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Backlands called Brazil

On the centenary of the Rondon Commission, the country still suffers from the same ailments

AcknowledgementMarshal Rondon receives presents from the Indians of the river Guaraporé; behind him, wearing a hat, the expedition’s cameramanAcknowledgement

In his rustic wisdom, the cowboy Riobaldo, the protagonist in Grande sertão: veredas  (The devil to pay in the Backlands, American translation), by Guimarães Rosa, left us with a puzzle that until today devours us: “The Backlands are everywhere”. For some, it is Brazil without end, with a little parcel of civilization surrounded by barbarity. For others, the endless Backlands are synonymous with the grandiose potential waiting to be discovered and conquered. If the discovery of the theme of the Backlands is the merit of Euclides da Cunha, the vision of the nation to be built in this “Huge Brazil” comes from Cândido Mariano da Silva Rondon (1865-1958). “His legacy captures the patriotic and nationalistic themes of the incorporation and construction of the State. ‘Brazil, the country of the future’ was the nation’s development slogan during the 20th century. This image of an immense Brazil, rich in minerals waiting to be explored, was partly born through the Comissão de Linhas Telegráficas Estratégicas de Mato Grosso ao Amazonas [Strategic telegraph Lines Commission from Mato Grosso state to Amazonas state] (CLTEMTA), the Rondon Commission”, observes the Brazilinist, Todd A. Diacon, author of a profile about the Marshal, recently published in Brazil by the publisher Companhia das Letras.

In a notable paradox, it is on the centenary of the famous expedition, which began in 1907 by order of President Afonso Pena, that the current federal government announced, in its Program of Acceleration of Growth (PAC), the intention of paving he BR-364 highway in the state of Acre, the highway that follows exactly the trajectory of the telegraph line initiated some one hundred years ago by marshal Rondon. Today, as in the last century, the Brazilian State intends to increase its presence in distant sites, in the belief that, by taking the infrastructure to the Backlands, progress will arrive there. Marshal Rondon did not think very differently. “He had judged that to develop the structure was important exactly because it promised to facilitate the efforts to mold the inhabitants of the northwest of Brazil into citizens of ‘his Brazil'”, observes Diacon. Does the dilemma of Guimarães Rosa concerning the Backlands follow us, even retransformed? “In the past, the geographic utopia saw the country as an immense pioneer front. The road ended at the mouth of the jungle. In the eyes of some, it appears enough to take the road a little further; progress would do the rest. Today we know that this is not so. One needs to overcome the great frontier of inequality, cultivate a more human future, and open up roads of opportunities. To recreate the idea of the nation based on collective interest”, said President Lula in 2005 on re-launching the Rondon Project (created in 1967). “Social justice now represents that which the telegraph symbolized in the past, when Rondon traversed the country at the head of the CLTEMTA.” And how he traversed. From May of 1907 until January of 1915, Rondon and his men installed 1,500 kilometers of the telegraph line Cuiabá-Santo Antonio do Madeira, fulfilling the presidential mission that had the objective of linking to the federal capital, by telegraph wire, the territories of the Amazon, Acre, Alto Purus and Alto Juruá by way of the Mato Grosso State capital, Cuiabá, already in communication with Rio de Janeiro.

But national progress had never been hanging by a thread. During all of the year 1924, for example, the most important telegraph stations did not send more than a few dozen telegrams and received even less. What, therefore, was the importance of Marshal Rondon’s work and the everlastingness of his “heroic” fame? Cowboy Riobaldo, smart, is the person with the answer. “There was a complete movement of valuation of the Backlands that accompanied railway construction projects (it is worth remembering that this year is also the centenary of the start of the construction of the ‘Devil’s railroad’, the Madeira-Mamoré line), of the delimitation of frontiers, of sanitation, of cartographic mappings. Strongly associated to the presence of the State, it brings together social players informed by scientific knowledge, dominant among intellectuals”, explains Nísia Trindade Lima, a researcher at the Oswaldo Cruz Home and a professor at the State University of Rio de Janeiro (Uerj), author of Um sertão chamado Brasil [A Backlands called Brazil]. The start of the 20th century is marked by the discussion of the duality between the coast and the Backlands, present even in the poetry of Catulo da Paixão Cearense and his romantic lament of the ideal threatened by progress: “People there is not, oh no/ moonlight like the one of the Backlands”. Thus, barbaric polarization did not prevail/civilization if one speaks of national grottos.

“The saying of cowboy Riobaldo was correct, once the Backlands could be spoken of with respect to a specific region or even to the image used by the sanitation movements of which the Backlands begins beyond Central Avenue”, analyzed Robert Wegner, also a researcher at the Oswaldo Cruz Home. “This Backlands that is everywhere is therefore both that side associated to barbarism as a counterweight to civilization and that of another duality, that of authentic culture in opposition to civilization of copiers of what was done in Europe.” This clash brought together figures such as Euclides da Cunha, Rondon and Oswaldo Cruz.

It is the intellectuals who spin upon their feet, in order to remember the expression coined by Nicolau Sevcenko, and go on to look towards the interior of the country. “In order to see the Backlands with their own eyes, looking to solve with telegraphs, railroads and surveys that profound ambiguity of the dichotomy of the Backlands versus the coastline, in which sometimes one appears to be negative, sometimes the other. Thus, these three personalities searched to align their penetration into the Backlands as the discovery of authenticity to their yearning to incorporate these Backlands into the civilizing process”, noted researcher Wegner. But there was much more to the game. “The perspectives that positively valued, or approached in an ambivalent manner that which is seen as a backward center and of resistance to progress, sees the Backlands as the possibility of the development of an authentic national conscience”, evaluates Nísia. The Backlands becomes a key-theme in Brazilian social thinking and in the projects of constructing nationality. “One can really affirm that the idea of the Backlands transforms itself into a metaphor for thinking Brazil”, writes the researcher.

AcknowledgementMarshal Rondon at one of his camp sites, with family photo on the table, and his beloved dogsAcknowledgement

In this context, at the end of the 19th century, Rio de Janeiro was as distant from the Backlands as it was from Paris or London. The sensation was that there was a “defect” in the Brazilian nation that appeared not to possess points in common and, notes  Diacon, “it was necessary to build a nation, or to remodel it, in such a manner that it could turn itself into something new and modern”. It was attempted, from the start, to discover the “Brazilian race”, but the theories quickly came face to face with the “disagreeable” discovery that to be modern was to be white and European, but the majority of Brazilians were not neither one thing nor the other. Thinkers, such as Euclides, moved away from the idea of whiteness, and moved on to give value to “Brazil mameluco” (mixture of Indian and white), in which the union of races was that which made the Brazilian “above all, strong”. In common, Rondon and the author of Grande sertões: veredas had a military schooling at the Escola Militar da Praia Vermelha [Red Beach Military School] and contact with the positivist professor, Benjamim Constant. “His positivism advocated scientific neutrality, valuing positive and universal knowledge, obtained through the senses, observation and experimentation being valued. Positivism developed a complete anti-metaphysical culture, directing its interests to the real world, objective, palpable, moved by the idea of continual progress, based on order and progress”, wrote the geographer José Carlos Camargo, from Unesp, in his article entitled, “Positivism and the geography in Rondon”.

“The oppositions between the coastland and the Backlands were not, in this manner, irreconcilable, but sensitive to the solution by way of a national project that would effectively incorporate the interior of the country”, analyzes Nísia. As marshal Rondon was an orthodox positivist, “he presumed”, notes Diacon, “that his work could be the propeller of the incorporation of the indigenous peoples into the Brazilian nation and the migration of Brazilians from the coast to fertile lands; in other words, it could unchain physical unification, as well as emotional and affective unifications of his country and of his nation”. The admiration of philosopher Euclides for the Marshal also included the vision that the ethnic and social raw material of the Backlands, in its mixing, would be a factor of re-invigoration of the incipient Brazilian civilization, especially because of their indigenous roots (in the case of marshal Rondon, his relatives: his mother was a descendant of the Terena and Bororo Indians).

This did not restrict itself to the anecdote, as in the daily ceremonies of running up the flag with the national anthem in the background, played by a gramophone (symbol of present modernism), to the “wrapping” of Indian babies with the national banner or the exposition of slides with photographs of patriotic symbols during evenings of civil holidays, Rondon like practices of strong positivist features (Country, order, family). The Marshal was severely criticized for his “respect” towards the Indians. “Rondon and the positivists developed the theory that the indigenous populations were not racially inferior, but simply lived at a stage before social evolution (but not racial)”, noted scholar Diacon. This, at a time in which for many eminent Brazilians the scientific racism explained the “problems” of the non-whites of Brazil.

Inferior ?
Whilst Rondon was in the Backlands implementing policies that did not attribute importance to race, urban intellectuals such as Sílvio Romero wrote about the racial inferiority of the Indians’, recalls the American researcher. There are, it is clear, polemic points, such as the ones pointed out by Antonio Carlos de Souza Lima in his book entitled, Um grande cerco de paz [A great ring of peace], which stated Rondon’s policy for the Indians as problematic and makes him responsible for the ethnicity to which they were submitted. In the end, it was his discoveries that led, in 1916, to the official signing of the Civil Code of State Paternalism in relation to the Indians. “Certainly, Rondon’s objective was the transformation of the indigenous populations into Brazilians, the ‘nationalization’, as he would have said. And, surely, it is just to underline that the final target of assimilation was the disappearance of the Indians. But also one must recognize the ambiguous nature of Rondon’s ideas”, observes Diacon.

“Although he preconized the assimilation, he also demanded from his commanders the respect for the social and religious practices of the Indians until they were ‘ready’ for positivism.” In 1942, in his article, “Heading West”, Rondon showed himself to be totally co-opted by the new State idea of president Vargas to give value to the Indian as the National Brazilian symbol. “Curiously enough, the Indians, who represented a miniscule portion of the Brazilian population, were suddenly invited onto the political platform, where they have remained until today”, analyzes the Brazilianist Seth Garfield in, As raízes de uma planta que hoje é o Brasil [The roots of a plant that today is Brazil]. Rondon was nominated by president Vargas to direct the National Indian Protection Council and it was during the Vargas government that the Day of the Indian was established. “In a golden future”, notes scholar Garfield, “Rondon foresaw emancipated Indians, dividing the lands of their reserves or residing with non-Indians as part of the March to the West”.

And the Backlands? At the same time that marshal Rondon had been installing his telegram wires, Oswaldo Cruz was called upon by the Mamoré Railway Company to attempt to realize a prophylaxis for malaria, which had been killing off the railway workers in their thousands. The scientific expeditions made by the scientist from Manguinhos and by his colleagues brought a new portrait of Brazil: sickness, not climate and race, would be the central problem that hindered the nation. “The debate about national identity in the country now would be done through the metaphor of illness”, notes Nísia. “The amplification of the feeling attributed to the word “sertão” [Backlands] was promoted, superimposing upon the geographic and demographic criteria the ideas of abandon and exclusion. A Backlands characterized by abandon and sickness. An unknown Backlands  but which was and is almost the size of Brazil”, the professor ponders.