Thursday, 14 June 2018

Man's inhumanity to man

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The fiscal outlook for the world’s eighth largest economy Brazil looks gloomy with The Financial Times suggesting it has gone from zombie to walking dead.

I spent six weeks in the Amazon region of Brazil in 1986, leading a Rotary Group Study Exchange team. I never really felt safe the whole time I was there. I was physically assaulted on three occasions during the six weeks. I was unscathed - only my pride was hurt - thanks to people around me who came to my assistance, but I vividly remember wanting to do a papal kissing of the tarmac when I got back to Auckland airport. 

The problem with Brazil, and I guess this applies to a great many countries, is that abject poverty resides alongside audacious wealth. The two don’t co-exist and the have-nots, with little to lose, often decide to take what they want. NZ yachting hero Sir Peter Bake Blake was murdered there in 2001 and apparently died for the sake of a couple of watches and some banknotes of the near worthless Brazilian currency.

In 1986 I also found the scale of poverty in Brazil to be frightening, Back then it was claimed the majority of the wealth resided in about five percent of the populous. The biggest city at the mouth of the Amazon is Belem - pronounced Belame - short for Bethlehem, its original name. It has a population of a million and a half souls. From the air it looked like a modern metropolis with high rise buildings in abundance. At ground level it wasn’t quite so splendid. Most of the high rises were tenement buildings; concrete bunkers stacked on top of one another providing the most basic of living amenities. But the ‘favelas,’ corrugated iron lean-to shanty towns, on the outskirts of the city, were far worse and the multi-storey bunker dwellers would have considered they were comparatively well-off.

We were in Belem for two weeks before moving on to other parts in the region and while there I was billeted with a well-to-do Japanese family. They lived in a modest home by our standards, but it was pretty spectacular for Brazil. As it was surrounded by the dwellings of the poor. It was distinguishable by the bars over the windows and every evening at seven o’clock a hired armed guard would arrive, wearing a holster with two six-guns, who would parade around the house all night providing protection for the inhabitants. It was hard to sleep in that heat, despite the house being air-conditioned, and the footsteps going past the window every few minutes were an unhelpful distraction.

The poor seemed never to go to bed. No matter what time of the night you arrived home the whole population appeared to be occupying the footpaths, with the kids invariably kicking soccer balls around. Even at one or two in the morning the suburban streets were full of people. We were told their houses were so hot it was nigh impossible to sleep.

In an area that attracts few tourists we were conspicuous of course and were generally believed to be Americans, for whom the Brazilians have little respect. As you walked passed a group you would hear them say disparagingly: “Americanos Gringos!” whereupon we would hastily turn around and exclaim: “Noun, noun, Nouvelle Zealandia!” which made us much more acceptable. 

Peter Blake probably didn’t have time to make the distinction.

One city we stayed in, just up-river from Belem, was Manaus, which has the sordid reputation of being the murder capital of the world. More murders are committed there than in any other place on earth, and I understand that this is not calculated on a population basis.

There appeared to be no social welfare system in Brazil; if you didn’t have a job the government offered no handout system to get you through. Beggars line the streets, many with severe physical disabilities, and it was explained to us that this was due to polio, still rife in that country. The vaccines of the first world were unaffordable in the third world, although Rotary International programme to immunise the whole world will have meant this will not now be the case.

We visited factories where working conditions were so draconian that it made you sick to the stomach. You’d wonder where the world’s labour organisations were, but it would seem they only operate in the wealthy OECD countries.

Life expectancy was short and life was cheap. I saw a man run over by a bus one day. He died instantly, but no one ran to his aid. They all stood on the crowded footpaths and watched him lying there in a pool of blood. No ambulance came and I was told he would remain there until relatives came to claim him. I asked what the road toll was, but no one knew; no statistics are kept.

Things no doubt will have improved in the intervening 30 or so years. Inflation back then was running at 300 percent and interest rates were 1400 percent! I assume they have got their monetary system back in some semblance of order, but the poor will still be poor and the vast majority of the population will be struggling with their day-to-day living.

There is a lesson in this for us of course. Since 1986, reforms in New Zealand have hardly created the utopia promised and have most certainly resulted in a greater gap between the rich and poor. Not that we compare with the deprivation of the average Brazilian, but the trickle-down theory that didn’t work there, hasn’t worked here either.

Sir Peter Blake and the memories of him, so poignantly encapsulated in documentary films, will be an ongoing inspiration for those who follow on to complete his work which was to save species of the animal kingdom heading for extinction, but now we require some heroic leaders of his ilk to turn their attention to the human of the species.

Homo Sapiens is desperately in need of some new champions to save his own skin.

“Ill fares the land, to hastening ills to prey, Where wealth accumulates, and men decay.” - Oliver Goldsmith 


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