- The Deepest Wounds: A Labor and Environmental History of Sugar in Northeast Brazil
The global search for alternative energy sources to oil has led over the last decade to a boom in ethanol production based on feedstocks, including sugarcane. Investors worldwide are looking to profit from this expanding industry. Profit-centered views of agriculture have become increasingly pervasive during the neo-liberal epoch, and the supporting discourse does much to obscure the broader socioeconomic conditions under which such production occurs. Luckily, Thomas D. Rogers has produced a fascinating account of sugarcane production in northeastern Brazil, based on the perspectives of labor and the environment rather than investor profit. From this angle we get a very different picture of what a booming agro-industry looks like.
Deepest Wounds documents the changing fortunes of the sugarcane industry in northeastern Brazil from the emancipation from slavery in 1888 to the late twentieth century—an extremely broad historical narrative informed by Braudel’s understanding of history as combining a longue durèe—the evolution of the sugarcane sector—and a history [End Page 126] of events, primarily how planters and workers attempt to shape their positions in the accumulation process through political and other actions. Part one of the book comprises three chapters that provide an overview to the 1930s of the landscape of the zona da mata, the once-forested coastal plain of the Northeast, investigating the changing dominant discourses that emerged in the region to explain the interrelation between humans and their environment. Parts two and three (two chapters each) document the modernization of the sugar industry within the broader context of the economic objectives of the Brazilian state and the attempts by planters to shape, and workers to resist, these processes, first under the Vargas regimes and then, with a modernizing vengeance, under the military dictatorship from 1964 onward. Without mentioning him, Rogers confirms Marx’s proposition that “all progress in capitalist agriculture is a progress in the art, not only of robbing the worker but of robbing the soil.” For example, in chapter three, titled “A Landscape of Captivity: Power and the Definition of Work and Space,” Rogers notes how ‘Workers carried on their bodies the marks of their labour as they were scratched by abrasive cane leaves, developing a stoop from bending to wrap bundles of cane, or bore . . . deep, sickle-inflicted leg wounds” (p. 89), while simultaneously documenting the increased destruction of the native forest and the pollution of rivers.
Deepest Wounds documents how, from the 1930s, and especially from the mid-1960s, proletarianization in the sector was driven by extensive expansion onto land previously unused for sugarcane. This entailed, for example, decreasing worker access to garden plots as the latter were put into use for cane production; an intensification of work, leaving less time for those workers who still had access to garden plots to produce their subsistence crops on them; and changing tenancy agreements that were increasingly based on money payments rather than recognition of workers’ rights to land. These transformations contributed to changing forms of struggle—from the peasant leagues demanding land reform in the early 1960s to a much more proletarianized rural labor force confronting both planters and the military regime in 1979 to demand improvements in pay and conditions. Rogers notes how these strikes continued throughout the 1980s and were scheduled to hit the planters particularly hard by falling just prior to the harvest. These strategies were later adopted by other rural workers’ movements, including those in the expanding horticulture-for-export sector in the interior of Pernambuco (Selwyn 2011).
To conclude, this book represents both a valuable contribution to labor and environmental history and an important antidote to the widespread profit-oriented view of agriculture. [End Page 127]
Brighton, United Kingdom