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PORTUGAL: Brazilian Families Resettle the Heartland

Mario de Queiroz

LISBON, May 18 2006 (IPS) - Four Brazilian families came to live in Portugal this month, as the advance party of another 250 families intent on fulfilling their European dream, and at the same time to stem the depopulation of rural areas in this country.

They arrived exhausted by the long journey from the city of Maringá, in the southern Brazilian state of Paraná. But this did not prevent them expressing optimism at the start of their new life in Vila de Rei, a remote municipality in the Beira Baixa region, in central-eastern Portugal.

Five centuries after the ships commanded by Portuguese admiral Pedro Álvares Cabral dropped anchor on Apr. 22, 1500 in the estuary where he founded Porto Seguro, on the lush coast he named Terras de Vera Cruz (Lands of the True Cross) – later Santa Cruz and ultimately Brazil û , migration is beginning to flow in reverse.

The mission of those who have come to re-settle the “scorched land” is to bring new life to Vila de Rei, about 300 kilometres from Lisbon, where the number of deaths has outstripped births since 1981.

They will begin by settling in the village of São João de Peso, as part of a unique initiative launched by the mayor of Vila de Rei, Irene Barata, which has the unanimous support of all of the parties represented in Portugal’s single-chamber parliament.

Maringá, a tropical city with a population of 500,000, and Vila de Rei, where 3,250 people live in 90 villages and scattered houses, have a common history.

In the 1940s and 1950s, many Portuguese emigrated to Brazil because of tough economic conditions in their country, including the poorest inhabitants of Vila de Rei, who moved to Maringá and prospered there.

During the 20th century, and especially between 1940 and 1985, large numbers of Portuguese emigrants flowed into Brazil, the United States, South Africa, France, Venezuela and Germany.

With the reversal of direction of the migration flows, and because of the historical twinning of their towns, Brazilians, like the 15 members of the Oliveira, Padilla, Ramos, Duarte and Faria families, are now coming to the rescue of Vila de Rei’s future, bringing over from Maringá their willingness to work.

Beira Baixa is known for its goat’s and sheep’s milk cheese, and its wines and sausages. Tourism is an important source of income. But the region is in decline because the population is falling, as young people leave the area in droves.

A lawmaker for the Green Ecologist Party, Isabel de Castro, summed up for IPS the environmental impact experienced in the region over the past two decades, dubbed the “scorched land” phenomenon in reference to the exodus of the population and the huge forest fires that have affected the country since 2003.

The most visible effect “is the loss of biodiversity in both flora and fauna. The impoverishment of the soil has reached the point where more than half the land is threatened with desertification and one-third is seriously eroded. The scenario is one of demographic imbalance, with one-quarter of Portuguese people ‘exiled’ from the rural areas to the cities,” she explained.

These processes have resulted in “close to 25 percent of the rural population moving to coastal areas, where 90 percent of economic activity is concentrated,” de Castro said. “More than two-thirds of the population lives in two metropolitan areas: Lisbon and Oporto (in the north),” she added.

Mayor Barata told the Lusa news agency and reporters from several newspapers that the idea of countering depopulation in the municipality, “an issue of concern to me for many years,” began to take shape towards the end of last year.

“It’s all but impossible to attract people to come to live and work in Vila de Rei for the minimum wage (385 euros, about 480 dollars), which is what mothers and fathers in the families who come here will be paid,” Barata explained.

But this salary is the same or higher than what is earned by 20 percent of the Portuguese population, and will be paid by the mayor’s office for up to six months.

The advance party of Brazilian families has already secured jobs in the home for elderly people in São João de Peso, which serves the entire municipality. Barata had advertised vacant positions in the retirement home several times, but none of the nearly half-million unemployed Portuguese were interested.

Working here “is easier because the Brazilians speak the same language” and because “Brazilians generally are extremely congenial,” Barata emphasised.

Among the Brazilians who moved to Vila de Rei are a psychologist, a teacher of Portuguese literature, a hairdresser, a clothing saleswoman, a carpenter and a computer systems operator.

A quest for safety and security was something the Brazilian immigrants had in common, psychologist Leticia Duarte told the private channel Independent Television on May 14.

“In Brazil things have come to such a pass that it’s dangerous for children to do something as simple as play on the streets, and in terms of buying power we’ll be practically on the same level, with the bonus that I can be sure that my children won’t be attacked or even murdered in the street,” she said.

Literature teacher Pedro Luiz Ramos said much the same thing. “Perhaps I might earn more in Brazil, but Portugal is a door to Europe and is a welcoming country, which opens up new cultural perspectives,” he said.

The families who will be arriving later on will receive the same payment for jobs in agriculture, retail businesses and services. “They will have to pay for their food and transport, but they will be living in houses loaned by individuals or other buildings, such as closed-down schools. In time they’ll find their own homes and start a new life,” the mayor explained.

Residents in São João de Peso on the whole welcomed the Brazilians as brothers and sisters from across the Atlantic. Antonio Simão, an elderly man, told the newspaper Publico that he had been an immigrant in Venezuela for 30 years, “and they always treated me very well.”

The six girls and boys in the group of families “are a delight for the only five children” in São Jõao de Peso. “I welcome them with open arms,” Simão said.

In Vila de Rei “the elderly people are dying off, and the young people head for the big cities,” shopkeeper Antonio Moreira said.

However, there were some criticisms. Retiree Antonio Vicente complained to the Lusa news agency that when he returned from Angola in 1975, upon that country’s independence from Portugal, “nobody gave us any support,” and now the municipality is bringing in foreigners “who will take jobs that could be done by Portuguese people.”

But only the neo-Nazis in the National Renewal Party (PNR), which is not represented in parliament, are against the initiative. The PNR leader, José Pinto Coelho, called for a protest in front of the mayor’s office in Vila de Rei, which brought out 60 of his supporters on May 13 according to police, but which was given wide coverage on television.

The protest was “against the colonisation promoted by local representative Irene Barata with the tax money of the Portuguese people,” the PNR said.

Eliana Bibas, president of Brazil House, the main organisation of the approximately 120,000 Brazilians living in Portugal, told the Diario de Noticias newspaper that Barata’s initiative was “positive because it pays attention to what we’ve been saying, and has been proven in several studies: Europe needs immigrants.”

The president of the Brazil House General Assembly, Eduardo Tavares de Lima, told IPS that municipalities “could also carry out a coordinated survey on the needs in the most depopulated parts of the country, not only in Beira Baixa, and inform the Brazilian community that is already resident here about existing opportunities.”

Since Portugal entered the then European Economic Community in 1986, cohesion funds (to reduce disparity between regions and stabilise the economy) have been spent mainly on investments in coastal areas and the big cities, leading to the inexorable exodus from rural areas.

Municipalities in Portugal have a great deal of autonomy from the central government, and have their own resources to carry out programmes such as the one at Vila de Rei. However, the regional development funds provided by the European Union, and distributed by Lisbon, are also vital.

The difficulty is that their distribution is often subject to favouritism among mayors, depending on their political persuasion.

The region of Alentejo, in the south, is one example. “It’s the region that has lost the largest proportion of its population in the last 30 years. Two-thirds of its inhabitants emigrated, or went to live in the big cities,” Manuel de Castro e Brito, the president of the South Portuguese Sheep Breeders Association (ACOS), who approved of Barata’s initiative, told IPS.

“In Alentejo we have a big labour problem. I have difficulty finding people to work on my ranch, because Portuguese people prefer to live off unemployment benefits, or else the Department of Foreigners and Borders creates obstacles to granting residence permits,” he complained.

The socialist and rightwing administrations that have alternately governed Portugal since 1986 have implemented the “primitive policy” of denying Alentejo funding because it is mainly communist, he said.

In any case, according to columnist José Manuel Barroso of the Diario de Noticias, the Brazilian families may be able to “make something worthwhile out of rural areas in Portugal.”

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