“Across Brazilian Amazonia, it is common to find rural households that keep plants with magico-medicinal properties in their home gardens. Despite widespread occurrence of such plants, some Amazonians—especially in Evangelical communities—openly criticize their use as incongruent with Christian belief and practice. In this article, I offer ethnographic observations that indicate divergent attitudes toward magico-medicinal plants between Evangelical Christians and Amazonian folk Catholics, the latter of whom borrow heavily from Afro-Brazilian and indigenous religions. I contend that Evangelicals’ attempts to establish distance from such plants is due in part to histories of ethnic and racial marginalization that are indexed in their use. Still, many magico-medicinal plants are weedy species that actively colonize areas occupied by humans, thus openly defying Evangelical attempts to evade them. In this manner, magico-medicinal plants are not just subject to human agencies, but are arguably agents in their own right.”
My article “How Religion, Race, and the Weedy Agency of Plants Shapes Rural Amazonia Home Gardens” will be published in the 2016 fall issue of Culture, Agriculture, Food, and the Environment. Here is the species list of magico-medicinal plants that I identified in the study, which wasn’t included in the article due to space constraints.
Smallholder farmers play a critical role in the maintenance of global agrobiodiversity. However, the social and environmental factors that shape agrobiodiversity and its management in rural smallholder communities are still debated among scholars. This study examines variation in the diversity of useful plant species (i.e., species richness) managed by households located in three distinct environments along the Lower Madeira River in the Central Brazilian Amazon: Amazonian Dark Earths (ADE), upland Oxisols (OX), and floodplain soils (FP). Among the 106 households studied, those located on ADE managed a significantly higher number of useful species than those on floodplain soils but not than those on Oxisols. A generalized linear mixed effects model indicates that the age of the household head, number of household members and adults, and area of land under cultivation are statistically significant factors that influence species richness across all households. Ethnographic data are employed to contextualize these findings and discuss other influences on agrobiodiversity management in rural Amazonian communities, including regional historical ecology and the life histories of individual farmers.
My latest research article (co-authored with Chris McCarty and Charles Clement) is to be published in the December 2013 issue of Current Anthropology. It’s already available ahead of print through JSTOR. This is the abstract:
Social exchange networks play a critical role in the maintenance and distribution of crop diversity in smallholder farming communities throughout the world. The structure of such networks, however, can both support and constrain crop diversity and its distribution. This report examines varietal distribution of the staple crop manioc among rural households in three neighboring caboclo communities in Brazilian Amazonia. The results show that the centrality of households in exchange networks had no significant correlation with the number of manioc varieties maintained by households. However, household centrality did show a significant correlation with households’ perceived knowledge of manioc cultivation as well as the total area of manioc they cultivated. Although households with the most knowledgeable and active producers played a central role in the distribution of planting materials and manioc varieties, they did not maintain higher varietal diversity than more peripheral households in this study. This case study represents an important example of how social networks can constrain varietal distribution and contribute to low crop diversity in agricultural communities.
If you’re at the annual American Anthropological Association meeting in San Francisco next week (Nov. 14-18), I’ll be giving my talk at 2:45 pm on Friday (room: Golden Gate 2 at the Hilton San Francisco). Here is the abstract:
Most Amazonian smallholder farmers are accustomed to uncertain climatic conditions, often relying on traditional ecological knowledge, agrobiodiversity management, and social network support to contend with the threats of drought and flooding. Nonetheless, anthropogenic climate change presents unique challenges to Amazonian farmers and their resilience. Between 2009 and 2010, record flooding accompanied by intense drought left devastating impacts on many smallholder communities in the Central Amazon, severely compromising production of even the most resistant crops, including the regional staple manioc. Drawing on botanical, ethnographic, and social network data collected during this period, I discuss the effects of these events on the production and management of manioc and its varieties in communities along the Lower Madeira River in the Central Brazilian Amazon. Examining issues of crop selection and the dynamics of varietal distribution through social networks, I highlight both the vulnerabilities that farmers face and the mechanisms by which they respond to increasingly uncertain environmental conditions. To conclude, I consider the ways in which anthropological research on agrobiodiversity management vis-a-vis climate change may serve farmers and policy makers alike.