The Trip, The Statehood Movement, and other Musings

The Trip:

Ambitious! (no made up adjectives this week) My monumental one-month, EIGHT city, 7000 mile trip/adventure/extravaganza is finally planned. After two weeks of teaching English in rural communities a few hours by riverboat away from Santarém, Donovan and I will head out to explore many of the amazing places that Brazil has to offer during our “winter” vacation.  Here is the itinerary we finally agreed upon:

Santarém -> Manaus -> Belo Horizonte/Ouro Preto -> Natal -> Salvador -> Rio de Janeiro -> Iguaçu Falls -> Brasília -> Santarém

Our first 1.5 weeks will be spent in Manaus, Belo Horiztonte/Ouro Preto, and Natal exploring three very different (and geographically disparate) regions of Brazil.  That portion of the trip will take us into the heart of the Amazon, then on to the Mountainous state of Mineas Gerais in southeastern Brazil, and finally up to the beautiful beaches and sand dunes of Natal along the northeastern coast.

After a whirlwind first week plus, we are going to fly down the coast and meet up with my parents in Salvador, BAHIAAAAAA.  We’ll spend four days in Brazil’s “Capital of Happiness” and then fly down to a Cidade Maravilhosa with the doctors for a week of fun-in-the-sun in Rio.  Once we’ve gotten Cocacabana Beach out of our systems, our plan is to hop on a jet and fly south to the Argentinean border and see one of Brazil’s most amazing sights…Iguaçu Falls (apparently, upon seeing the awe-inspiring falls Eleanor Roosevelt exclaimed “Poor Niagara”…Thank you Wikipedia).  Following a tearful goodbye with the parental units, we’re going to head to the capital of Brazil…Brasília…for a week of hanging out and exchanging stories with our fellow Fulbrighters at the mid-year meet-up.  Finally, exactly one month after departing for Manaus, we are going to fly back to Santarém on August 18th and get back down to business for our final three months in the Amazon.

All in all I think we have a smashing trip planned.  I must admit that one of my only major disappointments about being placed in Santarém was the fact that it is so geographically isolated.  Luckily, the convergence of our month-long break, Fulbright mid-year meet up, and my parents’ ability to take two weeks off from work to visit allowed us to put together an AWESOME itinerary.  Even though it is a few months off…I can hardly wait.

 To split or not to split?

I arrived in Santarém during a very politically charged time in the city’s history.  Over the past few years there has been a growing movement amongst many Santarenos to split off from the state of Pará and form a new state named “Tapajós” (the founding of UFOPA three years ago was in part intended to give the western part of the state some semblance of educational autonomy from the east).  This controversial initiative was voted on last year by all of Pará’s six million inhabitants and soundly defeated.  Nonetheless, many people in the city and in the western part of the state believe that by 2014 the initiative will eventually pass and Santarém will become the new capital of the state of Tapajós.  Despite the seeming inevitability of this outcome, from what I have been able to ascertain through conversations and dialogue over the past four weeks, it is fairly clear that the statehood issue is potentially loaded with positives outcomes and negative consequences for Santarém and the region as a whole.

First, here is a little background on the demographic and economic makeup of Brazil’s second largest state and what the division would look like.  In terms of land, the proposed state of Tapajós would comprise 59% of the current state of Pará.  The rest of the territory would be divided up between the state of Pará (with its capital in Belém) and another proposed state to the south of Belém called Carajás (which is the mineral rich part of the state).  Despite the massive swath of land that Tapajós would gain, the vast majority of the area is unfortunately comprised of forest reserves, rivers, and uninhabitable jungle.  Moreover, with only one million inhabitants (as compared to the four million people who live in or around Belém), poor infrastructure, and little economic development (the Tapajós region only accounts for 10% of economic output in Pará), the new state would certainly face substantial challenges…all of which critics of statehood are quick to point out.

Notwithstanding these demographic and economic realities, overall I have encountered far more vociferous and passionate arguments in support of separation than against it amongst people here.  As I have commented on in earlier blog posts, the infrastructure of this city is poor by almost any standard of measurement.  Dirt roads, crumbling sidewalks, and 2-3 foot deep potholes are commonplace and one gets the feeling at times that the city is literally falling apart.  It turns out that there is a reason for all of this in the minds of many Santarenos: taxes flow east and little to no investment comes in the opposite direction.  Indeed, the claim that people in the west pay taxes only to see them invested in the eastern part of the state is one of the most common reasons that people here want their own state.  At the very least, many believe that if Tapajós split off the new government would at least be able to invest taxes back into the region and improve the overall quality of life for the state’s one million inhabitants.

Another argument that I’ve encountered in support of separation (and one that certainly resonates with me given the fact that it took me two full weeks to navigate the state’s bureaucracy when I moved in to my new house) is that Pará is too large to govern from one city and as a result has become a bureaucratic disaster.  Given the size of the state and the fact that Belém is in the far east, Santarenos really get the short end of the stick when it comes to governance and bureaucracy.  Many people here seem fed up and frustrated with the political, economic, and bureaucratic marginalization that they face everyday and figure that if nothing else forming a new state will give them a fresh opportunity to build a brighter future for Santarém and the Tapajós region as a whole.  Finally (and most importantly), I’ve had many people tell me in no uncertain terms, “it’s been our dream to have our own state for decades…this movement is the realization of that dream.” Indeed, despite all the other justifications for separation, I suspect that the “dream of statehood,” embedded in decades of popular discourse and the continuous feeling of marginalization, is the underlying force behind the “Sim Tapajós” movement at the present moment.

Although there are many legitimate (and vocal) arguments for separation, I have certainly encountered a far less voluble group of Santarenos who want to continue with the status quo.  In any discussion regarding statehood they seem to consistently discuss the economic reality of the western part of Pará.  As I’ve said, this region accounts for just 10% of economic activity in the state and with separation the people of Tapajós could experience steep price increases for various industrial commodities produced in the east (an already poor place might actually become poorer).  Also, many skeptics question whether or not creating a state with such small economic output (and largely based on tourism and raw agricultural products) would even be financially sustainable in the long term.  Where would government funding actually come from? Some believe that despite all of the marginalization and obvious inequities, the eastern part of the state remains Santarém’s only real potential source of investment and without these financial resources Santarém would have no hope of obtaining the money necessary for future development.

By far the most common argument I’ve heard against separation is that the creation of a capital in Santarém would bring with it an influx of migrants and consequently an increase in violence to a peaceful, safe city. One thing I’ve not talked about sufficiently in this blog is just how safe I feel here and how safe this city appears to be (I spoke to a member of the Policia Militar recently and I plan on including our conversation in a blog post in the next few weeks). I haven’t encountered one situation in which I actually felt in danger and given the horror stories people tell about Brazil’s big cities (which might be exaggerated themselves…but who knows), I think this is something wonderful about a vida Santarena.  People say that if Santarém becomes the capital of Tapajós and migrants flow in, violence wouldn’t be far behind.  Whether or not the creation of a new state would lead to this imagined spike in violence is entirely debatable, but nonetheless the security issue seems to be at the forefront of many Santarenos arguments against separation.

Finally, I’ve spoken to some individuals who believe that the long-term environmental costs would just be too high.  In light of the unfortunate economic and demographic realities of western Pará, many people argue that the only way to boost economic output in the region and expand Santarém into a capital would be to cut the rainforest.  Even though the rainforest around the city has already experienced significant damage due to soy farming and gradual population growth, it seems that additional cutting might only hasten the destruction of one of the most biodiverse and environmentally important places on Earth.  Whether or not short-term economic gains should take precedence over long-term environmental conservation is a difficult question to answer but I nonetheless understand the ambivalence that many people in Santarém’s environmental community have towards the “Sim Tapajós” movement.

It’ll be interesting to learn more about the statehood issue in the months ahead.  At the moment, I think both sides have fairly valid arguments and I find myself clinging to the fence when people ask for my opinion about separation.  I’m actually toying around with the idea of doing some work on this issue (potentially a nice little research project) so stay tuned because it might actually become a major component of my time down here.

…alright we’re done with this week’s history lesson…I promise. As Andy Dufresne tells Morgan Freeman’s character at the end of the Shawshank Redemption, “If you made it this far, maybe you’re willing to (go) a little further”…If you’re eyes were starting to glaze over there for a minute…wake up and read on…I’ve got a few more goodies to report!

Other happenings:

  • If sleeping in a hammock is an art form, I think I’ve graduated to the 5th grade paper-mache level…I discovered that lying at a diagonal is crucial to proper horizontal sleep…it keeps both your head and feet on the same level and assures that you don’t wake up with either a dizzy head or numb feet.
  • I spent a rather wonderful Easter Sunday with Donovan and Dan the Fishguy in Alter do Chão climbing the highest hill/mountain in the area and hanging out.  What a day and WHAT A VIEW!

  • I attended a Passion of the Christ performance at a local church on Good Friday. Three thoughts: 1. It was a bit graphic 2. It was more of a social event than a religious event…it definitely seemed like the place to be 3. People kept standing up and walking in front of me (oftentimes pausing for a minute while blocking my view) THROUGHOUT the play…cultural relativism, cultural relativism, cultural relativism. More on religion in Santarém when…I have more to say and more experiences with it (Donovan and I are going to check out a Sunday service in the next few weeks).
  • I had a number of students come up and tell me that they heard me on “Radio Rural” last Saturday speaking out the lyrics to Adele’s “Someone Like You.” That’s 1. Hilarious and 2. Kind of strange.
  • Brazilians have a very hard time understanding the word “loaf” (as in loaf of bread and meatloaf). I spent a solid 5-10 minutes trying to explain the word loaf to Val and Maria Luiza…but our discussion just ended with both of them awkwardly laughing and saying “okkkkkkkk.”  I guess there is no word for loaf in Portuguese so the idea that we would use it to describe a particular size and shape of bread or meat seems totally absurd to them.
  • Just an FYI…Sunday’s are my “get-out-of-Santarém, explore the area” day.

Have a good week. Thank you and good night.

Até logo,


P.S Two weeks without a single negative reference to the weather…I deserve a medal…or at the very least a ribbon with the words “You’re a WINNER not a WHINER”

(Question: How do I come up with this stuff? Answer: A lot of nonsense runs through my head over the course of a week Ryan Fitzgerald Answer: Very carefully Kanye West Answer: I’m a genius)

P.S.S Facebook photos and updates will be out later in the week so keep an eye out for that.

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One thought on “The Trip, The Statehood Movement, and other Musings

  1. david Friedman. You see someone besides your family actually reads your posts

    been to Iguasu Falls on the Argentinian side . Thhere is a nice old colonial looking hotel on the Brazilian side Have fun – take a trip in one of the zodiacs its like going to the base of Niagra in a boat

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