Patrick Gage, Georgetown University
People care about climate change when it affects them. That is why Pacific islanders fear rising sea levels more than the average American, and why many who live in coastal cities fear a projected increase in tropical cyclones more than those further inland. Yet the idea that an environmental change “over there” will not affect communities “here” actually makes little sense. History is rife with examples of human crises brought on by seemingly distant climatic events.
One of the clearest examples unfolded in late nineteenth century Northeastern Brazil (Nordeste). A powerful El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO) event warmed the waters of the equatorial Pacific Ocean, changing atmospheric circulation in ways that brought extreme rain shortages to Brazil, and ultimately launched the nation’s first rubber boom. The Grande Seca, or “Great Drought,” of 1877-1878 not only killed hundreds of thousands of northeasterners (nordestinos), but also sparked massive internal migration. The latter proved particularly problematic for the state of Ceará, from which thousands emigrated. Cearenses thus provided rubber barons in nearby Amazonas and Pará an invaluable supply of cheap labor, which they needed to meet growing demand. By 1900, the country exported more rubber than any other commodity except coffee. El Niño therefore shaped the history of Brazil.
ENSO events affect the global environment on an irregular basis. Typically, Peru’s cold Humboldt Current flows northward along the South American coast before easterly trade winds push it west along the equator. Warmed by the sun, its waters increase in temperature as they approach Indonesia, making the western Pacific hotter than the east. El Niño reverses these trends: trade winds and the Humboldt’s westward flow subside, westerly winds pick up, Kelvin waves carry warm water from Asia to South America in a process called “advection,” and hot, humid air masses travel toward Peru and Ecuador. Sea temperature in the eastern equatorial Pacific subsequently rises, causing changes in precipitation across the Americas. While coastal Peru faces torrential rain, Brazil’s Nordeste experiences severe drought. The distrinct relationships, or teleconnections, between ENSO and local climates generate different phenomena depending on the region. When Western Canadians enjoy an unusually warm winter, for example, Western Europeans may endure an especially cold one.
El Niño and drought in Northeastern Brazil therefore often coincide, but not always. The Brazilian Northeast has struggled with intermittent drought for centuries. Although its sugar- and cotton-heavy coast generally receives sufficient rain, the region suffered no fewer than forty-four unique dry spells between 1557 and 1992, or approximately one every ten years. Removing an abnormally wet period from 1615-1691 reduces that average to once per eight. What is more, of the fifteen so-called “major” droughts—those spanning at least two consecutive summers—only six occurred before 1800, implying a quantitative and qualitative increase over the past 200 years. While some of these dry spells occurred in concert with ENSO, many did not. Water shortages plague the Nordeste regardless of ocean temperature.
Different droughts affected the water-dependent Northeast differently. Though many were forgotten, some left indelible marks, none more than the Grande Seca. From 1877 to 1878, two “very strong” El Niño years dramatically increased water shortages and decimated the Nordeste, killing livestock and people by the tens of thousands. Ceará suffered most. As cattle and crop losses wiped out food supplies, the state’s death toll mounted. By 1878, 175,000 Cearenses had perished. All told, at least 500,000 nordestinos died and three million fled their homes. Newspapers from Ceará described the tragedy in heart-wrenching detail.
On 6 January 1877 (mid-summer), Cearense noted the first signs of hardship: “The lack of rains is already being felt. From Sobral and other … points of the province they tell us … the drought is … causing considerable damage.” Desperate letters painted a dismal picture. On 11 March, one man in Crato wrote: “We are with a terrible drought … and only God knows how painful this scourge will be.” Relayed another from Caixoçó: “The drought is ravaging everything, the mortality of cows is astonishing.”
The situation did not improve as March and the late rainy season became early winter. One correspondent from Assaré feared complete human annihilation in the surrounding countryside, while O Retirante (“The Refugee”) lamented the “emaciated bodies of our little children, wives and fathers.” A letter published several days before Christmas ended 1877 on a depressing note: “Already we are in the middle of December and not any rain! The drought with all its procession of horrors proceeds, threatening to swallow everything.”
The Grande Seca officially ended in 1878, but its effects lasted far longer. The drought crippled Northeastern sugar barons, who had watched their investments wither since the early 1800s. Cotton growers, whose business boomed during and after the American Civil War (1861-1865), likewise faced renewed headwinds, while cattle ranchers counted their losses in the hundreds of thousands of heads. The deadliest drought in Brazilian history, exacerbated by two consecutive years of exceptionally strong El Niño, therefore had a significant economic impact on the Nordeste, draining it of much-needed capital and contributing to the region’s lackluster development.
Above all, drought victims needed jobs, especially in Ceará. As an 11 March 1877 letter from Icó indicated, people often died “not because there [was] an absolute lack of foods, but because there [was] nothing with which to buy them.” Millions of desperate Cearenses therefore migrated to major population centers, hoping to find work. Among emigrants’ limited options, Brazil’s burgeoning rubber industry proved particularly appealing, both for its relatively high wages and geographical proximity.
Based in the Amazon Valley, namely the states of Amazonas and Pará, Brazilian rubber production did not begin until the late 1700s, after French explorer Charles Marie de La Condamine first watched natives use a “milky, viscous liquid” from the Hevea Braziliensis tree to make boots, toys, and bottles. Fueled by what amounted to a minor “gold rush,” exports of raw rubber and rubber products grew steadily through the early 1800s. The trade took off when Charles Goodyear discovered vulcanization in 1839, which made rubber resistant to extreme temperatures. Exports jumped from 388,260 kg in 1840 to 2,673,000 kg in 1860. Nevertheless, rubber remained largely irrelevant in Brazil until its first boom in the 1880s, when price increases and an influx of cheap labor pushed the commodity’s export share to 10 percent. That number soared to 39 percent by 1910. Brazil’s natural claim to Hevea made it the world’s largest producer for three decades
Despite remarkable success, Brazilian rubber barons faced constant labor shortages throughout the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The Grande Seca thus benefitted them immensely. Starving Cearenses, whom the rubber industry “desperately needed,” cared little about working conditions as long they were paid, and so accepted jobs few others dared to take—among them tapping Hevea trees in a hot, disease-ridden rainforest.
During the Grande Seca, Ceará became a key state for labor recruiters from Amazonas and Pará. In 1916, Joseph Woodroffe, a European eyewitness, claimed immigration to the Amazon Valley consisted exclusively of Cearenses, largely in response to the drought. Weinstein, Barham and Coomes, Caviedes, and Resor also acknowledge the Grande Seca’s role in driving poor Cearenses to the jungle, where they supported plantations as cheap tappers (seringueiros). But despite catastrophic death tolls from 1877 onward, emigration did not find universal support in Ceará. On the contrary, Cearense and its editors openly opposed the state’s depopulation for economic and humanitarian reasons.
Cearense arranged the debate as follows. On 15 April 1877, an “enlightened friend” in Sobral noted: “We continue to think … one of the most useful ways of applying aid, to which the State is obligated, would be … to promote seriously the emigration of our population to more fertile and almost unpopulated regions of other provinces.” Several pages later, however, a sordid column lamented the fact that thirty refugees had recently arrived in Fortaleza, Ceará’s capital, and hoped to reach the Amazon Valley. “This idea of emigration to other provinces,” the author mused, “is of incalculable disadvantages to Ceará.” Cearense’s publishers agreed, as future editions only “supported” emigration insofar as they acknowledged opposing views and occasionally allowed independent writers to criticize their claims.
The paper solidified its stance on 18 April. Emigration to Amazonas and Pará, it argued, was “harmful … to [Ceará] … because it [ripped out] a large number of strong arms for plowing.” Over the next seven months, such fear came up time and again. In July, for example, one writer professed concern for the state’s future: “…supposing [the drought] is transitory, how will we repopulate our deserted hinterlands if we remove … by means of a broad emigration, their natural habitants?” Together, these columns typified a standard economic argument against outmigration, namely that Ceará would need people to rebuild once the Grande Seca passed, and therefore could not absorb any more losses than necessary. But this only explains some of Cearense’s hostility toward open borders.
Though principally worried about Ceará’s financial prospects, educated nordestinos also expressed sympathy for destitute workers. Cearense printed articles throughout 1877 noting that rubber jobs in Amazonas and Pará were difficult and exploitative. On 18 April, the paper published several letters from Father José Thomaz, “who painted with blackest colors the luck of the poor emigrant, who is there [in the Amazon] reduced to the hardest and cruelest captivity by the rubber tappers to whom he hires his services.” Another pundit claimed Cearenses who left for Amazonas would likely “perish in the swamps.”
As more reports of emigration made their way into Cearense, so too did overt warnings. “Our wretched brothers who have gone to [Amazonas] have suffered horrible trials,” wrote one author on 18 October. Yet faced with certain death by disease or starvation, Cearenses continued to flee. By 23 September, at least 1,552 had crossed into the Amazon Valley, followed by hundreds more before the end of the year. Most left for rubber plantations.
Cearenses migrated by the thousands to Amazonas and Pará at the same time Brazil’s first rubber boom began (early 1880s). Those dates are no coincidence. While Amazonian elites owed their success to many different factors, drought-stricken nordestinos provided the foundation. Without adequate labor, there would never have been a rubber industry, let alone a profitable one.
Late nineteenth and early twentieth century Brazilian rubber production had far-reaching environmental consequences. When Emperor Pedro II created the province of Amazonas in 1850, Manaus, its capital, comprised little more than “a small collection of mud huts.” That changed rapidly as speculators flooded the region. The Amazonian North’s population quadrupled from 250,000 in 1853 to almost one million in 1910. Manaus and its Paraense counterpart, Belém, benefitted immensely: electricity, streetcars, exquisite theaters, and large ports graced the once-barren cities. Countless new rubber trails cut through the rainforest as well, in addition to increased traffic on the river. That said, the industry’s initial emphasis on wild Hevea trees delayed mass deforestation for several decades, while industrial cattle ranching, which would have required a dramatic physical reorganization of the Amazon Valley, lacked sufficient investment.
Droughts have shaped Northeastern Brazil for centuries, yet the Grande Seca stands out. Not only was it longer and drier than most, but it also came at a time of profound demographic and economic transformation in Brazil. That increased its death toll and its consequences for the human and environmental histories of Brazil.
The past, like the present, proves Earth’s interconnectedness. Environmental shifts “over there” will eventually affect us “here.” More than one hundred years ago, warming water in the Pacific Ocean changed the course of Brazilian history, driving extraordinary investment in the previously untapped Amazon Valley. In the same way, natural disasters, rising seas levels, and other symptoms of global warming will inevitably influence how all of us live our lives, regardless of geography.
There is no running away. We must face this crisis together.
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