Rich river city with some of the poorest shantytowns in Brazil
LETTER FROM MANAUS:As soon as the British learnt how to harvest rubber in Asia, the area fell into abject poverty, writes TOM HENNIGAN
BRAZIL’S AMAZON must be one of the few parts of the world where the winter is hotter than summer.
Keep in mind this is all relative. An Irish person would find any day of the year in the jungle somewhere between hot and unbearable. But in the southern hemisphere’s winter months – roughly May to November – the tropical rains ease, denying the little relief they provide from the equatorial sun.
Right in the heart of this rainforest is the city of Manaus which stretches along the north bank of the Rio Negro, just before it meets the Rio Solimões to form the Amazon River proper.
At the beginning of the 20th century it was one of Brazil’s most modern cities, rich on exporting wild rubber which paid for the city’s magnificent opera house, trams and electricity. The British dominated the local economy with the Booth Line running a regular passenger service to Liverpool, where most of the rubber landed, having being loaded in Manaus Harbour, as it is still called today after the British company that first administered it.
But the market crashed once the British learnt how to harvest rubber in plantations they grew in Asia from seeds smuggled out of the Amazon. Made obsolete overnight, Manaus fell into several decades of abject poverty.
It was to try and reverse this economic decline that led the military dictatorship, obsessed with modernising the country, to install a free-trade zone in 1967 that turned a down-on-its-luck river town into a city of two million people today. Foreign firms came to assemble everything from scooters to laptops, carried out on ocean- going cargo ships that sail 1,600km up the Amazon to pick up the containers stacked high on the riverbank.
A trip out to the free-trade zone reveals a vast industrial park with about 500 factories, several of them huge gleaming new sheds right against the jungle that comes up to the perimeter fence. Here you find household names such as Samsung, Nokia and Honda.
There are plenty of Chinese business folk in town, evidence of Brazil’s deepening economic relationship with the new economic colossus and the breakfast buffet in my hotel had a separate table offering Japanese delicacies for executives in town checking on their investments.
The free-trade zone has made Manaus one of Brazil’s richest cities, at least on paper. In 2005, the government’s own statistics institute calculated its residents as having the third highest GDP per capita of the country’s 27 state capitals. But it is hard to find evidence of this wealth in Manaus itself.
Right up alongside the free-trade zone are some of the poorest shantytowns I’ve seen in Brazil. On one stretch of road the wooden shacks are suspended by stakes above a fetid stream within sight of the zone’s factories. Such slums make up much of the city. Residents live above sewage being cooked in temperatures reaching the high 30s. Here old men sit in home-built deckchairs sipping beer amid a god-awful stink.
Despite these conditions, the rural poor keep arriving lured by the dream of a job in the zone. The humblest shacks are a new collection in another area right against the zone’s perimeter fence that up until recently was still forest. The authorities had twice evicted these squatters but they could not be deterred and now are tentatively on their way to forming a settled community – though some are little more than lean-tos almost all the shacks are already illegally wired up to the electricity mains.
The problem with Manaus is that much of the wealth created in the free-trade zone does not remain there, being repatriated to elsewhere in Brazil or abroad. The generals’ goal of bringing economic dynamism back to Manaus has been realised but the city has more poor residents than ever before and the charming old town of the rubber boom years has been wrecked in the process. Instead of the beautiful old mansions of rubber barons the new elite live behind high walls protected by armed guards in gated communities modelled on suburban America.
“The city grew but in the worst possible way,” says Milton Hatoum, the gifted chronicler of what has been lost and, in his searing 2005 novel Ashes of the Amazon, how it was lost. “Its urbanism is improvised, stupid and savage. Manaus is part Miami and part Calcutta – a portrait of the worst of Brazil.” It is a bitter verdict on a metropolis found in the heart of a region where local Indian myths told of an enchanted city, which European explorers may have understood as El Dorado.