Brazil is an incredibly colorful country, and I mean this in the sense that it’s multi-faceted: a country composed of diverse populations, vast territories, a colonial past, a booming economy, along with an energy-independent outlook—to give a brief blueprint of what I mean. These attributes, absorbed over a month’s time, give Brazil the capability to strongly impress itself onto whomever wishes to take it all in.
My Brazilian Experience began with learning that no toilet paper can be thrown in the toilet—and that it’s a serious (serious) luxury to be within the reach of a sewage system whose capacity permits toilet paper in its piping network. Following this lesson came our language tutorial. Now the Portuguese language is not Spanish, and though the two have overlaps, it isn’t sufficient no know just a little bit of Spanish and think “oh they’ll just fill in the gaps” (a mentality which certainly seemed to stand out amidst our group). Aside from Spanish, I noticed hints of Italian and French when listening folks speak Portuguese. Anyways, during our language session, we learned basic words like “Je scupe” (excuse me), “obrigado/a” (thank you), and “bon gio/a” (good morning)—just the basics you see, allowing plenty to be learned within the hostel and through the CIEE members.
As for the city of Sao Paulo, it’s a colossal landscape of apartment high-rises, office buildings, and two-story houses whose driveways are gated from the outside. Amidst these buildings is the network of roadways ranging from small graffiti-ridden alleyways to large highway status thoroughfares. Traffic seemed innate to city, which I suppose is why small-duty helicopters is preferred by the affluent folks trying to get from one place to another. Parks, street trees, and boulevard greeneries were all quite common in many areas of the city. Ibirupuera, the Central Park feel-alike near our Hostel allowed folks to breath cleaner air, exercise, enjoy the lawns, or simply experience the compress and release of space while wandering from the small pacing trails out into one of the many expansive fields. Like mega-city, parks play a crucial role, and Ibirupuera fulfills the role of an urban green-haven: where you can escape the asphalt and concrete. And I swear the temperature would always drop by a degree or two on entering the vicinity.
The city of Sao Paulo has strong economic value. More than once did I hear it described as “the economic engine pulling Brazil forward”, with a GDP per capita twofolds greater than any other region in Brazil. As a state, Sao Paulo is responsible for one third of Brazil’s $2.47 trillion (USD) GDP—and I’m sure sugarcane/ethanol production plays a significant role in this figure, considering Sao Paulo State produces one fifth of the world’s ethanol (in 2008). A city of 11 million people, Sao Paulo is estimated to be composed of 111 ethnic groups—by far Brazil’s most populated and ethnically diverse city. There are also large concentrations of people from other nations: for example, the largest concentration of Japanese (outside of Japan) live in Sao Paulo.
While there, it was clear that the city was in slight turmoil—along with other areas of Brazil. On our first tour with Gustav, we went by the City Hall and noticed how heavily protected the building was from the outside, as multiple policemen were standing guard. But looking closely at the building’s façade, we could see a few windows had been smashed in. Riots had been occurring in Brazil for the past few weeks prior to coming—and they were most prevalent in large cities like Sao Paulo and Rio De Janeiro. In Sao Paulo, the bus and train prices were increased by 20 cents, which, to the people of Sao Paulo, was the tipping point to take street action: to express many long-held frustrations regarding the socio-political-economic decisions being made by the government. But at for the bus/train fares, there are Sao Paulo citizens who simply cannot afford to spend an extra 20 cents when having to use public transportation a couple times a day. Furthermore, it’s clear that as it as, citizens living on the outskirts of Sao Paulo—one’s who need to commute the most—are also citizens living on minimal expenses, so these fare hikes are working directly against those who are most reliant on public transportation.
As I learned from Gustav and the newspapers, these fare hikes were implemented to raise money towards hosting the 2014 FIFA World Cup. As it turns out, Brazilians of (predominantly) the middle class are enraged about designating their taxes to develop large arenas across Brazil rather than putting it towards schools, hospitals, and other social welfare expenditures. “It’s really scary man,” Gustav said to me during our first conversation, “we need hospitals this moment. What will happen when a soccer player injured himself? We’ll have no place to treat him!” Of course Gustav knows what to say to get his points across, but at least he puts it in perspective, albeit exaggerated.
Finally, these protests are directly attacking individual political figures who’ve been disfavored long before the fare hikes. Corruption in the government, with hints of cronyism and nepotism, though sometimes very vague, seem innate to the Brazilian Government. How has the son the former President Lula procured for himself the world’s largest beef company? This is one of Gustav’s complaints. There is also the issue of Renan Calheiros, longstanding President of Senate who, just a few months ago, was petitioned to be expelled from office through Facebook—and in fact received more votes against him than the number he obtained during his election! I found that interesting. Nonetheless, Calheiros remains comfortably seated in his senate position, so folks aren’t too pleased about that.
We then discussed plenty about Brazil’s energy infrastructure, both in class and out of class. We learned that back in 1970’s, due predominantly to the Oil Embargo of 1973, Brazil promised itself to become more energy self-reliant, thus reducing its exposure to any foreign energy “shocks”, often occuring through political and economic reasoning. This all occurred during the military regime, a so called “brutal” time period when the dictators had full say on what could and could not be developed—and as we learned in class, the hegemonic dictatorial mentality was to develop its own energy (self reliant) infrastructure while building its economy. Conveniently, both these ends seemed to be met using Brazil’s natural resources.
I once read that Brazil’s territory covers roughly 49% of Latin America, possessing recognized wildlife reservoirs such as the Amazon. Brazil decided to utilize its fertile lands and rivers for economic development, constructing large-scale hydroelectric dams while yielding incredible amounts of sugarcane for ethanol and food additives.
Currently, Brazil owns the world’s 2nd and 4th largest hydroelectric dams, and is in the process of constructing the Belo Monte, which is estimated to be the world’s 3rd largest. Itaipu is the world’s second largest hydroelectric dam, operating at an installed capacity of 14,000 MW. Tucurui operates at a capacity of 8,370 MW. Both dams caused communal upheaval in areas where flooding occurred. Of course, communal resistance takes place amidst any dam construction, along with eventual displacement, flooding, groundwater contamination from the construction process, methane emissions from the flooded brush, disruption of migratory fish cycles (with consequential problems with food accessability). But these seem to be the “small-scale” impacts; worries of larger magnitudes include inter-border disruption of water flow, which can inevitably lead to serious multinational turmoil. Then there’s the question of who gets the electricity: does it go to the industrial sector, or to the residential sector?
As we discussed in many of our classes, there are social, environmental, and economic “sphere” influenced by developments in the energy sector, whether positive or negative. So what this trip to Brazil really reinforced is the necessity to weigh these pros and cons to understand what actually viable. With solar panels we find problems such as intermittency, heavy costs (long payback periods), energy-intensive construction processes, material competition (since silicon is highly valued for computer use), and, as we learned from the sub-secretary of energy, thievery! Cons for wind energy—which is bleak at the moment yet estimated to grow—basically comes down to intermittency, construction, and the NIMBY mindset, which stands for “not in my back yard”—implying the esthetically displeasing reality of living in sight of a large turbine; turbines are also known to depress real estate values as well.
Actually visiting a hydroelectric dam, a solar plant, Bosch’s flex fuel engine facilities, and a methane capturing landfill was quite eye-opening. Exposure to these processes required for modern living is a real experience, that is, to see all the labor and equipment required for modern quasi sustainable living.