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collage_20131205154743648_20131211235334178-1Lots of people ask me whether I think the World Cup will be a success and I usually answer in two parts.

Yes, it will be great for a month and the people who come here will have a fantastic time.

But when they leave, Brazilians will be left with the bill, the shocking lack of a legacy infrastructure, and a tragic feeling, especially if the home side wins, that everything in their country is hunky dory.

The next question is often, Why do think it will be great when you have all these criticisms?

I found the perfect answer to that question last week at the World Cup draw. Every morning at breakfast dozens of colourful little birds flew around the hotel’s outdoor dining room. A colleague said he saw a family of meerkats nearby.

Brazil can be a hugely enchanting country and Brazilians have an undeniable charm. Sitting down to breakfast and seeing wildlife up close is an unforgettable experience for a visitor.

Fans come for the football and seeing the World Cup in the game’s spiritual home will be a dream come true for many.

Put that together with friendly natives, beaches, sunshine, music and one month-long party atmosphere, and that’s more than enough to send a visitor home enraptured with their South American stay.

I’ve no doubt those will be the memories most people will take away with them.

Brazil has chosen a three-banded armadillo as its mascot for the 2014 World Cup.

The Tolypeutes tricinctus has a blue shell and is indigenous to the Caatinga scrub region of northeastern Brazil. The small mammal is one of the dozens of endangered species that live in Brazil.

(See more about the animal here.)

Brazilians will now be invited to name the animal – which has its own home page here –  and have been given three names to choose from.

According to FIFA’s official announcement, they are, “Amijubi – a representation of friendliness and joy – and two names which link to the ecological message, Fuleco and Zuzeco.”

The World Cup mascot, like the naming of the ball, has been going on for more than 40 years. World Cup Willie was the mascot in England in 1966, Gaucho was the mascot in Argentina in 1978 and Naranjito was used in Spain in 1982.

(See all the World Cup mascots here.)

I usually use this blog to plug my own stories but I am making an exception today for this brilliant piece of reporting about how rich Brazilians are destroying the environment to build themselves palatial homes.

Some of the most powerful and influential people in Brazil, film maker Bruno Barreto and the Marinho family that run the Globo media empire among them, have consistently flouted the law by cutting down forests, diverting streams, and disturbing rare habitats.

All so they can have nice houses.

The Bloomberg story says:

“All Brazilian beaches are public by law. Wealthy Brazilians do whatever they want on land that often doesn’t belong to them, says Eduardo Godoy of the Paraty office of the Chico Mendes Institute for Biodiversity Conservation, which manages federally protected areas.

“They think they are the only ones who deserve to enjoy a piece of paradise because they are rich,” Godoy says. “They say they are the owners of the island or the beach, and everybody believes them. But that’s not what the law says.”

When prosecutors and environmental police go after them (and usually win), the millionaires appeal the decisions in court, knowing that such actions can take years to be resolved. They ignore the original rulings and stay put while their lawyers buy them time to enjoy their ill-gotten gains.

Read the whole story here. It’s worth it.


Here’s an incredible story from the Amazon about zombie ants whose bodies are taken over by a fungus that forces them to attach themselves to certain leaves before the fungus comes exploding out their heads and reproduces.

The story, published here in the NY Daily News quotes a report in and says:

“Scientists have discovered species of fungi that infect ants, taking control of their muscles, forcing them to wander the jungle floor in search of a perfect place for the fungus to propagate. That perfect place is the underside of certain leaves. When the fungus finds a leaf, it forces the ant to bite down on the leaf’s main vein, locking it into position.”

The fungus “can literally burst out of the ant’s head to begin the growth of the spore-releasing stalk,” said David Hughes, a study researcher from Pennyslvania State University.

Hughes said the final bite takes place around noon, meaning the fungal parasite is synchronised with the sun. That ensures the fungus has a long cool night ahead of it during which it bursts out the ant’s head and allows the spore-releasing stalk to grow.

Amazing. Just when you thought you’d heard it all…

Having lived and reported in Latin America for 20 years, I’ve done my fair share of disaster reporting. When I worked in Mexico and Haiti it felt like every week I was counting bodies, either from explosions in oil pipes or fireworks factories, or floods, or earthquakes and hurricanes.

I remember boarding an almost empty plane to Cancun to try and get in the way of Hurricane Mitch. When we got there everyone else was thronging the airport to get out – and I was bummed out when the hurricane took a left turn at the last minute and hit Honduras instead.

I once went to the Guatemalan border to cover floods there and couldn’t find a hotel room because the small town was filled with army officers. My memory of that day was speaking with a young lad who walked miles from his home town with a letter asking for help.

And one of my first big stories as a correspondent was just a few weeks after I started at UPI and I spent the night on the office couch doing regular updates to the death toll after an oil duct exploded in Guadalajara.

It would be insensitive to describe them as good times, but they were certainly memorable and they helped me become the reporter I am today.

Although none of what I did was as dramatic as this amazing rescue video shot yesterday near Rio:

I write this because I’ve just spent the last 36 hours writing about the terrible floods in Brazil.  I’ve done similar stories it seems almost every year from here and this time the questions I wanted to ask were clear: Why does this keep happening and why do authorities never work on prevention?

The clearest answer was from the Gil Castello Branco, who does great work over at Contas Abertas, an NGO that monitors government spending. He told me:

“When these disasters occur we know what will happen, the politicians will survey the disaster area from a helicopter, then touch down and declare solidarity with the families and then announce a big rescue package so that he looks like the savior. What they should be doing is going there when the sun shines to stand on the edge of a hill and announce that people living there will be removed from the high risk area. But no one wants to do that.”

“It is a historic problem, Brazil always spends money after the fact rather than in prevention,” he added. “We turn that old saying on its head. We aren’t safe, we are sorry.”

There’s more answers here in the Christian Science Monitor and here in Time magazine.

Back to work after a couple of weeks holiday in Chile and my return was made more welcome thanks to today’s good news for the Amazon and for Brazil’s environmentalists.

Data released today shows deforestation in the Amazon region hit a record low for the second consecutive year. Deforestation fell 14 percent in the 12 months to July, according to Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research (INPE).

An estimated 6,450 square kilometers of forests were cut down, the lowest yearly rate since annual monitoring began in 1988.

Annual Deforestation Rates in the Amazon

Year Rate (km2)
2000 18,226
2001 18,165
2002 21,523
2003 25,396
2004 27,772
2005 19,014
2006 14,196
2007 11,633
2008 12,911
2009 7,464
2010 6,450

Source: National Institute for Space Research (INPE)

It’s good news for all and bolsters Brazil position exactly as the world is negotiating at the 16th Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP16) in Cancun, Mexico.

The government said of today’s figures:

“The successive drops in Amazon deforestation rates are a result of the Plan for Amazon Deforestation Prevention and Control (PPCDAM), an integrated set of integrated government policies that combine enhanced satellite monitoring and enforcement operations with land tenure regularization, alongside initiatives to encourage sustainable activities in the region. With the support of 13 government agencies, PPCDAM was instrumental in helping to reduce deforestation in the Amazon by 76.8 percent from 2004 to 2010.”

“In 2009, Brazil voluntarily passed into law a commitment to cut its projected greenhouse gas emissions between 36.1 and 38.9 percent by 2020. Deforestation reduction is a critical part of Brazil’s strategy to reduce national emissions; official calculations estimate that meeting deforestation reduction targets could reduce Brazil’s greenhouse gas emissions by up to 24.7 percent. In October 2010, President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva announced that Brazil’s 80 percent Amazon deforestation reduction target would be met by 2016, four years earlier than planned.”


If someone told me 10 years ago that I would write several stories about the penguins who make their way to Brazil’s beaches every year, I’d have said they were mad. Penguins and Brazil go together like football players and class or telecoms companies and low rates.

But here goes another from today’s Christian Science Monitor.

Some 500 Magellanic penguins (like the one pictured) turned up dead on a beach in southern Brazil this week, probably from hunger and exhaustion after they swam north from Patagonia in search of food. They didn’t find the sardines and squid they were looking for and then got caught up in rough seas and high winds that tired them out.

The first time I wrote a piece about penguins appearing on Brazilian beaches was in 2000, when I wrote this Monitor piece. It was a bit of a novelty at the time and the story got huge play.

My pal from NPR went with me to Saquarema on the Rio coast and he said he had never got such positive feedback on any story in all his life. National Geographic for Kids even published a photo I took of a penguin in someone’s front yard, allowing me to boast I am a National Geographic photographer.

On that trip I saw wayward penguins adopted as pets, waddling around town on a leash. I spoke to people who put penguins in fridges to keep them cool (don’t, the shock can kill them). And I even heard of people taking penguins surfing with them on their boards.

So penguins are big news in the unlikeliest of places. And everything suggests they will continue to be. In this weird world of global warming and global colding, I’m sure I’ll be writing more about Brazil’s penguins, dead and alive, in the years to come.

You always know how busy or important a minister is by his willingness to take your calls. (Unless you are The New York Times or The Economist, or one of the other top publications, as I referred to in this earlier post.)

I managed to snag an interview with the Energy Minister by phone earlier this month for this Christian Science Monitor piece. I was surprised he had the time but then I realized this is a guy who’s been in office only a few weeks.

His predecessor resigned to run for some other office in October, as is common in election years in Brazil, and the new man is essentially a stopgap. Appearing in the press is probably not a bad move for him.

The real issue here, though, is the incredibly irritating one of hierarchy in Brazil. When you call a Brazilian ministry, organization, company, or whatever, more often than not the only person authorised to speak to the press is the top man. Even if you just want some basic quotes and information. In Brazil, there is nothing in between an interview with the head honcho or information grabbed from the official web site.

It’s absurd because more often than not any mid-level official can answer questions and in many cases they can answer them better than their superior. The important thing is that the person knows what he is talking about and can be quoted

But this is a hierarchical nation and the big cheese is the big cheese. He wants you to know he is the big cheese.

The answer to this of course is to hire press officers who know the company they represent and are authorised to speak on their behalf. A good example is Embraer, who have the most knowledgeable and efficient press officers I’ve ever had the pleasure of dealing with.

But the vast majority of assessores de imprensa, as they are known in Brazil, are outside hires and serve only as a bridge between reporter and organization. They don’t know anything about their employers.

The result is that companies get no press at all. Which might be exactly what they want.

I’ve been busy working on a whole load of small stuff over the last 10 days and haven’t had much time to post anything.

I went to the Brazilian Steel Congress, which was fascinating in it’s own way, and I’ve filed short pieces about railways, airports and Sao Paulo’s troubles as a megalopolis.

The only piece to have been published so far was this on about the Belo Monte dam project.

The dam tender got loads of publicity – thanks largely to Avatar director James Cameron – and I think it will remain in the news.

A lot depends on how much pressure the dam’s opponents put on authorities. If they block roads, picket entrances, take hostages, etc. – all things Indians have done in the past when protesting government decisions – things could get interesting.

Indigenous leaders wrote an open letter last week to Lula, criticizing him for saying he has the Indians’ best interests at heart and asking for the project to be shelved.

Here’s the letter below. For those who read Portuguese, O Globo’s Miriam Leitão has written a lot of great stuff on the subject of the dam that is available on her blog here.

Nós, indígenas do Xingu, não queremos Belo Monte

O presidente Lula disse essa semana que ele se preocupa com os índios e com a Amazônia, e que não quer ONGs internacionais falando contra Belo Monte. Nós não somos ONGs internacionais.

Nós, indígenas das Aldeias Bacajá, Mrotidjam, Kararaô, Terra-Wanga, Boa Vista Km 17, Tukamã, Kapoto, Moikarako, Aykre, Kiketrum, Potikro, Tukaia, Mentutire, Omekrankum, Cakamkubem e Pokaimone, já sofremos muitas invasões e ameaças. Quando os portugueses chegaram no Brasil, nós índios já existíamos, e muitos morreram e perderam enormes territórios, perdemos muitos dos direitos que tínhamos, muitos perderam parte de suas culturas e outros povos sumiram completamente.

Nosso açougue é o mato, nosso mercado é o rio. Não queremos mais que mexam nos rios do Xingu e nem ameacem mais nossas aldeias e nossas crianças, que vão crescer  com nossa cultura.

Não aceitamos a hidrelétrica de Belo Monte, pois entendemos que só vai trazer mais destruição para nossa região. Não estamos pensando só no local onde querem construir a barragem, mas em toda a destruição que a barragem pode trazer: mais empresas, mais fazendas, mais invasões de terra, mais conflitos  e mais barragem depois. Do jeito que o homem branco está fazendo, tudo será destruído muito rápido. Nós perguntamos: o que mais o governo quer? Pra que mais energia com tanta destruição?

Já fizemos muitas reuniões e grandes encontros contra Belo Monte, como em 1989 e 2008 em Altamira-PA, e em 2009 no Piaraçu, nos quais muitas das lideranças daqui estiveram presentes. Já falamos pessoalmente para o presidente Lula que não queremos essa barragem, e ele nos prometeu que essa usina não seria enfiada goela abaixo. Já falamos também com a Eletronorte e Eletrobrás, com a FUNAI e com o IBAMA. Já alertamos o governo que se essa barragem acontecer, vai ter guerra. O Governo não entendeu nosso recado e desafiou os povos indígenas de novo, falando que vai construir a barragem de qualquer jeito. Quando o presidente Lula fala isso, mostra que pouco está se importando com o que os povos indígenas falam, e que não conhece os nossos direitos. Um exemplo dessa falta de respeito
é marcar o leilão de Belo Monte na semana dos povos indígenas.

Por isso nós, povos indígenas da região do Xingu, convidamos de novo o James Cameron e sua equipe, representantes do Movimento Xingu Vivo para Sempre (como o movimento de mulheres, ISA e CIMI, Amazon Watch e outras organizações). Queremos que nos ajudem a levar o nosso recado para o Mundo inteiro e para os brasileiros, que ainda não conhecem e que não sabem o que está acontecendo no Xingu. Fizemos esse convite porque vemos que tem gente de muitos lugares do Brasil e estrangeiros que querem ajudar a proteger os povos indígenas e os territórios de nossos povos. Essas pessoas são muito bem vindas entre nós.

Nós estamos aqui brigando pelo nosso povo, pelas nossas terras, pelas nossas florestas, pelos nossos rios, pelos nossos filhos e em honra aos nossos antepassados. Lutamos também pelo futuro do mundo, pois sabemos que essas florestas trazem benefícios não só para os índios mas para o povo do Brasil e do mundo inteiro. Sabemos também que sem essas florestas, muitos povos irão sofrer muito mais, pois já estão sofrendo com o que já foi destruído até agora. Pois tudo está ligado, como o sangue que une uma família.

O mundo tem que saber o que está acontecendo aqui, perceber que destruindo as florestas e povos indígenas, estarão destruindo o mundo inteiro. Por isso não queremos Belo Monte. Belo Monte representa a destruição de nosso povo.

Para encerrar, dizemos que estamos prontos, fortes, duros para lutar, e lembramos de um pedaço de uma carta que um parente indígena americano falou para o presidente deles muito tempo atrás:

“Só quando o homem branco destruir a floresta, matar todos os peixes, matar todos os animais e acabar com todos os rios, é que vão perceber que ninguém come dinheiro”.

Indígenas das Aldeias Bacajá, Mrotidjam, Kararaô, Terra-Wanga, Boa Vista Km 17, Tukamã, Kapoto, Moikarako, Aykre, Kiketrum, Potikro, Tukaia, Mentutire, Omekrankum, Cakamkubem e Pokaimone.

There’s a good side and a bad side to being at the World Economic Forum on Latin America.

I am here in Cartagena working for the forum as a summary writer. I write up short reports about the roundtable discussions. I wrote this about an Amazonian debate and this about Latin America’s growing ties to Asia.

The interesting bit is being party to the debates. The participants are the movers and shakers of the Americas, the top people in business and government. Many of the debates are private and off the record and so there are occasional juicy tidbits to be had.

But my role here is strictly not as a journalist, so I can’t write about any of it, much less corner any of those involved. It’s frustrating as there are a load of people I’d like to talk to and whom their press officers never let journalists get near.

I am missing a golden chance. But such is the nature of the beast.

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