This is a book about religionís impact on social change, about spiritually inspired men and women struggling for their right to occupy and work the land, about poor rural communities of Catholic activists fighting for agrarian reform. The first part of the book tells the story of six far-away places in Northern Brazil where base Christian communities fought for the land promised to them by deceitful and corrupt politicians. That descriptive section of the book is highly dramatic, as the late Joseph Fitzpatrick points out in his preface. Promised Land actually reads like a novel, but it is not by any means a work of fiction presenting a romanticized view of reality. It is a work of social science, based on participant observation, documentary analysis and more than 100 in-depth interviews with activists, farmers and Church people in the Amazon region. It tells with empathy the concrete details of the brutal oppression and the blatant violation of the human rights of the peasants to whom land was cynically promised but never really granted. In this sense the title of the book is very well chosen, especially in view of the ironic religious undertones of the expression «promised land».
For social scientists, this book contains a set of useful tools, including a map of the region, a list of tables, and glossaries of Portuguese terms, acronyms and abbreviations, as well as quotations from field notes, a good bibliography, rich footnotes, and a detailed index. The book also includes straightforward a description of the authorís cautious research methods, which can be helpful for others attempting to do similar qualitative ethnographic studies elsewhere, especially as regards gaining access and gathering data in politically sensitive situations.The introduction opens with a vivid description of the murders of a nun, a priest and three laypeople shot down by gunmen obviously hired by rich ranchers because they were defending the right of peasant farmers to till the land. The author goes on to describe the context of the conflict and its main actors. She also gives her reasons for doing her study, and spells out briefly the theoretical perspectives she adopted for her analysis. The first chapter in Part I examines the roots of the land problem in the Amazon, namely the agrarian policies of the military government that ruled Brazil from 1964 to 1985, and that brought about both violence against innocent people and ecological disaster in the tropical forest. Chapters 2 to 7 in Part II are the six present-day case studies. Each one represents a fascinating story in itself. Part III, starting with chapter 8 and ending with chapter 11, uses data obtained in 15 parishes for an analysis of the various aspects of the empowerment of peasant farmers by base Christian communities. That section of the book examines the actions of the institutional Church (ch. 8), the development of the base communities, including the role of the priests and nuns who organize them (ch. 9). Chapter 10 focuses mainly on the interaction between Church groups and secular peasant unions in the struggle for land. Chapter 11 is a self-contained study in itself, focusing as it does on a new kind of womenís consciousness emerging among poor rural Catholic women in the base Christian communities of Northern Brazil. The concluding chapter goes beyond the description and the analysis of the Amazon region to establish the links with global issues. It shows how land struggles and land issues generally remain a central question, even in the modern economy of a relatively more democratic Brazil. The chapter also goes back to the theoretical concerns raised in the introductory chapter, and further adresses the matter of the Vaticanís pulling back from its earlier more progressive, or rather less conservative, stances on questions like the preferential option for the poor and the nomination of bishops.
The author is more optimistic than other researchers concerning the future of the Brazilian base communities, whose urban focus leads them to extrapolate and generalize that base communities in Brazil are all becoming weak. Cousineau shows that base communities involved in land struggles in the Amazon remain strong. She justifies her rural focus by showing that two-thirds of Brazilian base communities are located in rural areas, and by demonstrating the impact of what is going on in the rural areas for Brazilian society as a whole.
The book is not very voluminous, so one is left wondering why the author did not include any comparison with research done on base Christian communities in other regions of Brazil, or in other Latin American countries. There are numerous books and articles that could have brought an interesting light on her own data through such a comparative focus, and an additional chapter to this effect would not have detracted from the overall quality of the book.
In sum, this is a serious and well designed book. The style is flowing, concise and free of sociological jargon. Madeleine Cousineauís book is also a beautiful piece of sociological research. It is an empirically based study shaped by solid theoretical perspectives, but above all, it shows how the sociological approach can produce a scientific report that is simultaneously a work of art. I highly recommend this book to those who want to learn to be good social researchers, as well as to those who aspire to be good non-fiction writers.
Département de sociologie, Université de Montréal