The Backlands - Sertão

Sertão means "backcountry" or "backlands". The people who live there are sertanejos. Some people use the word sertanejo as synonymous with cowboy, which is not strictly accurate.

The Portuguese colonisers of Brazil clung to the coast rather than penetrating the vast and frightening "interior". This mixture of fear and disdain still forms the Brazilian attitude. When we look at the sertão we see a unique ecosystem and culture. When Brazilians look they see poverty, drought and everything they are trying to escape from. It is seen as somewhere to escape from and, indeed, the origins of many of the favela
dwellers in the rich cities of southern Brazil is in the arid northeast. As a child, President Lula was himself part of this exodus.

In Jorge Amado's masterpiece,Gabriela, Clove and Cinnamon, Gabriela had been forced down to the coast of Bahia by a drought in the interior. In the Oscar-nominated film Central Station (Central do Brasil), the jaded Dora, a retired teacher from Rio de Janeiro, took a young boy back to his home in the sertão and, in the process, rediscovered her soul.

All the northeastern capitals are on the coast except one - Teresina. Piauí's low status within Brazil is partly because, more than any state, it is defined by the sertão.

The sertão covers a large part of the northeast of Brazil. Generally this is the part of Brazil that foreigners don't visit. This is a shame as it is quite impossible to understand Brazil without going there. While many Brazilians would fervently deny it, their attitudes, food, music and religion are all defined by the sertão. It is the sertão that makes Brazil different from other Latin American countries.

In its natural state, the sertão was covered by a distinctive scrubby caatinga vegetation, consisting generally of low thorny bushes adapted to the extreme climate. Several species of tree in the caatinga have become valuable horticultural plants, such as the cashew nut. Most of the sertão vegetation is now substantially degraded as a result of centuries of cattle ranching or clearing for cotton farming. Piauí's National Parks are the most pristine examples of natural sertão habitat.


The sertanejos are tough people, enduring frequent and prolonged "secas" (droughts) under their vast blue skies. The environment seems to encourage religious fervency, still visible today by the pilgrimages to places like Oeiras and Santa Cruz dos Milagres. The harsh life of the sertanejos is described in one of Brazil's most famous novels, Vidas Secas (translated as Barren Lives) by Graciliano Ramos.

Religious Mystics

After the revolution/coup that toppled the Emperor there was a famous rebellion at Canudos in Bahia (1896-1897) where a Millenialist community sought to resist what they saw as the heathen new republic. Led by Antônio Conselheiro (Anthony the Counselor) the rebels defeated several military forces sent against them before they were annihilated. The "War of Canudos" was reported by a journalist, Euclides da Cunha, in The Revolt in the Backlands which was re-worked by Mario Vargas Llosa in The War of the End of the World. Vargas Llosa's fiction is much more readable, and easily obtainable. It is highly recommended.

Padre Cícero is claimed by some to have been at Canudos. Born in 1870, he was an ordained priest who had visions in which Jesus told him he had a special mission to look after the people of the Northeast. Not always popular with the local, highly conservative, religious establishment or the Vatican, Padre Cicero developed his own following. A miracle is said to have occured in the town of Juazeiro do Norte, across the state line in Ceara. The communion wine he gave to a nun is said to have turned (chemically) into blood. Today the town has a huge statue of Padre Cícero and a pilgrimage every November.


It was the vaqueiros - the cowboys - who first colonised Piauí. From the backlands of Pernambuco and Bahai, they followed their herds into Piaui looking for grazing land. Cowboys in the United States are mythologised as rugged individualists. In semi-feudal northeastern Brazil they were, and remain, poor agricultural workers. Traditionally clad head to food in leather these men are still part of the landscape.


Lampião and Maria Bonita. Lampião was last and probably the greatest of the cangaceiros. Originally cangaceiros were the hired thugs of the local ranchers, the "colonels". Some, however, went into business for themselves. Lampião and his gang roamed the sertão for twenty years before finally being ambushed and killed on 28 July 1938.

Luiz Gonzaga

Born in Pernambuco, Luiz Gonzaga, is credited with popularised Northeastern music throughout Brazil. The accordian-playing "king of baião" (a musical style) wore a trademark
Lampião-style hat.

A Morte do Vaqueiro - Luiz Gonzaga