Eve E. Buckley: Science and the Challenges of Social Transformation
Today we welcome a guest blog post from Eve E. Buckley, author of Technocrats and the Politics of Drought and Development in Twentieth-Century Brazil, on drought and regional development in Brazil.
Eve E. Buckley’s study of twentieth-century Brazil examines the nation’s hard social realities through the history of science, focusing on the use of technology and engineering as vexed instruments of reform and economic development. Nowhere was the tension between technocratic optimism and entrenched inequality more evident than in the drought-ridden Northeast sertão, plagued by chronic poverty, recurrent famine, and mass migrations. Buckley reveals how the physicians, engineers, agronomists, and mid-level technocrats working for federal agencies to combat drought were pressured by politicians to seek out a technological magic bullet that would both end poverty and obviate the need for land redistribution to redress long-standing injustices.
Technocrats and the Politics of Drought and Development in Twentieth-Century Brazil is available for now in both print and e-book editions
Science and the Challenges of Social Transformation—Drought and Regional Development in Brazil
In most people’s minds Brazil evokes images of tropical florescence—the Amazon’s rivers and forests, Rio de Janeiro’s artfully designed gardens, coastal beaches lined with palm trees. But the country also has a substantial semi-arid region subject to periodic drought. The sertão of the interior northeast has posed a challenge for Brazilian nation-builders since the late-nineteenth century. Its mixed-race inhabitants of native, African and Portuguese descent rebelled against governing authorities at several points (the most famous of which is depicted in Euclides da Cunha’s epic Os Sertões, published in 1902). Particularly from the 1870s onward, severe droughts precipitated calamitous mass migrations and famine. Even today the sertão remains an area of extreme poverty and minimal state presence; many young sertanejos leave their homes for urban capitals that they hope will offer economic security, settling in the infamous favela slums of Brazil’s major cities.
In the first decade of the twentieth century, bolstered by the success of urban renovations in Rio de Janeiro that improved port sanitation and public health (at least for the middle and upper classes), Brazil’s government determined to undertake scientific development of the sertão. Over the subsequent century, sanitarians, civil engineers, agronomists and economists surveyed the region and applied a range of technological prescriptions that they hoped would remedy the sertão’s various ills. Their plans were modeled on regional development efforts elsewhere in the world, particularly those undertaken in the British and French empires and in the southern and western United States. These middle class Latin American technocrats believed firmly that modern science and technology could remake the sertão’s landscape and, in short order, its culture and economy. Yet they were repeatedly disappointed. Technocrats and the Politics of Drought and Development in Twentieth Century Brazil aims to understand why.
Federal patrons of the drought service and several additional agencies established to aid sertão development during the twentieth century were enthusiastic about the infrastructure that technocrats could provide: better roads, dams of varying sizes, irrigation canals, and rural health posts. They had no intention of allowing any substantial reorganization of the sertao’s economy, which had depended since the sixteenth century on cattle ranching and (in some areas) production of cotton and other crops for export, primarily on vast estates farmed by sharecropping tenants. As in so much of Latin America, the majority of sertanejos had no defensible title to the land that they farmed; their survival depended on the whims and largesse of landowners. This made them acutely vulnerable to food shortages during periods of drought, but development technocrats had no power or authority to change this fundamental aspect of sertanejo society. The engineers who oversaw drought works understood that the continuation of their agencies, their profession’s status and their own job security depended on pleasing federal legislators from the northeast region, nearly all of whom belonged to interrelated networks of wealthy and powerful landowning families. Most drought technocrats thus continued to apply their limited technical expertise in the vain hope of achieving social transformation—and many became increasingly cynical about the power of science and technology to effect social change in the face of sustained political opposition.
For contemporary readers, it may seem self-evident that the challenges of an essentially feudal society cannot be sufficiently addressed through improved infrastructure and public health. But this was the premise of much twentieth-century development work (at least until the latter decades): that science could solve the intractable problems of prior centuries, without risking class confrontation and bloody revolution. And the resistance of societies like our own to addressing profound structural inequalities continues; hope springs eternal that a new approach to pedagogy or a break-through vaccine will ameliorate the precarious circumstances of the poor, painlessly improving their lot without impacting the larger social order from which wealthier people benefit. Technocrats and the Politics of Drought and Development provides a close account of how such hopes and disappointments unfolded in Brazil from the late nineteenth century to the late twentieth, a period in which that nation witnessed several points of dramatic political rupture. In the coming decades, as global warming subjects many regions to climate extremes, it will be crucial to understand and confront the social dynamics that influence how drought and related calamities are experienced by the world’s most marginal people.
Eve E. Buckley is associate professor of history at the University of Delaware.
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