Centennial of a War Stirs a Nation

Brazilians examine troubling questions that linger from a battle between 'two Brazils': the urban, modern south and the rural, superstitious north.

It's difficult to imagine that 100 years ago this desolate mountain valley was the site of the bloodiest war ever fought on Brazilian soil.

Goats forage for food among sagebrush and cactus. Long-legged waterfowl soar over a man-made lake, where fishermen cast their nets from crude boats. But within this recently opened historical park in the northern state of Bahia, signs point the way to "Cutthroat Valley."

There, shards of human bone still lie at the surface of a mass grave containing the remains of some 20,000 men, women, and children - victims of a massacre that ended the War of Canudos.

That final battle, on Oct. 5, 1897, ended the conflict between the Brazilian Army and a charismatic religious leader and his community of faithful.

The Brazilian government thought Antnio Conselheiro was a threat to the national order. It launched four separate military campaigns against him in the drought-plagued region called the serto.

For generations, most Brazilians have portrayed Conselheiro and his followers as religious fanatics who caused their own deaths. Typically, the conflict is depicted as a battle between two Brazils - the modern, urban, sophisticated south and the archaic, rural, superstitious north.

Yet as the centennial of the war is celebrated across the nation - in seminars, lectures, 13 new books, 4 music CDs, photo exhibits, and a $6 million movie that will open Oct. 3 - those views are being challenged as never before and go to the core of Brazilian identity.

Some sociologists describe Brazil as "Bel-India." They compare the industrialized south and its modern skylines and automobile plants to Belgium, and the impoverished northeast - to its parched earth and desperate farmers - with India.

Now, just as Brazil is implementing free-market reforms and attracting billions in foreign investment, Canudos has become a disturbing reminder of the past and the dangerous inequities between north and south.

"Canudos is important because it's the story of Brazil's historically excluded and a reminder that the northeast remains on the same path of poverty," says Prof. Muniz Sodr, head of the communications department at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro. "It's also a reminder that widespread poverty can still cause local revolts."

"Canudos caused a profound mark - a wound," said a recent cover story in Veja, Brazil's leading newsmagazine. "Antonio Conselheiro became a central figure in one of the most tragic and mistaken episodes of nationality, in which Brazil confronted Brazil and crashed head on into itself."

Most of the rethinking over Canudos centers around the 1902 epic work "Os Sertes" ("The Arid Region," but translated in English as "Rebellion in the Backlands"). The book is often referred to as the "Bible of Brazilian nationality." It was written by Euclides da Cunha, a journalist who covered the war for a Sao Paulo newspaper and was deeply haunted by the massacre.

Culture clash

Da Cunha deftly described the clash between the two cultures. He noted that inhabitants of the developed south tended to be of European descent while people of the north were mostly mestizo, black, or Indian. He perceived that southerners were virtual foreigners when they traveled to the serto. The book also described sertao conditions, which shocked many southern readers.

The serto is an immense arid backlands in Brazil's northeast region covered with sagebrush, cactus, and prickly, stunted trees called caatinga. Droughts devastate the region an average of once every decade and sudden, heavy rainstorms cause widespread flooding and soil erosion.

The isolated backlands and shortage of priests produced many "holy men," who combined Indian, Portuguese, and African folk cultures to practice a unique brand of Roman Catholicism. Most recently, thousands attended the funeral of Friar Damiao, an Italian-born monk who died in June and was worshipped as a miracle worker. Like Conselheiro, Damiao wandered the backlands in his habit and sandals, preaching strict adherence to the Bible's teachings.

During Conselheiro's day, northeast inhabitants often died of starvation. Life expectancy did not exceed 27 years. Priests preached that droughts reflected God's wrath.

Canudos, however, was a serto from another world. Conselheiro preached self-sufficiency and labeled local landowners exploiters.

He designed cisterns to hold water, and warehouses were built to store grain to avoid hunger. Residents were encouraged to send their children to school - almost unheard of in other rural towns - and taxes and government offices were banned. Prostitution, alcohol, and flirting by young women were prohibited.

"Conselheiro was a man with faith who worked for the good of the community," says Canudos resident Joao Regis, whose mother and grandmother survived the massacre.

As word traveled about the new religious community, some 25,000 poor people flocked into town, soon making it Bahia's second largest city after the state capital of Salvador.

Local authorities, however, took a dim view of the "new Jerusalem."

Large landowners were irate at losing their cheap labor force and the Catholic hierarchy fumed at what they deemed unorthodox practices. They spread rumors that Canudos was receiving guns from European agents to restore the monarchy, since Conselheiro had often railed against the eight-year-old republic's laws establishing separation of church and state.

In faraway Rio de Janeiro, then Brazil's capital, nervous authorities believed they had a full-scaled monarchist rebellion on their hands and sent out the Army to destroy Canudos.

After the 11-month war ended, da Cunha called on the republic to develop the northeast.

"This entire campaign would be a crime, a futile and barbarous one, if we were not to take advantage of the paths opened by the artillery, by following up our cannon with a constant, stubborn, and persistent campaign of education, with the object of drawing these rude and backward fellow-countrymen of ours into the current of our times and our own national life."

That plea could still be made today. According to a 1996 United Nations study, 46 percent of the northeastern population is poor, compared with 20 percent of the south. And while Brazil's overall illiteracy rate is about 17 percent, the northeast's is 37.6 percent, according to the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics.

Small farmers own just 14 percent of land holdings in the region, says Osmil Galindo, a researcher at the Joaquim Nabuco government research foundation in Recife. "The land situation hasn't changed since Canudos," says Mr. Galindo. "In fact, it's the same landowner families doing what they have always done."

The Landless Rural Workers Movement (MST), a militant group that sends its members to invade large landholdings, is using Canudos to motivate the landless. At MST encampments across the country, handbooks are distributed to adults and children that include such commentary as "the Canudos dream will come true only after there is agrarian reform."

Canudos lies 252 miles north of Salvador. Fifty-two percent of the 15,000 residents can't read, half have no sewage link, and 30 percent lack running water, according to city hall. Few jobs exist outside government, commerce, and goat herding.

Mayor Joo Ribeiro Gama hopes the new 10-square-mile Canudos state park, which opened in June, will attract droves of historically minded tourists. He expects 20,000 visitors for the centennial festivities.

There, visitors can stand atop the hill where the Army directed the slaughter, walk along trenches dug by the Conselheiro forces and visit the mass grave where the Army hurriedly dumped thousands of bodies.

"I hope visitors will understand that the ideal of an equal society was destroyed and that we still have grave social problems," Mr. Gama says. "If Canudos had been left alone, we could have been a city of 200,000 to 300,000 people today."

Ironically, the Catholic Church is now using Conselheiro as a poster boy for development. The church-supported Canudos Popular Memorial Institute churns out booklets, posters, T-shirts, and music about Conselheiro to motivate residents to join self-help projects and cooperatives.

"Antonio Conselheiro proved it was possible to live in the sertao without depending on government or large landowners," says institute member Sister Sirila Zambom. "The massacre is a force for the rebirth of Canudos."

Banking on the big screen

Mayor Gama is also hoping that a $6 million film - the most expensive movie ever made in Brazil - will help focus attention on his town's plight.

In the meantime, many observers expect the debate over Canudos to continue long past the centennial. "Canudos is the closest thing to a civil war in our history," says Roberto da Matta, a Brazilian anthropologist who teaches at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana. "It's a mark that distinguishes our historical landscape and still haunts us."

Antonio Conselheiro: A statue of the religious leader stands in Alto Alegre, six miles from Canudos, where the community he founded was destroyed a century ago by the Brazilian Army.

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