REPORTING FROM RIO DE JANEIRO -- Brazil’s huge northern state of Pará is about three times the size of California, home to much of the Amazon rain forest and is the second-largest producer of the nation's most important export, iron ore.
But poverty levels are well above the national average.
“It's like a poor family, living in an impoverished home, suffering from hunger, but with a Ferrari parked outside,” Josenir Nascimento, head of a local municipal association, was quoted as saying in the O Globo newspaper. “And all the money is spent on maintaining the car.”
In an attempt to address the contradiction, activists pushed forward a bill that would have split Para into three states and, in theory, increased the amount of federal aid to the region (link in Portuguese). But in voting Sunday, the measure was defeated by a 2-1 ratio amid criticisms that creating new states would carry heavy administrative costs.
Even opponents of the bill, however, recognized the predicament, and it’s one that is repeated in parts of Peru, Colombia and elsewhere in South America: the lack of central government representation for states that are resource-rich (be it mining, gas or other commodities) but poverty-stricken.
“We can't accept that in this country, natural resources benefit companies, but not its people,” said Simão Jatene, governor of Pará. “The Brazilian fiscal system is extremely perverse with respect to Pará.”
On Monday Jatene's comments were endorsed by São Paulo-based Jose Serra, one of the most prominent politicians in the center-right PSDB Party.
In Brazil, the last decade of economic growth has brought tens of millions of Brazilians out of poverty, powered by commodities exports, consumer credit growth and social spending. But the country still remains extremely unequal, across class and geographical lines. Some parts of the southeastern cities of São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro have a higher gross domestic product per capita than rich European countries, while in remote parts of Pará, residents who are struck ill must brave a five-day boat ride to the nearest hospital for treatment, O Globo reported.
The bill would have resulted in three states -- Pará, Carajás and Tapajós -- and increased Senate representation for the northern region. Jatene and others now hope to renegotiate a federal spending pact for the state.
At the moment, there are at least 13 proposals under discussion in the National Congress to divide other states, most of which are far from the country's rich population centers.
-- Vincent Bevins
Photo: Residents of Para state in Brazil celebrate the Dec. 11 defeat of a measure that would have divided the state into three parts. Credit: Paulo Santos / Reuters