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American Philosophical Society
Realities of Images: Imperial Brazil and the Great Drought
Gerald Greenfield (au). Toward the end of February in 1877, a letter from the county council of Telha, a municipio of some six hundred inhabitants located in the Serra da Mattos reported that people were dying from starvation. The previous year's rainy season or "winter" had been sparse, and the harvest, poor. Now, this season's rains still had not appeared. This was the Great Drought-three years of failed rains enshrined in subsequent Brazilian historical memory as the worst drought ever to hit Brazil's northeast. Drought had visited the region throughout its history, with the earliest recorded occurrences dating back to the sixteenth century. Prior to the Great Drought, the last significant drought had taken place in 1844-45. That relatively long interval of good rains made the failure of rains in 1877 even more devastating, for it caught the provinces of the north totally unprepared. Despite all this official concern, the numerous academic studies, ambitious plans, and publicly-funded projects, the specter of periodic droughts producing dislocation and death continues to haunt the region. As Nancy Schepper-Hughes affirms, "if there is one raw and vital nerve among Nordestinos [northeasterners] it is their horror of drought . . . and thirst." Northeasterners see drought as both a cause and symbol of their region's relative underdevelopment, and claim that this reflects a longstanding pattern of government favoritism toward the south. In this view as well, the northeast has been exploited by southern business and financial interests, drained of both its people and capital. Outside the region, the derisive terms "drought industries" and "drought industrialists" express a widely-held belief that northeastern politicians have shamelessly exploited drought to provide patronage for their cronies, waxing rich off the misery of the ignorant masses. This supposedly explains the long history of failed attempts to "solve" the drought problem.
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