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Watered-down democratization: modernization versus social participation in water management in Northeast Brazil


This article examines social participation in water management in the Jaguaribe Valley, state of Ceará, Northeast Brazil. It argues that participatory approaches are heavily influenced by the general ideological and symbolic contexts in which they occur, that is, by how participants understand (or misunderstand) what is taking place, and associate specific meanings to things and events. An analysis of these symbolic factors at work sheds light on the potentialities of and limitations on participatory experiences not accounted for in usual structural analyses. In the particular case of Ceará, this article describes how the idea of modernization, which is so pervasive in the ways economic development is presented in Brazil, provides a frame against which other meanings are constructed. In water management arenas, the presentation of participation as an aspect of the general modernization of the state has reorganized meanings and delegitimized some forms of knowledge and economic activities to the detriment of others. As a result, the promotion of equality through participation lost a great deal of efficacy, and this state of affairs provided some degree of social validation for asymmetries in participatory decision making processes.

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  1. More critical texts on participation in Brazil and in Ceará have appeared in recent years, e.g. Abers and Keck 2006, 2007; Lemos and Oliveira 2004; Gutiérrez 2006.

  2. For a review of the process of water reforms in Ceará, see Abers and Keck 2006, 2007; Formiga Johnsson and Kemper 2005; Formiga Johnsson and Lopes 2003; Garjulli et al. 2002; Gutiérrez 2006; Lemos and Oliveira 2004; Taddei 2005.

  3. The Brazilian Northeast has what is considered to be the most populated semi-arid region in the world (around 20 inhabitants per square kilometer).

  4. Living with less than the local minimum wage (equivalent to less than US$1 per day per person).

  5. Large estates, with more than 10,000 ha, represent less than 0.01% of rural properties, while small holdings, with less than 10 ha, represent 70% of holdings and 5.4% of total area (Costa et al. 1997: 138).

  6. There is a water committee for the metropolitan region of Fortaleza, but this committee was not granted the power to allocate water by the state government—an interesting fact per se, since the levels of efficiency in water use in Fortaleza, as in other metropolitan areas in Brazil, are very low. The eleventh watershed crosses the state borders into the state of Piauí, and interstate water committees are the responsibility of the National Water Agency (ANA), and not of state governments.

  7. Many individuals were members of both the valley commission and of one of the water allocation committees, which facilitated the dissolution of the valley commission and its replacement by the committees. The valley commission only met twice a year to discuss water allocation, while the committees have a broader set of duties beyond water allocation, such as discussing and proposing actions regarding infrastructural development, pollution control, and ecological management.

  8. In smaller reservoirs, local commissions, composed of members of the local communities and representatives of the municipal and state governments, are also being created.

  9. Before 2005, the auditorium was divided into groups, one for each of the three large reservoirs of the valley, and discussions occurred independently in those groups. In 2005 some committee members requested that the larger group should not be divided, due to common interests of the Banabuiú and Castanhão basins (so decisions should be integrated). Since then, and also due to the reduced number of attendees, the larger group makes decisions for all three reservoirs.

  10. Gutiérrez (2006) rightly points to the rather ambiguous attitude of the World Bank towards participation throughout the history of water management in Ceará. The Bank interfered on many occasions in state government decisions regarding the use of the loan funds, but did not interfere in governmental actions that could be predicted to negatively affect social participation, as in the disestablishment of COGERH’s Organization of Users Department, in 2003 (2006: 21n27).

  11. Still, the concepts around which the Sourcebook text is structured are strongly marked by what Ferguson (1990) called the ideological fundaments, or theoretical premises of development discourse: (a) the representation of the local populations as far more indigenous and subsistence-oriented than it actually is; (b) the representation of local communities as fully integrated into a national economy, so that sector-based economic programs affect the whole population at once; and (c) the uncritical assumption of the existence of governmentality (Dean 1999; Foucault 1991), whereby the main features of economy and society are within the control of a neutral and unitary national government. The Sourcebook text also links poverty to civil strife and weak governments (1996: 4), and implicitly takes these as indicators of weak and unstable social structures (conflating social structures and institutions, a recurrent feature of development discourse—see Cleaver 2001). All these premises are problematic when confronted with local realities.

  12. Although my presentation of the facts is admittedly sketchy, it should not give the impression that it was an easy process. Since the introduction of the participatory process, and especially in the first years, COGERH technicians have had to deal with threats of physical violence and sabotage to the water infrastructure on many occasions.

  13. This does not mean that clientelism does not exist anymore; it is just not the main element in the relationship between state government and mayors with regard to the allocation of reservoir waters.

  14. These concepts act as summarizing symbols—see Ortner 1973.

  15. Temporal references in development discourses should not be taken at face value. As some have said (Evaluation Gap Working Group 2006; Glenzer, Peterson and Roncoli, this volume), the development world has rather been marked by a ‘presentist’ ethos, where forgetting exists as a fact and as an agenda. In such a context, past and future exist as expedient fictions in the political games created or taken over by the modernization projects.

  16. Irrigated rice was introduced by the military government in the 1970s, due to the soil types found in the region.

  17. One paradigmatic example, which I witnessed during fieldwork, is that of the situation in which someone, in a participatory meeting about water management, makes a proposition based on religious beliefs, only to be tacitly ignored by the technician controlling the activities of the meeting, with the activities then going on as if the proposal had never been put. The power to ignore a proposition and not be questioned about the fact is an indicator that participation takes place inside of strict symbolic limits, where there are implicit and at the same time more or less clear rules about which arguments are valid and which are not.

  18. Of course the symbolic organization of the meeting regiments the actions and words of the powerful too, especially as concerns the explicit values of the meetings, i.e. their democratic character. As Glenzer et al. (this volume) remind us, in many situations this may be positive in itself.

  19. On the other hand, due to the metasemiotic capacities of language, these processes of symbolic regimentation and semiotic manipulations can become the object of attention and contestation (Gal 1998: 329).


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This research involved intense conversation with members of diverse social and economic groups in the state of Ceará, of which perhaps government technicians were the most central of all. I hope my interlocutors (many of whom are now good friends) understand this text not as criticism of their work, but rather as a description of the general context in which (and against which) they had to develop their activities, and how this context affected and has been affecting the results of their efforts. I take sole responsibility for the ideas expressed in this article. Earlier versions of this paper were presented at the Anthropology Program Colloquium at Teachers College, Columbia University, and at the 2007 Annual Meeting of the American Anthropological Association. I thank those who offered me their comments in those meetings, and additionally Kent Glenzer, Carla Roncoli, and two anonymous reviewers for their detailed fruitful critical comments. This research has been carried out since 2002, with four years of continuous residence in the state of Ceará (from 2003 to 2006). It was funded at different times by the Brazilian National Research Council (CNPq), the São Paulo State Research Foundation (FAPESP), the Wenner-Gren Foundation, the International Research Institute for Climate and Society, the Ruth Landes Memorial Fund, the Comitas Institute for Anthropological Study, the National Science Foundation, and the Tinker Foundation.

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Correspondence to Renzo Taddei.

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Taddei, R. Watered-down democratization: modernization versus social participation in water management in Northeast Brazil. Agric Hum Values 28, 109–121 (2011).

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  • Participation
  • Water management
  • Modernization
  • Northeast Brazil
  • Ceará