Brazilian Economy: From Rubber to Retail
A Past and Present Look at How Brazil Makes Money, With a Little Help from a Credit Card
By Annie Langdon
Quick. What's the first thing that comes to mind when you hear the word Brazil ? Okay, sunny beaches, soccer, and the Amazon are most likely the first things one thinks of, but what about the second? Tourism, of course. And what's the first thing that comes to mind when you hear tourism? Shopping! Brazil is most definitely a country that revolves around tourism. With hotels on every block and vendors on every corner of the cities, the Brazilian economy thrives on money that comes in from foreign pockets. This was also the case in the late 1800's, however it wasn't retail that people spent their money on, it was rubber.
Between 1880 to about 1920, the cultivation of latex from rubber trees in the Amazon rainforest brought huge success to Brazil and began the "Rubber Boom" in Manaus , one of Brazil 's major cities. Manaus grew from a quaint fort village, founded by the Portuguese in 1669, to a booming Mecca . With the growing demand for rubber throughout the world for products such as rainwear, bicycle tires, electrical insulation, steam engines and automobile tires, the Brazilian economy thrived and attracted many foreigners to Manaus . By the end of the nineteenth century, Manaus was one of the main sources of rubber in the world, and the cities inhabitants reaped the benefits. Due to the huge export tax placed on rubber by the government of Amazonas, the city had the finest of everything. Its inhabitants basked in the glow of some of the world's first electric streetlights, and cruised the streets on Latin America 's first electrically operated trolley system. The city also enjoyed piped gas and water in its homes and public buildings. Beautiful gardens and parks were constructed. Manaus was called the modern day El Dorado , where gold flowed through the streets like water (i). This was the time to live in Brazil , especially Manaus .
Unfortunately, this unparalleled flow of income would shortly diminish. Thanks to an event now referred to as the "Seed Snatch", the gold that glittered in the hands of so many Brazilians quickly faded. In 1876, an Englishman named Henry Wickham was commissioned by Dr.Joseph Hooker of the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew in England to go to Brazil and bring back seeds from the rubber trees (ii).Wickham was successful in his mission, returning to England with approximately 70,000 seeds. The seeds were sent to British colonies in Asia where they were planted in a plantation style fashion. This made it easy for the British to cultivate latex from the trees faster, and transport it easier as well. It was much less tedious to move latex down a row of planted trees than to maneuver through the Amazon with the product. Also, it was easier and cheaper for the British to find labor to plant the trees and collect the latex. As a result of the Seed Snatch, the demand for Brazilian rubber had greatly dropped by 1910, sending the economy into a downward spiral.
Fast-forward sixty years to 1970. Manaus explores options to bring wealth back to the city. One change that was made was declaring Manaus a "Zona Franca", or duty free zone in the late seventies(iii). Millions of dollars worth of goods now enter Brazil through Manaus to be distributed to other parts of the country.
While rubber may have been the main source of wealth for the Brazilian economy for a number of years, the tables have turned and the spotlight is now on retail and the tourism business. Foreign visitors spending on souvenirs is a foolproof way for any country to make money. For me, shopping was one of the highlights of the trip and I can definitely say that I contributed greatly to the Brazilian economy, or at least my father's bank account did!
With every stop we made, more money was spent on gifts for family, food, and experiencing all that Brazil has to offer. In Rio de Janeiro vendors combed the beaches looking for anyone that was not Brazilian, and attempted to sell them anything from beer, to suntan lotion, to soccer jerseys. It was always easy to spot a tourist on the beach. Just look for the swarms of men and women pushing coolers or carrying umbrellas draped with novelty tee shirts. When the sun goes up, the artists come out, lining the streets with their artworks and barking at anyone who walks by, beckoning them to take a few seconds to view their latest masterpieces. And then to purchase them of course. Open-air markets are also very popular forms of retailing in Rio, as well as other major cities like Manaus . A walk down an alley for a few blocks gives a tourist the chance to buy just about anything, from radios to underwear, from watches to pots and pans.
In Brasilia , (as well as the extremely posh section of Rio , Barra) retail was a bit more "Americanized" and presented to the tourist in the form of the teenage girl's favorite hangout: the shopping mall. The Brazilian malls differ from the American malls by offering more than one of the same store. If you can't find it at the "Herring Store" on the second floor, try the one on the first. A clever tactic for pressuring the shopper to spend more. In Buzios, the ever popular Stone Street offered us trendy boutiques and amazing restaurants that we couldn't wait to shop at. And shopping wasn't the only thing we could find to spend money on. Of course there were the usual tourist traps that we fell into. One of my favorites was hang-gliding in Rio . Pricey, but amazing all the same.
While rubber once ruled the income of this incredible country, mineral and agricultural wealth in addition to the money brought in by the flocks of tourists is what makes the country function. In my eyes, the retail experience we were presented with in Brazil only added to the uniqueness and "well-roundedness" of our cultural adventure.
i. Koeser, Rita Shannon. " Brazil : When El Dorado Was Here." Sept. 2003
iii. Koreisha, Sergio " Manaus , Brazil "