From Confusion to Common Sense: Using Political Ethnography to Understand Social Mobilization in the Brazilian Northeast

  • Wendy Wolford

The decade of the 1990s was a difficult one for the sugarcane region of northeastern Brazil. Local producers were hurt by falling international prices for sugar: from a high of almost one dollar per pound in the early 1980s, the price fell to an average of 10–12 cents a pound throughout the 1990s (World Bank Report No. 20754-BR 2002, p. 34). Price decreases were exacerbated by changes in the nature of state support: in 1989, the newly democratic Brazilian government began dismantling and progressively withdrawing its generous safety net for northeastern sugarcane producers (de Andrade and de Andrade 2001). Subsidies that had previously (since 1975) allowed northeastern producers to compete with their more efficient counterparts in the South were cut by more than 60% in 1989 (Buarque 1997). By 1995, 15 of 26 sugarcane distilleries in Pernambuco – the state responsible for a majority of the total sugarcane produced in the Northeast at that time – were either shut down or on the verge of bankruptcy (Lins 1996, p. 2). Production in the state had fallen from 20 million tons in 1989 to 14 million in 2000–2001 (de Andrade and de Andrade 2001, p. 147), and plantation and distillery owners were leaving their land for healthier industries elsewhere (particularly tourism on the coast). Common laborers were badly hurt by the crisis: in an industry heavily dependent on manual labor, an estimated 350,000 workers were unemployed in 1996 and considered unlikely to find work even during the harvest season.


Collective Action Common Sense Social Movement Land Occupation Agrarian Reform 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2007

Authors and Affiliations

  • Wendy Wolford
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of GeographyUniversity of North Carolina-Chapel HillNorth Carolina

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