In a survey carried out by the magazine IstoÉ, on who would be the Brazilian of the century, the geographer from Bahia Milton Santos received 19.3% of readers’ votes. And, the professor, who died in June this year, at 75 years of age, knew his compatriots very well. “Awards last for a day and they live only in the circle that knows about them. My day-to-day life is that of a Black and, as such, I have a Black man relationship with society. In Brazil this is not at all comfortable”, he said in an interview. It was precisely this “uncomfortable” view of an outsider in his own country that enabled him to see our blemishes like few can do.
Born on May 3, 1926, in Brotas de Macaúba, in Chapada Diamantina, in Bahia, he published 40 books and 300 articles in his lifetime, most of them abroad. He lectured in France (including at the renowned Sorbonne), Canada, Venezuela, Tanzania, England, and in the United States, where he was a member of faculty of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). He was also a consultant of the ILO, the OAS and Unesco. In 1994, he was awarded the greatest honor that geographer can be given, the Vautrin Lud prize, granted for the first time to a non-Anglo-Saxon researcher. He died as a professor at the Philosophy and Arts Institute of the University of São Paulo (USP).
His résumé is impressive and it gave him the credentials to convince his fellow countrymen that his controversial ideas should be taken seriously. A fierce critic of globalization, Santos used to say that it required a local accent to pursue its policy. And, above all, it is not the only path to be followed since the belief in an all-powerful international technique can only be of use to capital and its ideology, an invasion of territories and nationalities, as he told a newspaper. In the geographer’s opinion, it was better to think of the excluded, the only source, according to him, of creativity in poor countries.
The miserable, despised by the elite, would be, as he describes in The Nature of Space (1996), the only layer of society empowered to change it, its only social actors. The poor, in particular those in the towns, do not have employment but they have the work, the source of day-to-day discovery. The elite, in his view, is a prisoner of comfort, softened by consumption, and with no interest in discovery, in the new, in change. In this, his main target was the middle-class, the biggest advocates of globalization.
His love of the dispossessed began early, when Santos, then in high school, read Human Geography, by Josué de Castro, the revealing work that led him to study geography not from the standpoint of science, but that of the humanities. That is why, after graduating in Law, in 1948, at the Federal University of Bahia, he pursued his doctorate in Geography at Strasbourg, in France. This practical distance from his main object of study, Brazil, made him become a theoretician concerned with Brazilian social problems. These opinions made him no friends during the military regime.
He was imprisoned for 90 days by the military, in Salvador, suffered a heart attack, and a facial hemorrhage. The illness got him out of prison, but he was forced into exile for 13 years. On his return to Brazil in 1997, he found a place at USP. He was, however, a fierce critic of what he called the “capitulation of the intellectuals”, who, in his opinion, were more concerned with surviving that in researching, which took them perilously close to the establishment.