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Fire and iron

In the interior of Sao Paulo, the two-hundred-year old Ipanema steel mill is restored

Inside the Ipanema Ranch, on an area of 5,000 hectares at Iperó, São Paulo, parts of the Atlantic Rainforest, landless settlements, naval installations and facilities of the Brazilian Environmental and Renewable Natural Resources Institute (Ibama)are grouped together, along with activities of the Ministry of Agriculture, and a village with only a few inhabitants and some old buildings in ruins.

Within this grouping by far the most interesting are the buildings in very poor condition. They probably represent the first steel mill built in Brazil in 1810, one of the oldest dams built to generate hydroelectric power and a pioneering Protestant cemetery so that they could bury the Swedish Lutheran workers – there are non-conclusive studies about a frustrating attempt to extract iron ore from the Araçoiaba mountain, also inside the Ipanema Ranch, which had been carried out by Afonso Sardinha in 1591. Installed close to this mountain, the Royal Iron Mill of Sao Joao de Ipanema was yet another of those consequences of the arrival of the Royal Family to Brazil in 1808. The initial studies were carried out by sergeant-major Frederico Luiz Guilherme Varnhagen, but the person who installed the steel mill was the Swede, Carlos Gustavo Hedberg, who brought techniques, equipment and tools. Differences of opinion led to the dismissal of Hedberg in 1814, and his substitution by Varnhagen himself. During this period, the dam made by the Swedes was expanded, new channels built, new buildings constructed, such as the refinery, the ustulation house (the roasting of the mineral to remove sulfur), the foundry and dwelling houses. In 1860, the machinery was transferred to Mato Grosso State, where it had been planned to explore the mines of the Mutum river. At Ipanema canons, simple weapons and munitions for the Paraguay War (1864-1870), under the command of captain Joaquim de Souza Mursa, were still made. The steels works was shut once and for all in 1895 – it was cheaper to import – and transformed into an army barracks. Afterwards, in 1930, an agricultural college was installed and then in the decade of the 1960s it became the Center of Agricultural Aviation. All activities were stopped in 1989. Three years later Ibama took over the administration of what today is called the National Ipanema Forest.

The Historic and National Artistic Patrimony Institute (Iphan) decided to interfere in the region in 1964, when it registered the complete location as a national heritage. Some time afterwards they began restoration work, which was always interrupted by some intervals of time, depending on the meager resources available. However, last year the Companhia Siderúrgica Paulista (Cosipa) and the Steel Mills of Minas Gerais (Usiminas) invested R$ 600,000 in the restoration of the blast furnaces at Ipanema, in the first phase of the conservation plan. “The second phase of the restoration of the other structures is estimated at R$ 2.7 million, also to be financed by these two companies, and work will begin this year”, advised the architect José Saia, the technical consultant from Iphan who is coordinating the work. When the work is completed the complex will be open to the public. “The visits will cover a good part of the region because of its historical value and for being located in one of the largest dense woods of the Atlantic Rainforest in the State of Sao Paulo.”