São Paulo, Brazil is the largest metropolis in the Americas and the economic engine of the world’s sixth most-populous country. - Video by Bryce Plank
The dramatic cliffs and endless beaches of Rio De Janeiro makes it the city that probably first comes to mind when you think of Brazil. But São Paulo, the largest metropolis in the southern hemisphere, is the true economic engine of the world’s sixth most-populous country.
In 1554, Catholic missionaries - with the help of indigenous workers - built a small village perched 750 meters above sea level and 70 kilometers from the Atlantic coast. It was the only inland settlement in the country, a jumping off point for expeditions of conquerors, traders, and gold hunters.
In the 1800’s, Brazil became the world’s leading coffee producer, but the farmers in Rio over-cultivated their soil, giving São Paulo an opening to become the country’s agricultural hub. As one of the few inland towns, it was closer than Rio to the plantations spread throughout the interior, and it was directly linked by rail to the port of Santos, making it the ideal junction for shipments of goods on their way to the coast for export.
In 1888, Brazil’s businesses adapted to another significant change when Emperor Dom Pedro II - regarded by many as the greatest Brazilian to ever live - convinced his people to abolish slavery. With their captive labor force suddenly free, farmers and industrialists turned to immigrants from abroad. Today, as a result, São Paulo has the largest population of Italian descendants of any city on the planet, including Rome; the largest Japanese community outside of Japan; and - of course - significant numbers of Portuguese and Spanish.
Many of these newcomers were skilled factory workers whose knowledge helped São Paulo emerge as a manufacturing capital during the industrial revolution and WWII.
Over a period of less than 30 years, the city’s population exploded from 250,000 to 1 million. Steady growth continued through the century, passing Rio in 1960, and hitting 8.5 million in 1980.
Today, the population of the megalopolis known as “Sampa” is over 20 million. In many ways it is a thriving global city with the largest stock exchange in Latin America; a vibrant culture with over 100 museums and dynamic performing arts spaces and beautiful parks. As part of futbol-crazed Brazil, it proudly hosted matches during the 2014 World Cup; and is making significant investments in the next generation, with 850,000 students enrolled in higher education courses.
Unfortunately though, São Paulo’s rapid development has also taken a heavy toll, with four core problems rising above the rest.
The city’s only major bodies of water are the Tiete and Pinheiros rivers. As the population grew, the government - plagued by inefficiency and corruption - struggled to meet demand for basic infrastructure. Without enough wastewater treatment plants, sewage from millions of people flowed directly into the rivers. Toxic waste from industrial facilities was dumped without limit. When new highways were built, the city laid them on the only continuous stretches of land left, the riverbanks, and then hid stretches of them behind walls. But even if you can’t always see the rivers, their stench doesn’t go away.
When the Tiete is at it most-choked, it is a biologically deadzone as far as Barra Bonita, 260 km downstream.
It wasn’t always this way. The rivers used to be gathering points for recreation--distant memories that are motivating current rehabilitation efforts, which include projects to treat 100% of all wastewater before it enters the Tiete, putting an end to all illegal dumping, and teaching people how to care for their rivers and streams.