Boa Vista 4: American Corner & EducationUSA opening

Brazil has changed.  What was once a coastal country of Samba has become more of an interior country of Sertaneja, a type of Country-Western music that regularly tops the charts here.   But our resourced remain deployed mostly in the old Brazil.   This is certainly not to underestimate the importance of Rio and São Paulo, but it is good to get outside the Brasília, Rio, and São Paulo triangle.  That is what we have been trying to do.  Keep old friends in Rio and São Paulo but make new ones in the North and the West.  To that end, I have been to states like Acre, Rondônia, Amapá and Roraima, as well as the interior of other states.  And that is why we want to open corners in places like Boa Vista.  

For the first time last year, there was more retail outside the big capitals than inside.  The news magazine “Veja” recently ran a series of articles about where the best paying new jobs were.  Opportunities have also moved.  There is some logic to this.  It is a process that we have seen in our own country.   Sometimes it is resource based, but there is a simple matter of too much size.   Traffic in a city like São Paulo is so bad that it interferes with doing business.   You just cannot predict how long it will take to get anywhere.   When I go to the airport in São Paulo, it might take just over a half hour, or I could be stuck for a couple of hours.  I know that interferes with the work of my colleagues.  In Brasília, I can do five or six appointment in a day.   In São Paulo it can be hard to do two or three.  It just takes too long to get from one to another.   As this affects us, it affects all business.   There are lots of advantages to being in a big city, but at some point the advantages are tipped by the physical difficulty of doing business.

I digress (and my digression is bigger than the rest of the post) to explain why I think it is so important to do a Brazil-wide strategy.  Put another way; imagine concentrating your efforts predominantly in New York, Washington and Los Angeles, with an occasional foray into Boston, Chicago and San Francisco.  Would you know the United States?   I don’t think it is possible for anybody to know comprehensively great countries like the U.S. or Brazil, but the effort is worth it.  There is also the relative impact argument.   In places like Boa Vista, we get lots of contact interest precisely because we are rare.  I am confident that our forays into Roraima or Acre will be long remembered and remarked.   Of course, we cannot spend a majority of our time there, but some time is well worth it. Brazil’s burgeoning middle class and population shifts have created new opportunities.  I want us to be there for them.

Here is my reporting paragraph.  We opened an American Corner cum EducationUSA center in Boa Vista in the distant Amazon state of Roraima as part of our strategy of meeting the new and dynamic Brazilian demography.  It is called the Abraham Lincoln Center because Old Abe won decisively in an online contest, we speculate due to name recognition from the success of the Steven Spielberg movie “Lincoln.”  Hosted in the Language Center of SENAC, the American Corner is the first public diplomacy outpost west  of Manaus.  The Corner is now the centerpiece of a bustling foreign language facility that enrolls over 800 students and hundreds more through SENAC’s workforce development program. The opening ceremony attracted over 250 young people and local media covered the event widely.  Embassy´s Facebook page got 323 likes, and comments asking for American Corners.  In addition our PAO, EducationUSA Director and IRO did the “Aula Magna” lecture to a packed auditorium at the Federal University of Roraima and generally hobnobbed with local swells and bona-fide dignitaries.

The audience sat through all the speeches and still took the time to come in for the tours.  You have to respect this kind of endurance.  Having a presence helps and is already helping.  For example, our agricultural attaché is planning a trip to Roraima.He now has a kind of base of people who can help him information about the city that would be harder to get otherwise and general contacts far away from out home-base.    

Maybe the most important part is the partnerships.  I like that concept of partnership.  The basis of partnership is simply a matter of finding shared aspirations.  We used to have a patronage paradigm, where we would give resources to sponsor programs.  It was akin to advertising.  Partnership is better.  Our Brazilian friends in Boa Vista are partners, actually lead partners.  They furnish most of the resources needed to run the center and make the decisions. We help with materials, training and advice.  We all give and all get. That is how it should be.  That is sustainable.

My picture up top is the audience at the opening.  They closed off the street to make room.  Below is the cake for the opening.  The people at SENAC made it.  They have a school for bakeries and restaurants.  It was a very good cake.  I ate a couple slices.

Boa Vista 3: Embrapa

I got to visit Embrapa in Boa Vista.  This was a treat for me. Embrapa is the Brazilian version of USDA. I enjoy visits at science labs and among them the agricultural ones are my favorites.  Some people think that agriculture is something from the past.  In fact, it is one of the most future oriented industries there is.  IMO, someday soon when people use the term high-tech, they will more often be referring to biological systems rather than computers, i.e. mostly agricultural based.

In one of labs they were studying plant pests and diseases.  The showed me a leaf that was clearly unhealthy.  Only under the microscope could you see really small red spiders that were creating the problem.   The scientists were testing another kind of bug that eats the spiders.  The “good” bugs were native to Brazil, but usually not present in sufficient numbers to control outbreaks.  You could introduce them in numbers to kill off the spiders. When the spider population dropped, so would the predators.  They would never wipe out all the spiders, but there would be equilibrium.  If spider population went up, the predator population would follow.  The key to joy is NOT totally defeating the spider menace.

People worry about climate change, but maybe a more immediate threat is invasive species.  You really cannot keep them out, but science can try to stay a step ahead.  The spiders were invasive.  Interestingly the predators were native that just needed a little help to fight back. 

In another lab they were studying nitrogen fixing plants.  Everybody knows that legumes can fix create their own nitrogen, but they don’t do it on their own.  The nitrogen is fixed from the air by bacteria that form in nodes on the roots.  I knew that, but didn’t think much about it.  I thought that the bacteria just kind of came along.  They don’t.   The bacteria are present in the soils, but not always in numbers needed.  This is a problem in Brazil more than in North America because the soils in tropical Brazil tend to have less organic material.  It decays fast in the tropics and w/o the organic materials the bacteria dies off.  So they can vastly increase the productivity of things like soybeans by spraying by applying the bacteria that fix nitrogen.   It is cheaper than fertilizer.  There can be a residual affect and the next crop planted, often corn, can take up the left over nitrogen.  The challenge is that sometimes there is nitrogen enough but not other necessary elements such at phosphorus.  This is didn’t know. Phosphorus can also be fixed by bacteria.  In this case it doesn’t take it from the air, as in the case of nitrogen.   Aluminum is present in many Brazilian soils and it binds with phosphorous, making the phosphorus unavailable for plants.  Some bacteria can break the bonds and convert the phosphorus into a form usable by plants.

There are other very interesting advances involving fungus that helps plants extract water and nutrients from the soil.  They had them in petri dishes in a refrigerator.   I jokes that I am growing stuff like that at home too.  Anyway, it is all very cool.  I could have stayed much longer, but I had my next appointment.

Each location is unique and it is important to localize knowledge too.   Roraima is a new location and a new frontier and there are lots of things to learn.

The picture up top shows various roots with nitrogen nodes on them.

Boa Vista 2: A day at a museum

My first day’s schedule was disrupted by a drastic change in government.   They got a new governor on Friday and he fired almost everybody on Monday, at least those appointed politically.   Well, not fired strictly speaking.  They had to come in and find out if they still had jobs.  At my first meeting at one of the planning offices, the guy told me that he could talk to me but that I might not be talking to a person actually employed there.  It was a good talk and I learned a lot about Roraima, but the situation was not normal.  I was supposed to have lunch with the governor, but he was gone.  The new governor found a few minutes to talk to me.  I was grateful for that, since he had a lot of other things to do.  But not much was said.

I had a better time at the Museum of Roraima. It is actually closed, closed for renovations.  People were still working there, however, and they were nice enough to show me around.

I met a woman there studies the indigenous people of Roraima and around.  She lived three years among the Yanomami. These people were made famous in the 1960s when an anthropologist wrote a book about them called “The Fierce People.”  I read it in college and I still recall the cover.  It was controversial among anthropologist because it painted the Yanomami is a negative way.  (It remains controversial today, BTW.  Anthropology steps on a lot of assumptions and one generation debunks the other, often with extreme prejudice.  I think that is because anthropology is the study of human societies and practitioners sometimes find what they are looking to find and then try to bring it back as a critique of their own societies.  The best example is Margaret Mead’s study of Samoa, which indicates another permutation, i.e. being wrong doesn’t always seriously harm your reputation.  Sometimes this is availability bias, i.e. they find what is easy to find, but often it is just ordinary unconscious bias of choosing what you think is important.  Anthropology has a kind of god-like view too.   How can one person judge a society or even hope to understand it.  But this digresses.) According to the book, as I recall, they were vicious, primitive and cruel.  The book was controversial because it went against the neo-Rousseau idea of the noble, or at least the not bad, savage. 

One of the assumptions among many modern anthropologists is that less developed cultures are relatively benign until polluted by contact with modern Western man.  Here was a story of wonderfully violent people who just got that way by themselves.   (BTW – there is another good book I read on a similar subject was “The Better Angels of Nature” by Steven Pinker. He says that, contrary to our assumptions, violence in human societies has been declining for centuries and the death rates from violence we see in modern wars were normal in pre-literate societies.)

Suffice it to say that the woman I spoke with did not agree with the “Fierce People” book and thought many of the ideas were wrong. She explained that there was a lot of variation among the peoples of the region and among individuals.This culture, like all cultures, was in a state of constant change. 

The lack of a strong material culture and absence of writing meant that this particular culture was more protean than many others, as virtually every bit of the culture is stored in mutable human memories and all those memories die with the individual.  If he fails to pass something along, it is gone forever.  There is no digging up the old manuscript and rediscovering the ancient texts.  This, coupled with very low populations, means observations are applicable only for short times and in specific places.Maybe the author of the Fierce People didn’t quite understand what he was observing and even if he did, maybe he just caught them at a bad time.  I suppose it might be like an anthropologist showing up in California in the 1960s, finding the Manson family and extrapolating that to the general population.  

I have thought about this regarding history in general, especially ancient history.   We find some artifacts and project it onto the larger society.  Maybe the community we found was just strange, unloved and rejected by the larger society?  Of course, even this assumes a high level of understanding.  We need a working theory of what the artifacts mean.   They showed me a long sock-like thing made of wicker.  It was flexible and could be pulled thinner and thicker.  I could have looked at the thing of 1000 years w/o figuring out its purpose.  It was used to make a kind of mush with manioc and other roots, some of which have harmful toxins.  Liquids, and evidently the toxics, are pushed through the slots and after a while only the good mush is left.

At another part of the museum, I met a guy who collected bees.  There are lots of different kinds of bees in Brazil and people who study these things not infrequently find new species.  The new species are usually specialists, i.e. they use one sort of plant or have a particular lifestyle.  I suppose it is not really all that different from the anthropology above, with the key difference that biological evolution takes longer than cultural evolution. 

In my experience, bees are yellow stripped.  I was surprised to find lots of brightly colored bees.  This explains a puzzle.  In my yard, I never see many bees, despite having lots of wild stuff and flowers.  I know understand that I have been seeing bees, but I thought they were just odd flies.

One more thing about the museum, it reminded me that I am getting old.   They had “artifacts” like the old phonograph pictured nearby that I recall from my childhood as being modern.   Unfortunate people of the past needed to contend with such things.

Boa Vista

Boa Vista is a nice city and the airport actually had walkways, not something you always get at major airports in these days of pre-world cup preparations.  The city is laid out in a circle and spokes pattern, consciously imitating Paris, with its edge on the Rio Branco.   (The Rio Branco (white river) feeds the Rio Negro (black river) which unites with the Rio Solimões to form the Amazon near Manaus.) Streets are wide and buildings mostly new, not surprising since the city is new.   It is reminiscent in some ways of Brasília, since it is a planned city, but better thought out and, of course, much smaller.  Streets have sidewalks and people can get around on foot if they want.  It is also more compact than Brasília for the simple geometric reason that a circle in more compact than the long wings of Brasília.

It is also like Brasília in that it lives mostly from remittances from the central government.  Brazil made a conscious effort to settle the territory that became the State of Roraima and connect it to the rest of the country, or at least to Manaus, so they invested in roads and buildings.  This made the state a land of opportunity and today about 80% of the population comes from someplace else in Brazil.  Like Brasília, however, there is growing up a generation born in Roraima w/o connections elsewhere.  Brasília had a couple decades head start on this, however.

The road that leads to Manaus is one of the best in Brazil; at least that is what I was told.   I saw some of the highways and they look good, as you can see in the nearby picture.  I understand that there is a bottleneck when the road passes through an indigenous reserve.  Drivers are not supposed to stop along the way and there is not travel at night.   This is a serious impediment.   River traffic is seasonal.   During the wet season, which is opposite of Brasília’s and goes from April to September, the Rio Branco can handle barge traffic, but there are no good ports so such traffic is underdeveloped. 

Problems of infrastructure make things relatively expensive in Roraima.  This problem is both mitigated and exacerbated by the neighboring Venezuela and Guiana.   Gasoline is so cheap in Venezuela that it is almost free.  Brazilians can fill up there tanks there, which creates a kind of unfair competition.   Some types of food, especially flour, come from Guiana at lower than Brazilian market rates.   All this mitigates the high prices but maybe exacerbates the long-term situation by making it unprofitable for Brazilian merchants to enter stay in some markets.

The city of Boa Vista is built on a savanna.  It is like the cerrado, but with a few more trees and shallower soils.  It stays in this grass state because of fairly severe dry seasons.  This kind of biome makes up around 17% of the state. Most of the rest is thick tropical forest. There dry seasons are less dry and shorter.  I didn’t see this myself, since we flew in and out during the night and never drove outside the city. Boa Vista’s biome is another reason the city reminds of Brasília.  It has a similar mix of grass and trees.

I came to Boa Vista for the inauguration of an American Corner cum Education USA center in the Boa Vista SENAC.  This is part of our long term strategy to reach more into the “new” Brazil.   This is why I have visited places like Acre and Rondônia and why we have opened corners in places like Boa Vista and Campo Grande in Mato Grosso do Sul.  Brazil has changed and our public diplomacy outreach has to change with it.  It is no longer just a coastal country, no longer the country of samba.   Today it is more the country of sertaneja, a kind of country music born in the interior.

I had a busy schedule.  If you are going to travel to the end of Brazil, it is wise to do something when you are there.  I arrived on the 2 am Gol flight on Monday morning and left on the 2:40am Gol flight (same plane going back) on Wednesday, which gave me two full days in Roraima at the cost of two full nights of sleep.   Roraima is far away and it takes about five hours to get there, counting a short stop in Manaus.

Will right more later.

My pictures show me in front of the Rio Branco.  You have to wear hats in the tropical sun, especially if you are folliclely challenged as I am.  I am getting to like various hats.  My other picture show a colorful building near the river.  I found that I didn’t take many pictures of the city itself.