José Maria and work

Throughout his life José Maria perfomed a diversity of activities, from fishing to cattle raising, hunting and agriculture. When I got to know him he was predominently a fisherman. He had bought on credit a gill net from a boss in town. He was paying the money back by selling the boss the fish he caught with it over a one season period. He salted the fish and then taken them on the passenger boat to town.

At the age of 14, in 1949, José Maria was invited by one of his maternal cousins to help cultivate jute in another floodplain community on the other side of the River Amazon. Jute fibres were suddenly in national demand, mainly to make sacks for storage of products like coffee beans. The recently arrived Japanese communities in the Amazon had experimented with jute in the 1930s and managed to produce sizeable amounts by growing it on the floodplain, the last month of its growth being spent in the water. By the 1950s, most men were involved in the production of jute fibres in the lower middle Amazon. This produced a mini-boom, again which brought wealth to the region. But jute work was hard work, as José Maria and many others told me. It involved being half immersed in the river to reap the crop, holding a machete under water to cut the stalks. The effects on health cannot be overestimated. As I said before, José Maria hardly possessed any finger or toe nails, having been eaten away by mud and continual contact from water. He also suffered from rhuematism and had many debilating strikes from sting rays. But he also heroically told me how he used to get his own back at the bosses (patroes) to whom he sold the dried jute fibres.

Jute is dried and bundled by the producers. It is sold by weight, so in order to add weight and therefore gain more money or credit, he used to add stones or wood or metal. He also told me of what he saw as the benevolence of one of his bosses. His family's house had been burnt in a fire, along with all their belongings. He told me how he had to go begging to his boss, the man to whom he had to sell jute that year, and recounted his story. To his surprise, the boss gave him enough credit to buy cloth, some cooking utensils and food. And never asked for the money back.

Nowadays José Maria earns his money by fishing and raising a few head of cattle in partnership with his wife, Alcina.