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GLOBAL CAPITAL

Framework of a major city is rising in Brazil's interior

From pastureland the government has built Palmas into a shiny state capital with soaring buildings. Now, it just needs people to move in.

December 30, 2006|Marla Dickerson | Times Staff Writer

PALMAS, BRAZIL — This planned city boasts stately boulevards, universities, a gleaming airport and beaches -- no small feat for a place deep in Brazil's interior.

Never mind that only 208,000 people currently reside in a space designed to accommodate 3 million residents, giving Palmas the feel of an empty movie set.

Seventeen years ago, Palmas was little more than a blueprint and scrubby pastureland. It has sprung from the red dust to become this nation's fastest-growing state capital. And it's a testament to the aspirations of Brazil's sprawling rural center and north, whose development has long lagged behind that of the bustling southeast.

"Palmas is the new frontier," said Mayor Raul Filho, whose city was founded in 1989 as the capital of Brazil's newest state, Tocantins. This region "is the future of Brazil."

Although most of Brazil's 188 million residents still live within a few hundred miles of the Atlantic Ocean, the nation's vast interior is experiencing a surge of growth and investment.

The opening of Brazil's so-called cerrado, an immense expanse of tropical savanna in the center of the country, began in earnest in the 1950s with the construction of Brasilia, about 400 miles south of Palmas. The meticulously planned federal district was an effort to spur development in the interior and shift population growth away from the southeastern megalopolises of Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo.

Advances in soil and plant science are driving new development. Nearly 100 million acres of poor-quality cerrado soil have been converted into arable farm ground, most of that in the last 25 years. Cheap, abundant land has turned central Brazil into a hothouse of soybean, cotton and sugar cane production, boosting demand for infrastructure and services to support a crucial export industry.

For Jarbas Meurer, who arrived in 1991 at age 14, Palmas was the chance to live the Brazilian dream. His father was running a struggling drugstore in the neighboring state of Mato Grosso when the family saw a report about Palmas on a television news program. What better place to start a new life than in a city that was literally being built from the ground up.

Early settlers like Meurer lived like pioneers without electricity, running water or other basic services. He remembers camping in a makeshift shelter and bathing in a nearby river, a rare respite from the choking dust kicked up by earthmovers scraping roads and home sites from the virgin savanna.

Today he runs a building supply company, selling construction materials to fortune seekers who arrive almost daily. Although Palmas isn't expanding at the breakneck pace of the early days, its population swelled 50% between 2000 and 2005. The 29-year-old Meurer said that business was good and that he had put down roots.

"It is a chance to grow with the city," Meurer said. "There is opportunity here."

Political tension sowed the seeds for the creation of Tocantins, which encompasses what was previously the northern half of the state of Goaias. Brazil is roughly the size of the continental United States, but it has only 26 states. Some of them are so large that they dwarf neighboring countries. The vast distances have created intrastate rivalries among far-flung residents about where public resources should be spent.

"Politicians used to come up this way only in election years," said Palmas businessman Emilson Vierira Santos, whose company manufactures iron sheets and bars for the construction trade. "The rest of the time we were forgotten."

The northern separatist movement led to the creation of Tocantins in 1988. Helped by billions of dollars in federal aid and inspired by the legacy of Brazil's best-known master-planned city, legislators approved a new capital smack in the center of the new state. The gold-domed capitol looks like the palace of a Middle Eastern potentate.

"We are like a small Brasilia," Mayor Filho said.

Indeed, with its grandiose scale and soaring modernist buildings, Palmas evokes the same sense of audacity, ambition and will to power. The Palacio Araguaia, Palmas' main government building, anchors one of the largest public squares in Latin America but is virtually devoid of people. Residents on bicycles pedal unmolested down six-lane thoroughfares suitable for Los Angeles traffic.

Whether Palmas grows as large as its founders' vision for it remains to be seen. Maintaining a big-city infrastructure is proving costly. Unregulated squatter settlements have emerged on the outskirts of the city, thwarting plans for orderly expansion. Perhaps the biggest challenge is creating jobs in a poor, rural and still largely isolated region.

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