Acre – Amazonian Sphinx

I received the invitation from Paul and Edward to write this text as an immense challenge. After all, as we shall see later, the task these exceptional researchers set themselves is one of the most complex and difficult to carry out. And, in order for us to understand the dimension and implications of this complexity, it would be fundamental, at the outset, to take into account the place from which we are speaking.

Acre is one of the newest and most distant states in the Brazilian federation, an almost hidden place in the westernmost part of the Amazon, on the border with Bolivia and Peru. To say that Acre, like the Amazon itself, is very little known or understood by Brazilians in general, would be just repeating an idea that has already become commonplace in the national imagination. An idea that is at the origin of the many jokes and jokes that circulate in the free territory of the internet. Like the one that was very successful, during a certain period, and categorically stated that: “Acre does not exist”. Which served as the motto for all sorts of infamous jokes.

But what would differentiate Acre that much? To what extent are these games really related only to distance, isolation, or any other Acrean characteristic? Wouldn’t they be signs that something extraordinary, different, actually exists in this strange and fascinating forest world?

It is curious to note that these same games are not as recurrent in relation to other regions even more distant from the great centers of the country. Such as Roraima or Amapá, both in the far north of Brazil. This makes us reflect on the fact that perhaps Acre may actually be more difficult to be known and/or understood than other regions of the Amazon, even if by researchers used to dealing with very complex themes or problems.
Undoubtedly, it was something different, unusual, singular, which irresistibly attracted one of our greatest writers, Euclides da Cunha, to Acre, right after the publication and resounding success of the grandiloquent “Os Sertões”, about the Canudos War. Something that made him seek, spontaneously and determinedly, his participation in the Mixed Brazilian-Peruvian Recognition Commission of the Upper Purus, in search of the distant and inaccessible springs of the Purus river, dragging a canoe, overcoming hunger, disease, animosity Peruvian, going up and down waterfalls and “balseiros”. A remarkable experience that led him to affirm, for over a century, that Acre was still “At the Margin of Brazilian History”.(1)

Thus preparing the ground for his dreamed, but unfulfilled, “second avenger book” and which should be called “A Paradise Lost” .(2)

Looking from this perspective, then, the jokes and jokes about Acre would not be just reflections of unconscious fears aroused by a place that is not only distant and unknown, but, above all, has a mysterious, almost indecipherable aura and, for that very reason it may seem somehow fearful?

Or not. We could also consider that this singular estrangement in relation to Acre is just a reflex act of a certain “weight in the national conscience”. After all, several passages in Acre’s history are brutal due to the evident refusal, neglect and irresponsibility with which the Brazilian government dealt with Acre on many and different occasions.

We must not ignore that, even during the height of the First Rubber Cycle (3), Bolivia intended to dominate Acre; the British and Americans tried to lease it to Bolivia; Peru made a consistent move to take a large part of Acre’s land; at the same time that Manaus and Belém fought intensely among themselves for the possession and sale of rubber from Acre. While the Brazilian government watched everything inert, absent, apparently concerned only with the problems then faced by coffee exports, the structural basis of the “coffee-with-milk” Republic.

And worse. Even when the “Brazilians of Acre” (4) took up arms, at their own risk and expense, and proclaimed the creation of the “Independent State of Acre”(5) , as a strategy to defend national sovereignty in this region, it was the government itself Brazilian who disarmed the revolutionaries and, surprisingly, returned the domain of Acre to Bolivia.

This is what makes Acreans so fond of saying that Acre is the only state that is Brazilian by choice. For, while Bahia, Rio Grande do Sul, São Paulo, among others, fought at different times in our history to separate from Brazil, Acre fought, with immense sacrifices, to be annexed to our country, in an example of national identity very rare among Brazilians.

But even that didn’t seem to be enough for Brazil. Since, as a reward to the Acreans for their struggle and conquest, the government created, especially for Acre, an odd political regime that made it the first Federal Territory in our history. An unprecedented political system that in practice condemned Acreans to be second-class citizens in their own country. The Territory was supervised by the federal government not only in relation to the enormous collection of taxes on rubber, but also in relation to the choice of its governors, who were directly appointed by the President of the Republic from his office at the Palácio do Catete, by default of Acrean yearnings. A people newly formed and already subjected to all sorts of corrupt, authoritarian or simply incompetent governors.

However, such a premium seems to have been insufficient for the Brazilian government. This led to the simple habit of sending exiles from different origins to Acre. Thus, some of the participants in the Vaccine Revolt (a 1904 civil uprising in Rio de Janeiro) were sent here. Later, sailors involved in the Chibata Revolt (a 1910 naval mutiny in Rio de Janeiro) were also “deported” (6). And even common thieves and murderers were brought to the Acre forests as a way to empty the already overcrowded Rio jails. But the most symptomatic thing is that these exiled ones did not come to this or that prison, but to be released into the forest and, if all went well, to starve to death.

For the reader who may think this is all right exaggeration on my part, it may be enlightening to know that this custom of the Brazilian government, in the early 20th century, became so common and current that it gave rise to a popular expression that used the term ” Go to Acre” as a synonym for “dying”. Imagine the scene:

– Where’s so-and-so?
– Oh! Boy! This one went to Acre!
– Poor thing! So young. May God have mercy on his soul.

It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that, somehow, the lost paradise envisioned by Euclides da Cunha was nothing more than hell itself in the perspective of the Brazilian government. In any case, it is important to emphasize that, not long ago, this entry was removed from the Aurélio Dictionary because it fell into disuse.

Apparently, therefore, maybe there really is something else behind the bad jokes that populate the national imagination. I really believe that there is in Acre something different, special, mysterious, singular that inspires the most absolute fear in some, while inducing many others to the most complete fascination and enchantment. In this sense, Acre does not admit compromises. It looks like that slogan of the Military Dictatorship: “Love it or leave it”. So much so that, in my weekly column in the local newspaper, I once published a series of articles called “A Sphinx Acreana”, with the subtitle: “Decipher me or I will devour you”, in a reference to the ancient couplet with that the Sphinx challenges desert travelers, in which I tried to deal with various unique and, at the same time, enigmatic aspects of Acre’s culture.

But, I did this whole long initial digression on the singularities of history and being Acre, just to explain why, on the day I met the authors of this book – in which I thought it would be just another interview about Acre history – I was very worried when he learned that the theme that had brought them to Acre was the life of one of the most significant and complex characters in Acre’s trajectory: Mestre Irineu. So I couldn’t help thinking: This isn’t going to work!

After all, if trying to understand Acre, right from the start, is a colossal challenge, as I hope to have shown above, what then about the attempt to systematize the life story of a man who was able to create a new and original religion, surprisingly originated in the deepest confines of the Amazon rainforest to spread all over the world, mobilizing thousands of people from the most different origins and cultures.

In other words, Paulo and Edward had, in my view, enormous chances of being devoured by our particular Amazonian sphinx. Especially considering that, since the beginning of my research on regional history in Acre, the immense gap in our historiography in relation to the trajectory of Raimundo Irineu Serra has always caught my attention.

It is true that, around here, a lot is said about the Santo Daime. Or about the huge black man from Maranhão who ran a community there for the Custódio Freire colony and had a reputation as a curator. Or, still, about the political relationship that was gradually being established between the Daime communities and the Government of the Territory/State of Acre. But, actually written, in relation to the life of the man who promoted a true spiritual revolution in this lost piece of forest, without almost anyone noticing, almost nothing.

In this regard, what really bothered me was the inexistence of a biography of Mestre Irineu written and consolidated within the community that he himself formed. Except for the publication of the Revista do Centenário, which was largely done by the staff of Alto Santo, there is nothing more published about the life, difficulties, successes and paths covered by the young man who came cradled by the “rubber fever” of the nineteenth century to come across mysteries here in the Amazon and possibilities he would never have been able to imagine.

What does exist, however, is a vast bibliography developed from the new context that has involved the Santo Daime since it began to expand to other regions outside of Acre and the Amazon. What actually happened only after the death of Irineu. But it is worth noting that these are publications and approaches that are not accepted or disseminated, being often repudiated by the traditional followers of Mestre Irineu.

For this reason, when I was in Maranhão about ten years ago, participating in a meeting promoted by the Palmares Foundation, I was seized by an overwhelming impulse to look for the paths that Raimundo Irineu Serra would have taken before coming to Acre. Besides, of course, surrendering to the natural charm caused by the ancient and fascinating island of São Luís.

And, even though I wasn’t there for that, right after the meeting in which I was participating, I visited Casa das Minas, the streets of the old historic center of São Luís, with its public fountains and underground tunnels, in which I had meetings totally unexpected. But, as the researcher’s instinct sometimes becomes irresistible, I got support from the state government to go to São Vicente Ferrer, Irineu’s hometown.

There I found the empty place where there had once been an adobe and straw hut, in which, according to local residents, Irineu was born. Shortly thereafter, I met a nephew of Irineu who knew well the story of the young man who left to conquer the world and returned as a man made owner of the world, an important leader of a community. And finally, I went to the small, makeshift town parish archive, where I found the baptism record book in which I came across new information. Instead of being born in 1892, as widespread in Alto Santo and by all his other followers, it was said that Irineu had been born in 1890.

This, therefore, should be important information for the entire daimista community. Then he brought the photograph from the registry where the names of Irineu’s father and mother were listed, that is, without any doubt. And, as soon as I arrived, I went to Alto Santo to tell Madrinha Peregrina (7) what I had found. What I heard surprised me. “How nice! You found a document about ‘My Old Man’. But if he told us he was born in 1892, then he was born in 1892 anyway. Thanks.”

Since then, the brief history described above contains for me the paradigm, or paradox, installed in the community founded by Mestre Irineu. A community formed by a powerful and marked oral tradition. So strong as to largely dismiss the historical value of any formal document and feel no need to have the formal history of its founder written down. Not by mere refusal or dogmatism. Only because, in the case of Mestre Irineu’s life, it is as metaphorical as existential, as mythical as historical – so inherent to everyday life, to local culture, and, at the same time, to the universe of the extraordinary and the religious – that it makes any other kind of explanation insufficient or expendable.

This characteristic, among others, lends specific qualities to the historical or anthropological work in Alto Santo and other ayahuasca communities, as we have come to call it lately. In this sense, the authors had to work in consideration of collectivities whose social memories are not committed to history, in the western sense of the term, but only to the selection of relevant events for the definition, organization and continuity of the religious community. Another relevant theme that the authors of this work have courageously faced, without trying to develop explanatory subterfuges for the latent memory-history contradictions.

Without neglecting the fact that the spiritual, cultural and social movement that gave rise to Irineu, along with other men such as Daniel Mattos(8) and Gabriel Costa (9), has since spread to areas of politics, public and private institutions, the artistic field, symbolic and aesthetic part of 20th century Acre, and therefore also of our own postmodern world.

In this same sense, we can emphasize that, in certain passages of this book, its authors are confronted with issues related to the political context of Acre. Moments in which the application of general parameters of Brazilian political history to the case of Acre and to Irineu’s actions with local political leaders may seem extraordinarily tempting. However, in Acre there is no right, center, left; neoliberals, democrats or socialists in the way we are used to thinking about Brazil.

Due to its different political context, as a Federal Territory since 1904, the Acreanos had no political rights that would allow them to have parties and electoral disputes that consolidated clearly defined ideological spectrums.

Hence, for example, because the Autonomist Legion that originated the local PTB and that theoretically represented more popular and “autonomist” sectors of society, was against the project that transformed the Federal Territory into an Autonomous State at the end of the 1950s. that the PSD, originated from the former Constructor Party and, therefore, at least theoretically, more conservative, elitist and favorable to the policies of the federal government, was the one who raised and defended the movement that resulted in the late creation of the State of Acre, in 1962.

In the same way, you cannot transform Mestre Irineu’s friendship with Fontenele de Castro and Governor Guiomard Santos, major leaders of the PSD (Social Democratic Party) from Acre, who after 1964 would be transformed into the ARENA (National Renewal Alliance – the conservative militarist political party that ruled Brazil from 1964-1985), in a possible political support for the Military Dictatorship. This attempt may be nothing more than an extrapolation of non-existent political and social compositions of the Acre context. While it constitutes one of the most important themes of the work developed in this book.

In fact, Mestre Irineu’s relationships with Fontenele and Guiomard were much more personal, corporate and even affective, than political. The political support of Fontenele and Guiomard, with all the strength of representatives of the ruling elite, was what made possible a certain distension of many of the prejudices of Acrean society in general to the religious use of the Daime. Hence, Irineu’s electoral support for them was also natural, permanent and independent of any change in the situation in distant Brazil.

After all, the twenty years of Military Dictatorship were, here in Acre, to a large extent, simply a continuation of authoritarianism and the regime of exception in force until then. Here in Acre, democracy had not yet arrived, except for the brief period of 1962-64. It is important not to forget, therefore, that we cannot interpret the political history of Acre in the military period under the same parameters that we apply to the rest of the country. Just one more of the many traps of the Acrean Sphinx.

Hence the immense challenge that Paulo and Edward set themselves when they intended, and managed, to gather documents, testimonies and significant events in the trajectory of this unique historical character who was Mestre Irineu. Because this work has the potential to give new meaning not only to the formation of Acre, but also to immense areas hitherto invisible in Brazilian history itself.

With these examples in place, we must then go back to our initial questions to start concluding this already very long presentation. After all, where else in Brazil, Indians, blacks, caboclos, Brazilians and foreigners managed to interact to the point of giving rise to a new, totally original religious manifestation? The advent of the Santo Daime is, in itself, an extraordinary event. It emerged from the forest, from a culture generated from knowledge and experience in the forest, and continued to express its syntheses even when transported to the urban environment without, to a large extent, giving in to manipulations and market forces.
So much so that, currently, the production of new works related to ayahuasca has taken on another characteristic. It lost the predominance of titles with an esoteric, magical or literary approach that it had in the seventies to nineties. And it became profusely fertile in academic texts and works, in the most different areas of knowledge. Legal, anthropological, biochemical, therapeutic, political aspects gained prominence in contrast to those publications with more restricted circulation and which concern doctrinal/religious issues.

However, it lacked a solid basis for much of this production, considering that Mestre Irineu has a founding role in several of its new configurations. This book is this missing foundation, situated at its origin – the crossing point from an indigenous tradition to a Christian tradition. Point of convergence, mutation, transformation, synthesized through a human life, a character that became the catalyst of a set of cultural references.

Today, we are discussing the recognition, by the Ministry of Culture, of the use of ayahuasca – daime, Vegetal, Kamarãpi, Huni, or whatever you want to call it – as a full cultural expression inherent to the Brazilian people. That is, a new understanding that these cultural practices cannot simply be labeled a matter of public health, anti-drug legislation, or even religious dogma. The use of the Daime is today, more evidently than ever, a historical and cultural problematic in its widest and deepest sense. And it doesn’t change, prohibit or promote cultural expressions with decrees or laboratory tests.

The many cultural manifestations related to the Daime are, in this sense, so complex, intriguing, mysterious and relevant, that they resemble Acre itself, as challenging as, at times, threatening. The force that seems to emanate from this patch of forest has a spirit of its own and cannot be trapped by quick or superficial parameters.

Maybe that’s why Acre has been throughout its brief history and, still is, fertile ground for so many distinguished men and women. Since in all of the Acre rivers, stories of human beings who became extraordinary for their spirituality and were responsible for countless cures and miracles that are attested by popular culture in Acre have multiplied. Be it São João do Guarani, a rubber tapper who died under abuse; be it Santa Raimunda do Bom Sucesso, a Jaminawa Indian; or Brother José da Cruz, who for many years traveled the rivers of the Juruá Valley preaching and healing; among so many other characters who seem to comply to the letter with what Euclides da Cunha wrote about their wanderings: “When we go through the hinterlands, in a painful recognition, we find, enchanted, that we can only walk on earth like dreamers and enlightened ones.” (11) Who could say that in this forgotten, despised, ignored piece of forest, one day, a spiritual leader of Mestre Irineu’s stature would emerge. In the same way that no one could imagine that from here, from the distant forests of Acre, a popular and globally significant leader such as Chico Mendes would also emerge. Both were coincidentally born on December 15th, although half a century apart.

Finally, what is so different about Acre? I can’t say. I can only say that Paulo and Edward with their important research, now materialized in this beautiful and thought-provoking book, make an enormous and unmistakable contribution to anyone who intends to, at least try, unravel the fascinating Acre sphinx.

So, while reading the pages that follow, remember! We who live in this extraordinary region of the Western Amazon, where the sources of some of the main sources of the Amazon River are located, know, beyond any doubt, that, contrary to what may appear at first sight, Acre is not the end. of the world, but rather the beginning of it.

Rio Branco, November 10, 2010
Marcos Vinicius Neves
President of Fundação Garibaldi Brasil


1 Title of one of Euclides da Cunha’s books that were published after his trip to Acre in 1905. In this case, a book that was only published posthumously in 1909.
2 Intent revealed in a letter written to Coelho Neto, in Manaus, March 10, 1905.
3 Period between 1870 and 1912 when Amazonian rubber enjoyed high value on the international market and became the second product in the list of Brazilian exports.
4 Term adopted by Brazilian revolutionaries during the Acre War, also known as the Acre Revolution, 1899-1903, to designate themselves, since there was not yet a people called “Acre”.
5 The Independent State of Acre was proclaimed on July 14, 1899 by the Spaniard Luiz Galvez Rodrigues de Arias to force the Brazilian government to negotiate with Bolivia the definitive possession of the Acre lands.
6 In this regard, see Carvalho (1999).
7 Madrinha Peregrina Gomes Serra, last wife, current leader and “Dignitary” of Alto Santo.
8 Maranhense like Mestre Irineu, Daniel Pereira de Mattos was a friend of hers and with him began working with ayahuasca. He later founded a small chapel that gave rise to several religious centers in Rio Branco, commonly known as “Barquinha”.
9 Mestre Gabriel, from Bahia, founded the União do Vegetal in Porto Velho, one of the most important and numerous Ayahuasca churches today.
10 The request for registration of the ritual use of ayahuasca was delivered to Minister Gilberto Gil in 2008, during a ceremony held in Alto Santo and is still being processed at IPHAN.
11 Preface by Euclides da Cunha written for the book Poemas e Canções, by Vicente de Carvalho

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