Marching Rows of Coffee: The Pursuit of Modern Agriculture in Brazil, 1950–1990 Restricted; Files Only

Coulis, Jonathan (Fall 2019)

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For nearly two centuries, coffee growing has been a driving force in Brazilian agriculture and a crucial national export. Even as the crop retained its centrality, the agricultural system that produced it continually changed. This dissertation investigates the particularly transformative period between 1950 and 1990, a time when “modernization” became a watchword for government planners and technocrats. I highlight how definitions of modernization changed over time, as did the participants and the role of the state. Shifting relationships between state ideologies of development, markets and the individuals operating in them, and environmental factors shaped the goals of and approaches to modernization. In emphasizing the evolving understandings of what modernization entailed, this dissertation argues against the notion of a clear “traditional” versus “modern” binary in agriculture.

In the 1950s, Brazilian politicians lamented the persistent economic importance of coffee farming as an emblem of the nation’s past that perpetuated underdevelopment. In the 1960s, the government-operated Brazilian Coffee Institute (IBC) launched efforts to modernize the industry, employing rural extension to encourage farmers to increase farm productivity. A debilitating coffee fungus in 1970, followed by a destructive frost in 1975, prompted planners to modify their approaches and reshaped the environmental geography of Brazilian coffee growing. The government incentivized farmers to plant coffee in Minas Gerais state using new technologies, machines, fertilizers and pesticides, and farm organization—markers of modernization. By the 1980s, the IBC celebrated rising levels of coffee productivity, but also recognized that the ever-evolving goals of modernization remained elusive. Economic crises in the 1980s revealed the fragility of the IBC’s model as the government curtailed economic and technical support for farmers.

Over these decades, a consensus developed in the centers of expertise that agriculture needed to modernize and could in fact achieve that goal. The development of this shared conviction served to normalize “modernization” as an ideology. This ideology persisted after the military dictatorship (1964-1985) fell from power and private industry and international entities increasingly defined aspirational visions of modern agriculture. This dissertation helps us understand an important continuity in development thought and its attendant ideologies amid political, economic, and environmental transitions.

Table of Contents

Introduction: 1 

Chapter One: Building a Model for Agricultural Change in Minas Gerais, 1948-1965  34

Chapter Two: Multiple Modes of Modernization Turn Coffee from an Enemy to an Ally: 1961-1969  80

Chapter Three: An Epidemic Foretold: Responding to the Arrival of Coffee Leaf Rust in Brazil: 1970-1972  124

Chapter Four: Frozen Coffee Trees and Frostbitten Workers: How Modernization Schemes responded to Environmental Crisis in Southeast Brazil, 1972-1977  175

Chapter Five: Fields of Construction: Building Modern Coffee in Minas Gerais, 1969-1990 217

Conclusion: 262

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