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Carlos A. de F. Monteiro

Carlos Augusto de Figueiredo Monteiro: The literary geographer

One of the pioneers of climatology in Brazil analyzes space and social structures through the works of Guimarães Rosa and Shakespeare

Eduardo CesarA few months ago, geographer Carlos Augusto de Figueiredo Monteiro celebrated the arrival of the complete works of American poet Wallace Stevens; the books had been sent from the United States. The poet’s books were placed on the bookshelves, next to books by Jorge Luis Borges, Guimarães Rosa, Shakespeare, James Joyce and Euclides da Cunha, which dominate the geographer’s workplace. The books lie among objects the geographer had brought from his trips to Nepal, India and Minas Gerais, and next to a Betty Boop doll. The 86-year old geographer, who was one of the pillars of climatology in Brazil, reads and writes about literature every day. Soon after retiring from the University of São Paulo (USP), in 1987, Monteiro went through his pioneering climatology work of 40 years, conducted in Rio de Janeiro, Santa Catarina, Brasília and São Paulo. His studies led to new approaches for the analysis of urban climate, detailed in 1974 in the book Clima urbano, and later synthesized in the book Clima e excepcionalismo, written in 1991. Soon thereafter, the geographer dedicated himself full time to literature and philosophy and wrote another book, O mapa e a trama, in which he analyzes the work of writers such as Guimarães Rosa, Graciliano Ramos and Graça Aranha from the point of view of geography and social structures. Before beginning the interview, held in his apartment in the city of Campinas, Monteiro put out the books he had written, his own drawings and photographs of the capital city of Teresina (State of Piaui), his hometown, which he left at the age of 18. He has also written five volumes on his hometown, using his family’s history as a pretext to write about changes in the city, society, and the world. The geographer rarely grants interviews; at this interview, he decided to talk about geography, literature and, of course, about his former professional life as a researcher.

What was Teresina like in 1945, when you left?
At that time, Teresina was a town of approximately 40 thousand inhabitants. It was the first town in Brazil to be built as a capital city; people usually think that Belo Horizonte was the first, but Belo Horizonte is only one hundred years old; it celebrated its hundredth anniversary in 1997. Teresina was the first city to be built like a chessboard; the second city was Aracaju. I left Teresina at the age of 18 and went to Rio de Janeiro. I didn’t study for the first two years because I had to work.

What did you do?
I spent two years doing a little bit of everything: collecting money, walking around Rio de Janeiro, and then I spent some time doing extra work at the Ministry of Education and Health, located in Rio de Janeiro’s Morro da Viuva neighborhood. In 1947, I enrolled in the National College of Philosophy, of the University of Brazil. I enrolled in the history course, but then decided to switch to geography – geography was more dynamic, as it involved fieldwork, and research work had always been my goal. During my first year at college, professor Francis Ruellan, who was also a consultant at the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics (IBGE), invited the students to join the team from the National Geography Council and participate in one of the surveys on the new capital of Brazil, in the Planalto Central region. This was my first fieldwork. The idea was to spend July, but we stayed throughout July and August. When I got back, I lost my job, because I had been away for more than 30 days. My colleagues from the Council felt sorry for me and asked Fábio [de Macedo Soares] Guimarães, the chairman of the council, if I could be included as an assistant geographer. Guimarães hired me and I had the marvelous opportunity of studying the theory and at the same time working on research projects at the IBGE. I had classes in the morning, sometimes in the afternoon, and worked until late in the evening.

What was the field of geography like at that time?
The field of geography was very optimistic because we were living through a new phase. Prior to 1935, most geographers had no formal education in geography; they were self-taught in this respect and worked at the history and geography institutes. Many of them had degrees in engineering, law, medicine – like Raja Gabaglia, who was a professor at Colégio Pedro II school, and Delgado de Carvalho. I am part of the generation that studied geography and history at the College of Philosophy. History and geography were separated from philosophy only in 1957. Our generation was revolutionary. We introduced the typical, modern geography where things were explained rather than just described.

The French line of geography?
Yes, and under French supervision. The first history, geography and sociology professors at the College of Philosophy all came from France. In 1956, Brazil hosted the International Geography congress, which introduced the new generation of Brazilian geographers, who came from the IBGE, from the university and from the Association of Brazilian Geographers (AGB). Our geographers acted as tour guides for five tours, one tour to each region of Brazil. This group organized home stays for the high-level geographers at the homes of prominent Rio de Janeiro families, such as Marcos Carneiro de Mendonça and Anna Amélia Carneiro de Mendonça. I graduated in 1950. In 1951, on All Souls’ Day, I traveled to France on a scholarship. I spent two years in France. Influenced by Ruellan, I focused more on the field of natural geography. I was shy and when I went out to explore the terrain, I only had to observe or ask few questions: for example, how deep is the water in this well? Which are the rainy months? In the field of human geography, you have to ask about production; people think it’s the government collecting taxes and I always felt ill at ease.

Why did you choose the field of climatology?
It was the neediest field. Geomorphology had Aziz Ab’Saber, [João José] Bigarella in the State of Paraná, Gilberto Osório [de Oliveira Andrade] in the State of Pernambuco, many good professionals. I had taken very bad courses in meteorology, both here and in France. I felt that geography did not need that kind of climatology, especially in relation to the humanistic side of geography. I wanted to do something in which the atmosphere could be seen from within that perspective, related to humans. However, it was necessary to change the paradigm provided by meteorology, the “average state of the atmosphere’s elements over a given place.” The climate was still an unchanging field of studies; the predominant belief was that you could calculate an average to reach a conclusion. If you were to apply the Köppen [Köppen-Geiger] climate classification system, you would conclude that the city of Belém do Pará has the same climate as the city of Santos, which is totally absurd, because Belém do Pará has never been hit by a cold front and Santos, in the winter, is subject to days of active cold fronts which lower the temperature and keep people away from the beach, something which would probably never happen in Belém…

And when you got back?
I came back from France and the IBGE was somewhat disorganized – not much fieldwork was being done. I talked about this to my friend, Maria Conceição Vicente de Carvalho, the daughter of the poet, and the first geographer in Brazil to have obtained a doctorate degree in this field. She met professor João Dias da Silveira, who was organizing a geography department at a College of Philosophy in the State of Santa Catarina. However, then Jânio Quadros was elected state governor of São Paulo and he decreed that nobody from the state would be at the disposal of the other states. Silveira had to come back, but he recommended me. I didn’t have to leave the IBGE to work at the university because Santa Catarina was one of the few states that had a geography and cartography department. I started out where everybody ends – I was head of the department and a member of the technical committee. I never want to be a department head again in my life. I hate management! I would work in the afternoons and evenings in the departments and in the mornings I worked at the state’s geography and cartography department.

From 1955 to 1959. In 1960, I went to the city of Rio Claro. Carvalho Pinto [the then state governor of São Paulo] was opening up Higher Education Institutes throughout the state; several years later, these institutes became the Paulista State University (Unesp). In Santa Catarina, I started to change my climate paradigm. I published my first articles there, criticizing the belief that “the climate is an average state” and that “climate should be a dynamic view.” I didn’t create this – it stemmed from the criticism by a prominent French geographer, Maximilian Sorre. He was involved in the field of human geography and felt that climate studies based on the average climate of a given place were not appropriate to study human activity. I published several articles in the period from 1955 to 1960, based on studies by Brazilian meteorologists – namely, Adalberto Serra and Leandro Ratisbonna – these men were engineers with degrees from the Polytechnic Institute and had pioneered the field of meteorology in Brazil. In 1963, the IBGE published the study Regional Geography of Brazil. I wrote a chapter for this study; my text was on the climate in the South Region of Brazil. I based my article on what I had learned from Adalberto Serra and wrote my text in simpler language, because his writing style was always very confusing. I explained that the weather in Brazil travels from South to North, up from the South Pole, and tried to be more didactic about such concepts as the cold front. In 1942, Serra and Ratisbonna had published their classic paper Ondas de frio na bacia amazônica, stating that cooler temperatures in the State of Acre and in the western part of the State of Amazonas were the result of  melting snow from the Andes mountain range. This was totally wrong, because anything that comes down from such heights is going to be warm and not cool. I conducted my first major research study in the city of Rio Claro. I was very pleased, because I was able to work with students. We had to show this paradigm, that the climate was a dynamic. Later on, this research study became the book A dinâmica climática e as chuvas no estado de São Paulo. In this research study, I made a point of correcting some misleading beliefs. For example, the meteorologist considers that a given place has good data to get an average reading when he has data that goes back 30 years; this kind of data is difficult to find in Brazil. You find a station that is 30 years old, others that are 10 or 3 years old and the staff absurdly compares stations with such a disparity of average readings. In this research study, we chose stations with data covering the same periods. If a given three-year period coincided with a dry or rainy season, and this kind of zigzagging always happens, you don’t trust the data anymore. Another concern was to see the kind of weather and the pace of the succeeding seasons and choose some typical years: a very rainy year, a dry year and a year that would be in between; I referred to this latter year as the standard year. Ratisbonna claimed that he could not conduct a study based only on 17 years of readings, but 17 years was the most I could get in terms of data within the same period. I calculated the average to verify whether there were any excessively rainy years or dry years within this 17-year period and based myself on the extremes – an excessively rainy year, an excessively cold year. A Frenchman, Pierre [George], adopted this same concept, but substituted the average readings with the total kinds of weather – as if he had a chest of drawers, had checked all the different kinds of weather and had placed each kind of weather into a separate drawer. I felt that there was no need to verify all the different kinds of weather; the important thing was to see how the different kinds of weather were linked to each other; these links determine everything. For example, if an adjacent warm front is on the way, the winds do not come from the northwest; the heat is unbearable and then the cold front suddenly arrives; this cold front causes a heavy storm, the cold front moves on and the temperature drops. It is important to see this chain of events, instead of saying that the weather is of the pre-front or front kind. We would work with hour-related data; we used tons of paper, but as we built up the graph, we were able to notice the relationship; this was new. I concluded this research study in 1964; the study was published ten years later, in 1973, when I was already working at the University of São Paulo (USP) and Aziz Ab’Saber was able to find some funds to publish the study.

How did you deal with your shyness?
At the university, I decided to go into the field of physical geography to avoid prying into peoples’ personal lives, which is what happens in the field of human geography! At the AGB, people would present their papers, which were analyzed whether they could be published or not; I never had the courage to present a paper at the AGB. However, as some of my articles and chapters had already been published, I was granted permanent membership at the meeting held in the city of Londrina, in 1961. My membership was ratified by Manoel Correia, from the State of Pernambuco, who had been elected as the chairman of the AGB. He worked hard to organize a general meeting during his term in office and chose to hold it in the city of Penedo, State of Alagoas. He wanted to focus on the problem of the lower São Francisco River region, which at that time was a rice-growing center. That landscape contrasted sharply with the extreme poverty in the region, because of the production-related relationship between the landowners and the workers. Manoel Correia convinced Caio Prado Jr. to go to a region with problems attractive to leftists. The study on the city of Penedo was conducted by Lísia Bernardes; I conducted the study on the rice culture; the study on the city of Itabaiana, State of Sergipe, was conducted by Milton Santos. Itabaiana is famous from the geomorphologic point of view because of its dome – a huge structure – and because of its population. We worked for four days, traveling in canoes, motor boats, and on roads, from the city of Propriá until the mouth of the São Francisco River – it was madness. To conclude the study, I gathered the morphological units, the kind of vegetation, the kind of occupation and the kind of problems and used a magic marker pen to draw a chart on Kraft paper. Lísia said that I was in deep trouble, because everybody in the group was Communist, and I had to present my conclusions to the landowners and tell them that they were exploiting the workers.

So what did you do?
I said: “Nature provides the conditions, but the production relations…” Because it was truly a master-slave relationship; the poor farm worker worked on the rice plantations for the landowner, who paid him a miserly salary; sometimes the worker would hide a bag of rice to sell it at night to someone to get a higher price. One farmer immediately protested, saying: “But that’s not quite true…”

I left Rio Claro and went back to the IBGE for some time. In 1965, 1966 and 1967, I moved back and forth between the IBGE and the University of Brasília. I did not want to substitute the professors that had been expelled by the dictatorship regime; I only went there because the geography department was being organized. I still did not enjoy working at the IBGE. It is important to point out that in the past the regional division of Brazil was the work of geographers; Fábio Guimarães prepared a regional division in 1941, because the IBGE had been created by the then president Getúlio Vargas. Brazil was one of the few countries in the world where geography was used as support for public policies. The regional division was prepared by the IBGE and the IBGE was linked to the Presidency. The IBGE became a foundation some years later. Geography was important until 1968, when the geographers from the IBGE prepared several maps, including geological ones, and included the words “subsidies for regionalization.” This was the transition from geographers to economists, because the referred subsidies for regionalization were a bunch of maps prepared for analysis by economists. The economists rose to power, to the detriment of the geographers, and economists divided the territory into homogeneous micro-regions and implemented the sector theory, the center-periphery relationship, etc., I started working at USP in 1968, the year Institutional Act Number Five was issued by the military dictatorship.

You arrived in São Paulo during terrible times…
On the first day of class, I entered the classroom and the students were holding a protest rally against the Institutional Act; politics were at boiling point. The students were always complaining about the military dictatorship. They walked into the classroom, held the protest rally, I listened to them, and then I got up and left. The hostility was not aimed at me; the students were protesting about the situation.

What was it like to work at USP?
There were barely any teaching resources, the building was awful – there was nothing in the facility. The bus was run down, it was not easy to leave the campus… the biggest problem was to show a film because if the equipment was working, you couldn’t find a wire to plug into the outlet. Nowadays, the professors are involved in field work, they go to the mountain resort of Campos do Jordão as often as they like; they get grants to go abroad for doctorate studies, then they go for their post-doctorate studies, they get other kinds of grants… I never had any of this. There are two things that I really liked about USP and which I would like to emphasize. One of them is that I had the freedom to create. Twenty years ago, I would do things that nobody does nowadays.

For example?
A 27-question test; I could tell the student that he didn’t have to return any of the questions if he proposed to work on only one question more extensively. Alternatively, the student could draw answers to the questions, or answer them in verse, and get an A. The other thing I really liked – my trips abroad. In 1976, the International Geography congress was held in Moscow. I made a sacrifice – I dug into my savings account, wrote, prepared papers and went to Moscow. I never got any travel grants from the Brazilian Government. I traveled on and off for 12 years and always paid for my trips.

Why did you pay for your own trips?
Asking for a travel grant is a researcher’s right; but I consider myself as being very privileged, in this country full of exceptions, in which children are starving and sniffing glue, and I am willing to pay to satisfy my curiosity. I’m not going to take taxpayers’ money to travel. That year in Moscow, I joined the environmental issues committee. The chairman was Innokenty Gerasimov, a prestigious scientist from the academic community. I traveled for 12 years as a member of this committee. In 1976, I was in Moscow; in 1977, the meeting was held in Prague; in 1978, in Lagos, Nigeria; in 1979, Russia again. Then in 1980, Japan; in 1981, México; in 1982, in São Paulo, where I organized the event. Instead of making the meeting participants stay in the city listening to papers being presented, I organized a four-day tour. On the first day, we traveled to the city of Piracicaba, where we had lunch by the river, which was already polluted at that time. Then we traveled to the city of São Carlos, where we spent the night; on the following day, we listened to the presentations of the papers – we traveled on one day and worked on the next. People come from Russia, from India, so what’s the point of making them spend a whole day locked up in an auditorium, listening to presentations of papers that can be read afterwards? It’s a pity, isn’t it? We left São Carlos and traveled to the coffee-growing region of Mantiqueira, then down the Vale do Paraíba valley to see the industrialization on the coast and went to Rio de Janeiro on the Rio-Santos highway, to avoid the heavy incoming traffic on Avenida Brasil and that whole mess. We arrived in Rio de Janeiro and dropped our visitors off at the Hotel Glória. Gerasimov loved the event – he called it a rotating meeting.

When did you take up literature?
I retired at the age of 60. The battle between physical geography and human geography was at its peak. Geographers wanted to take things away from physical geography and increase human geography – it was a mess, and I hate messes and fighting. The announcement of my retirement was published in the Official Gazette on March 22, the eve of my birthday. The first thing I wanted to do after I retired was a summary of what I had done in the field of climatology and see what the latest trend was – thermodynamics, etc. I studied a lot and wrote Clima e excepcionalismo. Then I took all the books on climatology and on the environment and donated them to the Federal University of Santa Catarina [UFSC]. I donated the books on geomorphology to the geomorphology lab at USP; I donated the class books and maps to the Aroldo de Azevedo high school teachers’ room. I As I wanted to keep busy, I considered doing research on something that would be feasible for me. “I want to work on some interesting topic that does not need any funding.” I’ve always liked literature; on my trips to England I had already seen a line of research involving geography and literature, so that, plus a book by [philosopher Karl] Popper, encouraged me. So I thought, why not do the same thing about Brazil? I knew I could do this work without any funding; I had the books; I decided to do the analysis. So that’s how I produced O mapa e a trama, a compilation published by UFSC, which begins and ends with Guimarães Rosa, but also includes Graciliano Ramos, with Vidas secas, Graça Aranha, with Canaã, a marvelous book that very few people have read. I analyzed the geographical content of these books, because all the stories take place somewhere and have plots. The chapter on Machado de Assis, in Memórias póstumas de Brás Cubas, together with Marques Rebelo, entailed a lot of hard work. First, because of the contrast between the two writers: Machado was a mulatto who succeeded in life, as attested to by his death certificate, which states that he was white. The other writer, Marques Rebelo – unfortunate man – was persecuted, never graduated from engineering college because the celestial mechanics professor picked on him. His books were published with a lot of difficulty in Lisbon. He suffered tremendously, but he was a very talented geographer.

You don’t limit yourself to space only…
No, because you also have to take the social issue into consideration. Guimarães Rosa says that he is not concerned about sociology or about history. However, in his books he includes a full description of the social structure: the farmer, surrounded by his security guards; the farm manager, the sharecropper, all the way down to the poorest tiller.

In one of your papers, you wrote that human geography had forgotten about space.
Yes; because we used to work in the manner of Euclydes da Cunha, focusing on nature. Now, the economists tend to work under the relative space of relationship geometry. I hate this separation between physical geography and human geography. Geography is not an exact science, because it is closely linked to philosophy. This is the problem. So why don’t elementary students study sociology and geology? Why do they study geography? Because these kids and adolescents are getting acquainted with the world. Elementary school students learn about landforms, political divisions, climate, land relief – all these basic items. Geography should not be fragmented, it should not become more specialized… In my opinion, philosophy is on a higher level – not the history of philosophy – but the philosophy that entails thinking and criticizing. Geography is at a lower, more modest level. A colleague from Brasília wrote that nature is already well known and under control; and so now geography has to focus more on social issues. São Paulo is unable to solve the outflow of rainwater during the summer season – the city is always flooded! In the past, we had environmental determinism; then, in 1948, we went through the transition to economic determinism, with Breton Woods. Of course the economy is important. The implementation of a factory is an economic act, but when the factory becomes a physical entity that is going to spit out gases, it gains a materiality and fits into the natural environment. One cannot separate and eliminate the consequences. Human geography only takes the collective element, the social element, into consideration; in this context, the economy takes on excessive importance. People exaggerate when they only focus on that which is collective; everything that is human is viewed from a collective point of view. The parts complement each other, but one cannot disregard man’s inner being. We have the right to develop a critical perception; it is important to prepare others to enjoy the freedom of criticizing instead of following the herd and doing everything others do.

What is your opinion on the discussions on climate change?
I find them exaggerated, because people lack the notion of scale. A tendency is one thing, and reality is another, because nature is discombobulated – it’s cold one year and warm the next year. The general tendency is yes, the climate will get warmer, but we have to take the Sun into consideration to a greater extent. The sun is our source of energy and yet it is still unknown to us, because the size of those sunspots varies – sometimes the sunspots are bigger, then they get smaller. When the sunspots have less or more energy, the Pacific gets cooler or warmer – this is when the El Niño and La Niña phenomena appear. Another issue to be considered is the fact that man’s existence on earth is very recent, yet even so we find historical records [of major climate changes.] The Northern Hemisphere has more land than the Southern Hemisphere does. So the two hemispheres are also different in economic terms. If the temperature goes up, countries like Russia and Canada, which have very severe winters and where planting tomatoes is very difficult, will benefit from the rise in temperatures. The Southern Hemisphere, however, will be badly affected – all those poverty-ridden populations living on the edge of the Sahara Desert. However, people fail to take time and space scales as a whole into consideration, hence the catastrophist outlook. However, there’s a bright side to this issue – a catastrophist attitude arouses fear in people and this encourages them to change their attitude.