quarta-feira, abril 06, 2011

Northeastern company towns: history, present and future perspectives


Northeastern company towns: history, present and future perspectives

From the 1880s until the 1930s Brazil experienced substantial industrial growth triggered by the introduction of capitalist productive relations in the coffee export complex, in the southeastern state of São Paulo. Such development was accompanied by the establishment of industrial company towns, namely in the textile, paper, mining and sugar sectors. Despite the historical patterns of industrial concentration in the South of the country, various company towns of expressive scale and singular features were established in the Northeast, and form an important and still poorly examined chapter of Brazilian industrial history.

Hitherto, the approach adopted in most studies on northeastern company towns has been of local history, and of a descriptive nature; this lack of comparative analyses focusing on key issues, such as social relationships, the organization of labor, industrial techniques and processes, and the integration and connections between industrial and other spaces, constitute a major impediment to identification of regional trends and specificities of northeastern company towns development in the broader Brazilian context.
Three emblematic company towns in Northeast Brazil are Rio Tinto (state of Paraíba), Paulista (state of Pernambuco) and Pedra (state of Alagoas), all founded at the beginning of the 20th century, and built upon three major bases: (a) local bossism, i.e. the control over political and repressive powers; (b) paternalistic rule exceeding the basic requirements to attract and stabilize the workforce, and also to exert a strict control over the workers’ lives, salaries and political choices, and (c) personalistic and charismatic authority, validated by a nurtured perception of  the boss as someone of exemplary value and extraordinary qualities.
 Rio Tinto and Paulista were cotton textile mills founded by a family of entrepreneurs of Swedish origin, the Lundgrens, and are among the largest company towns in Brazil: at their peak in the 1940s, these enterprises employed over 10,000 workers each and comprised around 6,000 and 2,500 workers’ houses, respectively. Production was safeguarded by the organization and control of its external parameters: Lundgren housing, schools, hospitals, movie theater, leisure clubs, and even a Lundgren church and private militia. Facing severe economic crisis, especially from 1960s onwards, the Lundgren factories were gradually closed down, depriving the towns from its virtually only source of income and leaving behind a poverty-stricken population and derelict buildings.
Despite not equaling the size of the aforementioned industrial settlements, the town of Pedra, home to the Agro Fabril Mercantil, a cotton thread factory, also offered its workers a wide range of services, such as medical and dentist clinics, schools and a skating ring. Pedra is especially noted for the strict discipline enforced upon workers by its founder, Delmiro Go­­uveia, which included mandatory daily showers and the requirement that men wore shirts at all times, even in their own homes. Punishments were also part of the company town´s life, and included being tying up purportedly guilty workers to a tree strategically located in front the factory. Following the demise of Delmiro Gouveia, Pedra was acquired by the Scottish enterprise Machine Cotton and stripped from its original machinery. Throughout the years the factory was in the hands of different industrial groups and is currently in operation.
Even though most of the physical evidence of the aforementioned company towns remains, initiatives aiming at their safeguard are still at their infancy. Inadequate adaptations of the industrial structures and poor documentation efforts are gradually erasing the memory of the economic activity that gave origin to the towns, as well as destroying important references related to communitarian identity.
In recent years, part of the remains of the Rio Tinto, Paulista and Pedra has been listed by state-level Heritage Registers. The company town ensembles, however, have been overlooked in the official processes and only individual assets were listed: the Lundgren mansion and gardens in Paulista (2009); Pedra´s hydroelectric power plant – Angiquinho, the first in the Northeast (2006), and the Lundgren mansion in Rio Tinto (2010).
Even though such measures represent an important step towards protection of the northeastern company towns, additional actions are urgently required to ensure effective safeguard of that significant component of Brazil’s industrial heritage. Finally, it should be highlighted that in addition to Rio Tinto, Paulista and Pedra - epitomes of the company towns in the Northeast - a number of other lesser-known industrial experiences can be found in the region. Collectively, this ensemble of social, historical and economic memories are in much need of further studies and safeguard actions.

Photo 1: Rio Tinto: derelict factory
Photo 2: Pedra company town

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