The relationship between the Brazilian city of Manaus and the English football team didn’t get off to a great start. Before the World Cup draw in December last year, England manager Roy Hodgson said he wouldn’t want to play in Manaus because of the extremely hot and humid climate. In response, the city’s mayor Arthur Virgilio Neto said he also did not want the England players in town because he would prefer a “better team … with a more sensitive, cultured and educated coach”.
But, as luck would have it, England’s debut match will be played in Manaus, against Italy. Maybe it is an opportunity for the coach and the Mayor to make peace. Or, at least, for Manaus and England to get to know each other better.
The Paris of the tropics
Manaus sits 900 miles from the Atlantic, deep in the rainforest, at the point where the Rio Negro (“Black River”) and the Rio Solimões meet each other to become one: the big Amazon river. This city of almost 2m people exists because of a fort built by the Portuguese colonists on the edge of the Rio Negro in 1669. The city became known as the “Paris of the Tropics” in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when the region’s rubber industry was booming. Pictures from this period show off its wealth, with local traders dressed in French fashion, despite the local heat, and smoking cigars made with dollar bills.
But the power of this local elite would not last long: in 1910, Brazilian production began to suffer competition from cheaper and more efficient rubber extracted from trees planted by the British in Malaya and Sri Lanka.
To pull the region out of its post-rubber economic stagnation, Brazil’s then military dictatorship established the Manaus Free Economic Zone in 1967. Tax exemptions have made the city a centre for big industry. It’s now home to about 600 factories, many of them multinationals, which together generate half a million jobs directly or indirectly.
In principle, these exemptions should have ended in 1997. But they have already been extended twice by the Brazilian National Congress: earlier, until 2013, then for another ten years (until 2023). Politicians are now considering a proposal for a constitutional amendment that would ensure the zone lasts until 2073. It was approved this month in Brazil’s lower house, but the amendment still needs to pass the scrutiny of the Senate.
Unsustainable and unhealthy
Lobbyists for maintaining the economic zone say Manaus' industrial activity actually helps to preserve the Amazon rainforest by concentrating investments and workers in the city, and not the surrounding forest. This idea was emphasised by Brazil’s president Dilma Rousseff this February in Brussels, when she criticised the European Union for challenging the tax advantages granted to the city.
But the truth is Manaus is far from sustainable, and the emphasis that gets placed on how it protects the rainforest detracts from the poor development the free trade zone has encouraged. This is seen most starkly with the gulf between rich and poor. The Human Development Index of neighbourhoods in the city ranges from 0.660 (approaching the values found in Bolivia) to 0.941 (equivalent to table-topping, Norwegian standards).
Official data shows that 15% of Manaus' 1.8 million residents lived in “subnormal agglomerations” – the Brazilian government’s official definition of slums with at least 50 dwellers. This greatly surpasses the national average of 6%.
The rapid population growth promoted by the zone was not accompanied by the necessary investments in sanitation. Lack of clean water is a topic that always tends to dominate local election debates: one in four houses in Manaus does not have access to running water, despite being located in the largest watershed on the planet.
The sewerage system is even worse: the existing infrastructure is 100 years old, built by the British during the rubber boom years when Manaus had 100,000 inhabitants. Today, the system can meet the demands of less than 10% of the population. Another 60% have built septic tanks in their homes and buildings. The remaining 30% simply dump their waste directly on the street or in small rivers known as igarapés that have managed to survive the urban policy that has largely blocked natural water drainage.
English tourists, therefore, should not be surprised if they see protests in the streets of Manaus during the World Cup. They do not signify a negative reaction to the arrival of foreign visitors: the inhabitants of the Amazonas State are famous for their hospitality. But people there still have much to fight for, before their rights are guaranteed.