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Divide and rule

Sixty-seven years ago Brazil adopted a regional division proposed by geographer Fábio Guimarães


Fábio Guimarães IBGE

Brazil’s regional division into five major geographic regions was officially adopted in 1942 and has since contributed to the organization and management of our national territory. In 1945, a subdivision was instituted and micro-regions were created (called physiographic zones at the time). The latter are clusters of towns with shared characteristics. Both were the work of engineer and geographer Fábio de Macedo Soares Guimarães (1906-1979), from Rio de Janeiro, one of the pioneering researchers of IBGE, the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics.

“To this day, government planning is carried out based on geographical divisions, with their macro and micro regions, which shows how the Treasury’s resources should be distributed to each area,” says Roberto Schmidt Almeida, a geographer and retired professor of the State University of Rio de Janeiro, as well as a student of the history of Brazilian geography. “And Fábio Guimarães was the Brazilian researcher that understood the most about these division processes.” His study was published in Revista Brasileira de Geografia, in its April-June 1941 edition, and was implemented one year later.

The division Guimarães proposed separated the 21 states and the Federal District at that time into North (Amazonas and Pará), Northeast (Maranhão, Piauí, Ceará, Rio Grande do Norte, Paraíba, Pernambuco and Alagoas), East (Sergipe, Bahia, Minas Gerais, Espírito Santo, Rio de Janeiro and Federal District), South (São Paulo, Santa Catarina, Paraná and Rio Grande do Sul) and Midwest (Mato Grosso and Goiás). There were also five territories, attached to the major regions.

By 1969, almost 30 years later, it had become necessary to rearrange the national territory. The country’s economic center had become a triangle, the three points of which were the capital cities of Rio de Janeiro, Belo Horizonte and São Paulo. Therefore, the states of Rio de Janeiro, Minas Gerais and São Paulo, besides Espírito Santo, were grouped into a new region, the Southeast. The East Region was eliminated, Bahia and Sergipe being transferred to the Northeast. Brasilia was already in the Midwest. Territories were promoted to states and attached to the macro-regions based on proximity and characteristics. This updating of the territory was not conducted by Guimarães, who by then had left IBGE and was teaching at the Pontifical Catholic University in Rio de Janeiro (PUC/RJ).

The geographer’s contributions, however, were not limited to the country’s division. There were many others, most of which arose in the 1940’s. Guimarães mathematically determined Brazil’s precise center. Contrary to what people thought at the time, it lies in the northeast of the state of Mato Grosso, rather than in the state of Goiás. In 1947, he headed one of two expeditions to the Planalto Central plateau, to better examine the best sites for the country’s future capital, along with one of the most important and influential geographers of those times, Leo Weibel, a German established in the United States, who had been hired as a consultant.

Orlando Valverde, an IBGE geographer, in a text written in connection with the celebration of the 100th anniversary of the birth of Guimarães, in 2006, recalled that the latter carried out a famous technical analysis of the issue of the border between the states of Espírito Santo and Minas Gerais. “He showed, with numerous examples from Brazil and abroad, that a line of mountain peaks does not always coincide with a watershed; that a river can cross a mountain range through gorges; and that a major watershed can be found within a valley,” wrote Valverde. “In other words, he clarified a very common mistake of students of international law.”

Guimarães worked for IBGE for 30 years. After 1969, he dedicated himself only to teaching the ideas that he had developed at the institute and had learnt in his field research throughout Brazil.