Brazil’s Geography Problem

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months at There are plenty of lines you can draw on
the globe but perhaps none is more consequential than the equator. Of the 15 wealthiest countries
in the world as measured by GDP per capita, all are in the northern hemisphere. Only 800
million of earth’s 7.6 billion residents live south of the equator. There is a clear
divide between north and south but of those 800 million people a quarter of them, about
207 million, live here in Brazil. The country is an exception to the global trend. Brazil
is the fifth most populous country in the world and the most populous entirely within
the southern hemisphere. Its economy has grown enormously and the country is quickly developing.
Although, the very land it sits on stacks the odds against it. Its location gives it
a disadvantage. Given this, the question is whether Brazil can develop into a world superpower
by the likes of the US, Europe, Russia, India, and China or if the country is doomed to fail? Brazil, of course, looks like this but in
reality almost 80% of the country’s population lives here—within 200 miles of the coast.
You do see a concentration of population near the coast in any country as it provides a
cheap and easy means of transportation by boats and a source of food through fishing
but few countries have such a severe concentration of people by the oceans as Brazil. This small
area, for example, is home to three of Brazil’s six largest cities. Normally this would help
development as the area in between cities will urbanize but this map doesn’t tell
the whole story—this one does. You see, this area of Brazil is rather mountainous.
The major cities mostly exist in small pockets of low-altitude, flat land on the ocean. This
is because major cities need easy water access to get goods in and out. The majority of Brazil’s
coast is defined by steep, sheer cliffs. Petrópolis, for example, a suburb of Rio, is a mere 13
miles from the ocean and yet it sits at almost 3,000 feet of altitude. The rare areas with
low-altitude land on the water are where cities like Porte Alegre, Rio de Janeiro, and Recife
are but this pattern has two consequences. First, these cities, while being on flat land
themselves are surrounded by cliffs and mountainous regions which means their growth is limited.
There are plenty of cities that exist in mountainous regions but the world’s largest and most
influential cities like London and Delhi and Beijing all exist in areas with absolutely
no geographical features limiting their growth. The fact that Brazil’s cities locate in
rare low-altitude coastal land means that the country will likely never have a megalopolis
by the likes of the Pearl River Delta or the US Northeast. It takes a surprising six hours
to drive between Rio and Sao Paolo and since there’s no low-altitude coastal land in
between them, there are really no major cities in between them too. Brazil’s cities are
confined to the geographically convenient areas which are spread out from each other.
This means the cities can’t collaborate easily with each other thereby limiting Brazil’s
impact on the world stage. Like any large country, Brazil’s development
potential is also linked to how it gets its food. This, in fact, might be Brazil’s greatest
obstacle as it really doesn’t hav e much great farmland, at least yet. The country’s
main agricultural region is its south which is blessed with great soil and great rivers
that help transport crops away from their farms. Interestingly, the same elevation that
leads to steep coastal cliffs causes rivers to run in a counterintuitive direction. The
Tietê river, for example, starts near Sao Paolo a mere 10 miles away from the Atlantic
ocean but then runs inland almost 500 miles where it flows into the Paraná River which
eventually flows out into the ocean near Buenos Aires, Argentina. If a farmer wants to export
their food abroad, it’s often cheaper to first ship it the thousands of miles by boat
on these rivers than just hundreds of miles overland to Brazil’s coast due to their
poor road infrastructure. This means that Argentina gets the business of packing up
and shipping Brazil’s food to other countries. That’s just lost money for Brazil as a result
of their geography. Brazil’s south, though, does not even have enough land to feed the
country’s own 200 million residents. Given that, the question is where to put the rest
of the farms. In Brazil’s north is the Amazon basin. The
central feature of this region is, of course, the Amazon River which is navigable for boats.
Normally this feature would lead to a significant population as navigable rivers serve as cheap
and easy transport for crops and goods but the banks of the Amazon are a tough place
to farm or live. Not only are they muddy and unstable which makes building difficult, but
the Amazon also regularly floods which means that every year many of the communities on
the banks of the Amazon can have their streets underwater for months. Building and living
in the Amazonian cities is difficult, but what’s more difficult is building the roads
in and out. The largest city in the Amazon, Manaus, is home to 2.6 million people, it’s
as big as Baltimore, and yet there are only three roads connecting the city to the outside
world. Many of the smaller towns around the Amazon have no roads going in and out as its
just incredibly costly and difficult to build roads through the rainforest. In fact, rather
unbelievably, there is not a single bridge spanning over the Amazon so there is no way
to drive from the northernmost region of Brazil to the rest without taking a ferry. Overall,
this whole area is just empty. Even if there was the infrastructure to transport crops
to market, farming in the Amazon involves clearing huge amounts of land and even then,
the soil is relatively infertile which leads to poor yields. Despite being Brazil’s largest
state, Amazonas is home to just 1.8% of its population. It just costs too much to build
the infrastructure needed to live there. To the south of the Amazon, though, is an
area known as the Cerrado. This vast savanna used to be in the same category as the Amazon—it
was empty. The problem was not only that there was no natural network of rivers to get crops
out of the area but also that the soil was too acidic and lacking enough nutrients to
easily grow large quantities of crops. Between both the Amazon and the Cerrado being off-limits
for large-scale farming, that meant that Brazil really didn’t have much land at all for
farming. 30 years ago, with only the south to farm, Brazil was actually a net importer
of food—it bought more food from other countries than it sold. That was until researchers discovered
that all you needed to do to fix the soil was add phosphorous and lime. The phosphorous
served as a fertilizer in the place of natural nutrients and the lime worked to reduce the
level of acidity. In the early 2000’s, the country spread more than 25 million tons of
lime per year and so today the Cerrado accounts for 70% of Brazil’s farmland. In addition,
Brazil has begun growing soybeans. This plant is normally grown in more temperate climates
such as the US, northern China, or Japan, but through cross-breeding and genetic modification
it can be modified to grow in warmer and acidic environments such as the Brazilian Cerrado.
Thanks to the enormous amount of land Brazil has and these technological advancements the
country has gone from producing 16% of the world’s soybean in 2005 to 31% today.
A country’s level of development is often to linked to how good its natural transportation
system is. That’s part of why the US developed so much so fast—it has a great system of
navigable rivers right in its agricultural heartland that helps get goods from the fields
to cities fast and inexpensively. The Brazilian Cerrado, though, does not have that. It doesn’t
even have much of a preexisting network of roads since before this recent agricultural
advancement barely anyone lived there. Therefore anyone who wants to farm in the Cerrado has
to find land, level it, treat it with phosphate and lime, and build roads to get supplies
in and crops out. Cerrado farms can be profitable but it takes an enormous amount of money to
build the infrastructure needed to start a farm. It’s not like the US or France or
China where all you need is some land. The consequence of this is that farms in Brazil
tend to owned by corporations rather than individuals because only corporations have
the money to build farms. That therefore increases the level of wealth disparity in Brazil. According
to the World Bank’s Gini index, Brazil is the 11th most economically unequal country
in the world. Lower wealth disparity and the emergence of a middle class are indicators
of economic development so the country should want to fix this. Brazil’s government has
recognized its infrastructure problem as a source of its wealth disparity and has therefore
worked to build roads in the interior so that more individuals can run farms but the government
only has so much money to spend and it’s a big country.
Brazil does, though, understand the importance of its core. It understands that the coastal
cities are constrained and that economic development will come from the center. It was partially
for that reason that the country decided to move its capital from Rio de Janeiro to here—Brasília.
The thinking was that putting the capital in the core would stimulate the economically
underdeveloped region and, in many ways, it worked. The city simply did not exist before
1960 yet today more than 4 million people live in its metropolitan area. Being located
on relatively flat land unlike Rio, the city can just grow and grow and grow without hinderance.
Brazil has potential, but its defining issue is that it’s an expensive place. It’s a
vicious cycle. In order to make money, Brazil needs to invest in its infrastructure but
without people making money it doesn’t have the tax money to build what it takes t o transition
into the first world. The question of why tropical countries are less developed is an
enormous one without a clear answer, but Brazil is one of the most likely candidates to break
this trend. It certainly lags behind other developing countries like China, but as its
agriculture industry develops it will become a bigger and bigger exporter which will bring
more money in. With time, its average income will inch up. The country already does have
major companies in other industries such as banking, manufacturing, and oil but with how
big Brazil is, agriculture is the one that’s the world’s focus right now. Only France,
Germany, the Netherlands, and the United States export more agricultural products per year
which is good company to be in. Brazil may not have the explosive growth rate of some
other less developed countries but by continuously taking what it earns and reinvesting it to
open up more of the country to agricultural production it will continue its path to superpower
status. One of the common questions I receive is how
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