Exporting Risk: The Cultural Politics of Regulating
Traditional Medicine in Northeast Brazil
Toward the middle of my first month of fieldwork in Pirambu, a shantytown just outside the Northeast Brazilian city of Fortaleza, I sat down to enjoy one of the few rituals that had already become familiar to me: a mid-morning cup of tea. Isabel, the woman I lived with, had made up a small pot of mint tea for us to share and then began to prepare a medicinal tea for her teenage daughter, Fatima, to treat her persistent cough. I hadn't seen Isabel make a medicinal remedy before, and I looked on with interest as she rubbed the malvariço leaves (a popular medicinal plant in the state) between her hands and infused them in the steaming water.
As she worked, there came a loud clapping sound at the door, signaling the arrival of a visitor. Isabel shouted to the visitor to come in, and a trim, neatly dressed man from the Department of Health walked into her tiny kitchen and announced that he needed to check her house for any open containers of water that might contain mosquito larvae carrying the dengue virus.1 Although I was new to the field, the Health Department agents were a familiar sight. They had been making daily visits throughout our neighborhood to advise residents about how to prevent the mosquitoes from breeding in their houses. The city's wealthier neighborhoods had yet to report any cases of dengue, but health officials were nervous and hoping to prevent future outbreaks of the disease by
The author wishes to acknowledge Laury Oaks and Barbara Herr Harthorn for their
kind encouragement and perceptive commentary, Daniel Holz for lending his insight
and clarity, and in Brazil, Dr. Abreu Matos, Dr. Adalberto Barreto, and the Brandão fam-
ily for their warm welcome to Ceará and their unfailingly patient replies to my many