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The ’third bank’ of the Lower Sao Francisco River : Culture, nature and power in the northeast Brazil, 1853—2003

Andrade, Renata Marson Teixeira de

Titre : The ’third bank’ of the Lower Sao Francisco River : Culture, nature and power in the northeast Brazil, 1853—2003

Auteur : Andrade, Renata Marson Teixeira de


Grade : Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) 2006

My dissertation examines how Brazilian modern water resources management in the S„o Francisco River has obtained its authority through a set of discursive displacements rooted in late 19th century imperial and early 20th century republican visions of nature and race. I argue that those discursive displacements, especially along the S„o Francisco River banks and islands, construct and give meaning to one entity ñ the ìriver of national unityî - within a historically and geographically specific system of signification (transportation, electric energy, irrigation, crops, and productivity) that is genealogically related to geopolitical aspirations supported by 19th century scientific and engineering river expeditions. The S„o Francisco River extends through six Brazilian states, crossing semi-humid and semi-arid terrains as it moves from the central-south highlands of Brazil to the dry northeast plateaus and mesas. The river drains water from an area of 644,000 km2 , 8% of the Brazilian territory, with a current approximate population of 18 million people, living in 503 municipalities, including the capital city of Brazil, Brasilia DF. Based on archival information gathered from government and industry sources, as well as over 60 semi-structured personal interviews and participant observation with artisanal fishing communities, natural scientists, policymakers and social and environmental activists involved with the S„o Francisco River in the states of Alagoas, Bahia, Pernambuco, Minas Gerais, Sergipe, and Goi·s, this study points to historical, cultural and political processes through which the identities living in, working on and managing the S„o Francisco River attain legitimacy. This study argues that representations of the S„o Francisco River have evolved from the modernizing ìriver of national unityî to a ìlandscape of mourningî evoking the return of traditional cultural values. In that sense, my story unfolds the national discourse of modernization of the S„o Francisco River as the backdrop to the displacements it carries to the ecology and the ìtraditional way of livingî along this River. My findings show that developers during the mid 20th century made the traditional communities along the river invisible on maps and plans. This enabled the large water projects to ìworkî in controlling nature and stabilizing social and political movements, while erasing ìtraditionalî cultures from national views. However, since the mid 1980s, protests along the S„o Francisco River against large water projects led initially by priests of the Catholic Church, and then by NGOs and civil society, invoked traditions along the river ñ for instance portrayed by gendered and racial images of traditional artisanal fishermen ñ as a call for river preservation. Although the images of traditional fishermen represented the river as their place of livelihood, their very localness has nonetheless challenged the hegemonic representation of the S„o Francisco River as ìthe river of national unityî, based on the assumption that the river has to support large infrastructure projects, into one of ìdisunityî, based on the assertion of local identity claims. Centennial traditional fisher communities, living along the swamps, islands and banks of the Lower S„o Francisco River, themselves have claimed the river as part of their traditional territory. They have organized their own movement to ìsave the dying riverî and refused to let others speak for them, but instead with them. They are also finding new methods to empower themselves, by working together through church and politics to build new alliances that incorporate science and gender, and expand their participation in watershed committees. Therefore, traditional fishers are looking at strategies for local, regional and national political action and winning a voice in river politics, attaining new legitimacy over the river that has been taken from their past and present. However, if the S„o Francisco River is a deeply cultural and political space, then it is so in ways that bears the continued imprint of Brazilian imperial and early republican views of nature and race. I argue that concepts of river, traditional population, nation, and so on, are not given once for all but are themselves critical sites of political struggle and are historically contingent. In this sense, cultural identities are dynamic and fragmented rather than static and timeless. They do not emerge in some voluntary fashion in which individuals choose freely between alternatives, but through continuous reenactment and stabilization within discursive practices. Looking at these historical layers of culture, knowledge, politics and economics is critical to understanding the environmental and social justice issues of the S„o Francisco River. By analyzing the rhetorical and material efforts of developing and saving the river, this research uncovers multiple images and representations given to local fishing populations by different social groups. It is in this sense that this dissertation investigates the ìthird bankî of the Lower S„o Francisco River : a Pandoraís Box of river politics that is not only divisive, but also forms the basis for cooperation between many ìmarginalî groups living along and beyond the S„o Francisco Riverís two visible banks.


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