Do We Learn from Natural Disasters? The 1877-1879 Drought and Famine in Northeast Brazil

Klaus Fonseca Hoeltgebaum. Show Author details

Drought in Ceará (Brazil) 1877-1879
Painting of a family affected by the late 19th-century droughts

Making societies more resilient and adaptive to climate shocks is a crucial goal of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development (see here). Climate anomalies have led to extreme weather shocks, and consequently disasters. One such region that suffers from the increasingly unpredictable weather is Northeast Brazil, whose poor population is highly dependent on rainfed agriculture for food security. The drought between 2012-2017 has been one of the worst recorded ones, and climate change has been raising concerns that severe droughts may become more frequent. Yet, to prepare for the future, we need to learn from the past and understand how societies in history have strengthened (or weakened) their resilience and adaptability to climate change.

The climatic intensity of the 2012-2017 drought is frequently compared to ‘A Grande Seca’ (The Great Drought) in 1877-1879, where between 200,000 to 500,000 people died from the famine that ensued. This event is often cited in popular discussions, newspapers and academic articles as the starting point of active government involvement in developing resilience and adaptive capacity in Northeast Brazil. However, the reasons why the drought led to large-scale famine and deprivation are still poorly understood. This article presents some stylized facts about the event, current academic perspectives on the topic and how these are not sufficient to understand what happened then. I argue that we need more and new detailed data on a number of indicators to advance our knowledge on the topic, which is the purpose of my doctoral dissertation.

Brazil in the global El-Niño famines

The period 1876-1878 saw an exceptionally strong El-Niño phase of the El-Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO), a climate pattern characterized by the warming of the Pacific waters near Peru. As seen in the figure below, El Niño led to droughts in Brazil, China, India, Australia and South Africa; and famines in Brazil, India and China. Many of the affected regions are characterized by having a predominantly semi-arid climate and a large population dependent on agriculture; and Northeast Brazil is no exception.

1876-1878 ENSO Droughts and Famines

The hinterlands of this region are commonly called sertão and were inhabited by the sertanejos. They were primarily landless labourers working in sharecropping or day-labour arrangements, and were highly reliant on the seasonal rainfall between February and May to survive the remaining dry months. To survive, they either produced enough food through subsistence farming, earned enough income to buy food for the remaining months, or a combination of both. At the bottom of the socioeconomic scale, and thus the most vulnerable, were slaves who had even less agency over their livelihood. They were a declining part of the population in the 1870s, but nevertheless a significant group given that slavery would only be abolished 10 years after the drought. When the drought hit the sertão, crops were wiped out and waged agricultural opportunities vanished. The sertanejos were left with none of their typical sources of food and income so they had to resort to coping strategies to mitigate the risk of starvation. These included selling assets such as cattle, scavenging wild fruits like the pequi, umbu, cajá, mandacaru and mucunã, and migrating to urban centers in hopes of finding work, charity or government relief. Nevertheless, these coping strategies were insufficient to prevent the famine.

What caused the 1877-1879 famine?

There is still a lack of consensus on the causes of the 1877-1879 famine in Brazil, and can be seen in the contrasting views of Cunniff (1970) and Davis (2001). Cunniff (1970) shows that the Brazilian state failed to recognize the growing vulnerability of the agriculturally dependent population in the semi-arid region. Economic decline, floods, diseases and austerity policies all contributed negatively. The state’s emergency relief institution was slow to respond to the drought, and aid was not delivered quickly enough to the affected areas. While political will and market failures played a role, food shortages due to the drought were the main cause of the crisis. In contrast, Davis (2001) views the famine as a modern one and highlighted how dependent poorer regions were of richer ones. The influence of liberalization and ‘laissez-faire’ ideals from richer countries, such as United Kingdom and United States, hindered the will and ability of state agents in Brazil to mitigate the effects of the drought. He argued that the subsistence crisis during the 1877-1879 El-Niño drought was therefore a consequence of the first wave of globalization. 

The above explanations are a starting point, but recently, scholars like Tiburcio (2021) have called attention to the fact that much remains to be uncovered: “There is little or no research or even reliable records on most of the critical factors that satisfactorily explain why the drought and famine episodes were so impactful in that period.” 

New perspectives on the 1877-1879 famine

My research aims to explore the missing elements and uncover more satisfactory answers to the causes of the famine. I’m currently taking a closer look at two critical factors that help explain the famine: mortality and food prices. 

Firstly, for mortality I use novel regional-level death register to look at how different cities across fared during the famine. Taking a closer look at the mortality in the inland city of Quixeramobim, the figure below shows us that the mortality trend pre-1877 was constant and seasonal. There was generally a spike in mortality between December and February, the driest months of the year, and a drop in mortality during the rainy season between March and July. The famine clearly starts around the second half of 1877 once the drought became apparent. While these are only some preliminary results, they help rule out that there weren’t any widespread epidemics that increased mortality right before the drought and that potentially played a role in causing the famine. Mortality in other cities may also reveal different trends, peaks and timings of the famine. Thus, this data can be useful to evaluate and understand how the famine developed across the region.

Average monthly mortality in Quixeramobim 1872-1881

Second, I gathered new evidence on food prices and evaluate the role of food price increases in causing the famine. It’s unsurprising that high prices can lead to a food crisis, but what is surprising is that very little is known about what these prices were and what their impact was on mortality rates. Take the prices of manioc flour in the figure below (see figure below) for Fortaleza, capital of the province of Ceará between 1875 and 1879. Manioc flour prices are stable pre-1877, and spike in the second half of 1877. As one of the food staples at the time, any variation in manioc flour prices can have consequences for the food security of a large part of the population. To get an idea of how high food prices were, the government provided relief through wages, where drought refugees could work on public works and received a wage between 400-500 réis per day. At its peak, manioc flour prices were 240 réis per liter so a household that depended on the wages from the public works to survive would have to spend around half of their income or more for 1 liter of manioc flour. This is roughly 1800 calories using present-day measures, which might be enough for 1 person to survive but not an entire household. A similar spike trend can be seen with other food substitutes. We can see that food prices likely contributed to the high mortality rates in the famine in 1878, but whether the spike in prices caused the famine remains to be seen. 

Manioc flour price in Fortaleza 1875-1879

Additionally, as a coastal city, Fortaleza was better connected to other food markets, and manioc flour from other places could be imported which is reflected with how quickly prices declined by the second half of 1878. It’s less clear how this extrapolates to food prices in more inland cities. Food markets were becoming more integrated in the 1870s Brazil due to the growing number of railroads and steamships. While this may have increased food availability and made prices converge across the region, it could also have increased the dependency to acquire food from markets. Droughts can negatively impact the integration of food markets and adversely affect the food security of populations now dependent on these markets (Ravallion, 1986). Evidence from government reports in 1877 suggest that this was the case, as merchants were unable to make their usual trips with mules due to the lack of food and water in the dry plains. In the end, the growing food market integration potentially worsened food security during the drought, and contributed to the famine.


Overall, it is still unclear why the 1877-1879 drought in Northeast Brazil resulted in a famine. There is a lack of consensus on what factors explain caused the famine and new evidence is necessary to move forward. This is where my research on mortality and food prices comes in. I bring novel evidence on mortality and food prices that will help unveil how the famine evolved across the region and will help assess the role of food markets on causing the famine.

These are some of the current pieces being fit into the puzzle that explains the causes of the famine. Many more remain scattered. Diseases, migration, state mismanagement, and inequality, to name a few, all likely played a role. There is still a lot of left to uncover before we get a complete picture of the causes. However, every piece helps us understand the adaptations that made it possible to prevent such a famine from ever happening again. These are the lessons that we hope to learn from disasters in the past so that we don’t have to face again in the future.

Further information:

  • The associated image of this post was taken from Wikimedia Commons (link).


  • Amann, E., Baer, W., Trebat, T., & Lora, J. V. (2016). Infrastructure and its role in Brazil’s development process. The Quarterly Review of Economics and Finance, 62, 66–73.
  • Cunniff, R. L. (1970). The Great Drought: Northeast Brazil, 1877-1880. University of Texas at Austin.
  • Davis, M. (2001). Late Victorian holocausts: El Niño famines and the making of the third world. Verso;
  • Fackler, P. L., & Goodwin, B. K. (2001). Chapter 17 Spatial price analysis. In Handbook of Agricultural Economics (Vol. 1, pp. 971–1024). Elsevier.
  • Ravallion, M. (1986). Testing Market Integration. American Journal of Agricultural Economics, 68(1), 102–109.
  • Tiburcio, J. A. P. (2021). Nature vs policy: Drought and famine in the northeast of Brazil, 1877-79. Sustainability in Debate, 12(3), Article 3.
  • von Cramon-Taubadel, S., & Goodwin, B. K. (2021). Price Transmission in Agricultural Markets. Annual Review of Resource Economics, 13(1), 65–84.

Author details

PhD Candidate (Wageningen University & Research)