How plagues and grasshoppers changed the Latvian colonies in Brazil
So far, 2020 has been an absurd year. A cyclone in southern Brazil has temporarily prevented the arrival of a swarm of grasshoppers that destroyed Argentina. In the past article, we reported how the pandemic we face today is not much different than what the Latvians in Brazil experienced in 1918. Spanish flu, however, was only the smallest enemy of the decade: years before, locust clouds darkened the skies and they destroyed entire plantations.
For immigrants who left the old continent to make a living in Brazil, agriculture was everything. Your wealth, your way of life. Plantations destroyed in a difficult year could mean famine, and no enemy was as vile as the grasshopper.
Lizete Roze, in letter to her son.
We are doing well and everyone is healthy. But the plantations do not want to grow, due to drought and a complete lack of rain. The weather is still quite cold. The last rain was on the 16th of October, and just yesterday there was frost in the lowlands. The dry, cold wind blows all day, and if the locusts happen to arrive, there will be hunger.
In this article, we will again be looking at the archive of letters from Rio Novo. Due to the vast number of letters, the link to the original letters is in the descriptions. The swarm caused panic among the colonists. Some, like Arthur Leiman, even called them “little demons”, but soon they were given a more affectionate nickname: “Visitors from Argentina”.
The scientific name of the South American migratory locust is Schistocerca cancellata. Coming from the Argentine chaco, the absence of predators and hot winters can cause the population to get out of control. However, the year 1917 saw a plague of biblical proportions, affecting the lethal colonies of Ijuí and Rio Novo:
The Kļaviņš property is infested with locusts: an immense amount, reaching, due to the weight, to break the branches of the trees.
A cloud of locusts passed by last week, but they did not land. The mountain people say that there are many locusts in the mountains, but they have not started to descend. In Mãe Luzia there are so many grasshoppers that it is a horror, they form a thick layer and they lay eggs. The Kļava [another family] wrote to Rio Novo asking if there is a possibility of them bringing the cattle, because there is nothing else to eat there and it is possible that they will starve.
In October, the locusts began to arrive in flight. The local people were very concerned. Some plowed the fields to bury them, but despite these efforts, a month later, they were born knowing how to jump and were the size of a fly. They stayed in packs and moved from side to side and where they arrived they ate everything that was vegetable. A hard fight against them began; ditches were dug and when they got there, we covered them with soil. We sprinkled the locusts with boiling water, beat with brooms, but despite this effort, many remained and became adults.
Again clouds of locusts arrived and destroyed our pastures and were jumping around looking for a place to spawn.
During the night I lit fires whose light attracted them and the flames burned; I also surrounded the candle fields to impede their progress.
You probably already have news through newspapers that in the Province of Rio Grande do Sul several colonies were literally destroyed, including Ijuí [a latvian colony] and its surroundings. The number of locusts would be so great that the railway traffic would be interrupted in the mountains of that province; there in the mountains the thickness of the locust layers would be more than one meter, in front of which the mountaineers and their troops would not be able to proceed, etc…
In the week of October 23, the first flocks began. (…) They devoured a large part of the cornfield and six liters of beans; thankfully, most of it was left, as many people lost everything.
On Sunday, the last day of October, I was going to Rio Laranjeiras, passing by the lower Rio Novo, when clouds of grasshoppers passed over the river. When I arrived in the land of the Paegles, there was even more, and in that stretch of forest side they had landed and were getting ready to lay eggs. (…) The grass of the pastures no longer exists, and poor cattle have nothing else to eat: they just remain immobile.
The Brazilians said that in Capivaras there were also immense clouds of grasshoppers that landed and laid eggs; when the ground is dug with a hoe you can see an immense amount of eggs, so calculate the damage they will do when they hatch in thousands of new locusts.
[The arrival] according to them was frightening, due to the immensity of the locust clouds, comparable to a devastating storm that made the heavens and the earth darken. The people there used everything to try to scare them and make them continue their route, and they think they got some results.
Near Campinas [Note: Araranguá] a large number of these animals, when flying to the sea, ended up drowning; now fishermen can no longer go fishing, as they get bogged down to the waist in the layer of dead locusts that the sea returns to the beaches. We also have news from Florianópólis, that there was so much locust drowned there that the sea returned to the beaches, reaching a layer of two and a half meters high …
Yesterday a white cloud appeared that moved to the sides of the Rio Pequeno and was moving away from the mountains, and it was nothing but another cloud of them. What else can happen only God knows.
There are many people saying that the locusts are attacking the Minadouro region. They say there are so many that they form thick layers. Here they also pass, but flying high and do not land; it happens almost every day.
This year was a year full of tragedies. At the beginning of the year the floods, then the great frosts, the snow, the locusts, a month and a half of immense drought and then, to complete, the fire.
Grasshoppers appeared again near Orleans, also in Rio Laranjeiras, Rio Belo and Braço do Norte. Near Orleans, I had the opportunity to see a cloud of them, the edges of the roads so full that they wheezed; thankfully they’re not everywhere. Where they are they eat everything and start laying eggs. The government determined that people not affected should go to work for at least two days, killing the young; in the fields everything was easy, but in the woods and capoeiras there was nothing to do. If those who are left go up the Rio Novo, they will eat everything. Below Orleans they say there is much more, that on the railroad you cannot see the tracks.
Certainly, 1917 was the scariest year for the colonists. For many, who had never experienced such a natural catastrophe in Latvia, locusts were almost an apocalyptic sign. The combat was successful due to the colonists’ work and government action. However, swarms of locusts would still plague the colonies in the years that followed, until the late 1940s.
On June 6, just after noon, on the side of the hill of the Griķi [family], locusts started to come, but in an immense amount as I had never seen before. They did not land near our house; everyone headed towards the Liepkalņi [family] hill.
It was a cloud so dense that it darkened the sun and a noise that was a harbinger of a storm. They started to appear at 1:30 pm and ended at 3:00 pm;
This year we had visits from Argentina [grasshoppers]; few have appeared here on our land, but there have been immense clouds in the Klaviņi and Leimani.
Earlier this year we worked hard to eradicate locusts. We all had the opportunity to see an immense amount of these insects. When they passed, they provoked a snoring as dull as a storm, and they even shadowed as clouds do: not even the sunlight could be seen.
In a way, the locusts of 1917 represent the beggining of a change in the Latvian Colonization of Brazil. The beginning of its agricultural decline. The lands that the immigrants had bought from the Brazilian government were rocky, sandy and distant from civilization. At the end of the 1930s, it became clear that those colonies were not proper to mechanization. Factors such as tropical heat and shifting rains, in addition to plagues, have caused a brutal decline in agricultural activity.
When we look at history, we can understand why colonies like Rio Novo disappeared, and others like Vārpa, never became cities. The plague of locusts, that would ravage the colonies for decades to come, forced many to migrate to urban spaces, gradually dispersing the Latvians across Brazilian lands.
Emils Andermanis, in his personal diary in 1920
The locusts also devoured everything from the pasture and crops, and on agricultural activity I had no more hope and I was tired of insisting.
Cover image: Ijuí memória virtual
Author: Andreis Purim