, Volume 33, Issue 1, pp 17-56

Palms, Pastures, and Swidden Fields: The Grounded Political Ecology of “Agro-Extractive/Shifting-cultivator Peasants” in Maranhão, Brazil

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Abstract

This article examines transformations associated with changes in resource use and land cover dynamics in the community of São Manoel, Maranhão state, in the eastern Brazilian Amazon. The shifting cultivator peasants in São Manoel integrate swidden fields for annual cropping, the extraction of babassu palm products, and pastures for cattle ranching. Since the early twentieth century, predominant vegetative cover patterns have been altered from species-rich mature forests to secondary succession with babassu dominant to pasture or swidden fields containing palm stands of various densities. A grounded political ecology of resource use in the area suggests that management strategies and the resulting land cover dynamics integrate site-specific decisions of peasant producers. I discuss the trajectory of production strategies in São Manoel since the establishment of the community in the 1920s, and identify the multiple dimensions affecting resource use and environmental outcomes, with an emphasis on the period following land struggles and the recovery of peasant tenure rights in the mid-1980s. The analysis indicates that socionatural trajectories that optimize resource use and address the socioeconomic needs of the community include the maintenance of palm/pastures associations.