Eve E. Buckley: The Power and Paucity of Primary Documents for Latin American Historians

Technocrats and the Politics of Drought and Development in Twentieth-Century Brazil by Eve E. BuckleyToday 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


The Power and Paucity of Primary Documents for Latin American Historians

When I begin conducting research for Technocrats and the Politics of Drought and Development in Twentieth-century Brazil, I assumed that the national archive in Rio de Janeiro would be an important repository for records of the federal agency that oversaw drought works in the semi-arid northeast sertão. Upon arriving there, I discovered that the archive does hold thousands of documents from that agency’s supervising ministry, responsible for all of Brazil’s federally funded infrastructure, but these are in unprocessed boxes. In a game of archival roulette (with the pending arrival of twins constraining my time in the country), I spent a week randomly requesting boxes in hopes of hitting the drought-works archival jackpot—to no avail.

Over that initial research year I had located a range of primary and secondary materials in libraries, archives, and academic institutions in several cities. These enabled me to outline a history of Brazil’s vexed program to ameliorate drought and famine in the sertão, yet they were on the whole unsatisfying. I knew how the government and its agency managers had tried to diminish the calamitous impact of periodic drought, but it was impossible to substantiate what that work had been like when it was undertaken—both for drought agency employees sent to oversee emergency drought relief and for the vulnerable sertanejos that they aimed to help.

Several years later I was fortunate to meet historian Frederico Neves of the Federal University of Ceará (the northeastern state most profoundly affected by droughts) at a Latin American Studies Association conference in Rio de Janeiro. He mentioned that his colleague, Almir Leal, had discovered a collection of documents from federal drought projects in a warehouse in the state capital and had worked with graduate students to organize these. I was intrigued. With the help of these professors and master’s student Aline da Silva, I found myself the following summer in a shed on the outskirts of Fortaleza where reams of documents from the drought agency had been unceremoniously dumped.

Conditions were abysmal: rats had colonized many shelves, stray dogs roamed the premises, and a rooster crowed incessantly from atop a pile of overflowing binders that seemed beyond redemption. The agency employee who had brought me to this place determined that I would become ill if left to work there, and he allowed me several hours to select the binders of greatest interest and throw them in the trunk of his car. For the remainder of that trip and a subsequent one, I sat comfortably in a cubicle at the agency’s headquarters, pouring over the reports and telegrams in these binders—and perusing the pamphlets and agricultural extension materials that another staffer remembered having come upon in a closet.

The history of drought works in northeast Brazil has been narrated, primarily by Brazilian critics of the federal agency, as systemically corrupt, resulting in the intensified marginalization of landless people and greater wealth and security for the region’s most powerful families. This is a reasonable summation of how events turned out. But it overlooks the complex and important perspectives of the various technocrats who arrived in the sertão believing that their expertise would benefit starving people, and of course it says almost nothing about how the recipients of drought aid viewed such projects. The latter perspectives remain hard to obtain other than through oral histories; I attempted to get at them for earlier periods through popular poetry (a significant art form in the region) and folk songs that discuss drought, migration and government response to these crises. The views of engineers, agronomists, and other young men on the front lines of federal drought aid were revealed in the brief reports and frequent telegrams that they sent to their superiors in Rio de Janeiro.

Drought works managers oversaw dam construction and other public works that enrolled male heads of famished sertanejo households in return for basic rations of beans and brown sugar, to save their families from starvation. Records of day to day experience at these sites demonstrate the many ways in which Brazil’s drought technocrats resisted the most draconian aspects of their government’s often inhumane policies for providing aid. They defended the desperate people who sought their help, as best they could, while often encountering opposition from these same people when their recommendations—for improved cultivation methods and other matters—conflicted with longstanding practice. The telegrams tossed into that shed in Ceará indicate the disillusion that these young men experienced, faced with sometimes tens of thousands of starving people and a federal bureaucracy that cared more about infrastructural improvement for export agriculturists than the survival of their humblest citizens.


Eve E. Buckley is associate professor of history at the University of Delaware.