- Before the Flood: The Itaipu Dam and the Visibility of Rural Brazil by Jacob Blanc
Recently, this reviewer taught a course titled, “Global Borderlands,” and Jacob Blanc’s work was a featured text. It fit neatly into the semester’s conversations about borderlands and their global dimensions. Students absorbed its ideas with interest and applied them toward research projects on topics as varied as Michigan-based Native American casinos and the history of tourism in the Caribbean. The exercise proved the versatility of the work.
The book joins a range of new scholarship about the Itaipu Dam and the surrounding Paraguayan-Brazilian borderlands. Christina Folch’s work considers how water [End Page 689] generates sovereignty and fiscal power with the operation of Itaipu. Blanc, in turn, focuses on the land. The book centers on the tensions surrounding the planned flooding of hundreds of square kilometers of farm and forest land in western Paraná, Brazil, that came with the dam’s completion in the early 1980s. Blanc argues that the political organizing by smallholders, landless peasants, and Avá-Guaraní indigenous communities, pursued in response to their anticipated displacement from the flood, fed prominently into the broader democratization movement against the military regime in Brazil. In effect, the Itaipu megaproject—a hallmark of the military regime’s push for development—turned rural activists from an “isolated borderland” into center-stage political actors and contributed to the regime’s demise.
Blanc probes how the military dictatorship was experienced in the countryside. Rural Brazil was “a pivotal site for both the exercise of dictatorship and the practice of resistance” (9). Rural communities experiencing the exercise of dictatorship and practice of resistance had different relations with land and legitimacy. Land ownership, Blanc demonstrates, provided a visible white and male political subjectivity to smallholders that “unimagined” landless peasants and Ava-Guaraní communities just did not command. The latter two groups thus had a much rougher go at extracting concessions from the government, based on their differing conceptions of land and their lack of visible political legitimacy.
To set the context, Blanc first narrates just how contested the border between Brazil and Paraguay was before the 1973 Itaipu treaty. Here an irony rings strong: the agreement to build the dam and settle the border region, ostensibly to avoid a potential border war and pull Paraguay into Brazil’s orbit, generated unanticipated borderland consequences. The Brazilian regime advertised to the affected residents of Paraná the dam’s promise of development, then, via the Itaipú Binacional corporation, offered swindler prices to modest holders set to be displaced by the flood. A string of high-profile protest encampments among smallholder and landless campesino communities raised political consciousnesses and secured notable concessions from Itaipú Binacional in the form of higher land prices. They also exposed the internal tensions within the movement: the landless mostly received nothing.
Meanwhile the affected Ava-Guaraní communities turned full-fledged political actors to undo their unimagined place within the nation. They adroitly navigated Brazilian land-tenure law and connections to activist networks to secure land compensation for their displacement, so as to continue living in their tekoha. Still, the spillover from the flood’s displacement sent Brazilian smallholders into eastern Paraguay to purchase cheap land, and landless peasants into the Amazon as agricultural colonists. Both groups became “shock troops” of agro-industrial interests, across external and internal frontiers. And as Kregg Hetherington shows, the displacement of the Brazilian smallholders proved especially consequential for the eventual conversion of Paraguay into a “soy state.” [End Page 690]
Blanc is primarily concerned, though, with developments in Brazil. He sheds new light on the origins in Brazil of a rural landless activist movement of now global reach, but hesitates at pursuing a more complete borderlands history. His source base is impressive regardless, drawing from oral history interviews, state archives in Brazil and Paraguay, and—most innovatively—the records of the Itaipú Binational itself. This quasi-state entity...