The Society and Its Environment

Brazil Table of Contents

THE FIFTH LARGEST country in the world, Brazil is the largest country in Latin America and has territory slightly larger than that of the continental United States. Its population, estimated officially at nearly 160 million in mid-1997, is the largest in Latin America and constitutes about half of the population in South America. With 80 percent of its population living in cities and towns, Brazil is one of the most urbanized and industrialized countries in Latin America. São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro are among the ten largest cities in the world. São Paulo, with its 18 million people, is the world's third largest city, after Mexico City and Tokyo. Yet, parts of Brazil's Amazon region, which has some of the world's most extensive wilderness areas, are sparsely inhabited by indigenous peoples still in the process of coming into contact with the modern world.

More than for its superlatives, however, Brazil stands out for its regional and social disparities. Brazil is noted for having one of the most unequal income distributions of any country. In the rural Northeast (Nordeste), there is poverty similar to that found in some African and Asian countries. Although increased urbanization has accompanied economic development, it also has created serious social problems in the cities. Even the wealthiest cities contain numerous shantytowns called favelas.

While in many ways this diversity or heterogeneity makes it similar to other developing countries in Latin America and elsewhere, Brazil is also unique. One of the fascinating elements of this uniqueness is that it is different things at once, presenting different faces or identities of a single coherent whole. Both local and foreign perceptions of Brazil tend to exaggerate particular features, lack a balanced view, and fail to grasp how the parts of the whole fit together. During the twentieth century, for example, Brazil came to be known to the rest of the world and to many of its own inhabitants in picturesque motifs that could best be fit together coherently in terms of a "land of contrasts." The country was considered a tropical paradise famed for its exports (coffee), music (such as Carmen Miranda, samba, and bossa nova), and soccer (thanks to Edson Arantes do Nascimento (Pelé)), as well as the nearly mythical Amazon rain forest. Rio de Janeiro was associated with Sugarloaf (Pão de Açucar), Copacabana, income tax fugitives, and even the mastermind of Britain's "Great Train Robbery" of 1963. On a more serious level, Brazil often was disparaged for its inability to solve basic political and economic problems, such as consolidating democratic institutions, controlling runaway inflation, and servicing the foreign debt. However, the nation is noted for being an emerging industrial power and for constructing giant public works, such as the new capital city of Brasília, the Trans-Amazonian Highway, and the world's largest hydroelectric dam (Itaipu). Brazil also stands out for its leadership role in Latin America and the developing world.

Most Brazilians saw the military regime (1964-85) as a repressive dictatorship, although others regarded it as having saved the country from communism. Brazilian society was viewed as conservative and male chauvinistic, yet simultaneously freewheeling or even licentious, as revealed in its Carnaval (Carnival) festivities. In the 1980s, much of the world saw the Amazon, the world's greatest store of biodiversity, and its native peoples as falling victim to unparalleled destruction. In the early 1990s, the news of massacres of Yanomami Indians, street children, and favela dwellers who inhabit Rio de Janeiro's hillsides sundered Brazil's image of cordiality. Although there were other reasons for pessimism and a continuing identity crisis (Brazil became the first democracy to impeach its president, in December 1992), there were reasons for pride as well (inflation was brought under control in 1994). Was Brazil a "serious country" destined to be a great power, or was it always to remain a land of the future?

One can find ample evidence for countervailing trends: unity and diversity, modernity and tradition, progressive government policies and deeply rooted inequality, tight control by elites and broadening popular participation, principles and pragmatism. There are no simple answers. This chapter examines Brazil's social and environmental complexity and its characteristic paradoxes and nuances of meaning, beginning with the physical setting and moving into the more mercurial social issues, with special attention to how society relates to nature.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress