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Tuesday, 18 April, 2000, 22:07 GMT 23:07 UK
Boom time in Brazil
Palmas: New palace for the state governor
Palmas: New palace for the state governor
By Stephen Cviic in Palmas, Brazil

Brazil, famous for its beaches, is one of the world's great coastal civilisations.

However, as the 500th anniversary of Portuguese colonisation approaches on 22 April, the country's centre of gravity is shifting towards the vast interior.



We have a joke that the first time the state governor came here, he made a speech to the cows, who answered 'moo'

Livio de Carvalho, Planning secretary

Nowhere symbolises this better than Palmas, a boom town 600km north of Brasilia.

Twelve years ago, Palmas did not exist.

Then local politicians persuaded the federal government to carve out a new state called Tocantins out of the heart of Brazil.

Livio de Carvalho is the Planning Secretary.

"Twelve years ago this was just a farm," he says.



"We have a joke that the first time the state governor came here, he made a speech to the cows, who answered 'moo'."

These days, Palmas is Brazil's fastest-growing city, with a population of 150,000 people. It also boasts a digital telephone network.

Its clean streets attract migrants from all over Brazil, fed up with the crime and insecurity of the big coastal cities.

Palmas' wealth is still based mainly on public spending, but the local authorities are pushing hard to develop the surrounding region as an agricultural bread-basket.


Palmas hopes to attract more tourism
Palmas hopes to attract more tourism
The vast rice plantations at Formoso de Araguaia - an hour by plane southwest of Palmas - are said to be Latin America's largest continuous irrigation scheme.

The drive to open up the Brazilian interior began in earnest in the 1950s with the construction of a new capital, Brasilia.

Major agricultural producer

The government had practical and ideological reasons for encouraging settlers to move inland.

It wanted to generate new wealth and to protect national security.
Fastest development taking place around the Savannahs  or
The Savannahs or "Cerrados" are attracting developers

Nowadays, the westward flux has its own momentum, and the fastest development is taking place in the central savannahs.

Scientists have managed to correct the natural acidity of the soil, and large-scale, capital-intensive agriculture is flourishing, helping Brazil to become a major producer of grains like soya.

Development is controversial, because the savannah - also known as the "Cerrado" - is a precious resource.



Now it's the most threatened area in Brazil because people think they can use any kind of Cerrado to develop agriculture, but it isn't true

Mauricio Galinken, Cerrado environmentalist
Mauricio Galinken, an environmentalist, says that the area has great biodiversity.

"It captures carbon more than the Amazon forest," he says.

"Now it's the most threatened area in Brazil because people think they can use any kind of Cerrado to develop agriculture, but it isn't true."

According to some estimates, two-thirds of the savannah has disappeared.

It is not just agriculture which is controversial. The government is planning a series of big infrastructure projects for central Brazil.

Big plans
Lajeado dam: Controversial building project
Lajeado dam: Controversial building project

One of these - the Lajeado hydroelectric dam, near Palmas - is well under way.

It is going to help resolve Brazil's serious energy shortage, but it will also flood an area of 600 square kilometres, causing many people to lose their homes.

In the Xerente Indian reservation, there is concern about the dam.

The Indians are not going to be flooded out, but Domingos Xerente, a schoolteacher, says that there is not enough consultation.
Xerente people say that they were not consulted about the dam
Xerente people say that they were not consulted about the dam

"They didn't bother to consult us about the dam, even though it's very close to our area," he says.

"It's going to reduce the number of animals we can hunt, and the influx of people will bring disease."

"So in return we've demanded better health care and education. But they haven't given us anything yet."

People in central Brazil are proud of their back-country roots and pleased that their region is being seen as an economic powerhouse.

Whether the region can be developed while preserving its environmental riches remains to be seen.

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