Also available in: Portuguese
All photos by Gregoire Gauthier and Satoshi Ogita
Marcos Ribeiro almost has tears in his eyes, as he explains the huge opportunities he sees for modern, ecologically mindful agriculture to us, a visiting World Bank team. The young tropical fruit producer is standing in front of his small farm, some 15 km outside of Palmas, the capital of Tocantins, Brazil’s youngest state.
“We are within 20min by truck from a city with 250,000 people, some 20km from the airport, and around 800km from the large consumer market in Brasilia. We have water and sunshine all year round. All we need is the irrigation pumps to be repaired and we can earn returns of 40 percent on our investment”, says Marcos.
Marcos and several other producers have revitalized the water user association, they are ready to sign a contract with the state, which owns the irrigation infrastructure, and pay a user fee to recover investment and operation and maintenance costs. They are even thinking about taking out a credit to fund the installation of solar panels to substitute expensive power from the grid to run the pumps.
The repair of the pumps is one of the investments funded under the Tocantins Integrated Regional Development (TIRD) project, a 300m USD loan to government of the state. The multi-sector project is built around the importance of connectivity for economic development. Its main component funds the rehabilitation of state level and rural access roads, concentrating on linking the western part of this state the size of Germany with its main north-south axis.
Tocantins is at the heart of the new agricultural frontier in Brazil. Soy beans, maize and cattle ranching are its main products. A railway concession, operated by an integrated logistics company majority owned by mining giant Vale, receives around 6 million tons of grains at two giant railway terminals in the center of the state and ships them to its proprietary port terminal in Sao Luis, some 1000km to the North.
The North-South railway is expected to soon operate all the way from Anapolis, close to Brasilia, and large scale investments are planned in Tocantins to build the state’s meat processing capacity and install cool storage facilities along the railway terminals. The TIRD’s technical assistance component helps the state in planning its logistical needs.
Yet connectivity has its costs. Along the main North-South corridor, teenage prostitution has spread with the growing truck traffic. I ask the director of a secondary school in a small town along the main axis about this. Initially I get an evasive response. But then we talk about drop-out rates in grades 9 and 10, the second and third year of lower secondary, and she admits that while boys drop out to take jobs on the farms or wash trucks along the highway (and some because of drugs), some girls leave school for quick money in prostitution, sometimes forced by their own parents.
The TIRD finances the rehabilitation of six pilot secondary schools along the highway, together with teacher training and the introduction of the full school day. The idea is that a cleaner and nicer environment with better trained teachers could encourage more kids to keep studying, while special training for teachers may help them deal better with prostitution, drugs and other challenges that connectivity has brought.
The school director believes her freshly renovated school will record significant improvements in learning outcomes and this will attract more students and even perhaps some past drop-outs.
No easy solutions exist some 300km further West, on the Bananal island, the world’s largest river island, stretching some 130km North to South along the Araguaia river. Around two-thirds of the island has been designated as indigenous territory and is home to several thousand indigenous peoples of the Karajá, Javaé and Krahô-Kanela tribes. We visit two villages, each with around 1000 inhabitants.
After a lengthy process of public consultations, the villagers have identified the 30km dirt road connecting the two as priority for investment under the TIRD. The road is used for villagers to visit each other and to reach the ferry that takes them over to the nearest town opposite the southern end of the island.
Traditionally, the main mode of transport was by boat and during the rainy season this is the only option. The villagers want to raise the road and put a gravel cover over it to make it passable even when the water is high.
We think the economic rationale remains a little dubious. The cost of the required investment would be high and when we visited the road was dry and yet we saw virtually no traffic. But there may be a non-economic rationale, no less important perhaps. These indigenous groups are no longer isolated. They interact with and are exposed to the modern economy, cell phones and all. During our visit we learn of frighteningly large suicide rates among adolescents in the community.
While the reasons are not well understood, the village leaders explain that for the young the biggest challenge is to be connected to the modern world and yet feel isolated from and discriminated by it at the same time. An all-year passable road may reduce this tension somewhat. Connectivity in the sense of not being forgotten.
Another type of connectivity is of little interest to the indigenous people, but all the more to the large soy producers on the other side of the Araguaia river, in Mato Grosso: they would like a road to be built across the Bananal island to get faster access to the North-South railroad and from there to the export markets of Europe and Asia. The village chiefs want to hear nothing about this. Connectivity should be for the local people. A transit road will just bring more problems.
The TIRD project will not be able to resolved this conflict. But it is clear that Brazil needs both: connectivity to global markets to make the country more competitive, and policies to ensure this does not come at the cost of the environment and creates real benefits for local communities. TIRD is an attempt to start thinking about this in an integrated way. A project that raises questions as well as providing answers. And this process of learning together is what our work in middle income countries is all about.