Rio Grande do Norte

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Rio Grande do Norte

Rio Grande do Norte, one of the easternmost states of Brazil, covers 20,470 square miles and has a population of 2.7 million (2000 estimate). The capital is Natal. The socioeconomic conditions of the state are poor; 92 percent of the state is semi-arid. The interior is devoted to livestock, cotton, and other agricultural enterprises. Salt marshes near Natal and southward produce much of Brazil's crude and refined salt. Mining yields tungsten, gypsum, limestone, marble, gold, and beryl.

The Portuguese began settling the region in the late 1500s, although the territory was contested, not only by the local Potiguar people but also by the French. The Portuguese consolidated their hold on the region in the early part of the seventeenth century but lost it again in 1633 to the Dutch, who controlled much of the northeast until 1654. The colonial economy centered on sugar, but cotton, introduced in the 1700s, quickly became a leading crop. Originally a dependency of Pernambuco, Rio Grande do Norte became a province of the empire in 1824 and a state of the republic in 1889.

In the spring of 1817 Rio Grande do Norte, Alagoas, Paraíba, and Pernambuco, displaying nationalistic tendencies, attempted unsuccessfully to establish a northeastern republic. Rio Grande do Norte supported another such movement in the mid-1820s. The state's geographic position lent it strategic importance during World War II, when the United States maintained a key air base near Natal.

In the 1950s Bishop Eugênio Sales, auxiliary bishop of Natal, attempting to ameliorate conditions in the interior, launched the Rural Assistance Service (SAR). Explicitly anticommunist and disavowing any desire for radical socioeconomic change, the SAR set out to provide medical and educational services, protect peasants' basic legal rights, organize unions of rural workers, and work for mild land reform. Although only moderately successful, this "Movement of Natal" became a model for similar activities elsewhere in northeastern Brazil.

By the early 1960s, radio literacy programs sponsored by the SAR and similar organizations burgeoned into the government-sponsored national Movement for Basic Education (MEB). The United States made the state under Governor Aluízio Alves a centerpiece of its Alliance for Progress program. Paulo Freire came to national prominence with an Alliance-funded literacy campaign in Alves's home town of Angicos. After the military coup in 1964, however, the MEB and other social reform movements and programs became targets of brutal repression. In recent decades, as in most northeastern states, there has been an attempt to encourage the development of tourism.

See alsoAlagoas; Education: Overview; Freire, Paulo; Literacy; Natal; Paraíba; Pernambuco; Sales, Eugênio de Araújo.


Alves, Aluizio. O Que Eu Não Esqueci: Reminscências Políticas 1933–2001. Rio de Janeiro: Léo Christiano Editorial, 2001.

Camara Cascudo, Luis da. História do Rio Grande do Norte. Rio de Janeiro: Ministério de Educação e Cultura, 1955.

De Kadt, Emanuel. Catholic Radicals in Brazil. London: Royal Institute of International Affairs, 1970.

Fernandes, Calazans and Antonio Terra. 40 Horas de Esperança: Política e Pedagogia na Experiência de Angicos. São Paulo: Editora Ática, 1994.

Hemming, John. Red Gold: The Conquest of the Brazilian Indians. London: Macmillan, 1978.

Ireland, Rowan. "The Catholic Church and Social Change in Brazil: An Evaluation." In Brazil in the Sixties, edited by Riordan Roett. Nashville, TN: Vanderbilt University Press, 1972.

Page, Joseph A. The Revolution That Never Was: Northeast Brazil, 1955–1964. New York: Grossman, 1972.

                                 Andrew J. Kirkendall