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Alchemy viewed from afar

U.S. journalist provided the password to optimism at the 20th National Forum when he stated that the future of Brazil is now

The idea that Brazil is going through an extraordinary moment, a turning point that, if well explored, can lead the country to finally rid itself of its long history of underdevelopment and finally move in the direction of a truly developed economy and society, pulling its weight in the international game that will design the face of the world in the next few decades, was insistently presented, repeated and debated at the 20th National Forum. This event was held at the head office of the Banco Nacional de Desenvolvimento Econômico e Social/BNDES (the National Bank for Social and Economic Development) in Rio de Janeiro, from May 26 to 30. Participants included the President of the Republic, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, four ministers, the CEOs of the biggest state-owned and private sector Brazilian corporations, economists – among whom was a Nobel Prize laureate – historians, sociologists, politicians and other well known professionals, as well as more than 50 guest speakers. They resembled a choir, repeating without missing a beat, which is rare, that, in spite of countless economic and social problems, Brazil has been able to continue developing consistently over the years, to the point of creating a “new world in the tropics”. This opinion was unanimous, the global economic downturn, which was moving “under the sign of uncertainty”, as voiced by many people.

The reasons for such optimism, albeit cautious optimism in some cases, are simultaneously linked to data on the growth of industry and agribusiness, to the encouraging discoveries of new oil reserves, and to positive forecasts for the Brazilian economy in view of an international food supply crisis and yet another crisis in the oil industry. During the entire week of the forum, people insisted on extolling the characteristics of the Brazilian economy, these characteristics having ensured Brazil a precious competitive edge at this time, as exemplified by the solid structure of agribusiness in the production of grains and other food products that the world demands, including the availability of farmland. Another competitive edge mentioned often was Brazil’s leadership in ethanol production, perceived as a powerful trump card in view of the current status of energy production. The Amazon Rain Forest and the incredible biodiversity of the country were other elements that were taken into account. In contrast, the general educational level, violence, urban chaos in the majority of the big Brazilian cities, among others, were some of the points that were debated and that put a damper on the somewhat naive enthusiasm.

“Of course it would be madness to suggest that the social and organizational problems that have ravaged Brazil have been overcome. They haven’t”, said Roger Cohen during his eagerly awaited lecture at the opening of the forum, which followed President Lula’s opening speech, full of data and ideas, and the lecture by Edmund Phelps, the Nobel Prize for Economics laureate in 2006. Under the title “Brazil: the future is now”, Cohen, a respected columnist from The New York Times and the Wall Street Journal’s former correspondent in Brazil in the eighties, pointed out however that “there are moments for nations, as there are moments for human beings, when it seems that a critical mass has been achieved, enabling them to move forward. These moments reflect an identifiable phenomenon, but they can likewise contain a certain measure of that which Paulo Coelho would call “alchemy”. I believe there is some “alchemy” at this particular moment in Brazil.”

Adrenalin on stage
In his alchemy metaphor, Cohen pointed out that the country has impressive wealth encompassing the four elements; namely, land, water, air and fire. The land totals 394 million hectares of arable soil, of which only 16% is being used for agriculture. “Describing a country as being land-rich would have sounded ridiculous in the past. But the planet is shrinking and humanity is growing”, he said. He added that the demand for food tends to be in line with Brazil’s natural strong points. In regard to water, he reminded the audience that Brazil is the wealthiest country in terms of renewable water resources, which is crucial for the future of farming and hydroelectric power, and has a deep strategic meaning. In regard to air, Cohen mentioned Brazil’s climate, which favors the production of sugarcane, “a product that has ranked Brazil as the leader in the biofuel revolution”. From his point of view, “Brazil’s competitive edge over its competitors in terms of the development of flex-fuel automobiles – 80% of  new cars run on ethanol or gasoline – contributed more than any other element to the ‘rebranding’ of the country in the eyes of Americans.”

As for fire, the last element of alchemy, Roger Cohen said that, far from associating fire with the slashing and burning of the tropical forest and subsistence slash-and-burn agriculture, he had hopes that “fire would only be related to the flames on the top of Petrobras’s deep-water oil prospecting platforms and the innovative use of bagasse to energize electric power grids”.

After making some preventive comments – as he referred to them – the American journalist concluded his lecture by saying that this was the moment to decide to take part in the Brazilian adventure and in the Brazilian experience. “The adrenalin is here. The ball is in the court. The alchemy is correct. The future, Brazil’s legitimate future, is now.”

After these speeches, and throughout the entire period of the forum – an event that former Minister of Planning Reis Velloso created in 1988 as a venue to debate ideas for Brazil’s development (see the interview that starts on page 12) – these words acted as safe-conduct for optimism. Pessimistic forecasts were always followed by sentences charged with an undercurrent of optimism.