Thursday, June 29, 2006

Joaquin Phoenix in Acre

Acrean blogger Altino Machado writes here about a planned visit in August by Joaquin Phoenix, best actor nominee in last year's Oscars and Golden Globe winner for his portrayal of Johnny Cash.

Here's my translation:

“The American actor Joaquin Phoenix will spend the 14th and 15th of August in the company of the Yawanawá, on the Indigenous Lands of the Rio Gregório, in Tarauacá (Acre), in the southwestern Brazilian Amazon.

He was one of the supporters of the production of the film Yawa – Story of the Yawanawa.

The environmental activist Heart Phoenix, the actor’s mother, met the Yawanawá leaders in 2004, at the documentary’s premiere in San Francisco.

The Phoenix family was introduced to the tribe by the Canadian Joshua Sage [Thome], who directed Yawa in partnership with the Yawanawá.”

As Machado says, Phoenix helped bankroll the production of the 1-hour documentary Yawa: Story of the Yawanawa (see website here), although it's not clear how that happened if he connected with the production group at the film's debut, as Machado writes.

The film, which I have yet to see, apparently documents the first Yawanawa cultural festival called "Yawa," held in 2002. The festival, according to a statement by a couple of Yawanawa published earlier in Machado's blog, "was a rebirth and a rediscovery as a people with a culture, an identity, and a spirituality alive in the 21st century."

The above-linked site to the film is replete with exotic discourse: emphasizing the physical remoteness of the group helps create them as an extreme other, apart from everything we know--and indeed, a photo caption describes the film crew's arrival as "like entering another world."

Given the historical connection of the Yawanawa with practices like drinking ayahuasca and using the exudate of the frog Phyllomedusa bicolor, one cannot help wondering, perhaps uncharitably, if the filmmakers (who are from British Columbia, Canada's cannabis capital, after all) were drawn to the Yawanawa partly for this reason. Will Joaquin Phoenix also drink uni with the Yawanawa? I suppose that's mainly his (and their) business.

But the thought reminds me of Sting, another famous person who sought both spiritual insight and humanitarian intervention in the Amazon. As he learned after some of the Kayapo whom he was helping were denounced for selling natural resources on Indian lands to enhance their lifestyles, things are more complicated than they may appear. One does not learn, for example, on the Yawa website, that the group has been in steady contact with non-Indians for over a century, nor that the festival the film documents is anything but a static repetition of an ancient an unaltered tradition. In fact, one of the current Yawanawa leaders speaks decent English and is married to a Mexican anthropologist trained in the United States.

Nothing wrong with any of that, of course--it's a sign of the power of the nostalgia for the primitive that revealing such things easily takes on shades of expose. But it's important to see beyond our own longings for authenticity and to understand the role of history in the revitalizations taking place among indigenous peoples, and the ways that the taken-for-granted boundaries of "race" and ethnicity, country and town, tradition and modernity, are blurred by those projects. And like I said, I haven't seen the film yet.

Friday, June 09, 2006

Acre and Environmentalism III: Local politics and Florestania

The Folha Pagina 20, perhaps Rio Branco's most liberal paper, and a strong supporter of the PT government, recently ran the following editorial on "Florestania," penned by a history professor at the Federal University of Acre.

The author clubs his targets over the head with the intellectual authority of British social and literary critic
Raymond Williams. Interestingly, the targets of the editorial's vitriol are not wealthy ranchers nakedly opposed to the interests of the poor, but members of the Socialist People's Party (PPS).

The text well exemplifies a tendency to present Florestania as a post-modern ideology, breaking down old dichotomies, upsetting traditional hierarchies, and reversing the system of values that make the "Forest Peoples" peripheral impediments to progress.

Here is my translation:

Sérgio Roberto Gomes de Souza *

Florestania and citizenship are not antagonistic terms

In the propaganda of the PPS (Popular Socialist Party) appearing frequently in the media, candidate Márcio Bittar talks about the proposal to construct a “citizen government,” a term that seems to me, at least at first, to try to establish a point of distinction from the political project of the Popular Front of Acre (FPA), led by Governor Jorge Viana and by Vice-Governor Binho Marques, known as “Florestania.”

In the opposition candidate’s speeches there is a perceptible belief in an imaginary border separating the forest from the city, not taking into consideration the daily exchanges of experience that make a dichotomy between these spaces impracticable.

The problem in question is one of conception, and therefore quite complex. From the PPS candidate’s discourse, also reproduced by politicians such as Narciso Mendes and Luís Calixto, I think it is important to consider the reflections developed in the works of Raymond Williams. The book “The Country and the City” comes to mind, in which the author, working from various sources, approaches the country and the city as locales of realizations of human experience. Thinking in this way, it is possible to visualize the country and the city beyond the old dichotomy of the rural versus the urban, of the bucolic against the frenetic. The central element is human experience, culture, ways of life: “The life of the country and the city is mobile and present: it moves through time, through the history of a family and of a people; it moves in feelings and ideas, through a web of relationships and decisions.” For Williams, the important thing is not to keep representing the country and the city through superficial comparisons.

The proposal of the PPS to use the term “Citizen,” in opposition to the term “Florestania” [vs. cidadania, citizenship], betrays a prejudiced gaze and seeks to constitute a pseudo-antagonism between the country and the city which configures the image of the country as an “image of the past, and the common image of the city, an image of the future.”

In the political project of the PPS the city appears as a kind of space of realizations and the forest as a place of limitation. This discourse, according to Durval Muniz, seeks to create stereotypes and has as its principal characteristics assertiveness, arrogance, and repetitiveness. In this way a language is created that leads to an uncritical stability. The sure and self-sufficient voice seems to give the right to say what the other is in a few words. Thus, for Durval Muniz, the stereotype “is born of a characterization of the foreign group in which multiplicities and individual differences are erased in the name of individual similarities.”

Since the end of the 18th and the beginning of the 19th centuries, this preconceived discourse has sought to characterize the spaces of the country and of the forests and of the knowledges and doings of its populations as “illegitimate.” This perspective contributed, through the years, to the negation of sociocultural diversity and to the legitimization of expropriation of land, to land claims fraud, and actions of extreme violence toward Indians, rubber tappers, Brazil nut gatherers, subsistence farmers and other inhabitants of these spaces.

It is because of the prejudiced views of the PPS candidate and his allies toward the traditional populations that live in the country and in the forests that the term “Florestania” is greatly misinterpreted. From the perspective of the Popular Front, Florestania means the valorization of sociocultural diversity, [it means] a perspective on economic development that dialogues with multiple traditions, with the multiple forms of living that we have in our state; it means a de-concentration of income, creation of jobs, access to quality public education for all, independent of borders between the country and the city. Florestania means, fundamentally, the valorization of the men and women of Acre.

But, then again, to expect Bittar, Narciso, and Calixto to have the integrity and political grandeur to dialogue with the term “Florestania” is asking too much…

* Professor in the Department of History at UFAC [Federal University of Acre], master’s in Brazilian History from the Federal University of Pernambuco.

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Acre and environmentalism II: Sometimes a tree is just a tree

Antônio "Toinho" Alves has been one of the principal articulators of Acre's "Forest Government" philosophy, elaborating (if not actually coining) the neologism "Florestania" and creating the tree logo I pasted in the last post. (A Portuguese text of Alves discussing the concept of Florestania is here.) Today, Alves posted this "old" text on his blog, Espírito da Coisa, explaining that it was originally written as a deposition for use in politically motivated suits. (Yes, people in Acre actually sued over the tree.)

That Tree

In the beginning of 1999, when we took over the governorship of the state, we started to discuss the visual agenda of the government: slogan, brand, etc. Every government does this, creates a brand to characterize its purpose, to mark the basic character of its tenure. If there is no abuse, if the official symbols of the state are not disrespected, I don’t see any problem.

In our case, it was necessary to symbolize a new orientation for Acre, a change of direction for the economy, politics, and society. Besides the complete dismantling of the public administration, of organized crime, of “sucateamento,” of corruption, etc., there was a completely inadequate direction to the economy that affected the state’s identity itself. The forest was considered an impediment and the communities within it were treated with disdain. The slogan, created by Binho [Arnóbio Marques, the Liberal Front’s candidate in the current governor’s race], tried to invert this mentality and reestablish an Acrean identity. The government pointed toward a new direction, where the state would reencounter its true nature, valorizing its history and its environmental patrimony. Correctly used, this slogan would have an educational, didactic effect, and impact positively the recuperation of the Acrean people’s self-esteem.

We needed, therefore, a visual brand. We tried various proposals suggested by designers and publicists. We eventually held a kind of informal contest, asking the main designers and publicists in Rio Branco to submit their proposals for the government’s visual brand. Several of them did it, free, just to help out. But the proposals were very limited, they only captured partial aspects of the government’s action, like social programs or general concepts of democracy and participation, but they didn’t communicate the valorization of history and of Acrean identity that we wanted.

Then I remembered a drawing that I’d made a year before that might work. A tree, with simple lines, as if drawn by a child. I remember that a colleague looked at the drawing and said, “but that’s simplistic.” I replied, “it’s not simplistic, it’s simple.” The idea was exactly this: to have a simple, basic symbol, with which everyone could identify. The tree is a symbol of life around the world. But it is, at the same time, a quite regional symbol.

I am disgusted by some foolishness that politicians have been saying about this drawing. There are people who see the shape of a “13” [the Workers Party official numerical designation], with the tree trunk being the 1 and the boughs the 3. There are others who say that the tree represents Jorge Viana, who is a forestry engineer. I understand that politicians, when they are in opposition, do anything they can to find fault with those in the government. But certain associations of ideas, frankly, are ridiculous. I consider myself personally offended, as a profession, when I hear and read such foolishness.

Another thing I don’t understand is calling that little tree a “castanheira” [Brazil nut tree]. It was never a castanheira, it doesn’t even look like it. When I was experimenting with the brand, I actually drew some castanheiras, which have, in fact, a very strong symbolism. But in the Juruá valley there are no castanheiras, and this would leave half of the state out of the symbol. I also tried putting some scratches on the tree trunk to make it a seringueira [rubber tree]. But that made it really restricted and characterized a very restricted economic prospect. So the tree is just a tree. Symbol of a general orientation, a very regional government proposal, very Acrean. To see in it something beyond this is to look for horns on a horse’s head.

Acre and environmentalism I

Acre's recent history has been marked by a concern with environmental issues.

Over the past two decades, the Brazilian Workers' Party (PT) has gone from zero to hero in Acre, especially in the person of current governor Jorge Viana. Viana, now serving his second 4-year term as the state's governor, was previously mayor of the capital, Rio Branco. His administration has been known as the "Government of the Forest," a phrase which, depending on your political inclinations, is either an affirmation of Acre's need for sustainable policy or a ploy designed to capitalize on the international attention lavished on the state after rubber tapper and labor activist Chico Mendes was gunned down in 1988.

Over the next few posts I will look at a few of the ways that environmentalism has become a moving force in the Acrean political scene.

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