Graduate student Abel wins Fulbright for research in Brazil

Matthew Abel, a sociocultural anthropology graduate student in Arts & Sciences, has accepted an award under the Fulbright U.S. Student Program to support his research on the impact of rural development programs on small farmers and agroforesters in Brazil's Amazon estuary region. 

Abel’s Fulbright award will cover his travel, room and board for 9 months between March 2020 and November 2020.

“The Fulbright student program will provide me with crucial funding to conduct long-term ethnographic research on the impacts of development policies on rural social organization in Brazil's Amazon estuary region,” he said. “This region has been a keystone in both state and NGO-led sustainable development initiatives targeting small-scale farmers and agroforesters, as well as recent booms in extractive mining, timbering and agricultural industries, the latter of which tend to generate a significant degree of environmental and social harm.”

Abel’s research explores local ramifications of the rapid political changes that have taken place in Brazil over the past four years. Recent policy changes, including the declining funding of a number of development programs targeting small-scale farmers, appear to be threatening the tenuous equilibrium established between sustainable development programs and extractive industries that was forged in the 1990s and 2000s.

“My project attempts to look historically at how the sustainable development projects that have been implemented over the past 30 years have actually impacted small farmers and agroforesters and how they will condition community-level responses to rapid political and economic change,” Abel said.

Abel began his graduate education at Washington University after winning a Beinecke Scholarship in 2015 during his junior year at the College of William and Mary, where he earned an undergraduate degree in Anthropology & Environmental Science and Policy.

With support of the anthropology department here, he honed his interest in Brazilian politics and social movements during the summers of 2017 and 2018 when he spent 22 weeks in Brazil working to establish academic partnerships and field contacts. This outreach has helped him build connections with leaders of social movements, state agencies and local academic experts -- a network that he will work closely with during his Fulbright research.

“I am interested in how communities, social movement organizations, and policy practitioners are entangled in broader struggles over the definition and distribution of public goods,” he said. “Alongside previous ethnographic work with North American alternative agrifood activists, my dissertation project constitutes part of my broader interest in the way local forms of social organization articulate with state and non-state institutions to constrain and enable possibilities for collective action.”

Abel is the ninth anthropology graduate student at Washington University to win a Fulbright award since 2009. For more information on these recipients and other recent graduate student research grants and fellowships, visit the anthropology website.