- The Deepest Wounds: A Labor and Environmental History of Sugar in Northeast Brazil
Evoking the potential for the interdisciplinary study of labor and the environment, Marx argued that labor and soil were the fundamental [End Page 489] sources of wealth and that capitalist agriculture both exploited rural workers and impoverished rural landscapes.1 The Deepest Wounds expansively investigates these two related processes, comprising a carefully researched history of sugar in twentieth-century Pernambuco, an area that has been neglected to some extent. The book embraces an analysis that is unequal parts a cultural history of human attitudes toward sugar-cane landscapes; a purposeful examination of rural work routines; a history of rural labor organization and militancy; and, particularly during the post-1964 military government, an examination of the regional significance of intervention by state-sponsored technocrats in both land and labor matters.
Relying on a variety of sources, Rogers argues that the rural elite saw the countryside as a "laboring landscape" where landholders dominated fertile soils and human bodies, both before and after the abolition of slavery. Rogers claims that planters "saw no distinction between land and labor," viewing peasants, oxen, and mules—which were often housed adjacently—as in the same category (8). This equation, however, is an exaggeration. Planters knew that human workers, slaves or peasants, were more valuable and less compliant than domesticates, but the comparison is true enough to be a useful lens. Workers, however, saw sugar's monotonous green monoculture as a prison. Rogers in his concluding paragraphs suggests that cane's persistence on the land for a half-millennium was due to its importance for every social class. More broadly, what planters and peasants alike saw in sugar was a livelihood. Alternative crops or land uses could conceivably have displaced sugar's dominance, but sugar was remarkably adept at "adapting" to changing human requirements. The military regime repurposed sucrose from exportable sweetener to gasoline substitute. As a result, expanding cane plantings not only displaced food production in Brazil's hungriest region but also converted cheap calories, which for centuries had helped to fuel the bodies of the poor, into ethanol, which now fuels the cars of the rich.
Rogers is persuasive that the industrialization of sugar production in much of Pernambuco proletarianized the rural workers. Land, and hence land reform, lost much of its attraction, much to the chagrin of many elder labor leaders. Militant workers went on strike because of low wages and excessive daily tasks rather than the loss and obvious degradation of the lands on which they gardened, hunted, and fished. Labor made modest gains. With federal support that reclassified plantation laborers as industrial workers and through effective use of the legal system, wages rose, as did bargaining power. But the laborers' own work, the functional nexus between humans and their landscapes, contributed to sugar's growing presence on the landscape, increasing deforestation, flooding, and water pollution and eliminating habitat.
The Deepest Wounds is an important contribution deserving a wide [End Page 490] readership. But it may not be completely satisfying from an interdisciplinary point of view: Cultural historians may desire a more elongated analysis of the changes in human attitudes toward sugar landscapes; labor historians may want a thicker narrative of rural labor's birth, development, and ultimate accomplishments; and environmental historians may expect a fuller description of sugar's material impact on the land. Rogers, however, strikes a nice balance, deftly integrating selective themes into a greater whole. [End Page 491]
1. Karl Marx (trans. Ben Fowkes), Capital I: A Critique of Political Economy (New York, 1977; orig. pub. 1867), 637-638.