Technocrats and the Politics of Drought and Development in Twentieth-Century Brazil

Technocrats and the Politics of Drought and Development in Twentieth-Century Brazil

Technocrats and the Politics of Drought and Development in Twentieth-Century Brazil

Technocrats and the Politics of Drought and Development in Twentieth-Century Brazil

Synopsis

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 sertao, 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.

Scientists planned and oversaw huge projects including dam construction, irrigation for small farmers, and public health initiatives. They were, Buckley shows, sincerely determined to solve the drought crisis and improve the lot of poor people in the sertao. Over time, however, they came to the frustrating realization that, despite technology's tantalizing promise of an apolitical means to end poverty, political collisions among competing stakeholders were inevitable. Buckley's revelations about technocratic hubris, the unexpected consequences of environmental engineering, and constraints on scientists as agents of social change resonate with today's hopes that science and technology can solve society's most pressing dilemmas, including climate change.

Excerpt

Technocrats and the Politics of Drought and Development in Twentieth-Century Brazil examines science and technology as vexed instruments of social reform in an impoverished Latin American region. It investigates twentiethcentury Brazilian technocrats who saw themselves as offering a middle road between the reactionary conservatism of landowning elites and the revolutionary impulses of leftist reformers. Central to this study is climate unpredictability and the risks it presents in landscapes of entrenched poverty. This is a topic with increasing resonance as communities around the globe confront more extreme fluctuations in weather patterns. Ultimately, this book asks to what extent scientific expertise can solve pressing social problems— particularly, glaring inequities in wealth and security. It highlights the constraints on technocrats as agents of social change.

The regional focus is Brazil’s semiarid northeastern hinterland known as the sertão. in Brazil’s colonial era, cattle ranches expanded from the sugar-exporting coast (the economic and political center of Portugal’s flourishing colony) to provide meat and muscle power for plantations. the sertão’s fortunes as a ranching and agricultural economy waxed and waned in response to global competition and demand. By the beginning of the twentieth century, elites in Brazil’s more dynamic south viewed the sertão as chronically backward, plagued by a feudal landowning structure and the perceived deficiencies of its mixed-race population. Yet national leaders also saw renovating the sertão as essential to their modernizing ambitions. Among the per sis tent challenges to which the sertão has been subject is periodic drought. the establishment of an agency to combat drought in 1909 launched the federal government’s most significant investment in the region. Over the twentieth century, the Departamento Nacional de Obras Contra as Secas (DNOCS; National Department for Works to Combat Droughts) conducted geographic surveys, constructed road networks, built thousands of reservoirs of varying sizes, and planned irrigation systems that were intended to form the nuclei of smallholder . . .

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