This well-documented and interestingly argued book attempts to resolve the problem of the origin, persistence, and eclipse of the colonato, a labor regime dominant on São Paulo plantations from the abolition of slavery in 1888 until the 1970s. Although Paulista planters employed many monthly and daily wage workers, they preferred families of so-called colonists, especially immigrants, hired on yearly contracts and paid in cash by the task. The planters furnished rental housing, and the workers could plant subsistence crops in or near groves assigned them. This regime saved the plantations from potential fragmentation after the end of slavery, yet it has appeared to some historians to have been retrograde, since it seems to have exploited the labor force inefficiently. Because the colonato held back the formation of the smallholding more characteristic of coffee production elsewhere, and because it reflects on the nature of the coffee plantations as presumably capitalist enterprises, on the emergence of the Paulista planters as a bourgeoisie, and on the role of coffee workers as protagonists in the class struggle, the colonato has been much debated.

Stolcke seeks to demonstrate that this regime represented the highest degree of exploitation possible in the face of workers’ refusal to accept worse arrangements (p. 52). Her thesis is that “the confrontation between the power of the coffee planters of São Paulo and the different modes of resistance of the workers to the exploitation and discipline of work furnished the principal force for the transformation of the relations of production” (p. 13).

There is, however, little evidence in the text to support this explanation. On the contrary, the reader is presented with a planter class that shrewdly “managed to impose its solution to the labor problem” (p. 42), shifting from slavery to immigrant labor to day work precisely when existing relationships grew problematic and new opportunities appeared. Slave resistance is not mentioned as a cause of abolition, and the slaves’ fate after abolition goes unmentioned. Native landless rural residents, the caboclos, a group much larger than the former slaves, supposedly did not form a “constituted labor market” (p. 18), and, it is mentioned in passing, were “largely ignored” by the planters (p. 44) (in fact they were widely employed, but for lower wages). These are surely fertile subjects, if resistance is really the theme of this study.

An appeal to the government to provide free passage to immigrants resolved the impasse; the planters soon welcomed a tidal wave of wretched Italian and Spanish peasants. The spigot on the flow was opened or closed as market conditions required. Rather than resisting, the immigrants collaborated in maximizing the labor supply by writing relatives to join them. Stolcke finds it “significant” that it took an Italian government decree to save its subjects from supposed degradation on Paulista plantations, but does not say what the significance was (p. 66). The colonato regime, she asserts contradictorily given her conflict model, embodied not only the colonos’ demands but also the optimal arrangement for the planters, since it extracted the labor of wives and children as well as male workers, and guaranteed the presence of a sufficient work force at harvest time, when labor requirements were much enlarged (pp. 52, 184). In the depression, the planters easily transferred their losses to the colonos in the form of 50-percent pay cuts and even resumed subsidized immigration!

Only in the early 1960s did the coffee workers briefly react: rural unions suddenly bloomed, obliging the populist government to extend labor laws to the countryside to head off land reform. But this movement was easily demolished after the 1964 coup. Stolcke says this resulted from the removal of its leaders, who were mostly not rural, but city-based Communist or Catholic unionists (p. 227). Planters then evicted colonos en masse, not in response to resistance, although workers did continue to file suits in labor courts, but because planters worried that unions might some day reappear. The former colonos now live in small town slums and are hired daily by intermediaries who truck them to the plantations. The workers, although resentful, accepted the new arrangement. “Os pobres são sempre derrotados,” says one of those whom Stolcke interviews and identifies, rather condescendingly, by first names (p. 300).

Stolcke places the recent coffee labor transformation in a context of sweeping agricultural change. Eradication programs eliminated 40 percent of the trees in the name of improved productivity, and planters shifted to less labor-intensive crops, at last employing scientific techniques and machines. Enough material is provided to provoke still further speculations. Was daily shape-up of farm laborers possible before the mass introduction of the two-and-a-half ton truck to Paulista farms in the 1970s? Do the former colonos now find themselves better off in the towns, where family members can find employment more remunerative than tending chickens in the colônias? This book is an important and evidently provocative starting point for future analyses of Paulista coffee plantations, and essential reading on the history of Brazilian agriculture.