- Before the Flood: The Itaipu Dam and the Visibility of Rural Brazil by Jacob Blanc
Jacob blanc's before the flood is the story of the Justice and Land Movement (MJT), a grassroots campaign by Brazilian farmers in western Paraná state to wrest compensation from Itaipu Binational, a government-owned corporation contracted to erect a big hydroelectric dam that would flood, among other things, their farms. The setting is the late 1970s and the early 1980s, the latter years of Brazil's repressive military dictatorship, which had started in 1964. In 1979, the military regime began a process known as abertura, a series of political reforms designed to stem the tide of popular protest by formally restoring some democratic freedoms. The Brazilian and Paraguayan governments had agreed to build the Itaipu Dam in 1973, and by the end of the decade, the governments had their sights set on completing the dam and filling its reservoir by October 1982. The indemnification process had been proceeding in a slow and, in the eyes of the farmers, unfair, manner. In the context of abertura and the looming flood, these farmers organized to demand just compensation for their soon-to-be-flooded lands. The protests culminated in two big encampments at Itaipu's offices in 1980 and 1981, which pushed the company to agree to some of the movement's demands.
Blanc's story centers on two arguments. First, Blanc contends that an unintended consequence of building Itaipu was the rise of political consciousness among displaced farmers, who created a local protest movement (MJT) and helped engender a nation-wide land movement. Both campaigns sought to challenge the dictatorship itself and to advocate politically for those in the countryside. Second, Blanc maintains that class and race conditioned the experience [End Page 273] of dictatorship and redemocratization. For white farmers who owned land, the dictatorship was a period of unprecedented repression, whereas for landless farmers and Indigenous communities, it was a continuation of repression that the state had long subjected them to. Landed farmers were also more able to reap the rewards of protest than their landless and Indigenous counterparts.
Blanc uses this second argument to challenge the traditional periodization of the dictatorship. He argues that emphasizing the dates that the military came to power and stepped down (1964-85) misrepresents the era as an unprecedented period of authoritarian rule for all Brazilians. Rather, for many marginalized communities, repression was rampant before and after the dictatorship, and for these groups, military rule was not a dramatic rupture from a state of freedom. This book also contributes to the literature on the dictatorship and abertura by drawing attention to the countryside, an area that scholars have long neglected in favor of social movements in urban centers. Lastly, Blanc builds on the work James Scott, who discusses how states see or overlook certain groups. Blanc argues that visibility works both ways and that scholarship needs to consider how certain groups attempt to be seen. Because of the national and international spotlight on Itaipu, the project was a unique chance for farmers to become visible to a state that otherwise overlooked them.
The book's greatest strengths relate to its second argument. Blanc skillfully demonstrates how social status conditioned the experience of dictatorship and grassroots protest. He shows that the membership of the MJT was not as homogenous as is often portrayed. The movement had its own hierarchies that prioritized the needs of land-owning farmers, most of whom were of European descent, at the expense of the interests of landless famers, who were often non-white, and the Avá Guarani Indigenous community. The MJT's internal hierarchies also excluded women from leadership roles and largely erased their contributions from its history, despite the fact that women played essential roles in sustaining the movement. In the beginning...