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SU Alumnus Presents Research on Cowboys and the Amazon


SU Alumnus Presents Research on Cowboys and the Amazon


By: Rachel Holm

On September 22, alumnus Jeffrey Hoelle ‘99 visited campus to present a lecture about his new book Rainforest Cowboys: The Rise of Ranching and Cattle Culture in Western Amazonia.

“Part of [Hoelle’s] research is on the Amazon Rainforest and I’m very interested in the cattle culture in the rainforests, so we’re both anthropologists interested in environmental issues and interested in rainforests and cattle ranching,” professor of Anthropology Melissa Johnson said. “And it fit in with the Anthropocene [Paideia] and the environmental studies department.”

After completing degrees in Spanish and Psychology at Southwestern, Hoelle completed a master’s in Latin American Studies at the University of Texas at Austin and later earned his PhD in Anthropology from the University of Florida. He is currently an associate professor of Anthropology at the University of California at Santa Barbara, and has spent significant time in the Brazilian state of Acre conducting research for Rainforest Cowboys.

In Hoelle’s lecture, he introduced the Amazon Rainforest as the largest and most biodiverse on the planet with many species of plants and animals not yet studied. In addition, 77 native tribes reside in the region without outside contact. Hoelle’s research examines diverse approaches to rainforest study and exploitation. On one hand, non-governmental organizations and environmental activists showed interest in protecting the pristine land. However, members of the cowboy culture, perceiving themselves as macho, rugged pioneers, desire to impose their will on nature. This cattle culture is at once similar and different from Texan ideas of cowboys and ranching.

Hoelle argued in his presentation for an interdisciplinary understanding of cattle culture in the Amazon Rainforest. His presentation began with charts and maps tracking economic and environmental changes in Brazil, and ended with an analysis of the cultural traditions and pressures that have fostered the rise of cattle ranching and culture.

Hoelle found in his survey of different societal groups was that the cowboy was valued in Brazilian culture as the connection to its romantic past, but nonetheless required deforestation to open land for cattle pastures– 93% of land cleared in the rainforest is to support cattle grazing or agriculture. This displaces native people who live in the forest and contributes to the destruction of wildlife habitats and the loss of biodiversity. Hoelle’s book points to a global dilemma about responsibly using wild lands for industry and human expansion.

Environmental studies, the Anthropocene [Paideia] and the history department currently plan more interdisciplinary events regarding environmental preservation, including the History Colloquium on October 1 about de-extinction in South Africa.