Elon International Studies: Brazil


Meet the Team

Article Index

Front Page


(by Martin Kamela)

The theme of GST-243, “ Brazil in the Third Millennium” Study Abroad class in Winter Term 2006, was development. Development is a complex set of issues, which concerns not only the improvement of the standard of living but also changes in the economic structure, laws, environment and technology, as well as changes in the social fabric of the nation itself.

Coming to Brazil we see a country in transition. There are many wealthy people in Brazil, many of whom live and work in the large cities such as Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro. Parts of the country are very modern indeed as we saw in our travels. At the same time it is humbling to see that the majority of Brazilians work very hard to provide just the basic needs for their families with little prospect of joining the middle class. This dichotomy splits the country and in fact Brazil has one of the largest wealth gaps in the world. What are the consequences of very unequal development? How does a country the size of Brazil deal with the diverse issues it is facing? Are there broad principles that ought to govern how the country develops? These are some of the questions which we had considered as we traveled though Brazil for t hree weeks in January.

We began our exploration in Rio de Janeiro, arriving overnight from Miami. Rio de Janeiro is Brazil’s 2 nd largest city and a former capital. Its history is linked with the Portuguese Kings and later Brazilian Emperors who ruled the country. Its cultural vibe is linked to the fast steps of samba especially in the time of the approaching Carnaval celebrations.

Walking though the old section of the downtown we were transported to a different age. It was surprising to find the taste of Old Europe in the South American sub-tropics. We learned how the city grew and was influenced by the historical events of serving as a European capital, the discovery of gold in the state of Minas, and later the developments in agriculture and heavy industry.

The need for a large labor force, and the lack of economic prospects in the north of Brazil, resulted in a large population influx into the city. Impoverished workers set up dwellings in the hills overlooking the city they were building. These shantytown communities (favelas) have developed into a recognizable postcard of Rio: the rich and the poor living side by side. Favelas are not just the stereotypical slums where the working poor live, they are well-organized communities with strong cultural identifications and are controlled by the drug gangs. In fact it is the people of the favelas in Rio who produce the fantastic floats, costumes, and dances that makes the Carnaval parade. On a guided visit to two such communities we learned how the virtual martial law imposed by the drug gangs makes life, paradoxically, relatively free from crime for majority of the people who live there. We also learned about the important and successful project, “Favela – Barrio”, whose goal is to improve the urban infrastructure of these communities. What made our visit to the community all the more special was the fact that we brought school supplies to a local school, very much appreciated by the teachers. We visited another community, Mangueira, where we participated in the samba school – a trial run for the Carnaval parade and an unforgettable experience of celebrating life with Brazilians.

No visit to Rio de Janeiro would be complete without the view from the Corcovado Mountain, where the Christ statue overlooks the city with open arms. There is a striking physical beauty to the city with its large urban forest in the middle, the Atlantic washing ashore the beaches, and the densely populated areas between the granite hills. After more than a week in Rio we came closer to the Carioca state of mind. The city has serious issues and concerns but it also has vibrancy and a natural setting which makes its citizens look forward.

Following Rio we drove down the beautiful coast to Angra dos Reis. There we visited the nuclear power plant, which generates much of the electricity for the Rio de Janeiro state. In some sense the nuclear energy experiment was not overly successful with cost overruns and continuing problems in maintaining the technology. Energy is essential to development. But is nuclear power the preferred route for Brazil to follow? There are no easy answers but what can be done is a careful weighing of the energy needs, advantages of a technology as well as its difficulties, expense, and safety to both people and to the environment.

One of the main chapters in the growth of the country was related to the discovery of gold in the state of Minas Gerais. In order to transport gold from the inland state to the capital of Rio de Janeiro an arduous journey had to be undertaken though the coastal mountain range. Eventually a trail was marked, called the “Golden Trail”, which served as an economic artery supporting the young country. Along the trail many towns sprung into existence and profited from the wealth passing though their streets. One such town is Paraty which has been preserved in close to its original state. Vehicles are banned in the historical center, which is why we had to hire a horse and buggy to bring the luggage from the bus to the hotel. Our guide explained the interesting history of this town as we walked the rough stones of the old streets lined with churches, galleries, restaurants and cafes.

Sugar cane was another economic lifeline for Brazil. We visited an old farm near Paraty where we saw how farm owners and slaves used to live in very near proximity, how the sugar cane liquor (cachaca) is produced, and drank freshly roasted sweet black coffee – farm style. Many such farms lined the Golden Trail and offered shelter to the travelers.

From Paraty we began the journey t hrough the coastal mountains to Sao Paulo state. In Sao Jose dos Campos we visited the Brazilian National Institute of Space Research (INPE). We learned about the satellite space program and its close collaboration with China. We also saw the advanced technology of the testing center where satellites are put together and components carefully tested to match exacting standards needed for a successful and extended operation in space.

Sao Paulo is South America’s largest city, with more than 18 million people living in the metropolitan area. This is the economic powerhouse of Brazil – half of the country’s GDP comes from the state of Sao Paulo. Sao Paulo began as a Jesuit mission, as we found out on the tour of the city, and has grown most vigorously in the 1900’s due to industrialization. A large labor force was needed and resulted in significant immigration from both Asia and Europe. In fact, the cosmopolitan Sao Paulo has a very large number of Japanese descendents, with a “ Japan town” taking place of “ China town” familiar in many American cities.

From the industrialized and urban south we moved on to Manaus in the middle of the Amazon. Manaus developed very fast initially during the period of the rubber boom. It is interesting to consider the enormous wealth generated by the rubber trade, resulting in the construction of the grand opera house in the middle of the jungle, and the rapid decline of this source of revenue due in part to poor management of the growth. Today, Manaus is a large modern city with the electronics industry providing significant employment. It is also a starting point for venturing into the Amazon rainforest.

The group stayed at the Amazon Eco Lodge. We had some unforgettable experiences as we learned about the biodiversity of the jungle and the interdependence of the plants, animals and people who call this region home. We learned about the tension between predators and prey, and the different types of forests that make up the Amazon.

We visited the important project run by the Eco Lodge to rehabilitate captured (domesticated) monkeys back into the wild, by effectively teaching them how to survive in the jungle. We also learned, the hard way, to stay away from nesting macaws. A few of us came too close to the nest which was near the room where we held our class meetings, and as a result the group had to flee from the angry macaw moms-to-be. We were welcomed to one village where danced with native people. In another, we saw how people today live off the river and how rubber was tapped and cured in the days of the rubber boom.

The last stop in our travels was in Foz do Iguacu. This is the site of both the amazing Iguacu Falls bordering Argentina and the Itaipu Hydroelectric Project.

The Itaipu dam on the Parana river is a binational effort between Brazil and Paraguay. It is the largest such project in the world and a giant technological feat. In the visitor center we saw a short film on the construction of the power plant where we heard from president Lula da Silva asserting that with this project Brazil went from the 3 rd world to the 1 st. No doubt the engineering involved would be a point of pride to any developed nation. The energy generated by the plant supplies a quarter of Brazil’s electricity need and most of Paraguay’s. With abundant water supply hydroelectricity accounts for most of the electricity produced in the country. Although there are environmental concerns that go along with such projects, and political ones as we learned during the visit to Itaipu, using water instead of burning fossil fuels may provide the cleanest energy source for Brazil’s continued growth.

Brazil’s golden and green flag contains the words “Order and Progress”. These are noble ideas to which to aspire. In our travels we saw a country struggling with both but arguably making headways. The democracy in Brazil is young but seems to have taken a strong hold. Development in the country is ongoing. As we leave the country, which we have learned to love in large part due to the warmth of its people, we hope that Brazil traces a path to development both effective and wise, respecting the needs of its entire people and the natural wealth of its ecosystems.