More than a hundred years ago, at the beginning of the 20th century, he was exporting goatskins from the backlands
of Brazil's semi-arid region (caatinga or
sertão) to New York where they were part of haute couture long before haute
couture became haute couture.
In 1913 he plugged in the backlands by inaugurating Brazil's first hydroelectric power plant on the São Francisco
River. He "inaugurated" a few other things in Brazil, as well: cars, a factory, irrigated crops, roller-skating, the cinema and ice.
Such were a few of the feats of Delmiro Gouveia (1863-1917), born in Ceará state, a skinny kid from the
sertão who made it big in Recife as a captain of industry. He also believed that by marrying agriculture and cutting edge technology, the
semi-arid backlands of Brazil could flourish. He was right.
Gouveia's fingerprints are all over today's Brazilian backlands. His ideas thrive throughout the Northeast semi-arid
nation of Brazil. For example, farmlands around the twin urban centers that straddle the São Francisco River, Petrolina in
Pernambuco, and Juazeiro in Bahia, have become one of Brazil's main fruit exporting areas. And the source of fine wines and goat cheese.
Known locally as the crossroads of the
sertão, Petrolina in Pernambuco, and Juazeiro in Bahia, have joined a few
other select urban centers to become high-tech islands in the
caatinga, such as Campina Grande, Paraíba state, which exports
software to China, and Sobral, Ceará state, near where Delmiro Gouveia was born, which is a footwear manufacturing center.
Gouveia was also a pioneer in the Brazilian textile industry, setting up South America's first factory in 1914, in a
small backlands town. He was, to say the least, an innovative executive: the factory's one thousand employees worked eight
hours a day and had housing, daycare centers, schools and medical assistance.
It was so successful that in 1930 the factory was purchased by Scottish interests. Right after they bought it, the Scots
came to Brazil, disassembled the factory and tossed it into the São Francisco River so it would not compete with them. Today
a new factory operates there, employing 620 people, and the town is now called Delmiro Gouveia. The geography has not
changed at all; it is still very much semi-arid backlands.
A local poet (sertanejo Raimundo Pelado) pays tribute to Delmiro Gouveia in verse: "When Delmiro came to that
place so sad / it was all desert and just dry air. / No houses, no roads. So bad/ nobody wanted to live there..." ("Quando
Delmiro chegou,/naquele triste lugar,/ aquilo era deserto/ de ninguém querer morar,/não tinha casa nem gente,/ nem estrada pra passar").
Another sertanejo, Virgílio Gonçalves de Freitas, adds: "It was the great Delmiro Gouveia who evangelized the
sertão nation, staved off hunger, opening the doors to salvation" ("Foi o grande Delmiro Gouveia/ que evangelizou o sertão/
que matava a fome alheia/ abrindo as portas à redenção").
This article was prepared by Agência Brasil (AB), the official press agency of the Brazilian government.
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