Acre, the Amazon state Brazil should pay more attention to

By Alec Herron

“What you think there in Rio de Janeiro about us isn’t true. Acre is not just insects, Indians and crocodiles. Brazil isn’t Rio de Janeiro and the south, we deserve media coverage…” I feel for my Carioca buddy Fernando as a tirade of injustices are thrown at him from an indignant journalism student at the Federal University of Acre, where we’ve been invited to speak about our two-week reporting trip. Forced into a corner for a concession of arrogance on behalf of the Brazil’s Rio and São Paulo-based media, Fernando’s earache reminds me of the internal prejudices that can beset a country, particular one as large as Brazil.

mapadoacre

(Acre was annexed from Bolivia in 1903 and remains a mystery to most Brazilians.)

A stab in a university drinking chant was the extent to my knowledge of Acre – “O maior do norte tem que respeitar, Federal do Amapá….Chupa Acre!” – ‘The giant of the north you must respect, Federal District of Amapá…suck it Acre!’. I asked friends but they added little beyond speculation of what lies in Brazil’s most underreported region. Some jokingly doubted the state’s very existence. I’d never been to Salvador, Brasilia or Manaus, but could give a vague description of each city from what I’d gathered in the Brazilian media. About Acre, I couldn’t say one thing. A state 20,000 km² bigger than England and I knew nothing about it.

(The hymns were stuck in my head for days.)

We don’t leave the city borders of Rio Branco – capital of Acre and home to half the state population – before we arrive to the House of Jesus Source of Light, a Santo Daime church. Santo Daime integrates Christian rituals with the drinking of ayahuasca or ‘Daime’, a liquid drug of hallucinogenic effect made from the fermentation of selected Amazon plants.

The clothing strikes me first: somewhere between sailor and Italian chef, with Christian symbolism crayoned on. A man with pungent breath leaves the congression to welcome us and with slow-spoken introduction.  We ask permission, but are requested not to film, record audio or take pictures – Globo had filmed a Daime community covertly in recent years and left church leaders cautious of outside interpretation.

We slide into the back of the congreastion, unnoticed by our discretion or the deep concentration of the laity eyes closed singing the hymns de Mattos wrote through years of isolation, drinking Daime in the Acre Amazon forest. Several members are in tears, the sound of vomiting outside interrupts occasionally and nobody makes eye contact. Yet, among the calming tone of the music I begin to relax and eventually forget the people I’m sat among are wired. The strangest element becomes the several small children wandering into the hall from the courtyard to tell their parents they’re bored and want to go home.

The evening ends with an interpretive dance around the ‘mast’ of the replica ship constructed in the courtyard and we’re suddenly taken notice of standing aside. The staring, though not purposefully unwelcoming, makes me a little uncomfortable and we head home.

(Now closed, the migrant shelter in Brasileia faced inhumane living conditions and local animosity)

We wake up at 5 am to make the scenic three-hour drive to Brasileia, a town on the border with Bolivia and the recipient of 20,000 Haitian migrants since the earthquake of 2010. I’m struck by the stories of compassionate residents opening their homes to the new arrivals while they await work documentation, but disappointed at the apathetic rhetoric on social media towards the cost of maintaining the undignifying shelter in which the migrants squat 1000 over capacity.

Land access to the rest of the country is blocked by the flooding of the one motorway in and out of the state. The numbers in the shelter are at crisis level and I’m swamped with requests for medical aid and explanations for why a boat can’t be mustered to carry them cross the overflowing river – the shelter community has assumed I’m from an NGO; there hasn’t been one visiting for a while.

gameleira

(Rio Branco’s Gameleira – scene of the salty crime.)

At the Gameleira, Rio Branco’s riverfront promenade of colonial-style architecture (actually built in the 1960s), we’re introduced to the Copo Sujo – the Dirty Cup: a half-glass of squeezed lemon topped with lager, then salt wiped generously around the rim. The sensation is that of taking a gulp of sea water, though I struggle through the experience determined not to offend the curious looks from adjacent tables. The following Sunday at a Samba party, I catch a woman eating a pile of pure salt from the palm of her hand.

Downtown Rio Branco is cleaner and safer than most of urban Brazil and much more developed than you would expect of a state with the third lowest GDP in the country (one place above Amapá – suck that!). Shaded market stalls line the clean and maintained Placido de Castro and Cathedral squares selling the tangy Tacacá soup, which is enjoyed under the shade of Amazonian leaves.

(Four documentary makers from Sao Paulo visited Acre to film ‘Acre Exists’.)

For many years, Acre had few mediums of communication with the outside world, or each other. With no comprehensive postal service, Acre’s small riverside and isolated indigenous communities contacted each other by submitting messages to be read on state radio, a practice still in place today. Television didn’t arrive to Acre until the World Cup of 1974 – they’d already missed their country win three world titles.

Perhaps the time lost in staking a claim in the Brazilian national media picture left the state a shadowy unknown in the wider Brazilian conscience. I think Brazil is missing out on something very special in its own back garden.

……………………………………………………..

Three weeks earlier and I’m in my first taxi since arriving to my hotel in Lapa, “…the centre of Rio de Janeiro is full of faggots, transvestites and prostitutes” screams the self-righteous taxi driver down our ears while taking us the long way round to our destination. When I tell him of my plan to visit Acre, he roars out a horrendously harsh cackle, “What the fuck are you going to do there? Pah!”. Luckily, we arrive to our destination shortly after.

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Meet international freelancers who aren’t afraid to work in Brazil

Andy Martin

Thinking back I’m not quite sure how my (Brazilian) wife put up with me during the first few months after our move from London to São Paulo. As far as I was concerned there was hardly anything I positive I could take from the experience – apart from the weather. Why was there so much traffic? Why the crippling bureaucracy to sort out my visa? And why the hell were there turnstiles on buses?

Over time though, my apathy for Brazil slowly became begrudging appreciation and later flourished into a passionate love affair (don’t tell my wife). Most importantly, I realised that my problem – and I would hazard to guess it is the same for many ‘gringos’ – was as much about my own struggle to adjust to Brazil as it was about Brazil itself.

Certainly, Brazil is not perfect and yes, there are still many things it needs to get right. And whilst Brazilians might not like it when us foreigners point these things out to them – largely, I guess, because they are often already very much aware of them – we have an important role to play in helping Brazil move forward. Running away from problems, as far as I am aware, has never been a particular constructive way to go about helping to solve them.

Benjie Guy

I only arrived here on the 5th Feb, after a couple of years freelancing at BBC World Service radio in London. As for most people, getting to know Rio has been an incredibly rich and rewarding experience so far. I have thrown myself into the city, trying to do and see as much as possible. Of course I’m sure I have only scratched the surface so far. I’m also enjoying getting to grips with the language, arriving having listened to 8 Pimsleur CDs and had 3 lessons with a friend, I’ve been topping up my vocab while getting to know Cariocas.

I was warned before I came here that while there is much to love, there is much to infuriate. As a result, the wonder that is an incredibly bureaucratic – and at the same time disorganised – city has only caused me to smile. You have to laugh, otherwise you’d cry. That said I’ve had very little to complain about. And I’ve not run into any trouble so far, touch wood. I was warned to exercise caution before I came out, but I’d say it’s more about letting common sense prevail, as with anywhere.

The World Cup was my lure to Brazil, but by no means all I am interested in. It provides a unique opportunity for the country to find out more about itself – with elections looming later in the year – and for journalists to shine a light on a fascinating country at a very important time in its development. The more I find out about the place, the more I want to know, and impart.

Ben Tavener

Reporting the World Cup, and everything that has led up to it, was one of the main reasons I made the move to Brazil three years ago. Each day life here has brought new challenges and new frustrations, but often alongside brighter, sometimes life-changing experiences.

By battling Brazil’s everyday conundrums – bureaucracy, poor infrastructure, high living costs – and talking to people from all walks of life, we can give the outside world a clearer picture of what is really happening here.

Getting a sense of events on the ground has been vital during coverage of the run-up to the World Cup and the Olympics, including the anti-government protests, the pacification of Rio’s favelas, and the real impact of a sputtering economy.

Brazil has an undeniable dark side – one of inequality, violence, corruption – but these complex social injustices form the very powerful narrative that underlines exactly why the story of what remains wrong with Brazil must be told, and told from Brazil.

The build-up to the World Cup has, in many ways, exposed the very worst of Brazil. I hope the event itself will allow Brazil to bring its best. Whatever the story is, we should be here ready to tell it.

 

Beth McLoughlin

I have reported from Brazil before for the UK press and am returning this week to investigate the impact of the World Cup on children, so it was with some interest that I read Mikkel’s story. If I did not believe that journalists have a vital role as agents of change, I would never have chosen to be one. There will always be a conflict between the story the authorities would like you to tell and the reality as you find it. Equally, the truth can sometimes be more complicated than it first appears. That is why societies need professional journalists, and not just social media commentators, to find out what is really going on.

Some situations are undoubtedly difficult to report on for a variety of reasons, but these stories must still be told. Mikkel’s Facebook post (intentionally or not) has added to the debate about Brazil’s social problems generally but I do hope that Brazilians do not interpret it as an outsider taking a superior stance towards them. I believe that we all benefit from cultural exchange and from good journalism, practiced to high professional standards and with integrity.

 

Callum Leahy

As is often the case, my interest in Brazil began with a girl. A couple of years later I now speak Portuguese and have just moved to Belo Horizonte, attempting to bring some on the ground coverage to the English speaking world as the World Cup looms large.

Brazil is a nation of contrasts, of great beauty but hideous in equal measure. One of the worst things that can be said of Mikkel Jensen’s allegations about street children being disappeared in Fortaleza is that no one is surprised.

In a nation where tens of millions live under the yoke of crippling poverty and rampant crime, FIFA and the government would have the world see only the beautiful side of the Brazilian coin and seem to be prepared to violate any sort of human right they can get away with in order to achieve this.

By leaving Brazil and giving up his World Cup tickets Mikkel sent a strong statement and has helped his vitally important story gain nationwide attention. However, had he not been there in the first place, the story might have remained forever untold.

International journalists are a vital tool in giving the world a window on the reality of Brazil’s streets and exposing the misdeeds of FIFA and the government and, if can play some small part in that, being here will have been worth it.

 

Chris Westwood

Drama is the oregano of journalism.

Or so I thought.

It now appears, however, as though drama has been substituted for an idyllic cottage nestled amongst the rolling plains of the Danish Archipelago.

Mikkel Jensen’s decision to leave Brazil left me baffled. In my young journalistic career, it’s the first time I have heard of a reporter running away from, and not scurrying towards, a story.

Unlike the majority of people invited to contribute to this patchwork, I wasn’t even a journalist when I arrived in Brazil, a little over two years ago.

What changed that, was the complexity of my new home – the passion and the apathy, the promise and the waste, the loyalty and the promiscuity, the joy and the violence. The last thing I want to do now is run away.

Mikkel should come back to Brazil and complete the work he started. But, if he doesn’t, I’ll happily take his tickets.

 

Donna Bowater

For me, the big attraction of moving to Brazil 18 months ago was not covering the World Cup but using it as an opportunity to report on a country that has been historically overlooked and under-reported yet has a fascinating and complex story. It presents a journalistic challenge to break down stereotypical ideas of Brazil and actually tell the stories of Brazilian people, whatever they may be.

Many people have a new curiosity about the country simply as a result of knowing it will host the World Cup and it’s important to capitalise on that to shake up preconceptions. It’s natural that there’s some posturing and make-up to disguise the problems before hosting a mega-event but it’s an integral part of a journalist’s job to hold authorities to account and try to get beyond the superficial.

 

Jill Langlois

Brazil is not an easy place to cover. But when I moved to São Paulo four years ago, I was under no illusion that it would be. I’d heard the horror stories of needing to use the public healthcare system, the beyond-crowded public transportation and the much-hated bureaucracy to get anything done. And I do mean anything. Even coming from Canada, a place where the aforementioned items are not nearly as much of an issue, I knew I could take on Brazil.

No country is perfect, but every country is important. I didn’t come here for a sporting event. The stories of people’s struggles and triumphs in everyday life are what brought me here and what make me want to stay. I’ve covered stories of protest, crack addiction and domestic violence. Everyone should have a voice, and the job of a journalist is to help them speak a little louder.

I would never, nor would any of my colleagues, put anyone in danger for the sake of a story, but sometimes staying silent because of fear is more dangerous than speaking out. Brazil most definitely is not easy, but the things worth doing in life never are.

 

Joe Callaghan

Compared to a lot of the international media working and living in Brazil, I very much feel like I’m fresh off the boat, having arrived at the turn of the year. But I’ve had more than enough time to see the best and the worst of the country.

In lots of ways your first 15 minutes here is enough time for that – the intoxicating best of Brazil and the dispiriting worst can be found on the same street corner. But no country is perfect. If it were it would be a very bland place.

Being a sports journalist can often seem like the easier of the industry to operate in. There’s a reason sportsdesks are known as the toy department in newspapers. Sport isn’t life or death. There are much more important things going on in the world. But right now sport is the very reason the world is looking at Brazil.

And no matter what type of journalist you are, you are here to tell the world the stories of Brazil. Telling good stories is the easy bit, telling bad stories is invariably the much harder part. But both are vitally important, now more than ever. And both are, well, the job. That’s what we sign up for. To borrow a well-worn, kinda cheesy yet pretty apt line from the toy department, we don’t do walking away. At least we’re not supposed to.

 

Kevin Raub

I guess when it comes to cushy topics to report on from Brazil, being a travel journalist based here surely tops the list. I won’t pretend the trials and tribulations of my professional work comes even within a goal kick of some of my colleagues here, having to navigate the police, the politicians, the World Cup host city organizing committees. Me? I might miss a long-distance bus on occasion; or maybe I have to deal the devastation of craving a maracujá caipirinha when all they have is lime; or those days when I get a little sand in my sunga (I’m kidding. I wouldn’t be caught dead in a sunga!), so life is pretty good considering.

Six years in, Brazil’s raw beauty never ceases to amaze me as I scour the land for Lonely Planet Brazil travel guidebooks and a host of US and UK travel publications. But regardless of why you are here or what you are reporting on, Brazil is no smooth ride. The high cost of living, crippling bureaucracy and the often daunting task of getting the simplest things done on a daily basis can be paralyzing to the point of wanting to tuck yourself away at home, never to be heard from again. Another Brazil-based journalist once told me the story of a friend who said, “You leave the house and the battles begin.” I can’t disagree.

But then I do leave the house and Brazil rewards: It could be something as simple as refreshing agua de coco on the beach or the right ice-cold chopp at the right boteco or as grand as discovering that Brazil really does have a strikingly beautiful wine country in Vale dos Vinhedos or taking in the otherworldly views from the mirante overlooking Dois Irmãos in Fernando de Noronha. Brazil may not be the easiest, but no sooner after beginning to contemplate leaving, the saudades set in with the heaviness of a heart attack. One day I’ll go – and I’ll miss it so.

 

Lise Alves

I arrived in Brazil in 1989, and have covered news since Eco-92. Back then there were reports of busses in the middle of the night gathering the homeless from Rio’s streets and dropping them off far away so that foreign tourists would not see them during the conference.

There have always been social problems in Brazil, but that is expected from a country this large, whose public officials were never really taught how make long-term future plans. Foreign correspondents show the contrast between the first-world Brazil and the third-world Brazil, and with their stories pressure officials to take action and improve the lives of those who need it most. Media outlets (foreign or local) give these people a voice to express their concerns.

The government will always try to sugarcoat problems, and it is up to journalists to distinguish between long-lasting policies and ‘cheap make-up’ and report what is actually happening. Not covering an event will not make it go away. We are not ‘part’ of the conspiracy and it is not for our benefit the ‘show’ is on.

 

Lucy Jordan

I’m a British freelancer living in Brasilia since May 2012. Brazil is a wonderful country that, like all countries, has its problems. Undeniably, we reporters in Brazil see, daily, stories of heart-breaking poverty, of corrupted power, of services that are inadequate to help those who desperately need them and officials who seem to shrug their shoulders in response.

What is clear is that those stories need voices to tell them. Isn’t reporting that kind of thing what we’re here for? If reporters left a country every time they saw something unsavoury, we’d have nothing but puff pieces and PR releases left to read.

The story related by Mikkel Jenson, that street kids are being killed to clean up for FIFA, is an extraordinary one. Is it plausible? Perhaps. We know from experience that where poverty and extreme inequality exist, children are always at risk. But we can only be skeptical, until another reporter goes to Fortaleza and does a thorough job of reporting and fact-checking the story. What we do know is that, whatever problems the World Cup brings – the over-spending, the evictions, the corruption – it also offers a period of intense international scrutiny that offers a perfect opportunity for getting stories like this out into the light.

 

Sam Cowie

Reporting from Brazil is not for the faint hearted. Mikkel’s gripes about Brazil and the World Cup are well founded. It’s unfortunate for him that he wasn’t able to take the pressure and had to return home- for that, he doesn’t deserve to be ridiculed.

But why are his Facebook posts being paraded around in certain sections of the Brazilian press as if he is a world renowned expert, as opposed to an amateur freelancer?

It’s as if Mikkel, from Denmark, is some kind of spokesman from a more civilized society.

While I doubt Mikkel himself has much of an ulterior motive, it seems that his story- the young honest, hardworking boy, whose dreams were shattered upon arriving in Brazil and seeing the shocking inequality, is merely being used to advance the omnipresent ‘Ó que vergonha Brasil’ narrative.

We live in times of dubious, unreliable and opportunistic viral internet campaigns- from Kony 2012 to Don’t go to the World Cup! to #SOSVenezuela!.

It’s unfortunate that this episode may smear young MikkeI’s career. Where will he be in 6 months? Probably long forgotten for the latest Facebook craze.

If you are an international freelancer who isn’t afraid to work in Brazil, send your story to savarese.mauricio@gmail.com.

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