Tuesday, June 03, 2008

A global “scoop” and much controversy

Luciano Martins Costa (translated from the Portuguese by Matthew Meyer)

Friday’s (5/30) front-page news on all of Brazil’s biggest newspapers had already been published on the BBC’s site and the UOL webpage: the news that FUNAI [Brazil’s Indian affairs agency] had discovered, in Acre state, a village of Indians not yet contacted by the white man, and with no record of relations with other tribes. From then on, the news and some photographs crisscrossed the globe through the Associated Press and Reuters news agencies, producing a frisson that echoed throughout television news in Brazil and internationally. Along with the news, however, ran a debate about journalistic ethics and intellectual property.

There’s not much to speculate about in the case, however. What there is, is a good case for the study of information-related rights. The “scoop,” which presented to the world the discovery made by a team led by the backwoodsman José Carlos dos Reis Meirelles Júnior, belongs to Altino Machado, and was reported on his blog.

Altino posted th story on his blog and sent a more complete version to his column at the online Terra Magazine. Meirelles provided him two CDs with about 1200 photographs and gave him an interview, at the journalist’s house, recorded on the 22nd of May. The original text was written in the presence of the backwoodsman. The next morning, on Friday the 23rd, the text was published on the blog and Terra Magazine, in addition to the longer report, distributed a version in Spanish for its entire coverage area in Latin America, the United States, and Spain.

Criteria for ceding rights

The problem was, none of the press outlets that reproduced the story in the past week cited the source. Beyond this, there arose a parallel controversy about the ownership of the photographs. The photo journalist Gleilson Miranda, chosen to accompany the expedition, decided to sell copies of the photographs for 250 reais [about US$150] each, alleging that the rights belonged to him. Miranda is an employee of the Acre State News Agency, and he took the photographs with a camera belonging to the Acre state Secretariat of Communication, on board an Acre state government airplane on loan to the backwoodsman Meirelles on an official FUNAI mission.

To set the record straight, the head of Acre’s state Communications Office, Itaan Arruda, distributed the following statement:

“I would like to make it known that images captured by any photographic or cinematographic reporter from the Acre state press office belong to the people of Acre. They are public images. They are public property. Out of respect to the people of Acre (…) we are not permitted to profit or supplement our income using property that is not ours personally and exclusively. Further, it should be noted that use of such images should follow ceding criteria, beginning with the obvious and elementary contact with the government press office or with any agency that works in partnership with us.”

Some observations

The backwoodsman José Carlos Meirelles, who is the coordinator of the Rio Envira Enthno-environmental Protection Front, also distributed a statement declaring that “the photos used on the Blog do Altino and later used in Terra Magazine were provided by me to Mr. Altino Machado. These photos are the property of the National Indian Foundation [FUNAI], as long as the Indians photographed remain isolated, and may not be used for commercial ends and much less commercialized.”

The controversy of the rights linked to the photographs will be worked out between the Acre government, its employee, and FUNAI. Some copies circulated in the international media, credited to the Associated Press (AP), which reproduced them with precarious and unauthorized license from the photographer Gleilson Miranda.

If legislation that applies to the acquisition of other products of illegitimate origin is valid in this case, it is up to AP to explain how it can assume as its property rights whose authenticity are not confirmed at their source. Such cases are common, and derive from a certain “inattention” on the part of many editors with respect to correct credit, since an image, once online, can follow chance pathways that make determining its origins difficult. The AP bought the rights from Gleilson without checking whether he held these rights. The editors receive the photo from AP and attribute credit to it, and so on.

But there are some additional observations to be made about this story. The first is that the “scoop” was only noticed by the mainstream press, and reproduced on its websites, a week after it was published on Altino Machado’s blog. The second is that the Brazilian press “didn’t see” the original version of the story: the first version on the UOL portal stated that “the photos were released by Survival International,” a group that fights to protect isolated tribes. The BBC’s site, one of the first among the latecomers to the story, likewise claimed that “the photos were released by Survival International, which supports FUNAI’s policy on isolated peoples (…)” etc. To complete the circle, the newspaper Página 20, in Rio Branco, Acre, where the author of the “scoop” lives, wrote that “the story came to light through the BBC news agency and was featured in almost all the online papers (…).”

Far from the lenses and the eyes

The story also reached readers of Le Monde, The Guardian, The New York Times, El País, and many other international media giants. Afterwards, on Friday (5/30), it landed on the front pages of the Folha de São Paulo, the Estado de São Paulo, the Globo, and other papers throughout Brazil. The Folha was the only daily that did right, observing that “FUNAI took more than 1000 photos. Meirelles decided to forward the photographic material to the journalist Altino Machado, who published three photos on the Terra Magazine website. The idea was to get the attention of the Acre state government, which promised to install a lookout post in the area, which has become the target of illegal gold prospecting.”

A detail: according to Altino Machado, the isolated tribe is threatened not by prospectors, but by illegal loggers who enter Amazonia through the Peruvian border—a fact that he reported at the same time.

Besides verifying that the press, in general, does not confirm the origins of many things it publishes, the debate involves another question, suggested by Meirelles, the backwoodsman. The photographs of the Indians presupposes a right that they may eventually exercise, if and when they decide to accept contact with the whites. Because of this, the backwoodsman has been scrambling to provide registers to assure that, in the future, this right does not continue to be ignored.

In Acre, the Indians who avoid contact with the whites and with acculturated tribes are called “invisible.” The story of the village located in the area of Xinane creek shows that, with such a lack of respect, they may do well to stay far away from the lenses and the gazes of the white man.

[Note: José Murilo Júnior offers commentary, in English, on this case and the recent Eletrobras confrontation over the Xingu hydroelectric project.]

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Friday, May 30, 2008

Ayahuasca as Brazilian cultural heritage

One of the most significant developments in the Brazilian ayahuasca religions over the last couple of years has been the efforts to have aspects of their practice designated as cultural heritage. At the end of 2006, several of the buildings associated with the Universal Light Christian Enlightenment Center--Alto Santo (CICLU-Alto Santo) in Rio Branco, Acre were added to the municipal and state historic registries. (Altino Machado wrote about the event on his blog dedicated to all things Acrean and Amazonian--in Portuguese.)

More recently, a group in Acre led by the congresswoman Perpétua Almeida (Brazilian Communist Party) and consisting of representatives of several of the local ayahuasca churches has sought to have the religious use of ayahuasca recognized as Brazilian cultural heritage. The group took a major step forward when they took advantage of a visit to Acre by Brazilian Culture Minister (and famous musician) Gilberto Gil to deliver a letter asking that the Brazilian National Institute of Historical and Artistic Heritage (IPHAN) designate the religious use of ayahuasca as national cultural heritage. The story of the meeting, again covered by Altino Machado, was picked up in the national press by the outlets Folha de São Paulo online, G1, Gazeta do Sul, and Terra. The last of these allowed reader comments on its story. Several hundred were posted, some of them in support of the development but many, many of them by people who made light of the action (which was presented in news accounts as having been Gil's doing) as the result of a drugged mind (Gil has admitted to using marijuana) and as a disgrace to a nation with more pressing concerns.

An interesting backstory to the patrimony effort is that thus far, it has excluded the second-largest Brazilian ayahuasca church, CEFLURIS. The ayahuasca church members leading the initiative are traditionalists from the Alto Santo neighborhood in Rio Branco, from the oldest Barquinha church in that same city, and from the UDV, which is a national organization but which has worked closely with the first two groups to establish a conservative consensus about the religious use of ayahuasca. The main issue that brings these groups together is opposition to the use of marijuana in CEFLURIS, although related to this, in my opinion, a sense that the leaders of CEFLURIS are opportunists whose motives for expanding their sphere of influence are more earthly than spiritual.

Below is my own translation of the document that was submitted to Gilberto Gil on the occasion of his visit to Alto Santo, the church of the CICLU-Alto Santo group led by Dona Peregrina Gomes Serra, widow of Mestre Raimundo Irineu Serra, the founder of the Doctrine of Santo Daime. Of particular note in the document is the contention that the religious use of ayahuasca implies "an essentially harmonious relationship with nature," which strikes me as an appeal to politically popular rhetoric that is not entirely true, at least historically. At another point the exclusive language seeps through, as the document specifies that it is talking about protecting and recognizing the religious use of ayahuasca "as established by [the] founding masters" of the churches sponsoring the request.

To His Excellency,

Sir Gilberto Passos Gil Moreira
Minister of Culture of the Federative Republic of Brazil

Ayahuasca is a term of Quechuan origin that means “wine of the souls,” and refers to the tea made from the decoction of two plants native to the Amazon forest: the vine Jagube or Mariri (Banisteriopsis caapi) and the Rainha or Chacrona leaves (Psychotria viridis). This tea is the basis for the establishment of various spiritual traditions of indigenous peoples in a vast region that includes several Amazonian countries (Brazil, Peru, Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, etc.), magico-cultural traditions that were formed in the great Amazon forest over the last two thousand years, at least, and which influenced even the complex societies of the Andean region, such as the Inca civilization.

More recently, in the first years of the 20th century in the Western Amazon (the present-day states of Acre and Rondônia on the borders of Peru and Bolivia), the formation of a society based on the extraction of rubber (which, following the example of the Amazon’s indigenous people, had as a fundamental characteristic an enormous ethnic and cultural diversity) established the necessary conditions for the ancient indigenous tradition of Ayahuasca to be assimilated by Brazilians and to give birth to a new religious, cultural, and social configuration. In this way, Raimundo Irineu Serra and Daniel Pereira Mattos (both Afro-Brazilians from Maranhão descended from slaves) founded, between 1910 and 1945, a religious doctrine that re-baptized Ayahuasca with the name “Daime.” Some time later, in the 1960s, the Bahiano José Gabriel da Costa formulated another doctrine that came to call Ayahuasca “Vegetal.”

More important than their designation of new names, however, was the action of these three founding masters—Irineu, Daniel, and Gabriel—in establishing the doctrinal basis of a new religious tradition, syncretically Brazilian and typically Amazonian, which made possible the formation of communities organized around the ritual use of Ayahuasca, and which came to play an important role (politically, socially, and culturally) in the very formation of Brazilian society in the Western Amazon.

The spiritual knowledge of these doctrines has been handed down from generation to generation and maintained by diverse cultural traditions through a characteristically Amazonian religious syncretism, which entails an essentially harmonious relationship with nature and which establishes a sentiment of identity and of continuity, thereby guaranteeing respect for ethnic and cultural diversity and for human creativity.

In this way the Doctrines of Daime/Vegetal, as established by their founding masters, became inseparable parts of Brazilian society, thus enabling their recognition as cultural patrimony of our nation.

Based on the information presented above we can affirm that the ritual use of Ayahuasca in religious doctrines fulfills the requirements for characterization as immaterial patrimony, considered as “practices, representations, expressions, knowledge and techniques that communities or groups recognize as an integral part of their cultural patrimony.”

In accordance with the specifications of Resolution No. 1 of August 3rd, 2006, issued by the President of the National Institute of Historical and Artistic Patrimony (IPHAN), the designated representatives of Cultural Foundations of the State of Acre and of the Municipality of Rio Branco, through dialogue with the religious centers that make up the three foundational trunks of the contemporary Ayahuasca doctrines, hereby solicit of the Minister of Culture that he, through IPHAN, begin the process of recognition of the use of Ayahuasca in religious rituals as Immaterial Patrimony of the Brazilian Culture.

Rio Branco, April 30, 2008.

Daniel (Zen) Santana de Queiroz
President of the Elias Mansour Foundation
State of Acre

Marcos Vinicius Neves
Director-president of the Garibaldi Brasil Foundation
Municipality of Rio Branco

Peregrina Gomes Serra
Universal Light Christian Illumination Center-CICLU–Alto Santo

Francisco Hipólito de Araújo Neto
“House of Jesus—Fount of Light” Spiritist Center and Prayer Worship

José Roberto da Silva Barbosa
Union of the Vegetal Beneficent Spiritist Center-UDV

Jair Araújo Facundes
Universal Light Christian Illumination Center-CICLU

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Friday, June 29, 2007

No Water

Here in Rio Branco the dry season, which lasts from about May to November, brings with it a scarcity of water. I know what you're thinking: how can you lack for water in the Amazon? After all, the river Acre gets visibly lower, but nothing close to dry. What gives?

The guy holding the ladder, who operates one of the many trucks known as "pipas," or pipes, which ply the streets of Rio Branco, explained to me that when the river gets below the level of the city's stationary water pumps the water authorities have to rely on floating pumps that have much smaller capacity.

This sounded much more authoritative than anything else I'd heard.

What we still weren't sure about was why our neighbors' tanks, visible behind ours, had been overflowing the day before this picture was taken, while our taps were dry as a bone for three days. (We were reduced to taking sponge baths with bottled water in a basin.) It may have had to do with the height of our tanks. This provides nice water pressure in the house, but that matters little when you have no water.

We were growing frustrated, so we'd spent the morning trying to get a truck to come out. The only number I had just rang and rang, and a friend of a friend who operates a truck was leasing it to the government. On my way home, though, I saw one of the pipas backing up on the street just around the corner, and asked him to come over when they were done.

It wasn't clear how they were going to get the water into our tanks, but I figured they must have some technique...little did I know! The guy on top of the ladder held himself in place while the other went and got the hose. The first guy held in between his feet while it filled the tanks. By the time he had to come down his feet had fallen asleep.

The cost? About fifteen dollars for two thousand liters. And it doesn't have the sulphur smell of the city's processed water.
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Thursday, May 24, 2007

Street life

Most days a group of haggard guys gathers on the corner of our street, either against the wall of the Catholic church or right across the way, as in this photo.

They are inveterate devotees of cachaça, the Brazilian 'firewater' distilled from sugar cane pressings. Judging from the leavings to be found along the wall, their favorite brand is "Caninha da Roça," or "Little Cane of the Field," which comes in a squat plastic bottle and costs probably a dollar for a half liter.

Often they are much more closely huddled than in this photo, and sometimes I imagine they are telling cool stories as they squat together in the dirt. But I can't romanticize the passed out, half-naked bodies we often see lying in the shade of this tree or another one just up from it. Grace, when she was first learning about death, would ask if the guys were dead. No, we'd say, they're passed out because they drank too much alcohol.
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Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Street vendors

Gum and sweets occupy a different semantic space in Brazilian culture than they do in American culture, as might be expected. Just to give one example, Halls, which seem to me as a native informant of American culture to be mainly things we grudgingly buy when sick because we want to breathe, in Brazil are basically breath freshener/candies. There are many flavors that don't even have menthol.

The girl in the photo seems to be pointing to the Dori raisin or peanut snack (the yellow package), or possibly the Freshen-Up gum next to it. That would be a surprising choice, though, since it seems to be marketed more to adults who are worried about their breath (the refreshing gel center sets the germs running, I guess).

The number of small vendors like this in Rio Branco is very large. Most corners have someone selling little mouth-toys like these, sometimes cigarettes. Their carts close neatly up and uniformly have wheels to take them away; some are even built around a bicycle so they can be ridden away.

Surely some are registered, but the size of the informal economy is also very large. Most Sundays, for example, some lady takes over the bus stop we use most often to sell her baked goods and coffee to passers-by. And on any given night, between here and the park down the hill we'll encounter three or four folks selling sidewalk bbq skewers for fifty cents or a dollar, cooking them often in converted auto wheels. I am sure none of these folks have permits.

And enforcement of licensing is sparse. Heck, some guy who built a 15-foot brick smokestack in the middle of the sidewalk had it there for a few months before the city made him tear it down.
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Monday, May 07, 2007


Brazil, like the United States, is full of discourses of equal opportunity and affirmation of diversity. Only the buzzwords are different: "inclusão" for one.

One of the major goals of now ex-governor Jorge Viana's "Government of the Forest" was to get Acreans to feel pride in being from the state, to turn the tables on the feelings of inferiority imagined to reside in the hearts of riverine peoples, rubber tappers, and city slum dwellers alike. For some critics this is a knock against Viana, whose actions are occasionally dismissed as mainly cosmetic.

But who knows the deeper effects of a t-shirt?

Now, I'm not saying these are government issue, but I think of this campaign to boost Acrean self-esteem when I see these shirts, and I know that the government did put out a t-shirt toward the end of the year, when Viana left office. The shirt said, like these, "Acre" on the front, but it also had an indigenous feather-crown radiating from the collar out. It turned out to be highly sought after, mainly because only the well-connected got one.

Anyway, it is basically impossible to go anywhere in Acre, or at least in Rio Branco, without running into multiple wearers of shirts like these. The ones in the photo in fact are Evangelical spin-offs of the trend: under the state's name is written "Aqui Cristo Reina Eternamente," making "ACRE" an acronym for "Here Christ Reigns Eternally." Acre is, in fact, one of the states where Protestant churches have made the most inroads in the 'battle for souls' with the Catholic Church; perhaps as many as one-quarter of its residents are "crente."
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Sunday, May 06, 2007

Regional Tobacco

In Acre the most desirable tobacco seems to be that grown in the Juruá river basin. The two main basins, belonging to the Purus and Juruá rivers, have long divided Acre geographically, socially, and culturally, because of the difficulty of travel perpendicular to the flow of water.

This tobacco is not from Juruá, it's from Sena Madureira, a town that is in the middle of the state's long SE-NW axis, towards the end of the paved part of the highway, planned for decades, that is to link the two basins.

The tobacco is wrapped, after a short treatment, into these staves with strips of bark. Tobacco in this form costs, if I remember right, about 30 dollars per staff. I bought a 14-inch piece the day I took this photo, and I don't think I'll finish it in the next two years at the rate I smoke. This piece cost about 4 dollars. The tobacco is densely packed in its wrapper, and the usual way of removing it is slicing off little bits from the end of the staff with a knife (I use a cheese grater).

I was once shown the proper way to prepare this kind of tobacco by Altino, Acrean blogger and roll-your-own smoker extraordinaire. He would even put it in a pan to heat it up on the stove and "open the flavor," before fluffing it up until it was nice little ribbons hanging together like shredded wheat.

Altino, when he rolls it, also likes the lick the paper he rolls it in before most of it has been used up, so the extra can be torn off.

Mar sometimes says it smells like cigar smoke.

I asked this guy if he had any Juruá tobacco, but he said it's too expensive to bring it from there.

Ah, but I would have bought some!
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