’s Before the Flood: The Itaipu Dam and the Visibility of Rural Brazil
(Duke University Press, 2019) tells the story of the the Itaipu dam, a massive hydroelectric complex built on the Brazil-Paraguay border in the 1970s and 1980s. The book is structurally and conceptually ambitious, but so readable that it will fit well in both graduate and advanced undergraduate classrooms. Blanc uses this story of a single megaproject to open up new questions about dictatorship, democracy, and the environment in Brazil through the analytic of rural visibility. Since Itaipu was the largest dam in the world and a physical embodiment of the military’s geopolitical ambitions, rural protests against the dam became a referendum on a dictatorship itself in ways that made rural Brazilians important political actors.
But, as Blanc argues, the dam project not only displaced forty thousand rural inhabitants, it made those inhabitants invisible as members of the national community. Blanc follows the stories of those displaced by this project, asking what the land meant to those who lived on it and ultimately lost it, even as the experience of mobilizing against dictatorship created new social movements that are crucial to understanding Brazil to this day. One of the most important contributions of the book is Blanc’s attention to the differing experiences of landed farmers, landless workers, and indigenous communities who all lived in the shadow of Itaipu. By privileging these stories, Blanc traces a long history of violence and repression in the countryside that the dictatorship heightened, but did not create itself. Before the Flood will be of interest to scholars of the environment, Latin America, and social movements globally.
Jacob Blanc is Lecturer in Latin American History at the University of Edinburgh and co-editor of Big Water: The Making of the Borderlands Between Brazil, Argentina, and Paraguay
, published in 2018 by the University of Arizona Press.
Elena McGrath is Assistant Professor of Latin American History at Union College, in Schenectady, NY.