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Brazil may be a world player and it may have a bigger economy than the UK but Britons remain pretty ignorant about the South American nation.

According to a British Council questionnaire published yesterday, nearly two thirds of Britons don’t know that the capital of Brazil is Brasilia, the same number don’t know that Brazil is one of the world’s top 10 economies and more than a third don’t realise that Brazilians speak Portuguese.

On the positive side, less than a quarter know that Gisele Bündchen is a model. The rest have no interest at all in knowing the names of stick thin women who get paid millions just because they were fortunate enough to have good genes.

It’s an alarming but understandable ignorance. Brazil was not an important nation until recently and its fame was for football and carnival and favelas.

As the British Council pointed out:

“Historically, Brazil has had a relatively low level of engagement with UK cultural institutions, artists, producers and entrepreneurs.  As Brazil develops as a major economic and political world power, both the UK and Brazil are committed to further developing a long term strategic relationship that will deliver mutual benefits and create new opportunities to strengthen relationships between the two nations.”

The full press release is here.

One of the biggest complaints I hear from ordinary Brazilians is that foreigners associate Brazil with the same old stereotypical images. They blame the foreign press for selling those images abroad.

– Gringos think Brazil is either favelas, beaches or jungle.

– Gringos think all Brazilian women are sex maniacs in tiny bikinis.

– Gringos think everyone here spends their days playing football, dancing samba or lying on the beach.

I hardly need stress that those are grotesque cliches.

But it’s not the foreign press that perpetuate those stereotypes. It’s Brazilians themselves. In fact, Brazil makes a point of selling those images overseas.

The best example of that came in the Olympic closing ceremony, where Brazil was represented, and not unfairly, by a samba-ing bin man and dancing indians. The background was the promenade at Copacabana beach. Pele appeared.

I tweeted this at the time:

Nunca mais quero ouvir Brasileiro reclamando que gringo acha que Brazil ‘e so samba e carnaval e indio…

and got a huge response from Brazilians who seemed to agree.

(The tweet says: “I never again want to hear Brazilians complaining that gringos think Brazil is all about samba and carnival and indians.”)

Further cliches abound in a song released this week to celebrate Rio de Janeiro taking the Olympic mantle from London.

The song is called Os Deuses do Olimpo Visitam o Rio de Janeiro, or The Olympic Gods Visit Rio de Janeiro. It features many of the city’s best known musicians and some of its most famous personalities. (Although curiously, there are no sportsmen or women involved.)

The video is great, with amazing pictures of the city.

The problem is that it’s full of the same old cliches Brazilians say they hate. Samba. Favelas. Beaches. Christ the Redeemer. Football.

They chorus is even that tiresome phrase: Rio de Janeiro continua lindo, or Rio de Janeiro is still beautiful.

The point I want to make here is not that these cliches are untrue. Like all cliches, they have their roots in reality.

The point is that Brazilians can’t have it all ways. You either come up with some new ways to sell the city and the country or you accept that people are going to associate Brazil with samba, beaches, scantily clad dancers and kids playing football in favelas.

Personally, I think the strategy makes total sense. I don’t see the problem with concentrating on your strengths.

Rio’s favelas are iconic. The country’s football players are the best in the world. The beaches are beautiful. Samba and carnival are both spectacular and seductive. Christ and Sugarloaf are unbeatable postcard images. And who doesn’t find Brazilian women charming and attractive?

Enjoy these things, they are what make Brazil so unique.

Just relax and let the world will enjoy them too. And don’t blame me if gringos can’t see past them.

A few months ago I started doing the occasional piece for an Indian blog called Mahindra Rise.

To be honest, I didn’t pay much attention to what it was. The editor was the son of a friend and I was happy to write stories for him.

The important thing was that the subject matter interested me, writing about people or products or anything else loosely related to the term Rise.

I took it as a way to write about worthy issues in Brazil that would be a hard sell elsewhere.

I’ve done three pieces for them so far. The third came out last week and is about Valdenor Freitas, a lovely little guy who has built up a nice business for himself on the outskirts of São Paulo.

Freitas (pictured, right) is a hard worker but without small loans he wouldn’t have been able to build up his café-bar business and then open a small supermarket.

I got an email this morning telling me that the Mahindra Rise just won the Best Blog of the year award at the Web Advertising and Technology Awards ceremony, which aims to “recognize and felicitate agencies and professionals who have achieved ground breaking work in the Indian digital space.”

So congratulations to them and all the RISE writers. Follow RISE on twitter at @ MahindraRise.

If you have any interesting suggestions for blog topics in Brazil, please drop me a line. Contact information is above.

The son of an old correspondent friend asked me if I would write stories for a blog he was editing for India’s Mahindra group.

The blog is entitled RISE and it features stories from around the world grouped around that broad theme.

My first piece from Brazil was this one, about the recycling project organized by the Light electricity company in one of Rio’s most iconic favelas.

It’s a topic I am passionate about and am already working on my next piece, about a Northeastern immigrant to São Paulo who has built up his own business with the help of small loans.

It’s an inspiring tale and with credit more readily available it is one that is not as rare here as it was a few years ago.

If you are in Brazil and think you have any good examples that would fit under the theme RISE then drop me a line with the details at:

Brazil is one of the world leaders in recycling.

In plastic bottles, for example, only Japan recycles more than Brazil.

In aluminium, too, Brazil is out in front. Brazilians reuse 96.5 percent of all cans sold, a number far superior to Europe’s 62 percent or the United States’s 54 percent.

In solid plastics, Brazil is the fourth largest recycler in the world and in glass bottles it is fifth. In steel cans, it is third behind Belgium and Sweden.

Unfortunately, much of that recycling is not done by people picking through rubbish. It is not always carried out on an industrial scale and house to house collection is not common.

There are a few companies trying to change that. Coelce, the power company in Fortaleza, is one of them. There, more than 300,000 people hand over paper, glass, cooking oil and a host of other products in return for money off their electricity bill.

The model is such a success that Light, the Rio de Janeiro power utility, is aiming to reproduce it, starting in the city’s favelas, as I explain here in a recent Financial Times story.

Some 68 of Rio’s close to 1000 favelas have been pacified in recent years and Light’s project is part of that process that attempts to bring a certain normality to these areas.  As I write in the story:

A pilot progam run by Rio’s electricity company Light started last week in the Santa Marta favela. Police entered the favela at the end of 2008 and expelled the armed drug traffickers who controlled the area. The 6,000 residents now live in relative peace under the command of community police officers.

“You don’t see drugs and guns any more but you do see lots of rubbish,” said Fernanda Mayrink, Light’s community outreach officer.

“This project encourages recycling within the company’s concession area and at the same time contributes to sustainable development and the consumer’s pocket. Light wins, the customer wins (and) the environment wins.”

Good luck to them. More such projects would result in more win-win situations.


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.

I’ve always liked going into favelas just because they are so different. (See my piece in yesterday’s Financial Times blog about the new Santander bank that just opened in a Rio favela.)

When I first came to Brazil back in 1999 it still wasn’t too dangerous to walk into most favelas unannounced. For years I gave weekly chess lessons to kids in the Cidade de Deus favela, made famous in the film City of God.

It was hairy at times – once we were forced to spend an hour flat out on the floor as a gun battle raged outside – but after a few months I became known and the locals (i.e. the traffickers who controlled the place) let me in with no hassles.

Today it would be madness to walk into a favela without a local friend or a member of the residents’ association. (One Spanish colleague who tried last year was beaten and narrowly survived getting executed, as he recounts here in this story in La Nacion.)

In Rio, slowly but surely, things are getting better with the UPPs and favelas are becoming more and more like regular communities.

One of the reasons is the overall rise in living standards. Companies are realising the people there have money and are opening businesses.

It’s easy to imagine that favelas are just poverty but most people there have televisions, CD players, fridges and even washing machines, according to recent data.

Now, companies like McDonalds, Bobs, Deplá, Casas Bahia and other multinationals are opening branches in favelas or poor communities to take advantage of that general rise in well-being.

Since President Lula took office in 2003, some 24 million Brazilians have been sprung from absolute poverty and 31 million have progressed into the middle class, according to the government’s own figures.

One of the latest is Santander, which opened a bank in the Complexo de Alemão favela in Rio recently, in partnership with Afroreggae. (I also wrote about it here last month in my Monocle story.)

The Spanish bank is one of several firms looking to the future. The Complexo de Alemão branch is small, but it is a seed.

The people I spoke with at Santander were quite clear. This is a test. If it goes well, more favelas will have their own banks.

“We can’t leave these people outside the market,” Eduardo Campos, Santander’s regional superintendent, told me. “I won’t say we don’t have plans for other areas, but we want to learn here first before expanding into other communities. We know the size, the national potential.”

As I’ve talked about in previous posts, I’ve been doing a lot for Monocle magazine recently. My latest piece is here for their Monocolumn, the magazine’s daily postcard from somewhere in the world.

I wrote on São Paulo and the almost biblical rains that have pounded the city over the last few months.

The statistics tell their own story. The second half of 2009 was the rainiest six-month period in the city’s history. The months of January and December were second and third on the rainiest month list, drowned out only by December 1947. Rainfall in December was 77 % above the monthly average; rainfall in January was 87 % above the norm. It has rained in São Paulo on every one of the last 47 days.

The reasons are both natural and man-made. El Niño has warmed waters in the Pacific, and warmer waters are also circulating on the Atlantic side of the country. That has increased humidity. Warm fronts of humid air from Amazonia are also a factor.

And even more than most big cities, São Paulo is concretesville. It never ceases to amaze me how Brazilian architects have taken the greenest country on the planet and made it grey, Oscar Niemeyer being the biggest culprit among them (but more on that another time).

In São Paulo, there are few trees and fewer lawns. Plants can absorb up to 20 percent of rainfall, easing the burden on the drainage systems. In Sampa, the water falls on concrete and runs into drains that are often clogged and into rivers that can’t cope.

Even the marginals Tietê and Pinheiros, the vast rivers turned fetid canals that split great swathes of the city have burst their banks, flooding railways and roads and leaving commuters stranded.

My story concentrates on Jardim Romano, a poor neighbourhood in the far north of the city, parts of which have been under water for two months. These brilliant photos from the Estado de São Paulo newspaper blog  are worth many thousands of words.

Maria Teresa Leal of COOPA-ROCA (courtesy Marcos Pinto)

The Christian Science Monitor newspaper has a great section on its web site called People Making a Difference. It features – funnily enough – people who make a difference.

They can be crusading Thai human rights workers, former African models building orphanages in Liberia, or Haitians running education programs in rural slums. In short, anyone doing good.

I wrote this piece for this week’s paper about Maria Teresa Leal and COOPA-ROCA, the seamstresses cooperative based in the Rio favela of Rocinha.

I’ve known Leal for years and written about her many times, first for the Scotland on Sunday back at the turn of the decade and then here for the Monitor in 2001, amongst others. Some of these pieces can be found on the COOPA-ROCA web site.

Some hard core elements in US journalism say journalists shouldn’t become too friendly with their sources and I agree – if you’re covering those source on a daily basis. But as a correspondent, my relationship with sources is more intermittent and more informal and I consider Leal a close friend.

When you arrive alone in a new country it is hard to meet new people and one of the best ways is through work. I wrote about Tete, as everyone calls her, after hearing of her project in the favela and we became friends.

I always take the opportunity to write about her and COOPA-ROCA, which helps poor and disadvantaged women in one of Rio’s largest shanties, because I think it is worthy. I’ll write a short piece on them for Monocle magazine in the coming weeks.

Leal has made a huge difference to the lives of many people in Rocinha, both financially and psychologically. Many of the women told me they feel much more confident and assured because they have real jobs, with real responsibilities and real salaries. They can work from home, and thus take care of their kids, and because it is piece work, they can set their own pace.

I can’t find a specific page for the People Making a Difference section but the stories come up if you put PMAD into the search box at the Monitor website.

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