a

society are also inextricably absent, as subjects, from the documents that form the history

of this society.

In addition, the subjects I want to study not only have histories diverse from a total

history, but also are diverse among themselves. I believe that an African enslaved man

and a detribalized Kanela woman, even working on the same cotton farm by the end of

the 19th century, might have perceived and lived "the" history of the economic transitions

from colony to empire to republic very differently. A coherent, continuous and total

history is only possible when one assumes an artificially collective, conscious, and

all-encompassing subject named humanity. This erases the diversity of conflicting

livelihoods, considering certain unfit members of societies either as objects or as

represented "subjects" with a consciousness that is not their own, but transplanted from

the authorities telling the total history.

I exemplify my reading of Foucault by taking the historical figure of Zumbi, the

leader of the quilombo of Palmares, formed c. 1630, the large and long-lasting maroon

group in Brazil, as an example. 20 The so-called multi-ethnic Brazilian society celebrates

today a representation of Zumbi that fits in the currently accepted discourse of black

consciousness. This historical analysis, however, while it transforms Zumbi, who was

assassinated by the government in 1695, into a hero, intends to fit the disruptions he

promoted into a historical continuum. It implies that as society advances and changes,

20 Although conventional and out-of-date legal instruments and definitions of quilombos state that
they are the remnant descendants of the runway slaves residing the archaeological sites where
their ancestors formed outlaw communities prior to the abolition of slavery, "they are neither
residual and archaeological remnants nor isolated groups of an extremely homogeneous
population, and were not always constituted from insurrectional or rebel movements. They

progress takes care of injustices that happen along the way. This analysis belongs to a

system of thought that consistently attempts coherency and continuity, so that it can

control and handle present disruptions. The authors and readers of this history view

themselves as a total subject possessing a single conscience. This hegemonic

consciousness can celebrate Zumbi today because it has granted abolition, decriminalized

his rebellion, and now hopes for the integration of the blacks in its societal body, so

that the history of this subject can continue. Nonetheless, we cannot tolerate a current

rebellion by black delinquents at FEBEM (Brazilian institution who supposedly would

care for the so-called delinquent minors), because this is what disrupts the continuity of

our history today, and this is what our consciousness criminalizes in the present. "Making

historical analysis the discourse of the continuous and making human consciousness the

original subject of all historical development and all action are the two sides of the same

system of thought" (Foucault 1972:12).

I realized then that it was not the visible fact that I was non black, an outsider,

Western educated, etc., by itself that was preventing me from understanding the subjects

of my research. Rather, it was that my research perspective was embedded in this system

of thought. I learned that I had chosen Monte Alegre as a research subject because

warrior black women, defending their land and palms, were exactly what I wanted to fit

in my own discourse of gender and sustainability. However, when they did not fit in the

projects with which I expected to help them, well intentionally aimed at environmental

sustainability and gender fairness, I could only conclude that they were not prepared or

consist of groups that developed resistance practices in the maintenance and reproduction of their
characteristic ways of life in a determined place" (Fundagao Palmares 2000:14, 66-70).

organized yet. The explanation was that there was a lack of the right consciousness and

empowerment, so they could not yet participate in "my" totalizing history.

According to Foucault, instead of hiding these thoughts, munching them in my

private accounts, I should rather research them, and should question: first, why certain

observations do not fit in these continuities, and second, why one is compelled to fit

otherwise disruptive observations into these acceptable continuities. To identify both the

continuities and the disruptions, I searched for the loci where trajectories diverged from

dominant discourses on gender. I examined local forms of living gender relations that

seemed points of dispersion from that body of knowledge accumulated in conferences

and fora driven by international agencies of development, and the establishment of non

discursive practices such as polices and programs throughout related decades. Although I

certainly have registered discourses and practices reverberating those prescribed in the

reports and conferences of the World Bank and UN, this uniformity was heard mostly in

the public face of recognized social movements. Ethnographic fieldwork at the margins

of contexts circulated by grassroots organizations, NGOs, and agencies of development

assured the register of a multiplicity of views and expressions of gender as phenomena of


For example, the widespread "gender analysis" training, proposed by the "Harvard

team" of the WID sector in the World Bank, in the 1980s, to train its own and other

international agencies' staff (such as USAID, IDRC, and UNDP), examines access to and

control of resources assigned to men and women's roles. 21 Although this approach is

suggested only as a framework to gather and organize data into a gender perspective,

leaving the analysis and conclusion to the researcher and participants (Overholt et al.

1984), it does set a specific social visibility. Carrying out ethnographic fieldwork, I was

unable to thoroughly approach the complex gender-based struggles observed in the field

with this instrumental, without getting blind spots and bumping into "invisible" actors

and relations. The diversities and complexities of access and control expressed in the life

trajectories lived by both women and men, and the fluid hierarchies of negotiations

among the several social categories involved, demanded a more dynamic, relational, and

critical approach to these aspects. Besides, gender analysis as a process of knowledge

acquisition was viewed as a "diagnostic tool." Gender analysis training implied that the

"disease" vector would be somewhere in the surroundings of the "sick" Third World

woman, while the "doctor" herself was out of suspicion, or somehow impersonalized in

the First World.

One of the reasons for these limitations is the epistemology of this process of

knowledge acquisition, which implies an instrumentality specifically adequate to a

certain field of knowledge, that related to the goals of the development agencies:

intervention for poverty alleviation and sustainable growth in a cost-effective way,

through the introduction of women in a predefined process of development. Within this

field of knowledge, although gender has a quite inclusive definition, the diversity and

complexity of gender relations end up being played down by the urges of the rhythms,

play of forces and motivations of development, which is the ultimate goal of the

institutions sustaining this field of knowledge.

21 The NGOs supporting ASSEMA, such as OXFAM and Christian Aid, were more related to
"Gender Planning" training. See this approach led by Moser in Gender Planning and
Development (1993).

Foucault suggests that to examine issues in such a preponderant field of knowledge

requires those epistemological acts and thresholds described by Bachelard, "which

suspend the continuous accumulation of knowledge, interrupt its slow development, and

force it to enter a new time, cut it off from its empirical origin and its original

motivations" (1972:4). I needed therefore to put the knowledge prescribed by the World

Bank and similar agencies on hold, to suspend my intention to "save" the women and to

open myself to experiences of local knowledge. This was necessary because the

discursive practice toward gender was drawing "all phenomena around a single center a

principle, a meaning, a spirit, a world-view, an overall shape" (Foucault 1972:10):

development. One should then look for the "dispersion of points of choice" (1972:37),

identifying where the dispersion of trajectories is detected. My intention became,

therefore, to search for disruptive life trajectories composing a general history of gender

in the Mearim valley, organizing my own view of the dispersion and discontinuities of

the diverse experiences on gender relations.

Therefore, instead of embracing a paradigm and a single theoretical framework, I

keep in mind the insights provided by the accumulation of knowledge and research

efforts, which will support my ethnographic endeavor in answering the following


Research Questions and Design

In this mode of research, I try to answer the questions below throughout this


* What forms of gender and other social relations are made invisible (by the various

* How are gender and other social relations transformed in times of conflict, struggle,
and political resistance?

S How do multiple forms of gender relations combine and evolve in specific
trajectories of village formation and struggle?

Specific theoretical discussions on these research questions will be carried out throughout

related chapters, which were based on the following general research design. My field

research was formally carried out in eight months divided in 2 three-month periods in the

summers of 1999 and 2000, and 2 months in the winter of 2001. Aiming to control for

some of the environmental variables, I designed the process of data collection within

known ecosystems. As indicated in Figure 1-2, I selected 9 municipalities scattered

throughout the Cocais ecological region (MIC/STI 1982). Monte Alegre, a village in the

municipality of Sao Luiz Gonzaga, formed mostly by the descendents of slaves of a

decadent cotton farm of the end of the 19t century, hereafter called terra depreto,22 land

of the blacks, was elected as the primary site of my ethnographic research.

In addition to Monte Alegre, I chose two other terras de preto (Olho d'Agua dos

Grilos and Santo Antonio dos Sardinhas,) and six other villages (Ludovico, Pau Santo,

Coroati, Bom Principio, Sao Josd dos Mouras, and Veloso) to collect qualitative and

quantitative data. Combinations of blacks and Northeastern migrants comprise these six

villages, usually called centros, centers. Both at the survey stage and to test against some

of the concepts I had developed after the first stage, I went to six other villages (P6 de

Pequi, Angical, Sao Lourengo, Vila Dola, Pacas and Sitio Novo) in which the conditions

regarding agrarian and social organization differed from the villages I had elected as

focus sites. In the last two mentioned villages, I applied a short qualitative survey to

22 According to Almeida (1989), terras depreto are those lands which were donated, bought or
acquired by former slave families, with or without a legal document. There are some cases in
which the state conceded land for these families as compensation for services in warfare. The
author highlights as a main characteristic of these social formations the use of the land

./." ad .... Ch -icUstr\ft, C A- 2, -
? .. . ......

CAJARI .. \ u,
..... 7, .. I ,o,- lj -, ....... l r r -.0 .
1" V-.udn ,,c Pl.nd .-rl C7,- I.- loo A C' ' 1 2 Ca-aC. Al..(St"'" ,

, 8*f '. . -r'< / "" CeABa2 i AN
K MONAO :OJ3*" ) H 5 Mb '0 'A 1i0 ] l IlI(,(,E

-'-<* l :/ 8 \ .,,* .^ / -EO 12 t-- -- i0
H'. v 'r2 .1 24
'4 4Ca "" Ba4Ca(

. ;. ba' f Ce : CeABa

16 .- .19 20 /

IVA ,7*- "'O 'j: 221 I / -C A

ACaBa3 A CaaA -

Sr .-, i.,ZaPo.Y i G OBa L E DCaA CaB-
.-.-. .J L- 56 .............
AO ,A Di uV a .32

municipalities in which research sites were located. Source MIC/STI 1982

check on some variables. These six villages were totally unknown to me and, are

estate privately owned by individuals, families or entrepreneurs, named fazendeiros. In the
i ..., ..] ...I .. , ..
s._ i. J .. A. M, -' .-WiAs .

.... .-, f' / lD
........ / ..... -L N ..... 32 ,/'

check on some variables. These six villages were totally unknown to me and, are

Mearim valley, these units usually hold more than one mode of production, having a capitalist

urban neighborhoods in the municipalities of Cod6 and Olho d'Agua das Cunhas, where

people were practicing variations of the same mode of production.My intention was to

contrast social situations observed in diverse settings to better refine my view on gender


Qualitative data were systematically obtained from 48 men and 52 women through

ethnographic interviews conducted by myself. Quantitative data regarding demographic

and economic variables were collected through 800 structured questionnaires applied to

434 interviewees, in consecutive years, with the help of locally hired assistants, high

school-level youths in their 20s, trained by myself. I also carried out a process of shared

interviewing, as Roberto and I assumed that a man interviewing men and women would

obtain different results than a woman interviewer and vice-versa. Quotes from his

interviews will be indicated in the text.

One data set essential to my work is my collection of life histories and diaries by

the subjects themselves. Throughout the years in the Mearim valley, here and there I met

opportunities to ask literate people willing to write about their experiences and share the

originals with me. Although these opportunities were rare, given the level of illiteracy

and time constraints of many key interviewees, these treasures were explosions of life

hidden in tortuous, suffered calligraphies. These monographs, partly directed to me, but

partly written as a diary, provided me another perspective from that of the recorded and

transcribed interviews, which although open-ended were nonetheless a dialogue subject

to different forms of interference. Another experimental method of data collection was

base, but often comprehending other types of economic relations. Variations are due mostly to the
political arrangements providing for its origin and maintenance throughout time. Usually with
few employees, its main activity has been extensive cattle ranching, through labor extraction from
residing landless families.

recorded interviews carried out by grandchildren with their grandparents, and by

daughters with their mothers. In one way or another, the emphasis was to understand the

content by examining the relations involved to obtain it, in addition to the information


In addition to fieldwork in the villages, I also invested in archival research for

historical data in the Benedito Leite Public Library, Public Archive of the State of the

Maranhao, Academia Maranhense de Letras, used bookstores, and local parochial

archives. Contemporary archival data were obtained at INCRA National Institute for

Colonization and Agrarian Reform, ITERMA Land Institute of the State of Maranhao,

NGOs, Bank of the State of Maranhao, and my own files from my former job as


Research Methodology

My concerns with transparency of representation and immediacy of experience, as

prescribed by premodem ethnography, did not aim at positivist and objectivist goals of

finding the truth. Instead, for the specific, selected issues, to which I thought my research

would benefit from objective information involving material conditions, I applied a

structured questionnaire following basic statistical procedures. From modem

ethnography, I took advantage of techniques of participant observation, experimental and

visual methods, and ethnographic interviewing. From the crisis that followed modem

ethnography, I took lessons from critiques of its practices (e.g. frozen and fragmented

representations) and results (e.g, collusion to colonialism). Current ethnography,

interpretative, postmodern, and feminist contributions helped me to adapt different

approaches to find my own (See Denzin 1994 and 1997).

Insights from Marcus, Clifford, Fischer, and Foucault led me to recognize the

inseparability of the author's subjectivity and the representation of Other's realities.

Therefore, the life trajectories I discuss in this dissertation do not intend to be historical

truths about the subjects, but are accounts of what and how I heard and selected parts, and

presented them in ways that made sense to me and to the reader at whom I am aiming at.

According to Marcus and Fischer, ethnography is determined by its context, rhetoric,

institutions, generalization, political standing, and history, so I need to recognize the

partial nature of my accounts. The validity of the trajectories I am presenting does not

come from an assumed immediacy of "being there," but by how I specify who speaks,

who writes, when, where, with or to whom/ under what institutional or historical

constraints (Foucault 1972).

The life trajectories studied here are not representations of cultural types, but

allegories spelled out by gendered subjects (Clifford and Marcus 1986:19) to a gendered

researcher. The narratives and life trajectories are not direct representations or synthesis,

but allegorical instruments "to tell a story" about ways of life (Clifford 1986:98-100), and

from this story, the reader and the author may extract theoretical and practical findings of

this dissertation. As a research strategy to better tell this story, I describe aspects of my

life experiences in the Mearim valley to set the context of my research. This "form of

self-narrative that places the Self within a social context" (Reed-Danahay 1997:9),

intends to identify the blind spots of my perspective, and aim for a more inclusive and

self-critical ethnography. I rely on a more reflexive, blended narrative method, to produce

a self-ethnographic text (Hayano 1979), including narratives about myself as a familiar

"window on the objective facts of historical and ethnographic events" (Peacock and

Holland 1993, cited in Brettel 1997:225).

Chapter Organization

Through this ethnography, I intend to analyze ways of life in the Mearim valley,

where gender relations cannot be dissociated from trabalho sem patrdo, both a material

and symbolic set of social relations performed ideally in a land free of landlords, through

practices of common use of land and forest resources. The next three chapters of this

dissertation refer to life trajectories examined through narratives contextualized in a

municipality, a village, and a family. The theme linking these first three chapters is the

visibility attributed to specific social actors, related to gender issues, in different social


In Chapter 2, I present the little known life trajectory of Maria Pretinho, a former

slave head of household, whose life trajectory was made invisible by the cumulative

twists in historical accounts constructing the municipality of Lago do Junco, a place she

and her sons had founded in 1925. As the Franciscans friars working there had chosen

Lago do Junco as our first residence, I describe our entrance to the field as an

ethnographic strategy to delimit the object of research and visualize selected aspects of

the research. I selected the context of Lago do Junco as a municipality for this analysis

because its formation involves the social, political and economic aspects that answer my

first research question: What forms of gender and other social relations are made

invisible (by the various actors)?

In Chapter 3, I present the trajectory of dona Valeriana Parga in the formation of

Monte Alegre, a single village in the municipality of Sao Luis Gonzaga, to introduce the

view of a field marked by a diversity of life trajectories. A narrative by her descendants

illustrates how the village was formed throughout times of captivity, trabalho livre, and

struggle for their land. My choice of Monte Alegre is because of its strong illustration of

how the visibility won through their struggle over land was appropriated by

developmental matters of the state. Analyzing their allegorical representation, I attempt to

answer the second research question: How are gender and other social relations

transformed in times of conflict, struggle, and political resistance?

In Chapter 4, idiographically deepening my analysis, through the trajectory of dona

Vitalina Andrade, I examine gender relations within a single family, the Andrades.

Looking at genealogies and few historical documents, I carry out a kinship and marriage

study as a point of departure to understand gender relations at the family level. Rather

than searching for organic functions engendering structural cohesion, I identify the

contradictions and dispersion in the dynamic process through which families build a

village. However, to answer the third research question: How do multiple forms of

gender relations combine and evolve in specific trajectories of village formation and

struggle? I needed to expand my analysis. I contrasted two other families with the

Andrade family: the masters' Parga family and the Sakiaras, 24 a family of Japanese

peasants who came to substitute for the slave labor.

Having discussed gender as a social relation in several contexts and under different

angles of visibility, I expect to have fine-tuned my understanding of the diverse

discourses and practices from the different actors in their dynamic positioning. I believe

my analytical instrumental is sharpened to detect attempts to totalize and control, and

detect the nuances of interaction of the symbols with their material expression. With this

awareness gained, in Chapter 5, I draw some interpretations on quantitative and

qualitative data collected in seven other villages in the Mearim valley, in addition to

Monte Alegre. The results of statistical manipulation, which I interpret and discuss in the

light of Chayanov's theory of the peasant economy, refer to villages with relative access

to land and forest resources. My intention is to identify the diversities and specificities of

the Mearim valley peasant economy through quantitative data. Situating gender

throughout four stages in a life cycle, I analyze some of the differences between the

people of the Mearim valley and either the Chayanovian peasant or the capitalist farmer.

In Chapter 6, I pass through villages where I had never been, where forms of

resistances are not recognized as social movements, to check on the concepts and ideas

learned from my main sites. To answer my three research questions, I carry out a

theoretical discussion on gender relations in the political economy of the Mearim valley. I

begin by exploring statements on the demise of the peasantry as a form to minimize the

disruptive character of trabalho sem patrdo and engulf the peasantry in the monolithic

and shared road of development of capitalism. I carry on the Marxist insights on

disruption presented by class antagonisms, to other forms of discontinuities presented by

ethnicity in the dispersion of ways of life.

In this chapter, I bring together insights gained from the multiple trajectories and

situations studied, to discuss the clashes and convergences of the material and symbolic

conditions delineating ways of life centered on trabalho sem patrao, a form of labor from

which gender relations cannot be dissociated. As I conclude, I expect to have presented a

fair story about the how multiple forms of gender relations are combined, and often

reversed and overturned during conflicts and struggles. And I hope I have embraced my

24 It reads Sakihara, but as many Japanese names, it was changed by notary offices in Brazil.


reader with the view of this multi-faceted general history that has been denied and made

invisible by the total history of global and national society.


Introduction: the Trajectory of Maria Pretinho Made Invisible

In the Chapter 1, I presented my research setting and its components: the

researched, the researcher, the research site and questions. I also introduced the fields of

knowledge through which the research would be approached. I stated my decision to put

dominant discourses of gender on hold, and open myself to new knowledge. In this

chapter, therefore, as I describe my entrance to the field for the first time, my objective is

to get rid of any preestablished frames that imply assumed knowledge, and may disturb

the ethnographic explorations of unknown territories.

My intention is to reverse what that little boy did when he screamed that the

emperor had no clothes. In that story, the different actors, afraid of unveiling ignorance in

front of authority, ended up "seeing" what was invisible. In this chapter, we will work on

the reasons why the different social actors in the Mearim valley were making invisible

what was otherwise visible. My argument is that, for fear of contradicting well

established discourses on gender, and becoming unfit for goals of development (e.g.,

project funding), liberation (e.g., church support), knowledge (e.g., scholarly approval),

or a social movement (e.g., activists approval), we end up blind to a multitude of

trajectories and relations that otherwise would be visible.

I believe that the safety of preestablished analytical frameworks, based on well-

accepted discourses on gender, prevents us from understanding the multiple forms of


I 63
gender relations that are made invisible by our cultural blindness. In the moment I spelled
out the word "gender," it seemed that everybody already knew exactly what my research
I was about. Either at UF or at ASSEMA, the word "gender" recalled discourses related to
"women in development" or "gender and development." It seemed that these uniform
U discourses of gender that currently permeate the academy, agencies and grassroots
3 organizations had already synthesized all that was to be understood, and we were ready to
apply such syntheses in the field. However,
U all these syntheses that are accepted without question, must remain in suspense.
They must not be rejected definitively of course, but the tranquility with which they
I are accepted must be disturbed; we must show that they do not come about of
themselves, but are always the result of a construction the rules of which must be
known, and the justifications of which must be scrutinized: we must define in what
I conditions and in view of which analyses certain of them are legitimate; and we
must indicate which of them can never be accepted in any circumstances (Foucault
I One way to break with the notion of gender as a well-known and reductive
I synthesis is to identify "the dispersion of the points of choice" (Foucault 1972:37). The
dispersion of points of choice should be studied by looking at the intersection between
I cultural norms defined by a people's ethnicity and the agency of its members in living
I these norms. By identifying loci of diversity of trajectories, and the points in which social
actors make different choices and take divergent directions, which do not fit into the
I continuous total history, I can start to collect and examine discontinuous trajectories that
I build the general history of gender in the Mearim valley.
To achieve my intent, I started by examining gender relations in the Mearim valley
U through the few available accounts of the life trajectory of the former slave Maria
I Pretinho and her sons. Although the Pretinho family was the founder of Lago do Junco in
1925, and although it was the first municipality we were introduced to in the Mearim



valley in 1986, her trajectory was absolutely unknown to us until 2001. In his last

fieldwork, Roberto Porro obtained accounts of her life through an interview given by

Dona Maria Jos6 Pinheiro, our next-door neighbor for 4 years, a descendant of the

fazendeiros who have ruled Lago do Junco basically since the 1930s. The biographical

details of Maria Pretinho's life are practically lost, but it is exactly this unconcealed

social invisibility that has a major explanatory power in the process of constructing

gender relations in the Mearim valley.

Rather than excavating traces left by her, or making guesses about her, I examine

how someone like me, entering Lago do Junco, is led to a blindness to her history, and

consequently, toward a diversity of explanations for the present realities. Therefore, what

I am calling "the trajectory of Maria Pretinho" is not exactly that of a woman who lived

and died in the beginning of the last century, but the representation of a multitude of

trajectories hidden by local and official discourses. By examining the social blindness

that makes "her" invisible, I intend to understand the current actors and context of this

erasing process, and its effects on gender relations.

I selected the municipality of Lago do Junco as a scenario for this inquiry on social

invisibility, because it offers a good representation of the dialectical forces inducing a

dispersion of forms of living gender relations in the Mearim valley. The narrative about

Lago do Junco integrates effects of agrarian policies, systems of political representation,

and pastoral actions on the social relations within and among its villages, and between

them and other sectors of this municipality. I take as a point of departure the description

of Lago do Junco as a biophysical, social, economic, and political environment, in which

I begin to refine my questions about gender relations. Through the examination of the

official and the oral history of the town and the villages, I place my focus in their

interconnections, to detect what is made invisible and what is not.

Therefore, this is neither a geographical area study nor a historical examination of a

period, but an ethnographic study of a theme, gender relations, contextualized in a time

and place, carried out by an equally scrutinized observer. I organize this description using

the methodological concept of social situation. As suggested by Gluckman, social

situations "are events [the researcher] observes, and from them and their

interrelationships in a particular society, he abstracts the social structure, relationships,

institutions, etc. of that society. By them and by new situations, he must check the

validity of his generalizations" (1958:2). Throughout the text, I position my own insertion

in such a scenario to clarify how and why I am selecting specific windows through which

I establish my points of observation of the object of research, as a means to avoid taking

this specific view as the single, unifying reality of the Mearim Valley. Nevertheless, by

working on this idiographic data systematized ethnographically, I expect to obtain

reliable and valid concepts useful for situations beyond the valley and time period.

Focusing on gender relations operating in the local system of production observed

in the municipality of Lago do Junco, I begin to explore its connections to local, national

and international processes leading governmental policies and Catholic actions in the

Amazon. Such a step allows me to clarify my original conception of gender relations with

which I, an agronomist and social practitioner intending to promote local development

and conservation, at the service of the church, wished to liberate my fellow oppressed

women. As a result, I can contrast such a preconceived notion and the observed relations

that submerged the naYvet6 of my ignorance. From this contrast, by the end of the chapter,

I expect to present the social situations at the municipal level leading to dispersion of

trajectories and potential changes in gender relations, and to spell out further questions

for the next levels in which I intend to explore the meaning of gender in the Mearim


In section II, I describe the town and the interior of Lago do Junco, setting the stage

through which I was introduced to its geography, history and politics, while gathering

related social situations for later analysis. I examine the relations within and between

these two social environments and respective main agents: the town and the villages, the

landlords and the peasants, and their respective allies. In section III, I describe a way of

life emerging from these social relations, the joining of the church in defense of the land

and liberation goals, and the system of political representation and governmental acts, as

locally processed by the people. I finish the section by discussing the formation of social

movements in Lago do Junco. In section IV, I conclude this chapter by identifying the

relations still generating social invisibilities. The reasons why Maria Pretinho was made

invisible help me to elicit the situations at the municipal level that induced a dispersion of

trajectories, and delineate the first ideas toward a conceptualization of gender in the

Mearim valley.

Entering the Field for the First Time

Arriving at the Town of Lago do Junco: No Signs of Maria Pretinho

Getting a ride with the church to get on the road with the people

Getting a ride from the Catholic church, we entered the Mearim Valley for the first

time in March of 1986. A cheerful German agronomist working for Misereor, an agency

of cooperation linked to the Catholic church in Germany, and collaborating with the

Franciscan vice-province of Bacabal that had hired Roberto, picked us up at the capital





















airport. He would take two German Catholic volunteers and us to the interior of
Maranhao in a four-wheel-drive Toyota, a vehicle known locally as "the priests' car." He
and his wife, a nurse, had worked in Africa, and Northeastern Brazil would add to their
experience in the so-called Third World.
Leaving our non-Catholic, middle-class lives in SAo Paulo, we began to participate
in a perceptual environment in which Maranhao belonged to a whole block of
underdeveloped countries, clearly mapped by governments, and national and
international institutions, including the church, each one with its intervention agendas.
The German agronomist and nurse formed the ideal pair to help to fix the impoverishing
system of production, and heal the consequent "Third World" ailments. I think of being
introduced by them in the job, as an honor. Notwithstanding, it was also a means to train
Brazilians, the locals, to absorb this view and a missionary spirit, to be the carriers of the
good news, be it a new system of cultivation, a way to treat diarrhea, or a Christian way
to introduce a certain kind of development. Poverty was out there, and combating it was
our mission, in the spirit of the Liberation Theology embraced by the Franciscans.
At the theological level, since the 1960s, Latin American theologians were
proposing "liberation in the oppressed and exploited land of Latin America," and
Gutierrez, in his analysis on development, would propose substituting it by liberation, as
a better expression of the goal of life with dignity, and agency for one's own destiny
(Gutierrez 1988:14-17, 64). In Brazil, Friar Boff would say, regarding what had been
proposed for the so-called Third World, "the development in question is obviously not
the development of the nation as a people. Rather what is meant is development of

capitalist categories, a development whose sole subjects and beneficiaries are the elite

minorities" (Boff 1989:196).

At the practical level, however, by that time, it was not clear how liberation in the

practice of improving production would be different from development, at least for most

of the grassroots agronomist agents in the field such as us. Although many agents

proposed adaptive or alternative technologies to achieve development in a more

sustainable or politically correct way, only a few stopped to ask if and how people

wanted such development, or even wondered what it was, after all. Regarding gender,

liberation proposed participation of women as subjects, but at least in principle, so did

discourses on "gender and development."

Inexperienced or plain ignorant, by the time we entered the field, we were just

happy to know that we were not going to spend our lives dealing with pesticides or

agricultural bulldozers to enrich Monsanto or Caterpillar, as much of our training as

agronomists had directed us. Being on the proper side of the class struggle was already a

good start, we thought. We were about to become agents of development and

conservation in the poorest Brazilian state,' where social movements were alive and some

secondary forests still stood. Very soon we began to realize that this was not enough, and

what a long way we would have to go to figure out the meanings of development and

conservation, later integrated in concepts related to "sustainable development." Even

though we were not Catholics, we had the opportunity to go through this learning cycle

within a politicized grassroots movement, as since the 1970s, sectors of the Catholic

S91% of all municipalities of the state of Maranhao live in conditions that critically affect
childhood mortality, 66% of rural households lack access to proper sanitation facilities, and 86%
have inadequate access to safe water. 66% of total heads of households in the rural areas have less

church were the most relevant institutional channel bringing visibility to the social

movements in the Amazon, and they had opted for getting on the road with the poor.2

There werefazendeiros on this road

Our destination, Lago do Junco, was a town between the Graja-i and Mearim rivers,

the Mearim Valley, which averages annual temperatures ranging from 240 to 280C, and

annual rainfall between 1,500 mm to 2,000 mm, mostly concentrated in the "winter"

season running between December and May. The majestic parade of babaqu palms

(Attalea speciosa, syn. Orbignyaphalerata) on each side of the road, standing out in

some pastures, contrasted with the flat carpet ofjaraguc grass, or the so called capim

lageado (Hyperrhania rufa), that resulted from the complete elimination of the palms in

some otherfazendas. Both species adapted extraordinarily well in the soils of the

ecological zone "Cocais," such as the eutrophic red-yellow podzolic soil type

encountered in the uplands of the Mearim valley. The alluvial soils in the bottomlands

were also associated with the dense stands of babaqu palms (Anderson et al 1991:19),

providing ideal conditions for rice cultivation by the peasants. Although the rains were

not so good in that year's irregular winter, the landscape still looked green and fresh.

Joyful children, jumping in the igarap&s3 that crossed the roads, expressed the vibrancy

of this season.

This joy contrasted with the cruelty of the human built environment. Here and

there, squeezed between the road and the fazendas' barbed wire fences, there were

than or equivalent to one minimum wage (U$120 in 1997) (IBGE/UNICEF 1991, cited in World
Bank 1997).
2 See Schmink and Wood 1992:180-183; Adriance (1995); Hoonaert (1992); and Schmink
3 Igarapis are seasonally intermittent water streams, which allow fishing as an important activity
integrated to the agricultural and extractive peasant calendar.

houses, sometimes lines of twenty to thirty taipa4 houses on both sides. Fazendas had not

only taken over every single piece of land with easy access along the roads, but had also

advanced well into the interior. We learned that these houses were villages of people

displaced from the interior by thefazendas, becoming what are called nowpovoados de

beira depista, roadside villages. There, men have become a source of cheap labor for

clearing pastures and women extractors of babaqu kernels, husks, and charcoal, gathered

from what was left of the forests: palms scattered throughout pastures. To respond to

these economic and ecological crises, members of the church in the Mearim valley, like

others throughout Latin America, dared to find their social role and place on these roads.

The Franciscans in the Mearim valley expressed this commitment through several

initiatives in social mobilization, and started ACESA, a project on education in health

and agriculture, with its headquarters in Lago do Junco.

The town of Lago do Junco had a different origin than these roadside villages, but

was equally a place with multiple histories within its general history, involving

post-slavery, immigration, and frontier settlement processes. Dona Maria Jose Pinheiro,

68 years old, daughter born to one of the mainfazendeiros in the municipality considered

to be its founder, tells her history of Lago do Junco: "My father arrived here in 1925; he

had run away from Grajaf, 5 and came with uns Pretinhos, some Little Blacks, by the

4 Taipa houses are the usual mud-and-wattle type of houses framed by wood poles in each corner,
with a double net of babacu leaf stems tied with cip6 escada, a vine, structuring the walls, which
are filled with mud. The roof is made of thin round branches placed in an orderly way, and
covered with whole young babaqu leaves neatly tied to them with cip6 escada. Doors and
windows are usually made of unprocessed wood or mats handcrafted with babacu young leaves.
5 In the shaky period after the abolition of slavery and subsequent changes in the rural economy,
followed by the fall of the empire and rise of an uncertain republic, violence spread throughout
the so-called sertlo maranhense, and the town of Grajaui was one of the famous spots of agrarian
conflict. Extended families divided between liberals and conservatives were struggling for local
power, while former slaves were struggling for survival. Defeated rural leaders had their family

name of Abel Pretinho, Antonio Pretinho, and an old woman, Maria, who was their

mother, and there were Cicero Pretinho, Jflio Pretinho, all brothers ... They came,

slashing a trail, making their way with machetes, axes. Dad was 15 years old in 1925.

The others (the black men) were already adult men." According to her father, an Indian

they met in the middle of the forest gave directions to a lake full of straw weeds, named

thereafter Lago do Junco, Lake of the Straw Weed, on the banks of which the Pretinho

family settled themselves, becoming the assituantes, 6 the first ones to arrive and found a


The Pretinho's settlement was made within the large municipality of Sao Luis

Gonzaga, which was accessed to the capital Sao Luis through the Mearim river and had

commercial connections with Caxias, then known as Aldeias Altas, where cotton

production had been established since the second half of the 18th century. However,

having come from Grajaui, Maria Pretinho and the ones who followed her seem to belong

to another movement. A southern town founded in 1811, Grajau, earlier known as Porto

da Chapada, was the result of a cattle ranching movement coming from Bahia, and

passing through Pastos Bons, which in 1751 already had forty fourfazendas. While some

headed toward the west, in the direction of the Araguaia-Tocantins, others went up east to

the Mearim, one of the humid valleys of Maranhao (Velho 1972:24). More than 30

members sent away, and the humid valley of the Mearim river began to serve as a destination for
them and for former slaves in search of the terra sem dono, the land without landlords.
6 Assituantes are the first people to arrive and settle in a place, the pioneers. They usually build
the first shelters, and then houses, and plant the first roqas, which are going to provide support to
them and to the newcomers. These give them the right to organize the settlement according to
culturally established meanings and norms. Assituar implies, therefore, not only to have the
material resources to hold on to that land until the first harvests, but to have the power to
articulate the social relations in which people will be engaged in that land.

years after abolition, to live on trabalho livre, black families were still moving in search

of lands without landlords, often led by women.

In her narrative, the daughter of the accompanying white boy refers vaguely to

Maria as a subject: "there was an old woman" or "the old woman." Nonetheless, we can

imply Maria's leadership from the details of her actions in the process of founding Lago

do Junco. Consistent to roles assumed by women in former slaves' and their descendants'

families, Maria brought together the social and material means to establish a peasant

settlement in a land free of landlords. She not only organized the means of material

production, but also social reproduction, taking care of the sick, organizing parties, and

leading religious matters. "They had parties at night, they danced, men with men."

As one of the men in the pioneer group died while trying to slash a large tree to

plant roga, Maria Pretinho made a promise to God, and ordered the construction of a

chapel and saint statues to protect the people. The wooden statues were ordered from a

woodcrafter and displayed in the chapel, consistent with the unique Christianity that

emerged in the Amazon, free from the dominance of priests and sacraments, but "very

devotional, non-sacramental, but intensely devoted to the veneration of the saints"

(Hooraert 1992:401).

This unique way to live religion was accompanied by unique ways to live gender.

Women leading pioneers, commanding religious matters, and men dancing with men

were very different from the discourse practiced by the most vocal contemporary

residents of Lago do Junco. "Man does not dance with man, ever!" "Women take care of

7 There are no statistical data about the significance of the groups led by women in these
movements, but in my qualitative interviews, they were not rare. In 2000, doing fieldwork in the
westernmost state of Acre, I interviewed an old black woman whose grandmother, a midwife, led
a group from the northeast up to the frontiers with Bolivia.

the church's things, it is to keep everything very well organized... The priest rules." In

Maria's case, instead of the omnipresent patriarchal Latino husband (Boserup 1970, Nash

and Safa 1980), in the role of the female head of household, we imply the absent father

or, more probably, absent fathers, and in the role of religious leader, the absent priest.

The official history smudges these disruptive histories. In the same way that the

Indian and the Pretinho brothers' achievements in finding the right place, establishing the

first roqas and structures in Lago do Junco were minimized, Maria's trajectory turned

into a folkloric amusement, or a not-valid history. The road replaced her trails; the house

of afazendeiro displaced her chapel; and the statues were stolen mysteriously. Not only

in the official history, but in the very local accounting in the mouths of the haves and

have-nots of Lago do Junco, the legacy of Maria Pretinho and her sons was made

invisible. And as we joined the social movements in 1986, her history was not visible

there either.

It seems that very early in the narrative, other characters, relations and devotions

took over the central roles and shares of the total history, economy, and politics of Lago

do Junco. Although slavery had been formally abolished since 1888, rules were

differently applied to the leading old black woman and the accompanying young white

teen. Power differentials ruling the colony, and later the empire and republic, validated

specific subjective perceptions of gender, ethnicity, and race. The subjective perceptions

of the white male settlers were more valid than Maria Pretinho's perceptions and

practices, and constructed objective structures reproducing these differentials (Bourdieu

1999). These objective structures and hierarchies defined differentiated access to land and

forest resources, to markets and public services, and above all, to political representation.

Specific definitions of gender, ethnicity and race became selecting factors in the

historical formation of citizenship in Lago do Junco, and the Pretinho family was

displaced from their symbolic roles as assituantes.

These displacements also involved forms of gender relations considered disruptive.

Other forms of gender relations took their place, while gender relations lived by Maria

Pretinho became invisible for their noncompliant character. As the daughter of the white

boy describes her own life: "The women here were housewives to take care of their

houses, only having children, and raising them with the help of their husbands. But it was

not for the women to work on servigo grosseiro, rough work, no. I never worked, had a

job... My husband had condition." Her husband decided and provided for everything.

And this is the visible picture consistent with the totalizing discourse about the Latino

women at all class levels, who had to bow to the patriarchal father in all matters outside

the home (Nash and Safa 1980).

Therefore, when we arrived in Lago do Junco 60 years later, the names of the

patriarchs Joao Corr6a, Narcisio Rodrigues, Didi Arruda, Leao Leda, Juca Pinheiro, and

coronel8 Hosano Gomes Ferreira, thefazendeiros, were the ones introduced to us as the

ruling past and present of Lago do Junco. And in the years I lived there, I had never

heard, as I never asked, about Maria Pretinho, taking the official and popular accounts as

the total history of Lago do Junco, and becoming myself another instrument of its

reproduction. In the present, there were no black, let alone black womenfazendeiras, and

8 Coronel was a title conceded by the provincial government in the hierarchy of the Guarda
Nacional, created in 1831 by Diogo Feij6, to designate the commander-in-chief of a municipality,
usually the most powerful fazendeiro, merchant or, later, industrialist. By the end of the 191h
century, with the extinction of the Guarda Nacional, the term remained during the republican
regime to designate the political chiefs, who continued to rule locally as patriarchs. "The term

Indians were just a folkloric past. From the mists of Lago do Junco's clashing histories,

we can begin also to surmise clashing notions of gender.

For the official history, the genealogy of municipalities (IBGE 1999. Genealogia

dos Municipios. Unpublished document of IBGE/state of Maranhao. Sao Luis: IBGE

IBGE 1999a) explains the origin of Lago do Junco as a political division. Sao Luis, the

first city in Maranhao, was founded in 1612, giving origin to Itapecuru Mirim in 1817,

which was disaggregated into several municipalities throughout the years. Among them,

in the locality where the formerfazenda Machado was established, which in 1844 was

made into a Freguesia,9 Sao Luis Gonzaga was declared a municipality in 1854. Lago do

Junco, settled by the Pretinhos in 1925, was one of its localities, which turned into a

municipality itself in 1961, in response to the demands of the heads of the most weighty

extended families. Similarly, because of long years of disputes among these so-called

political leaders, one of Lago do Junco's rival villages, Lago dos Rodrigues, also became

a municipality in 1994, taking 117.8 km2 and leaving Lago do Junco with its current 600

km2 (IBGE 1999a).

Certainly I had already heard and read in school text books about coronelismo'0

and voto de cabresto,' coerced vote, but being raised in a social environment completely

coronelismo penetrated the political-social evolution of our country, particularly in the party
politics of the Brazilian municipalities" (Basilio de Magalhaes, cited in Leal 1949:21)
9 Freguesias were circumscriptions defined by the Catholic Church, being groups of villages
aggregated around a main church.
10 See Leal's (1975) Coronelismo, Enxada e Voto and Hoefl's (1985) Harnessing the Interior
Vote: the Impact of Economic Change, Unbalanced Development and Authoritarianism on the
Local Politics of Northeast Brazil.
" Voto de cabresto is an allusion to a domesticated animal's obedience, as cabresto means bit.
Part of the violence between rival groups, this intense and broad engagement with local party
politics can be also observed in electoral processes involving voto de cabresto: induced or forced
vote by economic, psychological or physical coercion. In Brazil voting is mandatory. For
example, Lago do Junco currently has 9,827 residents. Its 5,903 residents, 16 years old and up,
registered as voters (60%) have demonstrated high electoral commitment in the last election, in

alienated from party politics, the intensity and personal nature of northeast conflicts over

local political leadership still in the 1980s, seemed the ultimate demonstration that I was

indeed in another social universe. The unique and violent local politics were based on the

dominance offazendeiros, sometimes also assuming the role of comerciantes, merchants,

struggling among themselves, and controlling peasants living in their domains or

dependent on their commerce. As initially land tenure was not an issue because of its

abundance, power was often concentrated in the hands of these merchants (Velho

1972:41). "The richest man in Lago do Junco, [coronel Hosano] started with a little store,

so small that his counter was made of babagu stems, which my father helped him to

make." Later, the social roles of merchants andfazendeiros were linked also to that of

doutor, someone graduated in Medicine or Law (Leal 1975:23, Nunes 2000:285-288). As

thefazendas declined, the agrarian elite perpetuated their power through specific

professions designated as appropriate to the leading sector. In our example, the

fazendeiros coronel Hosano and Ledo Leda both had sons educated as doctors in

medicine. 12

Coincidently, at the time of our arrival, one of them, doctor Haroldo Leda, son of

our next-door neighbor Ledo Leda, 13 was fighting against thefazendeiros holding

municipal power. Chiefs of extended families craving local leadership and their

which 68% of them actually voted. Most of the invalidated attempted votes can be attributed to
12 According to Nunes' (2000) study on Maranhro: Medicine, Power, and Intellectual Production,
between 1930 and 1996, there were four state governors graduated in Medicine and seven in Law,
besides three vice-governors and six capital mayors who were doctors.
13 Leao Leda, brought to Lago do Junco by his aunt, Colonel Hosano's wife, was himself related
to Captain Leao Leda and Major Luis Leda, the caudilhos involved in violent conflicts between
conservatives and liberals in Grajad at the turn of the century. As opposition forces prevailed in
the region, Captain Leao Leda moved to Alto Araguaia, while others headed up to the humid
valley of Mearim. See Abranches (1993).

aggregates, the so-called politicos, politicians, were in the middle of a series of murders

based on mutual revenge. People from both sides were being killed on a monthly basis.

Even the mayor had suffered an ambush. She was the wife of a majorfazendeiro, a

political chief of the rival village Lago dos Rodrigues, whose wrongdoings impeded his

own candidacy, but not the continuation of his political aspirations through her, until his

assassination. Definitely not a mere puppet in his hands, she continued her own career,

another situation that contradicts the stereotype of Latino woman.14 So, we need to

distinguish here what kind of social invisibility we are going to talk about.

With a prosthetic to substitute for her half-shot face, she lived in the capital in this

common situation known as absenteeism (Leal 1975:24), like most of the mayors in the

region who could not stand the precarious conditions of their domains. In fact, in 1986,

the year when it was finally and precariously connected to TV, Lago do Junco had about

700 houses: old decayed brick houses on the main and only paved street, and a majority

of taipa houses on secondary dirt streets. There were also a decadent market, a rice mill,

a post office, one kindergarten, a handful of schools, 15 an infirmary, a nightclub, and a

dozen food stores. To complete the picture, there were a small protestant church, 16 and a

Catholic church and parish house facing each other at the top of the hill, on the main


14 The best representation of this contradiction would be the re-elected governor of Maranhao,
Roseanna Samey, who became the first woman to run for presidency, until her fall due to political
15 In 2002, Lago do Junco had 2 pre-schools, 35 elementary and middle schools, and 2 high
schools. There were no banks or hospitals.
16 See Dreher (1992) Hist6ria dos Protestantes na Amaz6nia atd 1980.

There was a church project on the top of the hill

Exactly in the same spot where the Pretinho family had planted the first ro9a of

Lago do Junco, Coronel Hosano Gomes Ferreira had built this oldest house in town,

which German Franciscan friars later bought, using it as a novice-training center for some

years until they decided to transfer it to a village. Then, this large three-wing house that

sheltered the coronel's extended family, aggregates and commerce, became our home for

the 31/2 years in which Roberto was working for the Catholic church, with the other two

wings occupied by a kindergarten and the project headquarters. Our neighbors in the

single paved street were mostly local fazendeiros and their aggregates, since the poorest

people displaced by land concentration lived in the secondary dirt streets, and along the

sides of the state road. In a "hundred years of solitude" atmosphere, the house had its own

charm with snakes, tarantulas and marsupials as occasional co-residents until we could

settle ourselves thoroughly, responding to our expectations of what an Amazonian place

should look like.

However, we were not aware of what expectations each segment of Lago do Junco

had of us. Like most local development agents, we were not even aware that the so-called

"community" was not the imagined harmonious, homogeneous, and cohesive social

body, but full of contradictions and a focus of dispersion itself. Only now do I wonder

how the many descendants of the made-invisible Maria Pretinho might have perceived

the sequence of colonels, priests and development agents in that house, dominating the

landscape where their ancestors had pioneered a settlement. "The first roqa they planted

was right here, on the top of this hill." But at that time, with our perceptions soaked with

the Amazonian imaginary, unaware of different perceptions, from the colonel's house on

the top of the hill, and under the guidance of the church, we began our interactions with

the people of Lago do Junco.

The Franciscan brothers had founded their Custody in the municipality of Bacabal,

the major city in the Mearim valley, in the beginning of the 1950s. 17 In 1968, they

erected the Diocese of Bacabal, a far-reaching missionary field for the friars of the

Province of Saxony (Germany), which became the Franciscan Vice-Province of the

Assumption in 1992. The friars had such an influence that people used to refer to them as

chronological markers, in that every event happened at, before, or after "the time of such

and such friar." According to a local account, even the destiny of Lago do Junco was

determined by them, as people told me that long ago, someone was disturbing the mass,

and the priest spit at the church's gate and cursed the town. "This is why Lago do Junco

never goes forward." Of course, this account, common to many stagnated towns, was told

to me by the discontented side of a divided town, which made up the majority of its

"urban" society: 8 people who did approve of the church's option for the poor, but not for

the kind of poor who claimed rights to land.

Consistent with the rise of CEB's, the Eclesial Base Communities that were the

practical expression of Liberation Theology, the late 1970s and 1980s were the peak of

17 The presence of the Franciscan friars in the Amazon dated from the beginning of the 17th
century. In 1637, in the "Relagao sobre as coisas pertencentes 'a conservag~o e aumento do
Estado do Maranhao," report concerning the conservation and expansion of the state of
Maranhao, the captain-mor Jacome R. de Noronha recommends that Franciscans should take care
of the Indians, who were influenced by the Dutch, British, and French (Moreira Neto 1992).
18 According to the IBGE 2000 Census, there are 2,839 residents in the urban (28%) against 6,988
in the rural (72%) areas of Lago do Junco, Maranhao being the only Brazilian state with a
majority rural population.

the church's actions against land concentration in the Mearim valley. 19 The Diocese of

Bacabal directed by the German Franciscan friars had resources and political will to

invest in a practice of Liberation Theology, which spread throughout the country at the

time. This divided the Catholics who are the majority of Lago do Junco. Meanwhile,

Protestants of Assembly of God and Christian Congregations literally followed the

commandment to not challenge the authorities, and to "give to Caesar what was

Caesar's" (Dreher 1992:339).

Being introduced to the people in the valley by the priests was a definite mark, both

on our perceptions of people and on their perceptions of us. At a first glance, once one

was said to work for the priest or to be with the priest, one's position was defined either

with the People of Struggle, also named "people of the interior," or with the people

against them, the "people of the town," or more specifically donos de terra, land owners

or donos de gado, cattle owners. 20 Of course, these political and geographical

denominations were not clear divisions, since many people in the interior were against

Agrarian Reform and vice versa. Besides, in a more accurate examination, people

participated in so many social planes that these clear divisions made sense only under

specific situations. Nonetheless, being categorized as "people of the church" implied

19 See Boffs (1986) Church, Charisma and Power: Liberation Theology and the Institutional
Church. For contrasting views of the movement, see Gutierrez 1973 A Theology ofLiberation,
and Novak 1990 Subverting the Churches. Forbes January 22, 1990, 94.
20 Examining the transcribed interviews, we can trace a single terminological structure to the
terms fazenda de escravo andfazenda de gado, slave ranch and cattle ranch, and dono de gente
and dono de gado, people's owner and cattle's owner. I interpreted the reference to this structure
as an acknowledgement of a society that objectifies both cattle and slaves, and an indication that,
although acknowledging and living under such rules, the notion of being an owner of land, was as
absurd an idea as being the owner of people. During slavery, sectors of the Catholic church lived
this structure as owners of land, cattle, and people. Carmelites and Mercedaries ownedfazendas
where there were "mais de cento e cincoenta escravos entire machos e femeas, o gado vacuum
chega a perto de trinta mil cabegas e grande n6mero do cavalar," more than a hundred and fifty

many assumptions, including how I was supposed to live my gender and deal with a

gendered world, and consequently, affected my experience and my reading of it.

In my search for the meaning of gender relations at the municipal level, I took the

town initially as a central observing point (because it was the center of the project), but

soon I learned that the villages in the interior were not the margins of the town at all.

Examining the system of production carried out in the villages, which were modeled in

interaction with both the natural and social environments, and emerged from conflictive

relations, I learned that the way of life lived by Maria Pretinho was not gone. Rather, that

way of life based on trabalho sem patrio as practiced in the villages, was the origin, the

center, and foundation of Lago do Junco's social and economic life. The invisibility was

not hers, but emerged in the conflictive social relations that constitute Lago do Junco and

affected my experience and my reading of it. The invisibility was in the relations

informing the delineation of my research object. As Foucault had said, it was not in the

object itself. Therefore, an ethnographic scrutiny on these conflictive relations offered us

a fertile ground to expand our understanding of invisible trajectories forming Lago do

Junco, and consequently hidden forms of gender relations.

Proceeding Toward the Interior: the Margins that Were Centers

A state of disconnected structures

Friar Adolfo Themme, the local parish priest in 1986, was a key figure in the

struggles for land in Lago do Junco. Venerated by some and ostracized by others, he used

to carry out, like many priests of his order, his desobrigas, visits from village to village,

baptizing, marrying, and preaching that land for those who work on it is part of God's

slaves among male and females; the cattle was around thirty thousand and a great number of
horses (Moreira Neto 1992:233).

will. He accepted us with an open heart, and remains a spiritual figure to us until today. It

took me years to fully realize it, but he taught me that the fact that my entrance and

settlement in the field happened through the town ofLago do Junco, did not mean it was

the center of Lago do Junco. Furtado (1964) also refutes this notion of marginality

attributed to rural areas.

It was interesting to note that the villages in the interior are locally called centros,

centers, and the rest of the world, beira, margin. "N6s, o povo vai ai prAs beira, prA

buscar a condigao, que aqui no centro nao ta tendo. Mas o lugar mesmo 6 aqui." (We, the

people, go outside to get some [means of living], because here in the center we don't

have them [at this time]. But our place is right here). As a matter of fact, this is not only a

matter of how geography could be perceived and named differently, but as people live

according to their perceptions, everyday practices are lived disconnected from

supposedly accepted structures, in this case, an administrative hierarchy centering the

urban. Through time, I would learn of other perceptions making structures disconnected

from what people were living.

Weeks after we had arrived in Lago do Junco, Friar Adolfo showed up to invite me

to go to the village of Sao Manoel, 24 kilometers from town on a terribly bad dirt road.

Adelino Barbosa, a former peasant who had become afazendeiro, had given orders to

tear down almost 40 taipa houses, by pulling each dwelling's master pole with a tractor.

Even the chapel was levelled. The intriguing fact was that Adelino was not an outsider

capitalist entrepreneur, or from a family offazendeiros, but he used to be "poor, that kind

of poor that when he bought a kilo of meat, he did not have the means to pay for it on the

same day. When the person who had sold the meat came to ask him for the money, he

had to run to the forest to break babagu in order to pay for that kilo of meat. He did not

have any means. Later he improved his life" (Caubi Jose de Lima, 50 years old, Sao

Manoel, interviewed by Roberto Porro). Note here how the inversion of gender role

(babaqu breaking, a woman's task) was used to illustrate ultimate poverty.

Interviewees told me that improvement in Adelino's life came through "hard

work," but essentially through social relations resulting in formal acquisition of land. In

1959, the Land Law was directed to authorize and legalize the sale of land to juridical or

physical persona politically or financially suitable to buy it. The law completely ignored

the existence of peasants and indigenes as social groups already living on it, who could

have benefited by a regularization of their actual possession. This and subsequent Land

Laws responded to the relations among local corondis and other municipal political

leaders and state and federal representatives. These laws affected the on-going formation

of the peasantry and the construction of their ways of life through the agro-extractive

system of production, in the villages and forests on the lands hitherto without landlords.

By the beginning of the 1950s, the vice-mayor began to buy some direitos de posse,2' and

to survey greatly expanded areas around cheaply purchased domains.

Throughout the villages, the memories of displacement are alive. "[In 1947], it was

all devoluto; 22 we worked, lived, we did what we wanted, but by the 1960s, a sale of land

began to those people who had resources; it was not for everybody" (Milton Monteiro, 57

21 Direito de posse, right of possession, is a right based on the lex utilis, which establishes that
those who actually utilize certain resources, land in this case, have the right to possess it. Such
philosophical understanding did not prevent antagonistic groups from expropriating long-term
assituantes, by violent means or unfair purchases, expanding the alleged area, and claiming such
rights of possession for themselves.
22 Terras devolutas were unclaimed lands, which were not counted in the private or public
patrimony. Since the Federal Constitution of 1891, such lands belong to the States in which they
are located, and are distinct from Federal lands (Shiraishi 1998:27).

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