Think of a big multicultural country in the southern hemisphere that has beautiful beaches, a love of sport, a historic rivalry between its two biggest cities and an artificially created inland capital. Toss in that it is a global heavyweight in mining and agriculture. Hands up if you said Brazil and not Australia?
It is a little known fact that the first fleet of Captain Arthur Phillip stopped in Rio de Janeiro in December 1787, to pick up supplies and water, before heading to Cape Town and on to Sydney Cove. So from the earliest European colonisation Australia has had a link with Brazil.
Like Australia, Brazil is a country of superlatives and contrasts. It is slightly bigger than Australia and has a variety of climates across its enormous length and breadth. But it has two things in abundance compared with Australia - people and water. Greater São Paulo alone has more people than the whole of Australia, and the country is blessed with year round reliable rainfall that guarantees optimum conditions for agriculture.
Of the four “BRIC” (Brazil, Russia, India and China) economies of the rapidly-developing world, Brazil now ranks second only to China in GDP and has the world’s fifth largest population and the 10th largest economy, bigger than that of India.
It has experienced impressive growth over recent years on the back of its strength in mining and agriculture. It is home to the world’s biggest iron ore producing and exporting company, Vale, and is also number one for sugar cane, orange juice, coffee and ethanol (all new cars in Brazil can run on ethanol based fuel). Apart from its commodity wealth, it has the world’s third largest aircraft manufacturer, Embraer, behind only Boeing and Airbus. That Virgin Blue plane you flew in recently might have been one of them.
Brazil is also Australia’s biggest export destination in Latin America, and 22nd most important in the world, with $1.57 billion worth of exports in 2008, up an impressive 81 per cent on the year before. This is largely due to Brazil’s voracious appetite for Australian coal for its steel industry.
Australian imports from Brazil also grew 36 per cent last year and are as diverse as the Embraer planes to animal feed and civil engineering equipment. Diverse is a key word for Brazil - it not only describes the myriad and colours and cultures that you will find, but also describes its economy, because it is not only a commodities giant but an industrial powerhouse too.
In the last year, the Australian Trade Commission (Austrade) has helped more than 150 companies to sell or invest in Brazil. One of the great successes has been the promotion of Australian education to Brazilian students, as they usually return to be our greatest ambassadors.
There are about 20,000 Brazilians studying in Australia at the moment, and while it’s true that some of them are there as much for the surfing as to improve their English or undertake higher education, the impact they are having in breaking down what is often been referred to as the “mutual unawareness” barrier between Brazil and Australia is impressive. Almost every conversation I have with a Brazilian here involves a story about how their child, nephew, cousin or sister studied or is studying in Australia.
Brazil is not just another country in Latin America. In fact, Brazil is really not much like it’s neighbours at all. While it is true that there is a certain cultural similarity between Latin Americans, Brazilians see their roots and ties as being mostly European (Italian, German, Portuguese) or African.
Brazilians have always been considered carefree and spontaneous - Charles DeGaulle once famously declared that “Brazil is not a serious country” - but this is something of a stereotype from another era. Today Brazil is a dynamic country that increasingly looks outward and seeks to be a regional power. Fortunately the positive characteristics of “Brazilianness” described by Joseph Page in his excellent book The Brazilians are still alive and well - resourceful, friendly and free-spirited spring to mind.
With an enormous domestic market of 192 million people it is this market - not the export market - that is catered to. Most hotels are not of international standard -though you pay as if they were - so expect a simple pousada on the beach for your reals, not a glamorous resort. Foreigners are often surprised to see how easily Brazilians accept these high prices and interest rates, which are beyond the realm of what we consider reasonable. But since you can’t change it, you learn to accept it and your stress levels will start to go down.
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