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Keck: Social equity and environmental politics in Brazil

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Keck. 1995. Social equity and environmental politics in Brazil: Lessons from the rubber tappers of Acre. Comparative Politics 27: 409-24.

The Story

The rubber tappers were making a subsistence living by selling rubber and Brazil nuts until evil ranchers came in trying to clear the rainforest where they had bought property. The rubber tappers organized themselves (with help from the Catholic church and other unions) to resist. It was largely a movement about labor and the right to preserve their way of life, at first.

Meanwhile in America, the environmental movement was picking up steam, especially over concerns about how multilateral lending institutions were funding development projects that hurt the environment.

The connection between northern environmentalists and Brazilian rubber tappers was successful, but it changed both of them. It led rubber tappers to begin speaking in language of preserving a global resource, and it led environmentalists to employ concepts of indigenous rights and struggle against "the man." Thus, the alliance changed "frames" that people used to view the issue.

The northern environmentalists championed the rubber tappers' cause to try to draw attention to their own environmental concerns, to the point that the rubber tappers' plight was better known abroad than in Brazil. Many Brazilians were therefore surprised at the international uproar over the murder of Chico Mendes, a (domestically largely unknown) rubber tapper organizer.

The reasons that this particular "frame" worked depend partly on cultural factors, such as the western focus on "rights" and the western love of fables about weak forest people standing up to strong interlopers against impossible odds (419).

The Discussion

"The murder of Chico Mendes and the case of the rubber tappers' movement came to public attention at a moment when global environmental change was an increasingly salient issue on the international agenda. This context provided opportunities, in the form of an alliance with foreign environmental NGOs, to translate their struggle for survival from a local arena, where the balance of power was distinctly unfavorable, to an international arena, where it was more favorable. Its power as a metaphor lay in its ability to make concrete in human terms the rather abstract notion of sustainable development. Also, it forced a sharper recognition of the social content of environmental change and of the degree to which struggles over environmental issues may recapitulate in a new form long-standing social conflicts. As far as this awareness spreads, it should help to expand the still fragile dialogue between environmental and other social movements, domestically and internationally" (420).

Note how she highlights changes in political opportunities. This has a parallel to Tarrow's (1998) argument.

General Implications

She cautions against generalizing from this case, pointing out that the rubber tappers were already highly organized and aligned with several other groups before the international environmentalists made came in. We should not assume that alliances with other, less organized indigenous groups will be equally successful, or that other indigenous groups should organize themselves in the same way.

"International linkages may be a powerful political resource for third world movements of this kind. but they are most valuable as a supplement to. not a replacement for, the development of political resources locally. The international attention span, after all, is short" (421).