From Brazil

with Vincent Bevins and guests

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Vincent Bevins é colaborador do jornal britânico 'Financial Times' e correspondente no Brasil do 'Los Angeles Times'. Escrito em inglês, blog aborda principais acontecimentos do Brasil sob o olhar de um estrangeiro.

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Brazil under construction

Por frombrazil

South America’s largest country is finally, hopefully, on its way to patching up its woefully lacking infrastructure. But fixing one problem sometimes means dealing with others.

By Dom Phillips

Living in Rio can at times feel like living on a construction site. Construction is all around: a new metro line, new highways, the whole decayed central port area being redeveloped, Olympic facilities, the Maracanã stadium. Not to mention all those people doing up their houses.

It’s not just Rio. Brazil is in a frenzy of construction. And much of it is around infrastructure.

Because infrastructure is something that Brazil sorely lacks. Trains, for instance. There is no train between the country’s two biggest cities: São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro. Just planes and buses. There is no train between any of the four airports in these cities and their centres. Just buses and taxis.

Or cars, which seems to have been the only default transport option successive governments thought of in Brazil. And now much of the population has a car, and the roads in big cities are jammed.

Too many cars, not enough roads, not enough railways to carry cargo so it goes on trucks which fills up the roads further. So the government’s announcement recently of a public-private partnership to build 7,500 kilometres (4,660 miles) of roads and 10,000 kilometres of railways, involving R$133 billion ($66 billion) over 30 years was broadly welcomed.

Even the government admitted it was long overdue. “The first structural initiative to endow the country with an adequate transport system, after two decades of low investment,” the government declared in its announcement document. Given that the ruling party, the Partido dos Trabalhadores, PT, or Workers’ Party, has been in power for one of those decades, one can’t help wondering why they hadn’t thought of it before?

A taxi driver bemoaned the lack of transport options to me the other day, as we trundled through the endless Thursday night traffic on the way into town from the Riocentro centre, out past the Rio suburb of Barra de Tijuca. A carioca (Rio native) said the same thing, as he explained the traffic problems in the suburb of Jacarépagua: all this stuff grew up without any expectation that anything more than a car or a bus would ever be needed to get there.

Riocentro is where the Rio+20 United Nations sustainable development conference was held. This week it hosted the enormous Rio Oil & Gas conference. 50,000-odd turned up to both. Both times there were shuttle buses to central points. But obviously, no train. “Back when they built Riocentro, this was all outback,” said the taxi driver. “But today everybody has a car.”

The Olympic Park is going to be situated nearby. So the government are extending a metro line which will go some of the way then meet a highway that will have a bus rapid transit link (BRT). BRT sounds flash. But it’s still a bus.

Then there are bigger state-sponsored projects, such as potentially vast sub-salt oil reserves, thousands of metres below the sea bed, hundreds of kilometres off the Rio and Espirito Santo coasts, that government-controlled oil giant Petrobras is going to extract.

Petrobras is getting as many of the rigs and production platforms constructed in Brazil as it can to meet government rules on ‘local content’: essentially, requirements to build a large amount of this stuff in Brazil because we want to grow our domestic industries.

Brazil used to have a decent shipbuilding industry, but it fell into disuse and disrepair. Now the government is hoping the sub-salt boom will help to revive it.

Politically, this makes sense – more jobs, more votes. For Petrobras shareholders, it means a slower journey towards increasing production of oil and gas, because some of the shipyards where their rigs are going to be built are themselves still under construction.

In the North of Brazil minerals giant Vale is duplicating the one-track railway line it has that runs from its iron ore mine in Carajás, in the Amazon, to São Luís. It’s there that development hits rural reality. Not only does the track run through land where around 100 members of an uncontacted tribe, the Awá live, it also passes near quilombos, which are agricultural settlements of the descendents of slaves.

In July a judge in São Luís suspended work on the railway because of its environmental impacts. The ban has now been lifted. But there are still legal problems looming for the railway project. But there’s also a gigantic quantity of iron ore to be moved from the mine, which the company is expanding – as it is, in 2011, Vale exported 109.8 million metric tonnes in 2011. The view from São Luís is of a constant line of giant cargo ships, steaming out of Vale’s port near the city. That number is going to increase to 150 million metric tonnes by 2014.

But Brazil needs the income those iron ore exports bring in, much of it from China. Just as it wants the income from all that oil it’s going to produce – 4.2 million barrels of it a day in Brazil by 2020. Just as it needs the electricity that will be produced by Belo Monte, the controversial hydro-electric project in the Amazon, whose construction involves flooding hundreds of kilometres of rain forest, threatening the livelihood of tribes who live there.

This is the problem with development – once you start, there’s no stopping it. You can’t grow the income and industry of a country this big without making a mess. You can’t do this without dramatically impacting on the lives of the populations that live in isolated places like this. On one hand, the economic benefits works like this could bring to these isolated rural populations, on the other, the environmental impact inevitably involved cutting down trees and dramatically affecting the life of those same populations.

“Brazil without misery. Rich country without poverty,” is the government’s slogan. But at what cost? Never mind the economic benefits, is all of this just going to expand the country’s army of consumers? Will they be happier? Will the Amazon just be decimated into a series of theme parks criss-crossed by highways and dotted by mines and dams, with islands of biodiversity, like in the film Jurassic Park?

Business daily Valor ran a story on what 12 indian tribes affected by the Belo Monte dam wanted as compensation. 40 four-wheel drive pickups with air conditioning were included, along with 303 houses with indoor bathrooms were included on the list. And 1,300 heads of cattle, 500 of them from the Nelore breed. Not to mention 12 cellphone towers with wireless internet capacity.

The Indian tribes didn’t think of asking for a railway line development. Pity. Vale – which bought a 9% in the Belo Monte project in 2011 worth $1.5 billion – is apparently pretty good at them.

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