Building a Better Land

Building a Better Land

I look at my portrait on the wall. Time gnaws and destroys peoples faces.
To waste my face there was time and this man. Time wrinkled my forehead,
he excavated shadows under my eyes; time pulled my teeth, he crooked my
mouth; time sharpened my profile, he engraved on me this air of someone
who retreats; together both have instilled rust and mould into my hollow



Brazil slowly returned to democracy in the 1980s. In 1988 a new constitution guaranteed freedom of speech, the
right to strike and outlawed the use of torture. It also gave 16 year olds and illiterates the right to vote.

In 1995, Fernando Henrique Cardoso became only the second president elected by popular vote in 32 years to
take office. The 1988 constitution allows him to choose ministers of state, initiate pieces of legislation and maintain
foreign relations. It also names him as commander-in-chief of the armed forces and gives him the power of total veto.
These presidential powers are balanced by a bicameral legislature, which consists of a 72-seat senate and a 487-seat
chamber of deputies. Presidential elections are slated to be held every five years, with congressional elections every four.
State government elections are also held every four years, and municipal elections every three years.

Government elections are colorful affairs, regarded by the democracy-starved Brazilians as yet another excuse for
a party. Posters cover every available wall space and convoys of cars cruise through the cities creating as much
noise as possible in support of their chosen candidate.

Politics itself remains largely the preserve of the wealthy. In the 1994 elections for state governors and senators,
several candidates were forced to drop out because of costs. Inducements to voters are common.

Corruption is still rife at all levels, though not so much at the top these days after Collorgate, which ended up with
the impeachment of President Fernando Collor de Mello.


Since WW II, Brazil has seen tremendous growth and modernization, albeit in fits and starts. Today, Brazil’s
economy is the 10th largest in the world. It’s called a developing country. The military dictators had visions of Brazil joining
the ranks of the advanced, industrialized nations by the year 2000. No one believes that is possible now, but no one
denies that tremendous development has occurred.

Brazil is a land of fantastic economic contrasts. Travelling through the country, you will witness incredibly
uneven development. Production techniques that have barely changed from the colonial era dominate many parts of
the Northeast and Amazônia, while São Paulo’s massive, high-tech automobile, steel, arms and chemical
industries successfully compete on the world market.

Brazil’s rulers, at least since President Kubitschek invented Brasília, have had a penchant for building things big
and they have, of course, been encouraged to do so by the IMF and the World Bank. The government borrowed
heavily to finance Brasília’s construction. The country’s external debt began to take off exponentially and a couple of
years later inflation followed.

Economic development is slow, but there always seem to be some highly visible megaprojects under way. Many
of these are economically ill-advised and some never get completed. The funding dries up, is pocketed by
corrupt bureaucrats, or the politician who started it leaves office and the political enemy who takes over decides to
abandon the project. Whatever the reason, huge amounts of money are wasted. The megaprojects which do get finished
may produce wealth, but they don’t create many jobs, at least once they are built. Utilizing the latest technology, much
of Brazil’s new development is capital intensive. Few jobs are created—not nearly enough to employ the millions
of urban poor who have come from the countryside.

Brazil now has an estimated 64 million working people and a third are women; 17% of people work in agriculture,
most as landless peasants, and 12% work in industry. The majority of the rest cannot find decent work and are forced to
sell their labor dirt cheap in jobs that are economically unproductive for Society and a dead end for the individual.

Cheap labor and underemployment abound in Brazil. Middle-class families commonly hire two or more live-in
maids. This contrasts with five-year-old kids, who will never go to school, selling chewing gum or shining shoes. People
are hired just to walk dogs, to watch cars or to deliver groceries. Large crews of street cleaners work with
home-made brooms. Hawkers on the beaches sell everything and earn almost nothing. Restaurants seem to have more waiters
than customers.

Unlike Mexico or Turkey, the poor in Brazil have no rich neighbors where they can go for jobs. With the
exception of some minor agrarian reforms, there is no relief in sight. The
fazendeiros (estate owners), with their massive
land holdings, are very influential with the government. Apart from the occasional token gesture they are unlikely to
be interested in parting with their land.

Instead of land reform, the government built roads into the Amazon, the road between Belém and Brasília in 1960
and the Transamazônica and the Cuiabá to Porto Velho roads in the ’70s. The idea was to open up the Amazon to
mineral and agricultural development, and also encourage settlement by the rural poor.

The mineral-poor Amazonian soil proved hard for the peasants to farm. After cutting down forest and opening up
the land the peasants were forced off by the hired guns of big cattle ranchers. The settlement of the Amazon
continues today, particularly along the strip between Cuiabá, Porto Velho and Rio Branco, where violent boom
towns, deforestation and malaria follow in the wake of the settlers.

Over 50% of Brazil’s industry is clustered in and around São Paulo city. Most important is the car industry.
Labor relations with the workers at Volkswagen, General Motors and Ford were managed by a system modeled on
fascist Italy: government-approved unions backed by the power of the military state. From 1968 to 1978 the workers
were silent and passive, until the day 100 workers at a bus factory went to work and sat down in front of their
machines. Within two weeks 78,000 metalworkers were on strike in the São Paulo industrial belt.

Rapidly, the strikes spread to other industries. There were mass assemblies of workers in soccer stadiums, and
the government sponsored unions were replaced. At the invitation of the Catholic Church, union offices were moved
to the cathedral of São Bernardo. Caught by surprise, the corporations and military gave in to substantial wage
increases. Both sides prepared for the next time.

In 1980 there was a new wave of strikes. They were better organized, with greater rank-and-file control. Demands
were made to democratize the workplace, with shopfloor union representation and factory and safety committees.
Many improvements were won, many have since been lost, but the industrial working class had flexed its muscles and
no one has forgotten.

Brazilian economists call the ’80s the Lost Decade. Wild boom-and-bust cycles decimated the economy.
Record-breaking industrial growth fuelled by foreign capital was followed by negative growth and explosive hyperinflation.

Until 1994, the only certainty in the economy was its uncertainty. Then came the Plano Real, that stabilized
the currency, ended the inflation that had corroded the salaries of the lowest wage earners, and provoked a rise
in consumption. Out of the seven economic plans introduced in the last eight years, the Real was the first without
shocks or broken contracts. The death of the previous monetary unit, the cruzeiro real, was announced 52 days before
the Plano Real introduced a new currency, the real. Backed by the record volume of international reserves (achieved
after a healthy 4.2% increase in the gross national product in 1993), the real began on a one-for-one parity with the US
dollar. Then the unthinkable happened: the Brazilian currency became worth more than the dollar.

What happened? Brazilians went shopping. In the first three months after the introduction of the plan,
economic activity grew by 8%, and industrial sales rose by more than 12%. The gross national product for 1994 grew 5.7%
in relation to 1993. By the summer of 1995, a new optimism had swept through Brazil. Was this the beginning of the
long-awaited economic miracle that everyone was waiting for?

We’d love to say yes, but as we go to press, it’s too hard to predict. The equilibrium is unstable, especially as
imports increase. Economists predict that without constitutional changes, the government deficit will soon blow out.
There’s no law to prevent the government from printing
reais to pay for large budget deficits. If that happens, the
inflation dragon will be back.

The Plano Real has at least shown that the Brazilian economy has great potential. All the ingredients for progress
are there: a large labor force, the means of production, transport systems and markets for the products. The question
is whether or not they can be co-ordinated efficiently. The harsh reality is that seven out of 10 Brazilians still live
in poverty.

Social Conditions

The richest 10% of Brazilians control a whopping 54% of the nation’s wealth; the poorest 10% have just
0.6%—and the gap is widening. Sixty million live in squalor without proper sanitation, clean water or decent housing. Over
60% of the people who work make less than twice the minimum wage (about $100). Unemployment and
underemployment are rampant.

Wealthy Brazilians live closed, First World existences in luxurious houses behind high walls protected by
armed guards and guard dogs. In this developing country of almost 155 million people, 40 million people are
malnourished; 25 million live in favelas(shantytowns); 12 million children are abandoned and more than seven million between
the ages of seven and 14 don’t attend school. Brazil, with its dreams of greatness, has misery that compares with
the poorest countries in Africa and Asia.

As always, these ills hit some groups much harder than others. If you are a woman, a black, an Indian or from the
North or Northeast the odds against escaping poverty are high. One third of the women employed in Brazil work as
maids and nannies, and most earn less than the minimum wage. Of Brazil’s 21 million illiterates, 13 million are black.
Life expectancy in the Northeast is 56 years, compared to 66 in the rest of the country.

The Indians are fighting for survival; less than 200,000 remain from an estimated five million when the
Portuguese arrived. They still suffer violent attacks from ranchers and gold prospectors laying claim to their land.

The killing of peasant leaders, trade unionists and church workers involved in land disputes and strikes continues.

Even though torture has been outlawed by the constitution, reports of death in custody after its use as a means
of obtaining a confession continue, although there are very few eyewitnesses. The killing of criminal suspects
by uniformed and off-duty police in "death-squad" operations, especially in Baixada Fluminense, on the outskirts of
Rio de Janeiro, is widely reported.

The federal government is aware of the scale of human-rights violations and the chronic failure to administer
justice at state and local levels, but will not accept responsibility for matters it deems beyond its jurisdiction.

All these facts illustrate the obvious: for the majority, Brazil is, as it has always been, a country of poverty
and inequality, where reforms are as elusive as the wind.


Brazil’s population is almost 155 million, making it the world’s sixth most populous country. The population has
been rising rapidly over the last 45 years, although in the last 10 years it seems to have slowed a little. There were only
14 million Brazilians in 1890, 33 million in 1930, 46 million in 1945, and 71 million in 1960. The population has more
than doubled in the last 35 years.

Still, Brazil is one of the least densely populated nations in the world, averaging only 15 people per sq. km. The
USA, by comparison, averages 25 people per sq. km. The population in Brazil is concentrated along the coastal strip and
in the cities. There are around 10 million in the enormous expanses of the North and less than 10 million in the
Central West, while there are over 65 million in the Southeast and over 42 million in the Northeast. Brazil also has a
young population: half its people are less than 20 years old, 27% under 10.

There are 12 million abandonados, children without parents or home. Many are hunted by the so-called
"death squads" made up of vigilantes who take it upon themselves to torture and murder the children under the pretence
that "they grow up to become criminals anyway, so why not get rid of them now?" The fate of these children is one of
the most pressing social problems facing Brazil today.

Brazil is now an urban country whereas 40 years ago it was still a predominantly rural society. Due to
internal migration, two-thirds of Brazilians now live in nine large urban areas: São Paulo city, Rio de Janeiro, Belo
Horizonte, Porto Alegre, Salvador, Recife, Fortaleza, Brasília and Belém. Greater São Paulo has over 17 million residents,
greater Rio over 10 million.

Some 500 years ago Cabral landed in Brazil. When he departed, only nine days later, he left behind two convicts
who subsequently married natives. Thus, colonization through miscegenation was how the Portuguese managed to
control Brazil. This strategy was pursued, often consciously and semi-officially, for hundreds of years. First with
native Indians, then with the black slaves and finally between Indians and blacks, miscegenation thoroughly mixed the
three races. Brazilians use literally dozens of terms to describe people’s various racial compositions and skin tones.
Most Brazilians have some combination of European, African, Amerindian, Asian and Middle Eastern ancestry.

Accurate statistics on racial composition are difficult to obtain in Brazil. Many people who are counted as white
have at least some black or Indian blood, but the 1980 census showed about 55% of the population were technically
white, 6% black and 38% mulatto. Anyone who has traveled in Brazil knows these figures are ridiculous. They reflect
what people want to think rather than reality. Whiteness in Brazil, they often say, is as much a reflection of one’s
social standing as the color of one’s skin.

Brazil has had several waves of voluntary immigration. After the end of slavery in 1887, millions of Europeans
were recruited to work in the coffee fields. The largest contingent was from Italy, but there were also many Portuguese
and Spaniards, with smaller groups of Germans and Russians. Japanese immigration began in 1908 and today São
Paulo has the largest Japanese community outside of Japan.

Some 50,000 Portuguese came to Brazil from Africa in 1974 and 1975 with the liberation of Portugal’s African
colonies. During the ’70s many Latin Americans fleeing military dictatorships in Argentina, Chile, Uruguay and
Paraguay settled in Brazil.


The government Indian agency, Fundação Nacional do Índio (FUNAI), has documented 174 different
Indian languages and dialects. Customs and belief systems vary widely.

Growing international concern over the destruction of the Amazon rainforest has also highlighted the plight of
the region’s Brazilian Indians, who are facing extinction early next century—if not sooner. At present the number
of Indians in Brazil is estimated at less than 200,000. Of the several hundred tribes already identified, most
are concentrated in the Amazon region and virtually all Brazilian Indians face a host of problems which threaten to
destroy their environment and way of life. An estimated 40 tribes have never been in contact with outsiders.

Indian Policy—During the 20th century, the general thrust of official Brazilian policy towards the Indians and
their lands has concentrated on pacification, integration, and dispossession.

In 1910, Marechal Cândido Rondon (1865-1958), who favored a humane and dignified Indian policy, founded
the Serviço de Proteção ao Índio (SPI) as an attempt to protect the Indians against massacres and land
dispossession. Unfortunately, Rondon’s good intentions were swept aside and SPI became notorious as a tool for corrupt and
greedy officialdom to physically eliminate Indians or force them off their lands. By the late ’60s, SPI had become the
target of fierce national and international criticism.

In 1967, SPI was replaced by FUNAI which was intended to redress the SPI wrongs. FUNAI was set the ambitious
and controversial tasks of protecting Indian reserves, administering the medical and educational needs of the Indians,
and contacting and pacifying hitherto unknown tribes.

FUNAI has been criticized for adopting a patronizing attitude toward Indians, and for manipulating against
Indian interests in favor of other claims to Indian lands. It’s difficult to see how this grossly underfunded and
understaffed organization can escape contradictions when it represents the interests of the Indians and simultaneously acts
on behalf of the government and military, which have both been expropriating Indian lands for industry and settlement.

Religious organizations, such as Conselho Indigenista Missionário (CIM) and Centro Ecumênico de
Documentação e Informação (CEDI) have attempted to right the imbalance, but there appears to be little interest in
changing patronizing attitudes or giving the Indians a chance to represent their rights as decreed by Brazilian law. The
Brazilian constitution recognizes Indian rights to their traditional lands, which cover approximately 17 million hectares
(about 10% of Brazil’s territory).

FUNAI recently started using a computer network and satellite photographs to secure the borders of large and
remote tracts of land from invading lumber workers and prospectors. The system is composed of many reservations and
posts plus five major parks: Xingu and Aripuanã parks in Mato Grosso, Araguaia Park on Ilha do Bananal in
Tocantins, Tumucumaque Park on the Guyanese border of Pará and the Yanomami Park in Roraima.

Recent Developments—During the ’80s, Indian tribes which had seen their people and lands destroyed
by development projects (particularly highway construction) in the ’70s were stung into independent action to
protect themselves.

In 1980, nearly 1000 Xavante Indians, who had tired of FUNAI inactivity, started marking the boundaries of
their reserve in Mato Grosso state. When a fierce conflict arose with encroaching ranchers, 31 Xavante leaders paid
a surprise visit to the president of FUNAI in Brasília and demanded immediate boundary demarcation. Further
pressure was exerted on FUNAI when Txucarramãe Indians killed 11 agricultural workers whom they had caught
trespassing on their Xingu reserve and clearing the forest. In 1982, over 200 Indian leaders assembled in Brasília to debate
land ownership at the First National Assembly of Indigenous Nations.

Subsequent years saw a spate of hostage takings and confiscations by Indians, who were thereby able to force
rapid decisions from the government. As an attempt to deflect criticism and placate public opinion, the government
hired and fired FUNAI officials in quick succession; a convenient scapegoat technique which continues to be employed
in the ’90s, changing names and little else. In 1989, the First Meeting of the Indigenous Nations of Xingu included a
huge cast of Brazilian Indians, foreign environmentalists, and even the rock star Sting. Two Kayapo chiefs, Raoni
and Megaron, then accompanied Sting on a world tour to raise funds for the preservation of the Amazon rainforest.

During the ’90s, international attention has focused on the plight of the Yanomami. Environmentalists and
ecologists who attended ECO-92 pressed for practical changes to benefit the Indians and their environment—nobody wants
to be fobbed off any more with speeches and papers which are simply public relations exercises to be filed and forgotten.

The Yanomami—The Yanomami are one of the newly discovered Indian peoples of the Amazon. Until
some Yanomami were given metal tools by visitors, all their implements were made of stone, ceramic, animal hides
and plants. They are literally a Stone Age people rapidly confronting the 20th century.

The plight of the Yanomami has aroused considerable foreign interest, since the problems experienced by
the Yanomami are considered typical of those encountered by other Indians in Brazil.

In 1973 the Yanomami had their first contact with Westerners: Brazilian Air Force pilots and religious
missionaries. In 1974 and 1975 as BR-210 (Perimetral Norte) and BR-174 roads were cut through the Catramani and
Ajarani tributaries of the Rio Negro, people from several Yanomami villages mixed with the construction workers
and contracted and died from measles, influenza and venereal disease. Over a dozen villages were wiped out.

In 1988, the government instituted an absurd plan to create 19 separate pockets of land for the Yanomami,
thereby depriving the Indians of 70% of their territory. Thousands of
garimpeiros swarmed into the area and ignored
all boundaries. Two years later, growing international and national criticism of the genocide being perpetrated on
the Yanomami forced the authorities to backtrack and declare only a handful of designated zones open for mining.
The garimpeiros continued to prospect at random and resisted all efforts, even force, to dislodge them.

In 1991, the Venezuelan government officially recognized the Yanomami territory on the Venezuelan side of
the Brazilian border as a special Indian reserve; a few months later President Collor defied opposition and followed
suit on the Brazilian side. The Brazilian military continues to oppose the decision and prefers instead to
encourage development and settlement of the border areas as a buffer against possible foreign intrusions.

The Yanomami are a slight people, with Oriental features. Their estimated 18,000 seminomadic tribespeople
are scattered over 320 villages on either side of the Brazilian Venezuelan border. They speak one of four related
languages: Yanomam, Yanam Yanomamo and Sanumá.

The center of each community is the Yano, a large circular structure where each family has its own section
facing directly onto an open central area used for communal dance and ceremony. The Yano is built with palm-leaf
thatch and timber posts. Each family arranges its own section by slinging hammocks around a fire which burns
constantly and forms the center of family life.

Inter-tribal visits are an opportunity to eat well—if the hunt has been successful everyone gets to eat monkey,
which is a delicacy. Otherwise tapir, wild pig and a variety of insects make up the protein component of the meal, which
is balanced with garden fruits, yams, plantains and manioc. The Yanomami also grow cotton and tobacco. Once
their garden soils and hunting grounds are exhausted, the village moves on to a new site.

The Yanomami hold elaborate ceremonies and rituals and place great emphasis on intertribal alliances. The latter
are intended to minimize any feuds or violence which, as has often happened in the past, can escalate into full-scale
wars. Inter-tribal hostility is thought to manifest in disease that comes from evil spirits sent by the shamans of enemy
tribes. Disease is cured with various herbs, shaman dances; and healing hands. Sometimes the village shaman will enlist
the good spirits to fight the evil spirits by using
yakoana, a hallucinogenic herbal powder.

The Yanomami have some curious practices. When a tribal person dies, the body is hung from a tree until dry,
then burned to ashes. The ashes are mixed with bananas, which are then eaten by friends and family of the deceased
to incorporate and preserve the spirit. The mourning ritual is elaborate and includes having one member of the
tribe assigned to cry for a month (as determined by the phases of the moon, since the Yanomami have no calendar and
the only number they have greater than two is `many’). Friends or allies from other communities will travel three to
four days to join the mourning tribe.

These days even such remote tribes are exposed to encroaching civilization in the shape of clearance roads for
the Perimetral Norte, illegal airstrips built by garimpeiros, and FUNAI posts. Despite the latest positive moves from
the Brazilian government, the Yanomami lands are not adequately protected against encroachment and dispossession
by brute force.

Information & Further Reading—There are several governmental and religious organizations which
publish information about Brazilian Indians. Poratim
is a newsletter published by the Conselho Indigenista
Missionário (CIM), Tel.: (061) 225-9457, Edifício Venâncio III, Sala 310, Caixa Postal 11.1159, CEP 70084, Brasília, DF. In the
past, FUNAI’s own publication, Jornal da
Funai, was produced at the same address as CIM, but future publishing
plans for it are unclear. Aconteceu is a bi-weekly journal (with a strong ecological emphasis) published by the
Centro Ecumênico de Documentação e Informação (CEDI), Tel.: (021) 224-6713), Rua Santo Amaro, 129, Rio de Janeiro,
CEP 22211, RJ.

There are also various individuals or small groups working on alternative projects for tribes such as the Ticuna
and Wapichana. In the state of Amazonas, there’s Alírio Mendes Moraes (Ticuna), Coordenação das
Organizações Indígenas da Amazônia Brasileira (COIAB), Tel.: (092) 624-2511, Avenida Leopoldo Peres, 373, Caixa Postal
3264, Manaus, CEP 69000, AM. In the same state, education is the main emphasis of the Organização Geral dos
Professores Ticuna Bilíngüe, Tel.: (092) 415-5494, Avenida Castelo Branco, 594, Projeto Alto Solimões, Benjamin Constant,
CEP 69630, AM. In the state of Roraima, another group has been set up by Clóvis Ambrósio (Wapichana),
Conselho Indígena de Roraima (CIR), Tel.: (095) 224-5761, Avenida Sebastião Diniz, 1672 W, Bairro São Vicente, Boa
Vista, CEP 69300, RR.

If you contact any of these organizations, groups or individuals, remember that they operate on minimal budgets,
so you should at least pay return postage and material costs in advance. It is also worth pointing out that truth and
facts about the Indians are hard to pinpoint, and official information is often presented in a flexible manner to suit
the political, financial, or cultural agenda of those involved.

Outside Brazil, one of the most active and reputable organizations providing information on Indian affairs in Brazil
is Survival International, which has campaigned especially hard for the Yanomami Indians and has members and
offices worldwide. Survival International members receive a regular newsletter,
Urgent Action Bulletins, campaign documents, and an annual review.

Visiting a Reservation —If you’re a physician, anthropologist or sociologist with an authentic scholarly interest,
you can make an application to FUNAI for authorization to visit a reservation.

If you are not a Brazilian citizen you must first submit a research proposal together with your curriculum vitae, a
letter of introduction from your research institute, a letter from the Brazilian researcher or research institute
taking responsibility for you and your work and who agrees to accompany you into the field, a declaration that you
speak Portuguese and know Brazilian law, vaccination certificates for yellow fever, typhoid and tetanus and an X-ray to
show that you are free from tuberculosis.

All documentation must be in Portuguese and must first be presented to the embassy or consulate of your
home country. They must send it to the Ministry of Foreign Relations in Brasília, which will in turn forward it to
CNPQ (National Center for Research). CNPQ will take a minimum of 90 days to consider your proposal. If they agree
to authorize your project, the file is passed to the FUNAI office in Rio at the Museu do Índio (Indian Museum)
where Professor Neyland further processes it and Dra Claúdia scribbles the final signature.

The procedure is intentionally difficult. It is intended to protect the Indians from the inadvertent spread of diseases
to which they have no natural immunity as well as from overexposure to alien cultural ideals. Nevertheless,
many applicants make it through all the obstacles, and as many as 60 projects have been approved in one three-month period.



By the year 2000, all products made in Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay—the countries that
comprise Mercosul (Mercado Comum do Sul)—will cross the borders with no tariffs. By 2006, all imports from other places
will be subject to the same tariffs in each of the Mercosul countries. It’ll be known as the TEC (Tarifa Externa
Comum), with tariffs varying between 0% and 20%. Initiated in January 1995, it’s a cumulative process. Already 85% of
imports that enter the Mercosul countries are subject to a TEC.

Mercosul has an even bigger objective: to create a true free market, with free circulation of capital and people.
With 190 million inhabitants and a combined gross product of $700 billion, Mercosul forms the fourth largest
economic block on the planet.

But there are obstacles. The two principal partners, Brazil and Argentina, are still looking to stabilize their
economies. Poverty, cultural differences and lack of infrastructure also conspire against the union. It’s not by accident that
the main projects being studied are in the area of infrastructure, like the
hidrovia Paraguai-Paraná.

Attempts at integration in Latin America have, in the past, generated more public servants than business
opportunities. A new type of public servant has already been created—the `mercocrat’. Recruited from other ministries,
the mercocrat is bilingual, has studied economics, is politically sensitive and knows how to negotiate.

Can mercocrats do what Bolivar failed to—unite South America?

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