Brazil: A Rich Country is one with No Poverty
One hundred and fifty miles from here, on the far side of a forest, 40,000 people are cheering and jeering at 22 others whose job it is to run after a ball. Further still to the north, much the same sort of scene is taking place in a brand new stadium which stands alongside a crowded favela; and there’s another game getting underway to the south, or so we’ve been told.
No doubt the widescreen tellies in the bars in town are broadcasting the event; but there isn’t a bar within half a mile of the place where we’re moored. There are no flags or banners flying from the houses. In fact, there isn’t one single thing to show that this major international event is underway in this very country. For all that anybody here is concerned, the spectacle could be taking place on another planet.
Certain shops in the nearby town of Paranagua are taking advantage of the situation, much as English shops take advantage of Christmas, and their windows are full of green and yellow paraphernalia. This year you can buy almost anything emblazoned with the national flag: T-shirts, running shorts, mugs, plates, whistles, note-books, pencil sharpeners… You can wear the national colours proudly on your head, in the form of a baseball cap or a thing with foam horns; you can stamp all over it in Haviana flip-flops whose soles are emblazoned with both the colours and the national motto; and, of course, you can buy a flag in any size from a handkerchief to a bedspread. But I’ve yet to see anybody sporting any of this regalia. I did see a woman wearing a T-shirt whereon the Union Jack was waving merrily… but I think this was a coincidence. By and large, the people of this remote corner of the republic seem to have entirely overlooked the fact that Brazil is hosting the World Cup.
Sunlight glitters on the placid waters. A flock of skimmers goes skimming by. Half a mile away, on the far side of the channel, there’s a long line of mangroves, each one balanced on the rickety tripod of its roots, and on the nearer side there’s a little island. That’s what we’ve come here to see; or to be more exact, we’ve come to visit the Guaraní indians who make this island their home.
Ilha de Cotinga was originally colonised by Europeans in the 1550s, and it was the first place within this province to be occupied. I would guess that the men and women of the vanguard made their first settlement here, in preference to the mainland, because they felt that it was the safest place; and thus I infer that at that time there were no indians living on the island.
Almost one hundred years passed before the settlers had gained the upper hand and were sufficiently well established to have the confidence to build the port of Paranaguá. Whereas in many regions of Brazil the native people were enslaved, here on the edge of the forest, there were no plantations. However, it seems unlikely that the local folk were left in peace. No doubt they were hunted, and the majority will have ended up in the slave market in São Paulo.
Not until slavery was abolished will it have been safe for the survivors to show their heads above the parapet, and by then much of their ancestral land had been parceled up and divided amongst the white settlers. The Guaraní who settled on Ilha de Cotinga probably chose it because it was unused and unwanted. Or perhaps they only moved in after the government created an indian reserve, a few years ago.
An indian reserve in the heart of the forest. The idea conjured up images of half-naked men sneaking through the bushes armed with bows and arrows. Would their weapons be tipped with deadly poison? Would they welcome us, or would they put us in a cooking pot?
No, of course not. These indians have probably never even handled a bow. The ones who still survive in the depths of the Amazon rainforest might still hunt for a living, but their half-tame cousins live by the sale of baskets and other handicrafts. It all sounded very touristy, but I have a thing about baskets… I’ve got 50 baskets of various sorts and sizes aboard the boat, and a score more clutter my mother’s house and my father-in-law’s attic, back home in Blighty.
Mind you, I’m very fussy. My baskets have to be well made, and they have to be totally trad and totally functional. “I’m not about to buy something that’s been dyed pink or covered in raffia flowers,” I told the crew.
On the foreshore adjacent to the anchorage we spied half a dozen wooden houses. Beside each house stood a solar water-heater, and in front of each cluster of two or three houses there was a framework supporting 21 super-sized solar panels. According to the information printed on the reverse of the panels, each array was capable of putting out 4 kilowatts – which is 16 times more than we can ever hope to get from our shipboard solar panels.
“Well, now – this is all very nice! I wonder who paid for this little lot?”
We all agreed that it was an idyllic location, even without the modern amenities.
One mile away, on the other side of a forested hill, we found more wooden houses – each one with its own water-heater, and each one connected to another billboard-sized arrangement of blue-black silica – but most of these houses were in disarray. Their roofs seemed to have been blown off and broken clay tiles littered the ground. Sinks and other sanitary features had been installed but without any plumbing. Their windows were shuttered but their doors were missing. Each house was identical to the others, and so they looked like cheaply built holiday chalets which had been left to fall apart when the developer went bankrupt.
A little further along we came upon a big modern building constructed from bricks and cement. Again, it looked as if it might be part of a hotel complex.
“No. I know what it is! It’s a trendy market place! They’re going to get the indians to sit in here. But goodness! Look at the size of it! Perhaps they’re going to try to get the cruise ships to stop off in Paranaguá…”
I was entirely wrong, but the truth was almost as wacky. According to a billboard standing in front of this as yet unfinished edifice, it was a school – an infant school for the “indigeni”. One quarter of the big metal notice had been stolen, but the writing on the remaining squares boasted of the cost: almost 2,000,000 Reais (£530,000). It also informed us that the project was begun on the 15th of January 2013 and would be complete on the 14th of January 2014; so it was just five months behind schedule.
The bottom right corner of the board was taken up with the federal government’s favourite brag – Brazil: A rich country is a country with no poverty. The first time I saw this slogan it was printed on the side of a flash racing yacht which just happened to be sailing past one of Rio’s most notorious slums.
Adjacent to the new school was another, much smaller building which looked as if it might be a community health centre; or perhaps it was the current school. Two women sitting on the porch in the shade of the solar water-heater gave no sign of having spotted us. Their attention was riveted to their mobile-phones. Perhaps they were watching the football.
Fifty yards away, by the waterside, we came upon half a dozen men dressed in overalls. Some of them leapt to their feet momentarily, but on realising that we posed no threat – we had not come to inspect their work – they resumed their former occupation of loafing about. Why anyone would rather loaf about than do a good job is beyond me, but I guess it was in these men’s interest to see that the school was never finished, or else they would be sent to work in some other, less serene location.
“Where are the Guaraní?” we asked the workers, and one of them waved an arm.
“On top of the hill,” he said.
We followed the man’s directions. The first house which we came upon was much like the derelict chalets, but it was in good repair and boasted a big satellite dish which stood in front of the porch. This possession was evidently deemed to be of greater importance than the obligatory water-heater, which had been set up in the shade of a tree. We also spotted a push-chair, which would have been of little use in this terrain.
A few hundred yards further along the path we reached our destination.
It has to be the place we’re looking for, because it meets the description – it’s sited on a hill – but at first we are reluctant to believe that this could possibly be the Indian village. It consists of three or four squalid-looking huts parked on a patch of dry soil. The biggest hut is built of planks standing upright on the ground and is roofed with sheets of corrugated iron and old, delaminated plywood. It looks like a poor man’s cow shed. For all I know, that’s exactly what it is, but the building which seems to be the main residence is not much better. Like many which we have seen in Brazil, it’s built of adobe (which is similar to the old English wattle-and-daub of mediaeval times) but it’s in a poor state of repair. The woodwork is showing along the entire length of the walls, and the palm-frond roof is so thin and patchy that it must surely leak. On the following night it rained hard for several hours and I thought of the people who live in this dwelling and wondered how they were getting along…
Over the roof of the huts I can see the inevitable solar water-heater, looking somewhat bizarre in this setting, and at the foot of the hill is another 4 kilowatt array of solar panels. What could these people have which would run off electricity, I wonder? Do they have a telly? Are they sitting in there, watching the world cup?
No. The Indians are evidently still without the benefit of soap operas, advertising, and the Cup; they are without even electric light. This I can tell, because the panels have not been wired in. They’re just sitting there, waiting to be vanadalised like the notice board.
Close by the panels there’s a concrete laundry tub, sprouting from the soil on the edge of what might be a garden. And there are also two latrines, one close to the tap and the other some distance away, beside another derelict chalet.
Beside the hill-top dwellings stands a small pen in which some chickens are being detained. Why they can’t be allowed to range freely, as chickens ought to do, is anybody’s guess. Also much in evidence are several dogs, who throw insults at us whilst simultaneously attempting to befriend our own mutt. The noise of their barking rouses the residents.
“And now they’ll come hurrying out with their baskets,” I think to myself; but nothing of the sort occurs.
Instead the people just stare. When I smile and wave a hand in greeting they turn their heads away. When I take a step closer they vanish into their hut.
This is not what we’re used to. Not in Brazil. Not anywhere that we’ve been lately, in fact. This is more the kind of reception that one gets in Antigua (where, to be frank, the locals do not like Whites). I back off, and they re-emerge to stare some more. They mutter to each other in their own, Guaraní lingo, but nobody is smiling. There’s no sign of any baskets.
A Guaraní man comes hurrying along the track lugging two big plastic sacks. One contains loaves of bread and the other packets of crisps and biscuits.
“Hullo,” says Nick. “How are you? Are there any other houses?”
“No.” And the man hurries past without even giving us a second glance.
Back in the Westernised part of the village one of the women sitting outside the school happens to glance up just as we stroll by. “Tourists!” she squawks. It sounds more like an alarm call than a cry of delight, and sure enough, another female comes hurrying out of the woodwork. While the first resumes whatever important business she has to do on that touch-screen telephone, the other senhora comes galloping towards us. “What are you doing?” she demands to know.
“We came to see the Guaraní. We were told that they might like to sell us some baskets, but…”
“Caramba! You can’t just turn up like this! You have to apply to the caçique in advance.”
Well, that explains it. How one goes about applying to the chief I have no idea, but had we done so then presumably the Indians would have spruced themselves up and assembled – baskets at the ready – in front of their nice new school, beside their nice new solar panels. A rich country has no poverty.
Presumably the squalid huts are off-limits to tourists.
In case you’re wondering why there are no photos of the Indians, I didn’t take any, because they didn’t seem to want to be photographed.
Walking home again, over the hill and through the splendour of the sunlit forest, we met a friendly fellow who was hard at work, clearing the path with a machete. Having been so unkindly rebuffed by the other islanders we were inclined to sidle on past this one, but he wasn’t having that; he downed tools and stopped us for a chat.
It turned out that the man was born on the island and lived in one of the houses on the foreshore. In the past he had worked as a fisherman, but now he was employed by the government to take care of the indians’ forest. We asked him about the Guaraní.
“They don’t like their new school,” he said.
“Well, for a start it’s built on top of their football pitch. It was the only flat piece of ground. And then you see, they don’t really need a school anyway.”
“They don’t want their kids to have a Western upbringing. That’s understandable…”
“Well, actually, there are only nine Indians, and there are only three children on the island. And that includes the gringos.”
Thirty years ago, when he was a boy, our new friend explained, there were more than a hundred Indians living on the island and growing their own food. “But now they’ve all gone to São Paulo.”
“Why have they left the island?”
“Why? Well, there’s nothing here for them to do, is there? The ones who’ve stayed behind do sod all. They get money from the government. They get free electricity – although they’ve nothing that needs electricity, of course – and they get free housing – except that they refuse to live in the government houses. They make baskets. It’s a shame they didn’t know you were coming… What a pity…”
Myself, I was all for going back and offering a fair price for one of those solar panels. The others reckoned that this would be tantamount to theft, but it seemed to me that if the Guaraní have been given solar panels and they don’t want them, and if the Guaraní want money…
However, I was in a minority of one, and so we continued along the way which led back to our own home.
Back in the seaside hamlet we came upon another “gringo” or non-Guaraní. Azir told us that he had lived on the island for 32 of his 58 years. He built his own house with timber which came from the Mato Grosso, many hundreds of miles inland. Lying on the foreshore were two dug-out canoes which he had owned since their creation, some 30 years before. The bigger canoe had an inboard engine; the other he propelled with an oar.
Azir’s solar water heater works a treat, he told us; and the solar panels installed by the government supply him and his neighbours with more power than they know what to do with. He doesn’t have a TV or a computer – and he doesn’t want one, thank-you very much. He earns his living by setting a net and catching fish.
Happiness is a choice, it seems. Or perhaps it would be fairer to say that simplicity – or poverty of possessions – can be very satisfying, but only when it is voluntary. The difference between Azir and the Guaraní is that he has consciously and deliberately turned his back on the consumerist existence to embrace the kind of life espoused by Henry David Thoreau. Cotinga is his Walden.
The Guaraní, on the other hand, have been marginalised. In a token attempt to right the wrong of stealing their land and their lifestyle, they’ve been given a reserve; but even now the government can’t leave them alone. Attempting to atone for its guilty part in selling off other Indian habitats and thereby destroying cultures and peoples, it feels the need to bless these tame specimens with things that they really do not want cluttering up their land.
And the irony is that the Brazilians dwelling in the city slums would love to get their hands on a batch of solar panels, or some other free source of electricity; but they’re not indians – they’re just an embarrassment – so there’s no way that the government is going to throw any money at them.
Eradicating poverty is a difficult job, to be sure. As a rule it probably starts with education, but in the case of the Cotinga Guaraní – and in the case of Brazil’s many other indigenous tribes – education and the Western acculturisation which goes with that kind of learning are merely another nail in the coffin.
One thing is for sure – eradicating poverty does not begin by pretending that it doesn’t exist.
Rich country? Yes. But the riches are in the hands of a few.
Upon reflection, perhaps that slogan is not a brag; perhaps it’s just a pretence. Perhaps, by freely admitting that their nation cannot really be considered wealthy until the problem of poverty is sorted, the government imagines that it will look as if it is doing something. In reality, the new school – and the plastic pier, and the unwanted houses – are just another example of the Capitalist monster’s insatiable appetite, which can only be fed by inventing more needs and appropriating more commodities. The economy must grow, because the banks only lend money to a growing economy. And without new loans how can we pay off the interest on the old loans? Thus, even poverty is now a resource to be played with.
Incidentally, we found that missing piece of the big aluminium notice board which stands in front of the new school. It was being used by Mr Guarani to patch up the roof of his chicken shack.
Loved reading your piece. Beautifully written with equal amounts of cynicism and sensitivity.
You should have nicked a solar panel though.