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Cedro Dam in the Quixadá Monoliths

Date of Submission: 30/01/2015
Criteria: (iv)
Category: Cultural
Submitted by:
Permanent Delegation of Brazil to UNESCO
State, Province or Region:
Quixadá, Ceará
Coordinates: S4 58 48.8 W39 03 52.8
Ref.: 5998

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“Vicente was reviewing the large stones Quixadá that stood out sharply on the arranhenta vastness of the savanna, lifting, sky above, the huge granite cliffs.

The light gave off strange gradations from the metallic gray and blue color of the sky, and another violet pale blue, to the black mud that flowed in large lists, vanishing in the crevices, chamalotando the rough walls to the pike.

They appeared in the distance, like a closed and hostile barrier, the saws binding to the saws, in a mounted alignment. However, the train was coming closer, penetrating, and as it progressed, the closed mountains moved away, like opening the pace to a panting monster that arrived.” (Rachel de Queiroz, O Quinze, 1930[1]).

The Quixadá region (the name meaning corral stones), located in Northeastern Brazil, has been occupied since prehistoric times, as evidenced by cave paintings and other existing archaeological remains on the site. European colonization began from the last quarter of the seventeenth century, starting with sugar production areas on the coast, following the beds of major rivers, entering the hinterland in search of places for cattle breeding. The organization of the territory and culture was done around the homestead, the patriarchal family structure, farms and grazing areas. In this region, the landscape of Quixadá has an intriguing feature that calls on the imagination to try to decipher it. In artists' and travelers' reports, impressions are always manifested in tones evoking admiration and fantasy. Contrasted by the large hinterland plain, the bizarre formations radiate a magnetic attraction, which turn it into a unique place.

These formations, the inselbergs - German term meaning "island (insel) mountain (berg)" - locally known as Monoliths, are residual elevations resulting from erosion characteristic of arid or semiarid environments. There is no other place on the planet where these formations are as numerous and cohesive as in Quixadá. In this particular environment, the predominant biome in the region is the Caatinga, the indigenous term for "white forest": an endemic biome, the only one exclusively Brazilian and covering about 850.000km², 10% of the country. Among its outstanding features is the ability to withstand long dry periods and regenerate with the return of the rains, covering up the seemingly inert vegetation.

By the mid-nineteenth century, the conditions that had allowed the survival of the colonists in the Brazilian semiarid region had changed: with a growth in population, the new regulations over land and the advancement of cotton production (restricting the old areas of refuge or shelter) dry spells widely impacted the region's population. Drought has become a nationwide problem, and combating its effects became the object of the Empire's policies, and later the Republic's.

In this sense, the Barragem do Cedro (Cedar Dam) is the first major Brazilian government project in the Caatinga, and the country’s first major piece of engineering, a tour de force that required the participation of national and foreign professionals, highlighting the role of Englishman John Julian Revy. This engineer came from similar experiences in India and Australia and had also published works on the subject, such as Hydraulics of great rivers: the Paraná, the Uruguay, and the La Plata estuary (1874) and, in a collaboration with John Frederic La Trobe Bateman, Channel Railway: Description of a proposed cast-iron tube for carrying a railway across the channel between the coasts of England and France (1869). Among the Brazilian engineers who came to work on the construction of the Cedro are Aaron Reis, Ulrich Mursa and Piquet Carneiro.

Built between 1890 and 1906, the project has aligned the use of advanced technologies for the time (the stone masonry dam, the use of cement and steel as building materials) with a rational appropriation of the environment, making the dam between rock formations that serve to support and complement the work of art. Water supply dams (in land mass were already practiced in the region, however at the Cedro, in addition to new construction techniques, the idea of its priority use for controlled irrigation was brought on as a new idea; therefore, a network of channels was designed that constitute the heart of the project.

The dam’s four bars have differentiated solutions based on usage and their implementation conditions: the main dam is in stone masonry, following the design arc that measures 415m. The wall is 20m high and has a prismatic section, with 4m wide at the cap, and 8m at the base. The spillway, also in stone, gains 91m in a straight line and has a truncated pyramidal section that is 7m high by 7m wide at the base. The other two dams (South dam and Lagoa do Forges) are homogeneous landmasses. The irrigation channels cover approximately 500ha. The Cedro has a storage capacity of 126 million cubic meters, and its watershed covers an area of about 224 km².

Scenically, it is in the arch in stone of the main wall that the work is affirmed. The incisive design of the dam and its mimetic fabric (made of local stone) create a dialogue with the surrounding rocks. Implanted under the feet of perhaps Quixadá’s most famous formations - the Pedra da Galinha Choca -, the Cedro is an impressive achievement in craft and art. Downstream of the dam, in the course of the Sitiá River (the dammed river) and along irrigation canals, the valley opens fertile, even greener when there is a renewal of the forests in years of regular rainfall.

Nevertheless, the impacts of the dam construction far outweigh its immediate context. All the policies of water security in the Brazilian semiarid area, operated from the late nineteenth century and well into the twentieth are due to this primary experience: a policy aimed at creating conditions to combat strong migratory impulse that would become effective in the region. The most serious droughts of 1877-79 and 1890-93 caused famine, epidemics, high rates mortality, the decimation of herds and social chaos. It was an ongoing depopulation of the hinterland of Northeast Brazil, and the construction of large dams has been adopted as a strategy to turn this around.

Against this backdrop, the Cedro also represents the culmination of several experiences of hydraulic technology, always a necessity for civilization, being a bold project of great complexity at the time. Its technical solutions represent the most advanced available techniques in the West at that time, receiving contributions from other experiences, such as those carried out in France, Italy, and in particular, in the British Empire.

In such a manner, the arrangement of the Cedro Dam in such an environment is exceptional in itself. The relief is distinguished in rarity, exuberance and a strong psychological appeal. It constitutes a landscape full of surprises, but also imbued with a deep cultural content. Its range includes from the European colonization process to the struggle for survival of modern populations in semi-arid environments, the struggle is what gains evidence against climate change that redefine the relationship with nature and the adaptation strategies of communities to the natural environment.

[1] A classic from Brazilian literature, this book is the first product of the authors from the generation known as “geração de 30”, a group characterized by its modernist influence in Brazil, focused on a social look over the Brazilian Northeast Region issues.

Justification of Outstanding Universal Value

Criterion (iv): The Cedro Dam, with its wall of stone masonry arch, was the first major modern hydraulic work on the South American continent. It has incorporated the advanced scientific, technological progress, and calculation applied to civil engineering at the time. Designed by British engineer J.J. Revy, and built by exponents of the emerging Brazilian polytechnic engineering training, the dam stands out as an exceptional example of the period between the second half of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. It is one of the pioneering works of its type and its size in the world. In addition to its function of damning water for irrigation, its implementation, design and implementation of execution resulted in unparalleled beauty on the landscape, combining boldness and elegance, simplicity and monumentality, a symbiosis between human ingenuity and the work of nature that animates the spirit.

The landscape formed by the monoliths and the Cedro Dam in Quixadá is the synthesis of the Caatinga; the semi-arid biome climate endemic in Brazil, and the struggle of the colonizers from the seventeenth century to occupy and transform this habitat marked by intense droughts. The spillway (designed and built from 1882 to1906) initiated a systematic and quite successful policy of surface water damning and an interconnection of basins for over a century throughout the region, altering its perception as to the real possibilities of occupation and survival amid an area hostile to human life due to systematic water shortages. This enabled the Caatinga to presently be the most densely populated semi-arid zone on the planet due to water security. The landscape composed by this biome of the relief plan is highlighted by dozens of monoliths of diverse and unusual shapes, sculpted by nature, composing a set of unique and exceptional features complemented by human intervention, that being the Cedro Dam.

Statements of authenticity and/or integrity


Form and Concept

Cedro's reservoir remains largely preserved in its original plan, consisting of four bars and a network of irrigation canals. The bars have several structural solutions, reflecting the hierarchy and the function that is intended, showing how engineering reduced the expenditure of resources by taking advantage of local conditions: the frame and the foundation of dams are the natural rock itself. On the other hand, the strong resonance between the curved design of the main dam and the surrounding countryside define an iconic image, which has become a fundamental representation of the "man and nature in the semiarid region" relationship. The monoliths and the Cedro Dam operate in a symbolic two-way street, in which the manufactured object redefines the natural, and the natural is affirmed over the human imagination, causing associative readings of the landscape.

Materials and Substance

The use of cut stone masonry has prominence in the Cedro dam complex. Of its four bars, two are of stone masonry, the main dam and the spillway. In each of these structures, there are different design and stonework solutions. The material for its construction came from local quarries: very hard crystalline rocks that are difficult for mining. There are also two secondary dams, the south dam and the Lagoa do Forges dam, carried out in homogeneous landmasses. The technology of dams on land had been used in the Brazilian Northeast since the eighteenth century; the context in which the carved stone masonry was introduced as a great innovation and set up the development of hydraulic engineering. The execution of the great work also represented an unprecedented experience for the inhabitants of the region, who experienced the contrast between their land-based and agro-pastoral culture while engaging in the dam construction with new forms of organization of production, based on the division of labor in the hierarchy and the clock time.

Use, function and management systems

The Cedro dam was originally conceived as a regional solution for water scarcity, as a model to be followed in which the intent was the use of water in agricultural production through irrigation. The channel network is part of the initial project and represented one of its innovations, along with the stone dam technology. In recent decades, the dam and the monoliths have been consolidated as a visiting area for tourists, with the more varied appropriations - nature sports, esoteric activities, religious tourism - always magnetized by the unique character of the landscape.

Given the dam’s importance, the area of the Quixadá monoliths is the subject of several institutional actions, being protected and/or recognized in different spheres, namely:

  • A Barragem do Cedro is listed by IPHAN, registered in 1984 in the Archaeological, Ethnographic and Landscape Book (registration No. 087) and the Book of Fine Arts (registration No. 563).
  • The area of the monoliths is also listed by IPHAN, being registered in 2004 in the Archaeological, Ethnographic and Landscape Book (registration No. 144).
  • The State Government of Ceará created, through Decree No. 26,805 of 2002, the Natural Monument Monoliths of Quixadá, a strictly protected unit that covers the area bounded by the following coordinates: latitude 04 ° south between 54', and 05°02' west longitude, between 38°53 ' and 39°06'.
  • In 2001, an agreement was signed between four parties: the National Department of Works against Droughts - DNOCS (the owner of the Cedro damn), the federal institution which must contribute to the implementation of the objectives of the National Policy for Water Resources; IPHAN, the federal institution responsible for the formulation and implementation of the National Policy of Cultural Heritage, and the Municipality of Quixadá, immediate responsible party for the management of the land, which includes the spillway.
  • In 2009, the inselbergs of the Quixadá were included in the World Famous Mountains Association's List – WFMA.

Location and environment

The northeastern hinterland is an area of great contrasts: between relief plains and steep rocky elevations; between periods of drought and rainy seasons that transform the landscape and regulate much of human life. The hinterland is the place of the Caatinga, sometimes sparse and bushy, sometimes leafy and enclosed in forests. In Quixadá, this conformation underlines the presence of numerous inselbergs, granite formations that are components of Precambrian crystalline complex, formed some 600 million years ago, and which result from physical weathering processes, made up of diverse sets in composition, size, shape, texture, color and relationship with its surroundings. Composed here with continuous vegetation mimicked by drought, right there with small dams, yonder with some white farmhouses, between the mirrors of the water, the rocks forever forming an endless landscape of possibilities.

Spirit and Sentiment

It's impossible to overlook the monoliths without feeling awed. As one approaches, it is found in the landscape’s intricacies the dance of the forms, with rocks that are transmuted into light and heavy, dense and rarefied, light and dark, smooth and textured, sterile and fertile, dark and bright. In a way, that is sometimes subtle, having several figures emerge from the rocks, stimulating the imagination of the observer. In this environment, always unexpected, the creation of the Cedro dam denotes the effort of human presence in the transformation of the landscape, as if taming it. Given the historically rustic conditions, the human enterprise stands out and, at the same time, it is incorporated into the landscape, integrating with it for a healthy coexistence, promising, in order to overcome what exudes in the environment on where it manifests.


It has all the elements necessary to express its Exceptional Universal Value

Integrity in regards to the Quixadá is presented on two levels: In terms of the monoliths, it is appreciated in the landscape strength, in the overall imagery coherence, in preserving its bucolic character that is still imposing despite the proximity to the Quixadá. As for the Cedro Dam, the integrity is regarded in the maintenance of the main elements of the dam’s original plan and its functionality as both water reserve and irrigation system.

It is of sufficient size to ensure the complete representation of the features and processes that convey the importance of this location

The Cedro dam is a coherent and concise repository of technological and social changes brought about by the policy to combat the effects of drought, promoted by the Second Brazilian Empire and the nascent Republic. In addition to its concrete and eloquent testimony as work of art, which stands out among its peers, reaching an exceptional level globally, it is necessary to highlight its role as a sign of a historical process, easily identifiable in literature and in the scientific production that deals with the subject. The bold articulation of this human fact with the landscape of monoliths is one of the decisive factors for the exceptional aura emanating from the entire complex.

Comparison with other similar properties

The assemblage of the environment and the relationship with water is a constant that runs throughout human history, from the first fixed settlement communities that recently dominated agriculture to the present. Objects and remarkable hydraulic systems were built by different peoples and in all periods since ancient times, with flood control purposes, to supply cities, for transportation and irrigation. Moreover, the scarcity/abundance ratio of clean water is a universal question of the construction of the cultural background of any civilization or society. The Cedro Dam is an important chapter in the thread that connects the human experience in water management, adaptation and transformation of their habitat and the technical development of hydraulic engineering.

In this perspective, the Cedro Dam converses with the hydraulic system of Shushtar in the Khuzestan region in Iran, well recognized by UNESCO in 2009 under criteria (i), (ii) and (v), built by the creative genius of the Mesopotamian peoples and with input from the know-how of other ancient cultures. The system, still in use, guaranteed the supply of the old city and the deployment of an extensive irrigated plain to the development of agriculture in a semiarid region. Similarly, it minimizes the dryness of the soil and of the climate and expanded agricultural areas, the intention of the multiple dams in Northeast Brazil, which the Cedro Dam was the first large-scale initiative and the most emblematic for its artistic and landscape qualities.

The Cedro Dam also holds a parallel with the Tibi Dam in the province of Alicante, Spain, a monument protected at the national level since 1994. The Tibi Dam, which dams the Monnegre river, was built between the years 1580-94 and was the largest and most advanced of the time in the world, representing an innovation that would not be surpassed until the era of big dams in the late nineteenth century. As the Cedro Dam, Tibi Dam has been built in arch with stone masonry, with its walls rising in a big mouth between two large rock masses, important in resource saving and creating an exceptional setting. However, while the construction of the Tibi Dam has been guided by empirical thinking, the Cedro Dam is a manifestation of applied scientific reasoning.

There is also an analogy between the Cedro Dam and the Rideau Canal, located in the province of Ontario, Canada, a cultural site from the post industrial revolution period, included in the World Heritage List in 2007 under criteria (i) and (iv). In both cases, knowledge and European engineering techniques have been applied in the Americas, and its structures are preserved and still functional. Although for different purposes, one of a military character and the other of agricultural character, the two works have been imposed as landmarks in the landscape through monumental structures that merge into the elements.

The lush landscapes of the Monoliths in Quixadá find themselves allusions to the Göreme National Park (and rock sites of Cappadocia) in the province of Nevşehir, Turkey, humanity’s cultural heritage registered in 1985 under criteria (i), (iii), (v), and (vii). In particular, the latter criterion highlights the drama of erosive forces on the rock formations in the semiarid plain of the Göreme Valley, carving various forms of great beauty and interacting with the cultural elements of the landscape. The association is direct with the landscape of the Monoliths, a part of the Cedro Dam.

Finally, the area of the Cedar Dam and Monoliths, inserted in the semiarid area with an endemic biome (Caatinga), in an exceptional land relief, with an exemplary and seminal work of art, is an enclave of meanings that have hardly been obtained in another situation.