Back to top

Rainforest Cowboys

Rainforest Cowboys
The Rise of Ranching and Cattle Culture in Western Amazonia

This ambitious interdisciplinary study is the first to examine the interlinked economic uses and cultural practices and beliefs surrounding cattle in Western Amazonia, where cattle raising is at the center of debates about economic development and environmental conservation.

Series: Latin American and Caribbean Arts and Culture

April 2015
This is a print-on-demand title. Expedited shipping is not available.
Add to cart
212 pages | 6 x 9 | 19 b&w photos, 2 maps |

The opening of the Amazon to colonization in the 1970s brought cattle, land conflict, and widespread deforestation. In the remote state of Acre, Brazil, rubber tappers fought against migrant ranchers to preserve the forest they relied on, and in the process, these “forest guardians” showed the world that it was possible to unite forest livelihoods and environmental preservation. Nowadays, many rubber tappers and their children are turning away from the forest-based lifestyle they once sought to protect and are becoming cattle-raisers or even caubois (cowboys). Rainforest Cowboys is the first book to examine the social and cultural forces driving the expansion of Amazonian cattle raising in all of their complexity.

Drawing on eighteen months of fieldwork, Jeffrey Hoelle shows how cattle raising is about much more than beef production or deforestation in Acre, even among “carnivorous” environmentalists, vilified ranchers, and urbanites with no land or cattle. He contextualizes the rise of ranching in relation to political economic structures and broader meanings to understand the spread of “cattle culture.” This cattle-centered vision of rural life builds on local experiences and influences from across the Americas and even resembles East African cultural practices. Written in a broadly accessible and interdisciplinary style, Rainforest Cowboys is essential reading for a global audience interested in understanding the economic and cultural features of cattle raising, deforestation, and the continuing tensions between conservation and development in the Amazon.


The Brazil Section of the Latin American Studies Association's Best Book of 2015


List of Illustrations

List of Tables


1. The Journey to Acre

2. The Expansion of Cattle Raising in Acre

3. Ruminations on Cattle Economies and Cattle Cultures

4. Ideologies of Nature and Human–Environment Interactions

5. The Ranchers: Smooth Hands, Progress, and Production

6. The City and the Contri

7. Here’s the Beef: Symbol, Sustenance, and Hamburger Connections

8. Rubber-Tapper and Colonist Transitions: Environment, Practice, and Identity

9. The Appropriation of Cattle Culture: Perceptions, Behaviors, and Methodological Considerations

10. The Full Picture

Appendix A. Social Groups and Research Area

Appendix B. Methods and Data

Appendix C. Levels of Agreement among Social Groups


Works Cited



Jeffrey Hoelle is Assistant Professor of Anthropology at the University of California, Santa Barbara.


“This complex, multivalenced historical ethnography of Acre state in the western Amazon unexpectedly portrays the rise of a Western-influenced cattle culture.”

“Hoelle’s insightful depiction of Amazonian transformations offers solid ground over which others may critically advance some of his key arguments. . . . arguably the book’s most important contribution: it bridges the research agendas of scholars who often talk past one another. Rainforest Cowboys’s heterodox approach may be useful for a wide range of projects, from science and technology studies on emerging socio-natural entanglements to quantitative modeling of cultural beliefs.  . . . Rainforest Cowboys will inspire anthropologists working in a range of fields to critically engage with Amazonia’s shifting ecologies.”
Current Anthropology

“For scholars and students of the amazon region and cattle cultures, Rainforest Cowboys offers a compelling account of the cultural importance of cattle and beef. . . . his in-depth focus on the Brazilian state of acre can illuminate similar or contrasting cultural changes in other areas undergoing environmental change.”
Agricultural History

“L’auteur fait plus qu’éclairer l’agencementd’une culture née de l’expansion de l’élevage,il fournit une explication culturelle des freinsà l’adoption d’une politique de préservationde la nature, peu compatible ici avec l’idéeque le progrès consiste justement à transformerla forêt. Bref, voilà un ouvrage riche etintelligent, rapidement résumé ici, à lire pourle bonheur de l’esprit, de la recherche, et pourla qualité de l’exposé.”
Etudes Rurales

“This book is an important contributionto literature on world cattle culture and Amazonian development...Anyone interested in the current state of the Amazon region, and its future, will find this book to be a valuable resource.”
Journal of Latin American and Caribbean Anthropology

“With this book, Hoelle joins others who have begun to remedy that considerable gap in the literature by focusing on what he terms “cattle culture” and how it modulates the social interactions of ranchers,cowboys, agricultural colonists, rubber tappers, environmentalists, and government officials in the Brazilian state of Acre.”
Journal of Latin American Geography

“Much is written about the livestock sector in Amazonia, and most of this is expressed in the dry language of statistics and graphs of this sector, which has exploded in the last decades. This is the first study we have that explores the livestock sector as a cultural system in a very complex rural sociology—the state of Acre, the place best known for the rubber tappers movement. This careful analysis of social identities and local political ecologies helps explain why cattle production now pervades all livelihoods and lifeways in the politically ‘greenest’ corner of Amazonia. This book is not about just rural but also city influence, and thus captures new dynamics that now shape forest frontiers.”
Susanna B. Hecht, Professor in the Luskin School of Public Affairs and the Institute of Environment and Sustainability, UCLA; author of The Scramble for the Amazon and the “Lost Paradise” of Euclides da Cunha; coauthor of The Fate of the Forest: Developers, Destroyers, and Defenders of the Amazon; and coeditor of Development or Destruction: The Conversion of Tropical Forest to Pasture in Latin America

“I think that this is a valuable book—indeed, fascinating.”
David G. Campbell, Professor of Biology, Henry R. Luce Professor of Nations and the Global Environment, and Chair of Environmental Studies Concentration, Grinnell College; and author of A Land of Ghosts: The Braided Lives of People and the Forest in Far Western Amazonia and The Crystal Desert: Summers in Antarctica

“Rainforest Cowboys illuminates one of the most salient yet least-explored dimensions of society and environment in Amazonia: the rise of cattle culture among smallholders, forest peoples, and large ranchers. While other studies have explored the economy of cattle ranching and its widespread adoption in the Amazon, Hoelle's book is the first to look closely at the cultural dimensions behind cattle raising’s ever-growing presence there. Historically informed, ethnographically rich, and enjoyable to read, it unravels the region’s emerging tangle of social identities, individual expectations, global markets, and economic development. Filling a major gap in Amazonian ethnography and human ecological studies, Rainforest Cowboys will no doubt become required reading for anyone aiming to understand the Amazon today.”
Eduardo S. Brondizio, Professor of Anthropology; Co-Director, Anthropological Center for Training and Research on Global Environmental Change (ACT); and Chair, Advisory Council, Vincent and Elinor Ostrom Workshop in Political Theory and Policy Analysis, Indiana University Bloomington