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  • Technocrats and the Politics of Drought and Development in Twentieth-Century Brazil by Eve E. Buckley
  • Christian Brannstrom
Eve E. Buckley
Technocrats and the Politics of Drought and Development in Twentieth-Century Brazil.
Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2017. vxiii + 279 pp. Table, maps, photos, notes, references, and index. $29.95 paper (ISBN 978-1-4693-3430-2).

Why, in spite of the actions of federal agencies through dozens of projects over the past several decades, does human suffering from drought in Brazil’s northeastern region persist? Why did recurring drought in the semi-arid sertão kill thousands through starvation and disease, and force thousands more sertanejos into work camps, or worse? Interpretations have coalesced around the “drought industry” view (p. 4), first articulated by Brazilian journalist Antônio Callado, who argued in 1959 that northeastern elites “industrialized the drought” and enriched themselves through dam, reservoir, and transport projects that federal agencies implemented during the twentieth century in response to recurring drought (p. 199). The perverse outcomes of the “drought industry” were noted by Anthony Hall in his classic Drought and Irrigation in North-East Brazil (Cambridge, 1978) and received attention from many Brazilian scholars, such as Darcy Ribeiro, who noted that drought aid reduced resilience of sertão inhabitants and “added a water monopoly” to the assets of powerful landowners (p. 40).

Technocrats and the Politics of Drought is about federal bureaucracies and the “drought technocrats” (p. 3) who built dams, reservoirs, roads, and irrigation projects that failed to make discernable reductions in the vulnerability of rural inhabitants to drought. Eve Buckley’s book does not attempt to overturn the “drought industry” paradigm for the sertão; rather, the book focuses on the engineers and agronomists who ran the bureaucracy and supervised the work sites. Through her reading of institutional archives in Rio de Janeiro, Recife, and Fortaleza, especially correspondence between field engineers and agronomists with their superiors, Buckley aims to offer a “more complex and nuanced” reading of the “drought industry” by showing that engineers and agronomists “exhibited [End Page 219] genuine sympathy” for the retirantes (drought refugees) and showed “profound distaste for Brazil’s chronic inequalities” (p. 4). She argues that drought technocrats “were not … uncaring instruments of an industrializing state” but rather they “were misled by their naïve beliefs that science and technology could resolve problems that were political” (p. 6), meaning the unequal access to food, land, and water that produced drought vulnerability.

Buckley provides national political context for understanding actions of the leaders of the drought bureaucracies, which evolved from the Inspectoria de Obras Contra as Secas (IOCS; Inspectorate of Works to Combat Droughts, created in 1909) to the Inspectoria Federal de Obras Contra as Secas (IFOCS; Federal Inspectorate of Works to Combat Droughts), and then Departamento Nacional de Obras Contra as Secas (National Department of Works to Combat Droughts; DNOCS) and the Superintendência de Desenvolvimento do Nordeste (SUDENE; Superintendency for Northeast Development, created in 1959). She focuses on the leaders of these agencies, their educational backgrounds, and their priorities. Special attention is devoted to Celso Furtado, the leader of SUDENE and one of Brazil’s most prominent twentieth-century intellectuals. Furtado viewed drought vulnerability as a symptom of social inequality and marginalization and supported land redistribution around reservoirs as a solution to the drought problem. The 1964 military takeover in Brazil sent Furtado into exile and criminalized the idea of seeking drought relief through land redistribution.

The analysis of Furtado’s land redistribution plan for the sertão, the last substantive chapter in the book, complements an earlier chapter on early-twentieth-century public health knowledge of the northeast. A public health survey of the northeast led by Belisário Penna and Arthur Neiva in 1912, three years after IOCS was established in 1909, supported the argument that sertanejos’ suffering resulted from disease, illiteracy, and marginalization, not racial degeneration, as Penna and Neiva’s contemporaries argued.

Penna and Neiva’s interpretation was not put into practice in the drought bureaucracies, which were focused on dams, reservoirs, and roads. The core argument of the book is not why the dam-reservoir program succeeded, but that...