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Brazil’s Construction Boom Eases Integration of Haitians

PORTO VELHO, Brazil, Feb 21 2012 (IPS) - Pierre was in the next-door country of Dominican Republic when the January 2010 earthquake destroyed half of Port-au-Prince and killed at least 200,000 of his fellow Haitians, including his wife and his mother.

Santo Antonio hydroelectric plant construction site in October 2010. Credit: Mario Osava/IPS

His two sons, ages 13 and 14, survived. He left them with friends when he came to Brazil.

But his tragedy did not end there. His younger son later died of hunger. Now, in despair, he sends his surviving son whatever is left over from his wages at his job loading trucks. Meanwhile, he is doing everything he can to bring the boy to his new place in the world, in Porto Velho, the capital of the state of Rondônia in northwest Brazil.

Pierre is one of the hundreds of Haitians who have come to Brazil in search of a new life and an income that makes it possible for them to help their families back home, who are still suffering from the effects of the earthquake, said Marilia Pimentel, who works as a volunteer in a group that supports immigrants.

Porto Velho has become a magnet for immigrants because of the jobs offered by the nearby construction of two huge hydroelectric dams on the Madeira river, one of the main tributaries of the Amazon river, as well as the construction of bridges and the expansion of roads in the area.

The Santo Antonio hydroelectric plant, which will have a capacity to generate 3,150 megawatts, is located seven km outside of the city. It just hired 100 Haitians to work in carpentry, construction, electricity and hydraulics.

But there are nearly 700 Haitians in Porto Velho, and more are arriving every day, said Geraldo Cotinguiba, an anthropologist who, like his wife Pimentel, is helping the new immigrants overcome language and cultural barriers, to facilitate their social insertion and help them find jobs.

The volunteer work of Cotinguiba and Pimentel, who holds a doctorate in linguistics, is carried out in the Catholic parish church in São João Bosco, a centrally-located neighbourhood, where the immigrants are offered meals and Portuguese language courses.

Samuel Dorvilus, a 30-year-old Haitian, also plays an important role at the church. After teaching English and French to Brazilians since he arrived in Porto Velho in March 2011, he is now a translator and interpreter of Haitian creole, and teaches Portuguese to other immigrants.

He was also hired in that capacity by Odebrecht, the company leading construction of the Santo Antonio dam in Porto Velho and numerous other projects around Brazil and in 34 other countries on four continents.

Besides the 100 Haitians hired to work on the Santo Antonio dam, Odebrecht has hired 42 people from that country to help build Teles Pires, another hydroelectric dam 800 km east of Porto Velho, 40 to work on a shipyard building submarines in Itaguaí, near Rio de Janeiro, and 22 for a sugar plant in the central state of Goiás.

The Haitian workers receive the same wages and benefits as the rest of the employees while they receive job training as well as intensive Portuguese language courses, so they can support their families in Haiti and pay off the debts incurred by their long journey to Brazil, the company said.

Odebrecht runs the Acreditar (Believe) programme, which trains local workers in the areas where it has construction projects. Around 70 percent of the nearly 20,000 people working on the Santo Antonio construction site have taken the programme’s courses.

The number of Haitians in Rondônia is small compared to the communities of Bolivians and Peruvians. But they stand out as they have come from a more distant country with a black population that speaks a language much less familiar to Brazilians than Spanish.

“They’re seen as foreigners, not neighbours,” and they generally speak only creole and French, Pimentel said.

This new wave of immigration is reminiscent of the origins of Porto Velho, in which people from Caribbean nations played a major role.

A century ago, several thousand people from the English-speaking West Indies, collectively referred to here as “Barbadians” because most of them were from Barbados, along with Brazilians and foreigners from other countries in the Americas, Asia and Europe, built the Madeira-Mamoré railroad through inhospitable terrain of swamps and jungle, between what would later be Porto Velho and the border with Bolivia.

Now it is the Haitians who are reviving the connection between Porto Velho and the Caribbean. Fleeing the dire poverty in their country, the poorest in the western hemisphere, they enter Brazil through the Amazon jungle cities of Brasileia and Tabatinga, on the borders with Bolivia and Colombia, respectively, taking advantage of a porous border.

From there they spread out, seeking employment in a wide range of areas, especially the construction industry, which is in the midst of an unprecedented boom in Brazil, of housing as well as energy and transportation infrastructure.

Dorvilus followed the usual route: by plane from Haiti to Ecuador, and from there through Peru and Bolivia to Brasileia.

“I first tried to travel to the United States and later France, but I didn’t get a visa in either case,” he said. So he decided on Brazil, based on what he had heard about how friendly Brazilians are and the abundance of jobs.

In the case of Brazil, he did get a visa, so he was able to come here legally, he stressed. He then chose Porto Velho because “it is a quiet place, where you can live in peace” – a city of 436,000 people without the stress of huge cities like Sao Paulo or Rio de Janeiro.

Dorvilus, who now dreams about bringing his wife and two-year-old son from Haiti, estimates that 15 percent of Haitians in Brazil have not yet found work.

Around 5,000 Haitians have come to Brazil in the last two years, 3,500 of whom are in the state of Amazonas, especially the capital Manaos, according to Cotinguiba and Pimentel.

The couple hopes to set up a centre for studies on immigration along with the Federal University of Rondônia, pointing out that a diverse mix of Amerindians, immigrants, and slaves gave rise to the Brazilian population of today.

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