Few foreigners have so intimate an engagement with Brazil as Maybury-Lewis, currently a professor at the University of Amazonas. Living as a child with the Shavante along the Rio das Mortes in Mato Grosso in the late 1950s and returning many times for travel, research, and long sojourns, he has used his extraordinary access to produce a profoundly important work on the emergence of the Brazilian rural labor movement, which came to comprise some 2,800 trade unions representing 8 million rural workers. Against all odds, rural workers were able to carve out for themselves a vital political space during the repressive military dictatorship that ruled Latin America's largest country between 1964 and 1985, and they did so in the face of the murder of local leaders, kidnapping, rape, illegal arrest, and other human rights violations. Although his book bears the marks, in places, of the Columbia University political science dissertation it came from, at its core are a series of closely observed and reported case studies of union organization and grassroots community struggles for justice that are small classics.
With the end of a revolutionary option and in the face of the vast powers of co-optation held by the modern state, yet with deepening poverty facing an ever-increasing number of the world's people, Maybury-Lewis argues that his study demonstrates that "even under the most repressive circumstances, and at times when economic and political conditions appear to benefit the few while leaving out the many, social movements still find ways to organize, educate, and advance themselves. Such movements are conquering what is possible to conquer today, and preparing for tomorrow by the creative use of available political space." For anyone who worries about what happens in Latin America beyond the macroeconomic statistics, this is as good a place as any to begin.