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A country of extremes, and immense potential


Brazil is the largest country in South America in terms of both area and population. Following three centuries of colonial rule by Portugal, Brazil became an independent nation in 1822. Having overcome more than half a century of military intervention in its governance, it is now pursuing industrial and agricultural growth and development of the interior. Using its vast natural resources and a large labour pool, Brazil is Latin America's leading economic power. But exploitation of it's unique ecological resources and highly unequal income distribution remain pressing problems.

Brazil has some of the world's most staggering physical attributes - a magnificent coastline, the great and mighty Amazon River and its huge rainforest which extends halfway across the continent, and a massive jungle containing some of the world's most important pharmacological resources, highlands and plateaus, and magnificent cities characterized by the co-existence of extreme wealth and appalling poverty. Brazil is on the Atlantic Ocean, and shares common boundaries with every South American country except Chile and Ecuador.

Brazil was a Portuguese colony from 1549 to 1822, at which time the ruling colonial prince declared independence and set himself up as emperor. Following a revolt, the monarchy ended and a federal republic was established in 1889.

Prior to the arrival of the Portuguese in 1500, Brazil was sparsely populated by a number of indigenous tribes who gradually retreated further and further into the interior. Their population declined drastically due to severe malnutrition and epidemic disease. The decline of the Indians of the Amazon Basin was part of a deliberate settlers' policy to develop the rainforests into sugarcane plantations. The conquest, epidemics of smallpox and measles, and the opening up of the Amazon for commercial development overwhelmed tribal societies. From 1900 to 1957, the Indian population of Brazil dropped from more than a million to less than 200,000.

Once Portugal had colonized Brazil, the story of slavery prevails. It is a story of techniques used by the Portuguese to deprive the Indians of their liberty and their land: war, treachery and the deliberate exacerbation of conflicts between tribal nations. By virtue of the forced labour and the onslaught of disease, not many Indians survived. So the Portuguese turned to Africa, and brought 3.5 million slaves to Brazil - the largest number of African slaves of any country on the New World.

The slave trade between Angola and Sudan in Africa and Brazil was immense. Indians and slaves were forced into the growing sugar industry as early as 1530. Land was cleared, forests destroyed and converted into sugar plantations. In 1558, the Tupinamba Indians rose up in revolt, but their bows and arrows were no match for the Portuguese swords and muskets. The Portuguese enslaved all the Indians who survived the uprising, and turned the depopulated land over to settlers who then had slaves to work their fields.

For the Indians brought to the slave markets of the coast, life was frightful: families were broken up; women and children sold to plantations and forced to work seven days a week; men worked literally to death with little food, long hours and back-breaking labour, all this accompanied by settler diseases.

The Jesuits who first came to Brazil were appalled at the cruelty, and sought to protect the Indian and African slaves. They took their case directly to the king, to whom they reported the atrocities. The settlers responded that the slaves were barbarians and were waging war against Portuguese rule. The law of the day allowed all people captured in war to be turned into slaves, so the Portuguese deliberately fomented war to meet their insatiable demand for slaves on the sugar estates. This slavery utterly destroyed the  sophisticated Indian way of life that had remained intact for a long time before the Portuguese arrived.

Today, the Indians are largely silent, gone, the victims of slavery that killed, absorbed or expelled them within two centuries of contact. But it was not until 1988 that Brazil recognized constitutionally that the surviving Indians had rights. For their pains in opposing slavery and supporting the Indians, the Jesuits were expelled from Brazil in 1750 despite a concordat between Rome and the Portuguese monarchy.

From the time Brazil became a republic in 1889 until 1986, the military were its de facto rulers. Although elections took place from time to time and civilians held government posts, it was always the army who called the shots. This was especially true from 1968-86; during this period, poor Brazilians began to demand their rights, and the army reacted with fury. There followed a pattern of disappearances, torture, political assassinations and attacks on the organizations of the poor, all perpetrated by military dictatorships.

Potentially a rich country, with vast mineral and agricultural resources, as well as modern industrialization, Brazil has suffered for decades from inflation, unemployment, corruption and massive foreign debt. Rural people and residents of the huge favelas (slums) in some of the world's largest cities remain desperately poor and, during the periods of military rule, their lives became unbearable. Within the Roman Catholic Church, fearless bishops and priests aligned themselves with the downtrodden masses, setting a preferential option for the poor and establishing Christian base communities as organizations for prayer, Bible study and resistance to the corrupt and cruel military and business leaders. They recognized the reasons for the huge gap between rich and poor and fought courageously for their rights.

The last of these dictatorships ended in 1986, and in 1988 Brazil promulgated a new constitution. In 1989 the first elections in three decades were held, but unfortunately they were won by a corrupt politician, Fernando Collor de Mello. However, democratic institutions prevailed and he was defeated by President Luiz Inacia Lula da Silva, a socialist. Since then, Brazil has stabilized somewhat politically, although violence, human rights violations, police brutality and torture continue. In January 2002 an opposition party leader was killed. Each year death squads are responsible for several hundred deaths, including political organizers, ethnic minorities and street children.

The Real Plan (named after Brazil's new currency) was instituted to bolster the economy in 1994. However, financial crises in Asia and neighbouring Argentina have contributed to Brazil's own financial instability. By 2002, Brazil carried an estimated US$250 billion in international debt, and some feared that the country would default.

The Roman Catholic Church is the largest in Brazil, claiming approximately 80 per cent of the population. During the 1970s and 1980s, church-supported Christian base communities, which were rooted in liberation theology and included strong lay leadership, had missions to support and strengthen the role of the poor through political and social action.