Jacob Blanc is a lecturer in Latin American History at the University of Edinburgh and coeditor of Big Water: The Making of the Borderlands between Brazil, Argentina, and Paraguay. His newest book, Before the Flood: The Itaipu Dam and the Visibility of Rural Brazil, examines the creation of the Itaipu Dam—the largest producer of hydroelectric power in the world—on the Brazil–Paraguay border during the 1970s and 1980s to explore the long-standing conflicts around land, rights, indigeneity, and identity in rural Brazil.
What first drew you to study the Itaipu flood? When in your research did you realize the history of Itaipu was rich and complex enough for you to write an entire book on it?
In full disclosure, I had not even heard the name ‘Itaipu’ before my first semester of graduate school. I knew I wanted to study some aspect of rural labor history, but aside from my general interest in politics of the Latin American countryside, I did not have a specific case study to start with. Eventually I came across Itaipu, and it seemed like each time I found a new body of sources, or each time I thought I had a clear sense of what the main narrative was, it kept changing. Was this a history of farmers versus a dictatorship? Yes, but it was more complex. Was there solidarity amongst the different displaced groups? Yes, but it was more complex. Was land a central catalyst for the protest movements? Yes, but the lands that would be flooded did not have the same social meanings for all of the displaced communities. I started out thinking this would be a history about rural protest against military rule, but the kaleidoscope of stories that Itaipu brought together resulted in something much bigger: a history of rurality, and the contingencies of life, political struggle, and community in the countryside.
There were a few key moments in my research where these insights really took root. The first was when I began my interviews with farming communities in western Paraná, Brazil. My first stage of research had mostly focused on archival evidence of the protest encampments against Itaipu, which yielded a lot of fascinating and important details on the standoff between rural communities and the dictatorship. In this initial research I come across some hints of internal conflict in the camps, but it was only when I spent time talking with people that had participated in the protests did I begin to understand the full complexity of what took place. Landless peasants spoke of feeling marginalized within the movement (where their demands for redistribution of land was drowned out by the call for higher prices to be paid for legally owned property), indigenous leaders told me about their parallel movement to seek cultural and political rights, and even the landed small-farmers who had led the main protests shared memories that were far more nuanced than the archival record suggested. It was in this vortex of testimonies that I began to piece together the complex and often-contradictory ways that the displaced communities mobilized in defense of their soon-to-be-flood lands.
A second key moment was when in a twist of good fortune and perseverance, I gained access to the archives of the Itaipu dam. This was something that no scholar had previously done and I was able to spend two months going through their holdings. Because Itaipu was so deeply embedded in the dictatorship’s development and security structures, its archive was a window into the logic of authoritarian rule. From here, I was able to place the question of land at the center of my narrative: how a wide range of actors viewed and acted upon their understanding of what the lands around Itaipu meant and what role the region should play in the future of Brazil.
Instead of centering the book around the technological and ecological effects of the Itaipu Binational hydroelectric dam, you set out to ask what the flooded lands meant to different Brazialian rural groups. What do you find missing in these other accounts? How does the history of the flood change when told from those on the land itself?
It is completely understandable that scholars have devoted time to studying the largest hydroelectric dam in the world: it was a tremendous feat of engineering, and compounded by the conflicts that unfolded between Brazil and Paraguay to harness the energy of the seventh-longest river on the planet, the Itaipu dam was, and continues to be, a remarkable technological achievement. The construction of Itaipu forms part of my book, but it is more as an explanatory backdrop for how, and why, the military government saw this border region as a central part of its worldview. By shifting attention away from the construction of the dam per se, and by focusing instead on the livelihoods that converged in the flood zone, I want to help us see that a history of water management (a giant hyrdoelectric dam) contains an equally important history of land. The narrative shift from water to land opens new questions on the social and material meanings of land. And given that the book is guided by my framework of rural visibility, this shift also lets us explore what it means for a region to be rendered invisible. This process of invisibility was both literal (Itaipu’s flood inundating 1,500 square kilometers of land) and discursive, with rural livelihoods delegitimized in national imaginations.
You work with a framework of visibility, drawing on works from Rob Nixon and others to think about how the nation-state, in its constitution, relies upon the exclusion of communities and places that are rendered invisible through “active unimagining.” How much do certain historical methodological practices contribute to this unimagining? In what way is your alternative periodization– exploring non-chronological modes of writing history– an intervention into historical invisibilities?
This also links really well to the above question, where a potential limitation of a techno-ecological history of a megadam like Itaipu is that it takes its starting point at the moment of the dam’s conception. That is, it operates chronologically on the terms of the nation-state and the governments and corporations that build these massive development projects. Here, the theme of unimagining is important both historically and methodologically.
In terms of method, it can often be very hard to reverse this process of unimagining. In part, this relates to the challenge of ‘doing’ subaltern history and the limits we have as historians—especially those of us working from positions of personal and professional privilege. But histories of development and forced relocation present further problems still: a proper history of Itaipu requires finding communities that had been uprooted from their homes and who then dispersed throughout the region and the country as a whole. So, I could have stayed just in the areas around the present-day dam and put together a pretty good history of rural mobilization that would still have ticked a lot of the boxes of subaltern and grassroots history. Even just including those voices would have been an important intervention in scholarship on dictatorship that has tended to focus on urban spaces and the more traditional vectors of political protest such as student movements, unions, and political parties.
But to more fully present the histories on display at Itaipu, this required me to build networks of solidarity and trust in order to get introduced to people who could put me in touch with several lines of connections that eventually allowed me to meet with peasant and indigenous communities whose perspectives were vital to round out the story I was able to tell. The logistics of this were often exhausting and uncertain; in one case I took a ten-hour bus ride solely on the suggestion that somebody I was hoping to interview lived in a small faraway town. I did not have their phone number or address, but sure enough, when I arrived I was able to ask around for the farmer and eventually found him, where I was invited to not only hear his memories from the time of Itaipu but to also stay the night with him and his family. So methodologically, our goal of trying to reverse this state of unimagining depends also on a certain amount of commitment and trust in our own process. That is not always feasible, and there are of course very real challenges (many of which are gendered, classed, and racialized) to conducting this form of fieldwork, but it can be a powerful approach to actively re-imagine histories that might otherwise continue to be overlooked.
And in terms of non-chronological modes of history-writing, this was something I went back and forth on a lot during my research and then while preparing the book. There is profound weight in the decisions we make as historians, not just in choosing to tell certain histories over others, but even in how we present the stories we do choose to tell. Structurally in my book, I opted for a bit of both worlds, where the first half progresses chronologically in three chapters from the pre-history of the dam through the Itaipu flood in 1982, and then in the second half I have four chapters that give the histories that predated, ran parallel, and ultimately outlasted the more standard history of what took place at Itaipu. By framing this explicitly as such, my hope is to de-emphasize the more linear narratives that tend to get deployed for paradigmatic events like a development project and even Brazil’s dictatorship more broadly. This again comes back to trying to intervene in historical invisibilities, and I sought to not only present histories such as indigenous mobilization, peasant displacement, and landless consciousness, but to also frame them as more than just ancillary themes to the larger story. Instead, they exist as standalone stories with their own chronologies.
You use the phrase “double reality” to describe the simultaneous events of the Itaipu flood, an expression of military power, and the 1982 election, a symbolic return to democratic rule in Brazil. What is the significance of naming the effects of both events as realities? What does it mean to recognize a multiplicity of realities?
‘Reality’ conveys a sense of both what is happening and also what is perceived to be happened. For the case of Itaipu, this is particularly powerful for the official timing of Brazil’s transition from dictatorship to democracy, the process known as abertura. Through my history of rural political struggles and their alternative visions for democracy, I introduce the idea of a double reality of abertura, with competing perceptions of how military rule was experienced. So what does that mean for the multiplicity of realities? It means that there is an imagined idea of a country that has a particular chronology attached to it; in this case, that of a transition from a military to a civilian regime. And yet people experience the big idea at the heart of that transition, the abertura, as a double reality, whose chronology and evolving meanings play out in drastically different ways.
By looking at these histories as both events and realities, we are able to draw out the attachments that different groups project onto what they see transpiring around them. This is important because in arguing for a double reality of abertura, I am not saying that rural Brazilians (or any marginalized group for that matter) is unable to extract real benefits and beliefs from official or mainstream events like the abertura. Instead, I use the idea of doubling to show two main threads. First, how the more official forms of politics like abertura are unable and uninterested in accommodating the ideas and livelihoods like those of the displaced groups at Itaipu. And second, despite these limitations, marginalized groups nonetheless invoke and redeploy official events and narratives to advance their own goals. The concept of double reality helps us explore the lived and discursive experiences of being both marginalized and empowered.
In the aftermath of the flood, mass displacement and resettlement allowed landless workers to lead a new charge to reform agrarian policies in Brazil. How much did these landless movements address issues that predated the flood and even a dictator-ruled Brazil?
The landless campaign in Brazil (known as the MST) has become one of the largest social movements in the world over the past several decades. Founded in 1984, one year before the official end of dictatorship, the MST has championed ideas and demands that long predated the start of military rule in 1964. As is the case all over the world, the question of land has been a constant in Brazilian history, and especially in the twentieth-century there is a long tradition of organized campaigns to win access to land through direct-action occupations. My history of Itaipu helps link the emergence of the post-dictatorship MST through some the earlier iterations of landless campaigns, both before and during the military regime. Although few scholars have yet to fully acknowledge this genealogy, the movement that took place just after Itaipu played a pivotal role in the formation of the MST. And placed within the larger context of landless mobilizations across twentieth-century Brazil, we also see why these groups were met with such sustained waves of repression: because the demand for agrarian reform and the structural redistribution of land was seen as a threat by elites under both military and civilian rule, landless movements have confronted serious challenges regardless of whether the country has been ruled by a dictatorship or a democracy.
Although you name your book Before the Flood, you conclude by challenging neat concepts of “before” and “after” and suggest developing a “plurality of timelines” around a historical event. Do you find there to be further room to challenge the logics of temporality in history? Is it possible to imagine a history that undoes the timeline itself?
This was another tricky, though quite fun, aspect of my project. How to challenge the logics of temporality while at the same time using those logics to advance my arguments. Periodization is at the heart of what we do as historians: we frame a problem and we try to figure out periods of time that in some way are a good match for the problem. And especially as we navigate the process of writing a book, there are logistical and professional demands for telling a story in a way that is legible and efficient. What I tried to achieve was a balance between linear and non-linear storytelling, with enough step-backs and links to show how the multiple sets of temporalities did not exist separate from each other. Instead, the various narratives I cover in my book are in a constant state of engagement and mutual reinforcement. The official chronology of the Itaipu dam and of Brazil’s dictatorship provided a central referent for the other stories I needed to tell. So rather than thinking about writing history in a way that undoes the timeline, we might be better suited to thinking about how to present a wide range of voices that in some form interact with a common temporal thread. This can help us rethink the parameters of how we understand, and how we define, periods of history.
Do you think your work can serve as a blueprint for future methodological experimentation that works outside traditional periodization frameworks?
I hope my book can help spur new approaches to rethinking periodization. Because while my particular case study concerns the Brazilian countryside and the livelihoods of rural Brazilians, the same holds true for any group or community whose reality does not align with mainstream periods of time. My case study was the countryside, but it could have been anywhere that contains competing social realities. And this stands equally across Latin America and globally as well. When we begin to take seriously that officially canonized dates and events do not hold the same social weight for all members of a community or of a nation, we can start to re-imagine on what terms we set historical boundaries.