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Criminality and Evangelisms in the Favela: Ethnographical Notes from Belo Horizonte, Minas Gerais, Brazil

Ana Beraldo, PhD, Sociology, Universidade Federal de São Carlos, Brazil/ Former Visiting Student, CLAS (2018–19)

Figure 1. Morro da Luz, picture taken by the author, April 2019

A Fortress of Crime

“We live in a fortress of crime,” said Thiago (pseudonym) as he tried to explain to me how daily life works for those who live in favelas. He is a 23-year-old black man who I met while conducting my doctoral ethnographic fieldwork at Morro da Luz (fictitious name), a large shantytown in the city of Belo Horizonte[i], Brazil. I myself grew up in the same city, in a middle-class neighborhood not far away from Morro da Luz, and yet I noticed that Thiago was making an effort to translate so that I could really grasp the reality he was portraying, at the same time so close and so distant from my own.

When Thiago described the favela as a “fortress of crime,” he was talking about how criminal groups, especially the ones involved in drug trafficking, create order in the territory by establishing moral parameters of rightness and fairness. Through actions such as punishing those that rob inside the community, killing socially recognized rapists, quickly taking sick people to the hospital, or making sure public service workers are well treated while performing duties that are important for neighborhood residents, criminals exert a governance that goes far beyond the limits of the criminal groups themselves and that regulates behaviors and relations in the peripheries in a broader sense.

Since these groups are heavily armed, their actions are anchored in the possibility of the use of force, and, not infrequently, in the actual use of it. But that alone would not be enough to form an effective criminal governance. Not just at Morro da Luz but in many similar places around Brazil and Latin America, criminal organizations have managed to successfully build for themselves a level of legitimacy that, although far from being total or hegemonic, is definitely significant.

Often enough, the governance exercised by criminal groups offers some protection—albeit in problematic ways —to a population vulnerable to many types of violence, from police brutality to insufficient access to rights. While there is a socially shared image of “favelados” (favela dwellers) as potentially dangerous people from whom the rest of society should be sheltered, and while this representation is deeply connected to security policies that are based on incarceration, persecution, and murder of this fraction of the population, criminal groups acting in those territories (whose members usually grew up in the same neighborhoods in which they now engage in illicit activities) are able to differentiate between the poor and act more accordingly to what is constructed as right. Thiago explains it once again: “Here there is no mugging, there is no rape, there is no this and that, but this is not because the police provides security for us, it is because the criminals don’t let it happen…we know that if it weren’t for them, things would be worse.”

A Battle against the Devil

As Thiago described those dynamics, he constantly emphasized that he does not approve of criminal activities nor does he agree with the violent ways in which criminal groups relate to each other, the police, and the community as a whole. As proof of that disagreement, he reminded me that he and his nine siblings grew up immersed in an evangelical environment, very much engaged with the activities of the church they attended on a daily basis— one among many scattered throughout the neighborhood.

Over the last five decades, Brazil has been experiencing important transformations, most strongly in the popular classes, both in regard to the religiosity of its people (with a reduction of Catholicism and a broadening of the evangelisms) and in regard to the dimensions and types of criminality and violence that characterize the country (with an expansion of illicit markets and an intensification of violent relations that are not exclusively, but considerably, related to those markets and to the ways they came to be structured in poor territories).

Interestingly, evangelical churches promote themselves precisely around the idea of a “battle against the devil,” and the devil, when it comes to places such as Morro da Luz, is profoundly linked to drug abuse and criminality. This has to do with Thiago’s argument that, since he was raised as a devoted evangelical, he could not agree with criminal activities. In Thiago’s claim, and in the discourses that circulate among poor Brazilian circles, crime and evangelism appear as rival sides of an everyday war for subjects and subjectivities. In that scenario, how can criminality and evangelism expand simultaneously in the same portion of the population?

Evangelisms in the Fortress of Crime

Figure 2. A pastor and an armed drug dealer talking, favela da Maré, Rio de Janeiro. Picture by Alan Lima, published October 19, 2017, available at

Through the ethnographic study I conducted in Morro da Luz, I identified that evangelisms and criminality are entangled, and that they connect with each other by two main phenomena: the conversion (from criminal, drug dealer, addict, to believer, evangelical, pastor)[ii] and the figure of the outlaw evangelical, increasingly common in the urban outskirts.[iii]

The converts experience a transformation of who they are, a construction of a new identity that is formed in opposition, but always attached, to the old one: they are and forever will be “ex-criminals,” “ex-traffickers,” “ex-addicts,” and so on. The converted bodies and presences in the favela seem to be signified as the living proof of the religious capacity of “salvation.”

At the same time, there are subjects that are “bandits” and “believers” who, while immersed in criminal networks, are also evangelical religious. In fact, for those who are inserted in illegal markets and in violent sociability, religious spaces can be one of the few places where they can take a break from the constant and tiring task of avoiding death[iv].

Both the convert and the criminal believer are usually very well received and integrated in evangelical temples and social relations. In my fieldwork in Morro da Luz, I realized that this is socially possible because the war the evangelisms are fighting is not between pastors and drug dealers, nor between religious and sinners, but between god and the devil. That is why Thiago could, at the same time, disapprove of criminality and recognize the criminals as a source of protection for the favela. The combat that goes on is otherworldly, transcendent. In the mundane sphere, they are all flawed humans, and, most importantly, they are all “favelados.”

[i] Belo Horizonte, a city with 2.5 million inhabitants, is located in the southeast of Brazil.

[ii] Also see: BRENNEMAN, R. “Wrestling the Devil: Conversion and Exist from Central American Gangs.” Latin American Research Review, v. 49, n. Special Issue, p. 112–128, 2014; and TEIXEIRA, C. A construção social do “ex-bandido.” [s.l.] Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro, 2009.

[iii] See also: VITAL DA CUNHA, C. Oração de traficante: uma etnografia. 1. ed. Rio de Janeiro: Editora Garamond LTDA, 2015.

[iv] See also: RUBIN, J. W., SMILDE, D., JUNGE, B. “Lived Religion and Lived Citizenship in Latin America’s Zone of Crisis: Introduction.” Latin American Research Review, v. 49, n. Special Issue, p. 7–26, 2014.


On Archives, Dissertations, and All We Cannot Control

Hanna Manente Nunes, PhD Candidate, History

I started archival research for my dissertation roughly two years ago in the Summer of 2018. At that point I had no such thing as a project, although I did have ideas, some better articulated than others, and I had questions, though none of them were particularly clear. With this, I spent three months at São Paulo’s Judicial Archive (ATJSP) photographing over 500 criminal cases (Figure 1). At the beginning of the following Spring quarter, I received a text message from one of ATJSP’s archivists. The state government, she wrote, was shutting down the archive’s operations in order to cut costs. Documents would be transferred to a private storage facility in a neighboring city, but it was unclear when and under which circumstances they would be made available again. If I still had work to do, she warned, I had to do it soon because in three weeks’ time the building would be closed. From Chicago, all I could do was delegate the data collecting to others. The coordinated effort of a good partner and four willing undergraduates led to almost 200 cases being sorted and photographed in those three fateful weeks. It was out of luck that I began my research when and where I did, befriending the right person at the right time. I was lucky to find five people willing to fully dedicate themselves to my research for almost a month. Luck, I have learned, is an intrinsic part of the process. 


Figure 1: Unsorted criminal cases at the now deactivated São Paulo Judicial Archive, taken in the Summer of 2018


When Spring of 2019 came after what felt like a long-lasting winter, I had more pictures than I could possibly read stored in the cloud. I also, quite surprisingly, was convinced I had a plan and foundation for my dissertation. Somehow, I managed to successfully convince others of my plan, and so I became a candidate. Instead of haphazardly-put-together ideas, I had ideas. Instead of convoluted questions, I had questions. With these ideas and questions, I walked into the city of São Paulo’s Municipal Archive. Two weeks in, my plan began to falter. The documents refused to conform to my beautifully formulated inquiries. They kept stretching me toward the margins of pages, making me scribble thoughts as they came in. Days passed in a haze, partially due to the unforgiving arrival of the Brazilian summer in that tiny room with no A/C and a barely functioning fan, but also due to the daily exercise of letting go. Every document that went from a dusty box to the cloud moved me further away from the plan that had made me a candidate. I had invested months in pulling my best thoughts together into one cohesive narrative, but the documents did not seem to care. When I finally gathered up the courage to send a report to my committee, it read “(all) things have changed.” The haze, I have learned, is an intrinsic part of the process.

I had very few project-related certainties left when the world as a whole lost its footing in the Winter quarter of 2020. I knew, for instance, that my dissertation was going to be about consumption, popular commercial practices, and material exchanges that mediated São Paulo’s urban space in the early twentieth century. I knew, based on more than 200 gigabytes of photographed documents I stored in the cloud, that the picture I will eventually sketch is one of a city largely connected by criminal, illegal, and informal economic activities. I knew, as annotated on a lost and found book kept by São Paulo’s Central Precinct, that on February 22, 1928, thirteen people had forgotten their umbrellas in the city’s trams (Figure 2). But I did not know if it actually rained on February 22, 1928, and that was key. While the forgotten umbrellas seemed to indicate so, that was not definite proof. Looking for weather forecasts, I found a column at the Correio Paulistano newspaper which luckily stated on February 23rd that on the previous day the sky had been overcast and rainy (Figure 3). Digging a bit deeper, I found several news reports published by the Estado de São Paulo which made note of a severe thunderstorm that had befallen the city. Bingo! 


Figure 2: A 1928 page of the “lost and found” logbook kept by São Paulo’s First Precinct, held in São Paulo’s Public Archive


Figure 3: The meteorological report published on February 23, 1928, in the Correio Paulistano


I have come to accept uncertainty, luck, and being dazed and confused as intrinsic parts of the research process. All that I cannot control plays as formative role in my work as all that I can control. The line, however, needs to be drawn somewhere. For now, I have drawn mine at having the first sentence of my dissertation’s opening chapter being factually right. The sentence might very well change in two weeks’ time. It quite likely will, but until then, no other words will ever sound so accomplished. To say that it rained on February 22, 1928, would be an understatement. On that day, in the dazzling city of São Paulo, it poured. 

Of fruit and flesh, bananas and bodies

Maggie Borowitz, PhD Student, Art History

What is it about fruit that offers such striking comparisons to flesh? The apples of cheeks, peach fuzz, the comparison of breasts to mangos or melons. Soft innards protected by skins that are prone to bruising and easy to puncture.

I walked into the LAXART gallery last fall during the run of an exhibition called Video Art in Latin America. It featured three main screens that each ran through a loop of about 20 short films, in addition to several longer videos that looped on stand-alone monitors. In other words, it would have taken a whole day to see the entirety of what was screening in the gallery. Nevertheless, I was prepared to devote several hours to it.

And yet, I barely lasted an hour.

In the center of the gallery space was a work by the Colombian artist José Alejandro Restrepo titled Musa paradisiaca. Originally installed at the Museo de Arte Moderno in Bogotá in 1996, Restrepo recreated his video installation for LAXART in 2017. It consisted of bunches of bananas hanging from the ceiling that the viewer could walk between and amongst. At the bottom of the bunches were small screens that faced downward, towards small, round mirrors that reflected the video back up to the viewer. “Over the course of the exhibition, the bananas rot and fall, leaving the stems bare,” the gallery guide commented.[1]

Figure 1. José Alejandro Restrepo, Musa paradisiaca, 1996/2017. Installation view at LAXART. Photo by John Kiffe for the L.A. times,

I was there about two months in to the three-month run of the show, and indeed, the bananas were rotting. The smell was subtle at first, kind of sweet and powdery. I couldn’t quite locate it when I first walked into the darkened space out of the LA afternoon sunshine, but its sickly sweetness soon became overpowering. Fruit flies buzzed lazily around the galleries, and as I watched the other screens, I tried to breathe through my mouth, then covered my nose with my hand, and then my shirt.

Restrepo’s piece was powerful in its physical affect and the way it shaped my experience of the exhibition in its entirety. And it brought my thoughts again and again to a series of paintings by the artist Antônio Henrique Amaral, produced in an entirely different context.

Figure 2. Antônio Henrique Amaral, Penca com 2 bananas (Stem with 2 Bananas), 1967. Oil on Duratex. Installation view at Oca do Ibirapuera.

Beginning his artistic career in the 1950s, Amaral was born and lived much of his life in São Paulo, Brazil. He is best known for a series of paintings that span from about 1967 to 1977 that depict bananas—single bananas or several, occasionally a whole bunch, but always large scale oil paintings that are filled to the edges with the fruit (e.g., figure 1). As the Brazilian military dictatorship increased in severity over the course of the years he was making this series, Amaral’s banana paintings became darker and more sinister. The bananas began to rot and to bruise, to be wrapped in constricting ropes, to be cut with knives and speared with forks. The viewer is forced closer and closer to the flesh of the banana, no longer able to avoid the association between bodies and the vulnerable fleshy fruit.

Figure 3. Antônio Henrique Amaral, Bananas e cordas 3 (Bananas and Ropes 3), 1973. Oil on Canvas. Installation view at Museu de Arte de São Paulo.

The comparison between Restrepo’s video installation and Amaral’s painting series is, on the one hand, superficial. But I wonder if there is something productive in thinking through my inability to prevail against my gag reflex induced by the sickly sweet rotting banana flesh of Musa paradisiaca and Amaral’s paintings that make my nose scrunch and my skin crawl. Perhaps it is simply organic matter in general that produces such a visceral reaction in the viewer. But perhaps there is something more specific in terms of fruit.

Bananas in particular bear the burden of a specific set of metaphoric meanings, especially in the context of Latin America; e.g., the somewhat disparaging term “banana republic” and its gesture towards the problems of underdevelopment that are tied to a single-export economy and US imperialism, which cannot be completely separated from the lighter-hearted tropical kitsch of Carmen Miranda and her films of the 1940s, considering that her image was quickly appropriated by the United Fruit Company for their Chiquita Banana logo in 1944.[2]

Both Restrepo and Amaral are highly attuned to those meanings. Restrepo’s downward-facing monitors in Musa paradisiaca show archival footage of a massacre that occurred in the Colombian town of Ciénaga in 1928 when a group of workers went on strike at a United Fruit Company banana plantation.[3] Amaral, with respect to his series of banana paintings, comments, “What did the military dictatorship do in Brazil? In 1964 Brazil was an optimistic place with the building of Brasília, for instance, and a vital automobile industry. We had a kind of a future, and suddenly the military transformed us into a big banana republic!”[4] Amaral continues, “It was something I wanted to show sardonically. It was subtle. I was not going to jail—forget about that. Because it was ridiculous to censor bananas!”[5] Yet, there is something powerfully discomfiting about his paintings and their metaphoric potential that reaches far beyond critique of economic policy and the notion of a “banana republic.” There is a way in which I cannot un-see bodies once I see them––the way the rope digs into the soft flesh in Bananas e cordas 3 (figure 2), the way it chafes against the bruised skin.

Amaral’s paintings are far from innocuous in their subject matter; there is a long history of comparison between fruit flesh and human flesh that points to the very vulnerability of the human body, especially in its most tender form (the fruit of the womb, the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree). So while Amaral might claim that “it was ridiculous to censor bananas,” there is a way in which his paintings offer a cutting move in their use of fruit that, like Restrepo’s installation, mobilizes physical affect in order to induce empathy. It is a move that takes a step from object toward subject, a step from still life toward portraiture, but that exists in between those categories. For a portrait is a portrait of someone, and the power of these bananas is the combination of their soft, yielding flesh and their unyielding anonymity—their ability to evoke bodies that are any body and every body that has suffered, but no body in particular.


[1] “Video Art in Latin America,” Pacific Standard Time: L.A./L.A.: Latin American and Latino Art in L.A. (The Getty Foundation, 2017), 10.

[2] Cynthia Enloe, Bananas, Beaches and Bases: Making Feminist Sense of International Politics (Berkeley; London: University of California Press, 2000), 222–23.

[3] Jennifer Burris, “José Alejandro Restrepo: FLORA Ars + Natura, Bogotá, Colombia,” Frieze 183, Nov-Dec 2016,

[4] Bartholomew Ryan, “Homage to the 21st Century,” Sightlines, April 30, 2015,

[5] Ryan.




CLAS launches new podcast, entreVistas, featuring Miguel Caballero in first episode

Ámber Miranzo, LACS MA’18 / Communication at CLAS

EntreVistas, chats about Latin American politics, culture and history’ is the new series of podcasts of the Center for Latin American Studies, where once a month we sit with professors to talk about some of the most exciting topics they research. Decolonization, police reform, Latin American citizenship, and patronage relations in Bolivia are some of the topics coming up in the next issues.

You can subscribe to the series in iTunes, Stitcher or Google Play.

* * *

Episode 1. May 2018.

What do we do with monuments? What do they represent? In this first interview, we talk with Miguel Caballero Vazquez about how these issues were addressed in Brazil, Mexico and Spain in the mid-20th century. In this period, political regimes thought of monuments not as artifacts to merely commemorate the past, but as tools to change who they are.

Image 1: Map of the pilot plan of Brasília, designed by Lúcio Costa, 1956. Image 2: Torre Latinoamericana, Mexico City. Image 3: Protective armor of the Cibeles Fountain
during the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939).

How is that change performed? The city of Brasília constitutes a case where a whole city was conceived as an intimate monument, a monument to live in. Miguel Caballero discusses with us the ideals behind Lúcio Costa’s plan of 1956 and some of the controversies they generated.

We move on to Mexico to comment on the meaning of Latin American skyscrapers. Are they symbols of US capitalist ideology? Do they represent something else? Architect José Mújica, in Post-Revolutionary Mexico has a perspective on how skyscrapers are both modern and a salvage of the pre-Columbian past.

Last, the case of Madrid during the 2nd Republic (1931-1936) and the Civil War (1936-1939) sparks questions about what happens when the meaning of existing monuments change. When the Republic arrived, there was a discussion about what cities look like, and how cities represented oppressive regimes from the past. What do you protect and what do you destroy? Miguel Caballero comments on the contending perspectives in this period, as well as some of the actions the government followed.

Miguel Caballero Vázquez, Collegiate Assistant Professor of Humanities at the University of Chicago, is currently completing a book manuscript titled Monumental Anxieties, on the controversy of monumentality and the reinvention of monuments between the 1920s and 1970s.




Following the Chocolate Trail: Cacao in the Amazon and the Origins of a Popular Confection

Kerry LePain, LACS MA’17

Figure 1: The Transamazon Highway at the crossroads of rainforest, ranching, agriculture, and regrowth

Where does our food come from? I immediately think of two ways to answer this question – one in the sense of where the food was grown, and another farther off response concerning where a specific foodstuff or plant originated. It was this second question that brought me bumping down an ocher, dusty road on a motorcycle, arms wrapped around the waist of Seu Pedro, a proud grandfather and pioneering farmer to the Transamazon Highway region in the Brazilian State of Pará, as he took me on a show-and-tell trip through his cacao forests, locally known in Medicilândia for their distinctive cabruca agroforestry configuration.

Figure 2: A rich red earth side road leads toward Seu Pedro’s agroforestry plots and a towering skyline of rainforest trees.

While much of the margins along the Transamazon Highway are lined with sweeping expanses of electric green pasture, palms, and equally garish red earth, our trip along a northern side road led through increasingly towering and lush vegetation. Bright yellow piles of recently harvested cacao pods lay in piles, dappled by green light filtering down through the boughs of the surrounding cacao trees. Following Seu Pedro as we now walked through the forest, he gestured toward the crunching leaves underfoot—natural fertilizer from cacao and larger trees that served as a breeding ground for cacao’s main pollinators—and to massive fallen bromeliads that recently tumbled from the crown of a Brazil Nut Tree about one hundred feet above.

Figure 3: A scene from the cabruca agroforestry patch, as collected cacao is piled atop leaves beneath the rainforest trees.

Pedro’s cacao agroforestry belongs to a larger regional history intricately interwoven with the environment and is part of a growing drive to work with(in) the Amazon’s native vegetation and ecosystems. Brazil’s 2012 Forest Code requires that agricultural properties maintain an area of native vegetation as “Legal Reserve” corresponding to quotas established on a regional basis. At least on paper, landholdings within the “Legal Amazon” should reserve 80% of their total area as a forest preserve. As an answer to the question of environmental origin, cacao occupies a privileged place within Amazonian agriculture under the Forest Code. Cacao is native to the Amazon, and cacao trees count as reforestation and count toward the native vegetation “Legal Reserve” quota. Medicilândia, a municipality at Kilometer 90 of the Transamazon Highway largely blessed with rich soil, has leaned heavily into cacao agriculture, earning the reputation of Brazil’s “Cacao Capital,” while other neighboring communities have followed suit in attempts at prosperity and a rewrite of the Transamazon’s failed agriculture narrative.

Brazil’s military regime began construction of the Transamazon Highway in the early 1970s as part of a large-scale agro-colonization scheme designed to alleviate land crunches and leftist worries elsewhere in the nation, occupy the vast “empty” Amazon interior, and create a new Brazilian breadbasket. Much attention was focused on the modernization of the Amazon—long perceived as decadent, folkloric, and lackadaisical—but little planning attention went toward understanding the micro-regional specificities of a greater region that covers roughly 30% of South America’s total area. Erroneously viewed as one big forest, the Amazon is a conjunction of highly diverse—and diverging—forests, rivers, climates, and soil types, constituting a variety of ecosystems and agricultural potentials. When limited preliminary soil analyses along the Transamazon Highway around Medicilândia indicated rich soil, these results were extrapolated as representative of the entire region, and used as justification for agricultural projects without properly taking into account climactic variation, potential pests and diseases, and the possibility of soil inconsistency. The military regime and its colonization agency, INCRA, recruited large numbers of colonists from the South and Northeast and incentivized waves of commodities because they grew well elsewhere in Brazil. Medicilândia’s farmers tried their hands with rice, beans, black pepper, tomatoes, guaraná, coffee, and sugarcane, but their efforts were frustrated by heavy rains, hungry animals, diseases, and patchy soil conditions. The dirt roads frequently washed out following heavy Amazonian rains, and construction on the gargantuan network of planned roads could not keep pace with demand and stalled out after 1974 when the government prematurely classified the entire colonization project as a failure and largely left agricultural colonists in the Amazon, Brazil’s Wild West of sorts, to their own devices.

Distinctly wild cacao trees grow throughout the forests surrounding Medicilândia, but it was in the late 1970s that several colonists from the State of Bahia, historically associated with cacao agriculture, planted Medicilândia’s first commercial cacao groves. Elisangela Trzeciak—a regional government representative, member of a nascent cacao cooperative, and a daughter raised between ranching and cacao agriculture—claimed that cacao used to fetch a price equal to a kilogram of meat, an important benchmark as the trees fell and the Transamazon region increasingly gave way to cattle ranching. As with other previous commodities, Medicilândia’s cacao farmers have confronted obstacles to their success with cacao: at home in the Amazon, cacao is subject to indigenous pests, and prices have at times plummeted so low that some farmers took to cutting their cacao groves and abandoning their investments. By and large, however, Medicilândia’s cacao has been highly productive in comparison to other Brazilian regions and has allowed farmers with smaller plots of land to earn livable incomes that would be impossible with cattle. With groves of cacao trees, farmers are able to maintain gardens alongside and, in some cases, among the trees, supplementing their income and providing additional food for the families. Because cacao naturally grows as an understory tree, beneath the Amazon’s vaulted canopy, cacao naturally lends itself to agroforestry initiatives like Seu Pedro’s cabruca plots, where cacao trees are mixed among native vegetation, remaining hardwoods from before the plot was cleared, and new palms, hardwoods, and vines that have returned, making Seu Pedro’s plot a commercially productive interpretation of the regional forest ecosystem.

Figure 4: A young Brazil Nut Tree already towers above a farmer’s cacao patches.

It is in large part because of this “re-agro-forestation” potential that cacao has increasingly garnered attention within the Amazon, however the environmental services provided by properly managed cacao agroforestry plots and the farmers who work them underscore problems in the ways we purchase and know our food. Fair trade and organic agriculture receive attention as ethical choices available to consumers and as more equitable, environmentally sound means for growers to sell their products. Ivan Dantas came to the Medicilândia region as a young boy with his family with the onset of colonization and has been awarded prizes at Paris’ International Chocolate Fair (Salon du Chocolat) for the quality of his cacao beans. He is a staunch advocate for environmental stewardship of the forest, which he calls his “paradise,” but he also laments the local infeasibility and high cost of organic agriculture. Although the majority of cacao grown in the region is de facto organic, organic certification requires farmers to follow strict sets of regulations, to use specially designated fertilizers, and to front the cost of pricey inspections and certifications. Ivan explained that farmers within the Medicilândia region had inconsistent access to the organic fertilizers necessary for productive cacao, and due to falling yields and exhausted soil, he explained that he was leaving the town’s organic cooperative.

Figure 5: Seu Ivan’s prize winning fermented cacao beans are spread out to dry.

Throughout my time with Medicilândia’s cacao growers, their stories called into question the sufficiency of existing certifications, and the necessity of more comprehensive ways of differentiating products, educating and informing consumers, and justly compensating higher quality cacao and the environmental services that accompany it. Seu Pedro’s cabruca agroforestry cacao, for example, comprises a far greater effort and renders a much larger service than either organic or shade-grown agriculture. His trees are shaded in rehabilitated forest, designed to replicate as best possible the Amazon’s native vegetation while still permitting cacao agriculture. Because an accurate certification and label does not exist, Pedro’s cacao is sold alongside conventional, full sun cacao beans grown on deforested land and he receives no larger monetary return, despite the substantial investment required to restore the forest. While Pedro’s cacao and pocketbook can benefit from increased productivity, pollination, and soil fertility as a result of the restored forest, farmers such as Pedro could stand to benefit a great deal more if their environmental services were labeled, marketed, recognized, and sold.

Figure 6: Seu Pedro beside a large rainforest hardwood planted in his cabruca agroforestry patch

Stepping away from my research in the Amazon, I see the problem come full circle, returning to the question of our food’s origins. While consumers may appreciate picturesque nature photos adorning an organic bar of chocolate or a packet of coffee, they are able to abstract themselves from the realities of labor and production wrapped up in the package. The fundamental problem with these certifications, their fairness, and their value to farmers is that they come with a choice. Save money today, or reward a distant farmer with higher wages? Save money today, or compensate a farmer somewhere for an environmental service? In this sense, justice becomes the prerogative of the consumer, and not the right of the farmers. The burden of the origin of food, how it is made, and caring for the environment that supports it falls to farmers, whereas consumers have the right to choose to not understand their food.