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Black Hats and Smooth Hands: Elite Status, Environmentalism, and Work among the Ranchers of Acre, Brazil



Cattle ranchers are often presented as the wealthy, violent, and environmentally destructive villains of Amazonia. Ranchers in the state of Acre, Brazil, are viewed in a particularly negative light, due to their perceived association with the assassination of “rainforest martyr” Chico Mendes in 1988. The objective of this paper is to increase our understanding of this enigmatic, powerful group through an ethnographic description of ranchers in relation to features of their villain label: elite status and environmental destruction. Drawing on 18 months of fieldwork with Acrean ranchers and other rural groups, I analyze the ways in which the ranchers conform to and challenge classification as an elite group in relation to economic and political power, describe how rancher status is constructed and expressed in social situations, and compare the extent to which other rural social groups agree with perceptions of the ranchers. Understanding the ranchers' perspective, especially with regard to environmental debates, requires an examination of how they perceive their work in relation to history and ideology, and how they have adapted the term to defend their interests and engage current political debates centered on environmental preservation.