The decline and eventual abolition of slavery in northeast Brazil and the subsequent technological changes in the sugar industry are discussed by Jaime Reis and Peter Eisenberg in the first two papers of this section. Both make clear the extent to which almost all the agricultural land in this region was controlled by the planter oligarchy, thereby leaving the ex-slaves and other classes of free labourers few opportunities to escape from work on the plantations, which remained virtually their only source of income and employment. Moreover, ecological conditions discouraged the ex-slaves from migrating in large numbers away from the coastal sugar zone into the interior, for the arid backlands of the sertao already carried a surplus population which, unable to eke out more than bare living from the region's meagre and uncertain resources, was itself actually seeking to migrate (albeit seasonally) towards the sugar cane areas. Eisenberg's paper contains a broad general analysis of the economic factors affecting the Brazilian sugar industry in this period of crisis and change, and some useful comparisons are made with the Cuban sugar cane industry. In contrast, Reis's paper presents a more detailed study of the social relations of production within the changing plantation system, with particular reference to the slow but steady transition from the use of slaves to moradores as the major source of agricultural labour.
Whereas in northeast Brazil the process of agrarian change seems to have been relatively smooth and untraumatic (at least from the point of view of the landowners), Michael Taussig shows that in the Cauca Valley of Colombia the elimination of Negro slavery initially resulted in a very considerable degree of economic and social disruption in the plantation system.