Southern Brazil: Glimpsing the Future as Well as the Past

Written by M. Glantz. Posted in All Fragilecologies

Published on October 09, 2009 with No Comments

Fragilecologies Archives
25 June 1997

pen2I had the good fortune a few weeks ago to be invited to a conference sponsored by the Brazilian government on the monitoring of natural and people-induced changes in their numerous national parks. The conference was held in Foz do Iguassu, in the southern part of the country where Brazil meets Argentina and Paraguay. The area is known for its waterfalls, 270 of which make up Iguassu Falls.

I had heard about the falls ever since junior high and had always wanted to visit them. I had all kinds of images of the region in my mind: tropical jungle, dirt roads washed out by heavy rains, hot and humid, mosquitoes, etc. Maybe that was the way it was when I first read about the falls in the 1950s, but it sure isn’t like that today. The roads are excellent. The national park is well-protected from surrounding development and construction. There are five-star hotels and cable TV, bringing CNN into your room all day long! And the Brazilian city of Foz do Iguassu now has almost 300,000 inhabitants. Nevertheless, a visit to Iguassu Park does give a visitor a glimpse of the way things used to be in the tropical rainforest surrounding the Falls.

I got a chance to see the falls from the Argentinean side (a much more spectacular view early in the day because of the way the sunlight hits the Falls and their spray), as well as from the Brazilian side. To do this, you must take a boat out to a walkway that is several feet above the river. The walkway takes you to the edge of the Falls and requires that you wear a plastic raincoat. Unprepared visitors find that their clothes are saturated in just a few minutes.

The sound of the crashing water at the base of the Falls is almost deafening. Most people tend to see water as soft and rock as hard. Yet, at the base of the Falls the force of the water eventually wears down the rocks. In Brazils wintertime (our summertime), there are fewer tourists, and one can be alone on the walkways and vantage points that encircle the Falls and Iguassu National Park. One can get a glimpse of the past, of what it might have been like centuries ago before colonizers discovered the Falls — Falls that local inhabitants had known about and enjoyed for centuries. In the local language Iguassu mean Singing Stones, in reference to the rhythmic noise of the flow of water over the Falls.

In fact, a visit to the region gives one the opportunity to see two opposing extremes of human interactions with Nature. At one extreme are the sites associated with the Falls and the river that feeds them. The other extreme is represented by the nearby Paraguayan city of Ciudad del Este. This city represents (to me) the end result of uncontrolled commercialism and destruction of the natural environment. Those visiting this city can evaluate for themselves whether it was worth the sacrifice of the natural environment for the creation of such an eyesore.

I have heard that there are beautiful parts of Paraguay, but there are terrible parts as well. I believe that Ciudad del Este is clearly one of these. It is a duty-free haven serving southern Brazil and Argentina; in fact, the whole of Paraguay is a duty-free zone. This means that goods can be bought at prices much lower than they can be bought in either Argentina or Brazil. Whatever vegetation or forest had existed has been decimated so that people from other parts of the world can sell their plastic Barbie dolls, sneakers, Walkmans, TVs, cosmetics, pharmaceuticals, etc, at very cheap prices.

In this relatively new town (founded in the late 1950s) on the Paraguay side of the Friendship Bridge with Brazil (it used to be called the Stroessner Bridge until a few years ago, named after Paraguay’s former dictator), there are thousands of shops, stores, and sidewalk stalls selling just about everything imaginable.

It was the filthiest town I have ever seen — and I’ve seen a lot of towns around the globe. Garbage (mostly discarded packing material), plastic bags of all colors and sizes, and beer cans were everywhere (I even felt compelled to take photos of it). Dark-colored plastic bags were visible floating downstream in the swift current of the mighty Parana River, one of the world’s biggest rivers. (Later I was told that the big plastic bags floating in the river had carried cigarettes or other smuggled goods and that the bags had been thrown into the river from the bridge. People downstream would recapture the bag of goodies, tossing away the bags).

The smell of urine, garbage, and car exhaust permeated the air, almost to a choking extent. Traffic on the bridge was so bad that cars and buses and vans could only crawl across the bridge, which aggravated the build-up of noxious fumes. Brazilian taxi drivers suggest (no, insist) that you walk across the bridge. Just keep walking, they said. Don’t show any hesitation and don’t offer to show your passport to border guards, unless they ask for it.

The pace by foot across the bridge was rapid, but it was very crowded. Anyone who was in a hurry (which seemed like just about everyone) had to weave around slower people. Even walking fast, and making all the right weaving moves, it took about 20 minutes to cross the lengthy bridge.

I crossed into Paraguay and back into Brazil without anyone asking me for an ID. This was quite unusual for an international border crossing!! For their part, the police were busy inspecting cars and vans for hidden cargo and for a chance to confiscate vehicles or tax their cargo.

Cuidad del Este left me with the feeling that I had seen the future (or so a pessimist might think). Humans (and their societies) seem to have insatiable appetites for most material goods, unlike other living beings that tend to consume only what they need in order to survive.

Ciudad del Este represents a tendency by societies (and humans) to destroy nature for the sake of a few bucks — and it is not necessarily the locals who benefit from those few bucks. Many of the traders there are from the Middle or Far East. For example, there is a cable channel that broadcasts only in Arabic, and the town is alleged to have the largest Arabic population in all of South America.

The Brazilian city of Iguassu Falls can be said to represent the other end of the time continuum. It is protected by society and remains a pristine, beautiful, and serene nature park. In a way, it represents where we came from hundreds of years ago, while Ciudad del Este represents where we could be going decades in the future, if we do not pay attention to the adverse aspects of the uncontrolled, gross commercialization that is taking place in societies everywhere.

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