Monthly Archives: August 2012

The hummingbird feeders at Tandayapa Bird Lodge in northwestern Ecuador are second to none.

Just a 1.5-hour drive from the country’s capital, Quito, you are soon immersed in fabulous cloudforest, with 625+ species birdable within a two-hour drive of the lodge.

Have a look at the video that I filmed in April 2012 to see just a few of the 25-or-so species that frequent the feeders at some time of the year or another.

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In October, Brazilians go to the polls in the country’s municipal elections, which take place every four years to elect a vereador (councillor) and prefeito (mayor) in Brazil’s 5,566 local municipalities.

This week, candidates can start rolling out their TV and radio campaigns to try to impress the voters and garner support – with alternate days allotted for councillor and mayor propagandas. Voting in the elections is a legal requirement for Brazilians.

President Dilma Rousseff at Mercosur meeting. Photo: Fabio Rodrigues Pozzebom/ABr.

President Dilma Rousseff appears to want to keep a low profile in the run-up to municipal elections this October. (Photo: ABr)

But some people here have been questioning exactly what role incumbent president Dilma Rousseff will play in the elections, when candidates can often be seen posing with more powerful politicians to add clout to their campaign.

According to a recent survey, Dilma is now Brazil’s most popular leader since the end of the Military Dictatorship in 1985, even surpassing former president Lula’s impressive level of popularity and general public backing.

Some are saying that Dilma is, for now, keeping an intentionally low profile in domestic politics. And there are certainly plenty of reasons why she would want to keep her head down and not plaster her face across various candidates’ election campaigns – despite the powerful nature of her endorsement.

The Mensalão Scandal  Although Dilma hasn’t been dragged through the mud – not yet at least – during the STF judgment of the political scandal of the decade in Brazil, her party, PT – the Workers’ Party – is very much at the centre of this complex and far-reaching cash-for-votes scandal. She is likely to keep her nose clean, but former President Lula might not – and the two are very closely linked in people’s minds. No extra bad press needed, that’s for sure.

Strikes — The main figures in the ongoing public sector strikes – which are affecting a number of public services, from federal universities to the federal police – could represent a major challenge to the president’s authority.

“The STRIKE is strong and the fight is NOW” – The strike by lecturers at Paraná Federal University is now into its fourth month. (Photo: Ben Tavener)

While she might remain popular, she doesn’t need anything that will undermine her authority and the strikers could easily turn round municipal election publicity opportunities and use them against her.

She would rather avoid the embarrassment, given her main reaction to the strikes so far has been one of obvious frustration.

Economy slowdown — There has been a lot of bad news about the Brazilian economy in the first half of this year, including a major exodus by foreign investors. Dilma has been betting on a return to growth by the end of the year – through a number of stimulus packages, including promising more infrastructure investment, slashing interest rates, and providing easier access to loans for the public.

She arrived in power during a major surge for the economy – Brazil posted 7.5% growth in 2010 – but the official predicts for this year have been slashed repeatedly from 4.5 to 4%, and then to 3%, and now to 1.75%.

Clearly, the president is doing what she can to provide stimulus for the economy, but critics have said that she is the bottleneck for a lot of investment projects, kept waiting while she meticulously goes over all the plans before signing off, and they say she is therefore one of the reason that sorely-needed funding in national infrastructure projects is not getting a green light soon enough – stifling economic growth.

Local focus — Despite possible threats to Dilma’s popularity from things like the economy, as just mentioned, the municipal elections are local – and if the infrastructure project bottlenecked in the Planalto doesn’t affect particular voters’ cities, and remember there are 5,566 municipalities voting – then local issues are going to dominate the elections. Dilma’s face won’t change that. As some have said, “national ingredients don’t make a local election”.

Municipal elections, although with less of a national focus, do create tensions between the various political parties that make up the sprawling governing coalition. No one needs to up the ante with Dilma’s face unwittingly drawing focus from local issues.

Presidential overload — Some say that, two years after the most publicised, social media-targeting presidential elections ever, people aren’t yet ready to have Dilmas and Lulas shoved in their faces again. There will be plenty of that in 2014 – where the next presidential elections are due to be held.

It is easy to see the 2012 municipal elections as a type of midterm for the presidency, and undoubtedly a loss for PT candidates will be seen as some as a vote against Dilma, given what’s happening politically and economically in the country at the moment.

Dilma would rather skip the chance of a midterm evaluation – it rarely helps any president.

The London 2012 Olympic Closing Ceremony had barely finished…

But it was still evening time in Brazil and I was asked to participate in a live interview on BBC Radio 5 Live – alongside the BBC’s Tim Vickery – talking on “Up All Night” about the prospect of Rio hosting the 2016 Games in four years’ time:

(Click here if you can’t see the Flash player)

I also spoke (in Russian) to the BBC Russian Service to legendary presenter Seva Novgorodsev:

(Click here if you can’t see the Flash player)

Brazil’s Central Bank has revealed that foreign investors have reduced the amount of capital they are investing in Brazil from US$12.4 billion to US$7.5 billion in the first six months of 2012, representing a drop of 40%.

External investors have been disappointed after the weaker performance posted by Brazil in the past two years, and analysts say government fiscal policy altering the exchange rate of Brazil’s currency, the real, has eroded investors’ bank balances and led to a change in the mood of the market.

President Dilma Rousseff is set to unveil a new stimulus package this week, expected to include tax relief and reduced energy bills for industries, as well as privatization schemes for roads, railways and airports.

However despite previous interventions from the government – including slashing interest rates and increasing access to cheaper loans – official predictions for 2012 growth have been cut from 4.5 to 3.0%, and some are predicting as low as 1.5%.

Brazil’s main stock exchange – the Ibovespa – has taken a tumble in the past few months. (Image: Yahoo Finances)

Some in the Brazilian media have described the fiscal policies as “a bucket of cold water” in investors’ faces.

However, it appears the story isn’t this simple: economists are divided as to whether the foreign capital exodus is based on facts concerning the slowdown of the Brazilian economy due to reduced demand for commodities from China, and the rippling effects of the Europe economic crisis and general lacklustre mood of the world economy, or whether it’s got more to do with an overly negative, pessimistic impression of Brazil’s economy by foreign investors.

Some are saying that foreigners have humoured the Brazilian economy long enough, and are seeking an alternative: Mexico – dubbed by some as the “New Brazil”. Its main stock exchange skyrocketed over 17% this year alone.

However, Brazil’s main São Paulo-based Ibovespa stock exchange has had 4.15% wiped off its dollar value year-on-year, after a noticeable exodus by foreign investors began some four months ago – now totalling nearly US$1.8 billion in lost shares.

Read more on this in my business article for The Rio Times here.

Olympic Flag arrives in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

Rio Mayor Eduardo Paees arrives in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, bearing the Olympic Flag he took charge of at the London 2012 Closing Ceremony.

It’s official: Rio de Janeiro is now the Olympic host city.

Those watching the Closing Ceremony will have seen London Mayor Boris Johnson grudgingly hand over the Olympic flag to Rio Mayor Eduardo Paes (after receiving it from IOC President Jacques Rogge in the delightfully simple handover ceremony), and the flag has now arrived in Rio in predictable pomp (the media were especially excited, of course).

They’ve even released the Olympic Song – Os Deuses do Olimpo Visitam o Rio de Janeiro (The Gods of Olympus Visit Rio de Janeiro).

After Brazil’s eight-minute Samba-soused presentation at the London 2012 Closing Ceremony – which, according to those posting on Twitter, made Brazilians both puff out their chests in pride and cringe and hide in the corner. Whatever the reaction, you’d think that Brazil would be getting excited.

But I’m genuinely not sure if you can say there’s an overall feeling on that front.

On one hand, there are people who are unquestionably excited about the World Cup and the Olympics coming to Brazil, but there are plenty of others who are equally worried that Brazil might be shown in a bad light, and even more so that public money set aside for the venues and the long-promised improvements to cities’ infrastructure will end up “disappearing”, at least in part. I would go as far to say that they expect that.

I was in São Paulo when the Opening Ceremony erupted triumphantly, and people there were – it seemed – generally watching it, if only having it on in the background. But Brazilians are fickle and when it comes to sport, their loyalties lie elsewhere; as legendary sports commentator Tim Vickery noted while broadcasting from a Rio bar soon after the Closing Ceremony, people there had ignored it completely, in favour of watching the footie (to be fair, there were important matches on that evening).

Incidentally, one of the biggest non-logistical challenges will be getting Brazilians excited about sports other than football, and perhaps volleyball, as they host the greatest sporting event on Earth. When I told one of my local friends that Brazil had won a historic gold in artistic gymnastics at London 2012, the answer was: “We do that?”

That said, Twitter and Facebook showed something very different: Brazil’s social media-savvy younger generation have been really engaged by the Olympics. During Brazil’s presentation at the Closing ceremony, they were unashamedly gushing with pride and debating the way in which Rio had been presented to the world in London: everything from “COME ON, BRASIL!!!!!” and “ORGULHO!!!” (Pride!!!) to “Not more *&$%£@! samba.. we don’t all live for samba!”

Rio's Maracanã Stadium will host the Opening and Closing Ceremonies, and the football at the Rio 2016 Olympics.

Rio’s Maracanã Stadium will host the Opening and Closing Ceremonies, and the football at the Rio 2016 Olympics.

And although others predictably questioned the image of a lowly Carnaval sweep as the first thing that greeted curious crowds, I think they got it more or less right. It showed off the spirit of what the Rio 2016 Games will aim to be: Viva Sua Paixão (Live Your Passion) is their choice of slogan for the Games. And most Brazilians, on Twitter at least, appeared to agree with this sentiment.

So, now the flag is in Brazil, in under four years’ time Rio 2016 – the XXXI Olympiad – will open in Maracanã stadium, where the World Cup opening in 1950. It is one of the many venues that are being updated – along with local infrastructure.

Some stadiums are being built from scratch – and predictably some are behind schedule, as in Curitiba and Porto Alegre in the south. But early this year, FIFA was shown progress at the Cuiabá stadium in Mato Grosso state… ahead of schedule, thank you very much (particularly after FIFA President Sepp Blatter had told Brazil it needed a “kick up the backside”).

In the case of Rio’s Maracanã, it is – thankfully – so far said to be on schedule, although already considerably over budget.

(If that weren’t enough, it has also recently been dragged through the mud after one of its selected construction companies became embroiled in a scandal linked with the infamous Carlinhos Cachoeira corruption inquiry.)

But Rio has had a helping hand for its preparations for the Olympics: the 2007 PanAm Games in Rio have left the city somewhat of a legacy of venues – 47% of them, according to officials, are ready – which probably means they need to be spruced up, but nothing too major.

But it is the R$18 billion (£6 billion) PAC and PAC2 plans to improve infrastructure – including venues, airports and transports systems (Rio’s Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) system is coming on well) – that should make the difference, if the money is spent wisely.

Brazilian journalists are keeping an eye on the contracts and bidding processes surrounding the two events, which authorities have promised will be worth the expense for Brazil, and will leave a legacy – the omnipresent buzzword that follows any announcement about spending vast quantities of public cash.

People will be watching to make sure things aren’t left to the last minute – as this is where corruption is said to go unnoticed best. An emergency contract – “Just get it done!” – to finish a stadium with a year to go, can land in the hands of a friend who happens to own a construction company. Not my words, but it’s easy to imagine, and it won’t escape the hawk eyes of the local media.

Three of Rio's four new BRT (Bus Rapid Transit) lines - which are meant to help with the extra World Cup and Olympic traffic - are still under construction.

Three of Rio’s four new BRT (Bus Rapid Transit) lines – which are meant to help with the extra World Cup and Olympic traffic – are still under construction.

But enough of that. I, for one, really hope the Rio 2016 Olympics will be a success.

The city, of course, has some nature-endowed trump cards up its sleeve: the amazing backdrop of Rio’s stunning bay area – with jungle-covered mountains, colourful relief (mainly, funnily enough, because of the brightly-coloured favelas dotted around the area, some of which they want to raze to the ground to make way for new infrastructure projects) and beautiful beaches.

That will be stunning enough for a lot of people, I think – and if they get it right with airports and buses, well, that’s already far down in second place. Rio is much more than that.

It might sound clichéd, but Rio is life; it’s vibrant; it’s sexy; it’s noisy, colourful and many will find it addictive. Rio will impress, one way or another.

And for that reason, I find it sad that the pre-Olympics doom-and-gloom – which started for London at the end of Beijing 2008 and led up to the Opening Ceremony – has now reared its ugly head fully for Rio.

Olympic Park plan for Rio 2016

This is what Rio’s Olympic Park in Barra da Tijuca should look like in 2016.

In London, Brazilian football legend Pelé was asked whether Rio was on its way to being ready. Instead of saying, “Oh, we’ve just had Rio+20 and did okay,” or “We have the FIFA Confederation Cup in 2013 and World Cup in 2014 first to get things right…”, he indulged reporters and said that Rio wasn’t there yet, which they turned into “Rio may not be ready for Olympics”.

Of course reporters have to get their stories – but pushing this same boring “will they, won’t they” line on every major sporting event is getting dull.

I mean, they might well be right – but I have the feeling that Rio will pull it off.

As I say, Rio has two big sporting dummy-runs beforehand to test its venues, infrastructure and accommodation capabilities. And remember that these concerns are pretty much a pre-Olympic or pre-World Cup tradition: Athens 2004… South Africa 2010… and London 2012, don’t forget.

There is no doubt that Rio has its work cut out before it’s ready to welcome the world. No one’s saying there won’t be last-minute panics. But cut the place some slack, for now at least, and cross those fingers.

These pictures were taken by me in and around Curitiba, Morretes and Antonina in Paraná state, south Brazil.

Some of these birds can be seen on my friend Luciano’s superb live camera feed from his garden in Morretes.

Click any image to see in gallery view

TV in electronics shop in Curitiba, photo by Ben Tavener

A TV for R$103? Take a closer look…

If you’ve lived in Brazil for a while, you’ll know the scene: you walk into a shop and an unbelievably cheap price leaps out at you. R$100 – $50 or so – for a brand new laptop. Wow!

But what you’ve failed to see is the little “15x” next to it. That computer is actually R$1500, possibly plus a down payment.

Parcelamento – paying by instalment – is Brazil’s preferred way of making expensive purchases, and certainly sellers’ favourite way of convincing people they can afford them.

You find it everywhere: from pricier electrical goods – laptops, cameras, TVs – to flights.

You can either pay in one lump – à vista – or you can divide the cost into more manageable chunks or parcelas, sometimes available at no extra cost. But customers often end up paying more for the instalment option, which usually involves five to ten monthly payments.

For example – the TV pictured above is R$1,090 if paid in one go, but R$1,545 if paid in 15 monthly instalments. But what do you see? R$103.00! Wooo!

More temptingly, you can even buy a car this way, and they’ll give you up to 60 instalments – five years – to pay it off.

No wonder there are practically more cars than people in Brazil these days – particularly after the government dropped the IPI tax on them and made getting a loan ever cheaper (something I’ll touch on again later).

Now a study by Ibre-FGV – Instituto Brasileiro de Economia – says some 58.2% of Brazilians are using their monthly salary to pay off “instalment debt”, although the survey also showed most debts were short-term: 78.4% had repayment plans of six months or less, and only 10.1% had taken out plans for twelve months or more.

The report concludes that most people are coping, but there are a small number of people who are diverting over half of their income to this type of debt – and some who are in over their necks, whose outgoings exceeds their earnings.

Unsurprisingly, it’s the more vulnerable families with less disposable income that opt for this method most often.

Some Brazilian friends of mine explained why they take advantage of paying in instalments. They say it’s because it’s the only real way of getting their hands on products quickly that otherwise they wouldn’t have the ready funds available to buy outright.

“What about using a credit card?” you may ask.

Unfortunately, credit is expensive in Brazil. In a recent survey by ProTeste, credit cards in Brazil were recently found to be typically in the region of over 320% APR – unthinkable to those in the UK or America where our cards are usually subjected to 15-25% APR.

And for a long time – particularly over less stable economic times since the global downturn hit in 2008 – the man with his hands on Brazil’s pursestrings, Finance minister Guido Mantega, has done everything he can to encourage Brazilians to spend.

He has rejigged cars, gadgets and other “must-haves” into cheaper tax brackets, made bank loans cheaper, and Brazil’s key interest rate, the Selic, is now at a historic low of 8.0%.

This, the government believed, was the best way to see Brazil through those rocky waters: and it paid off. Brazil came through almost unscathed.

However, as UFPR economist Professor Luiz Esteves told me, this is now turning into a mistake, and is something that cannot hold indefinitely.

However you arrive in São Paulo, by plane, bus or car, it leaves you in little doubt that it is Brazil’s business powerhouse: it is the country’s richest city, the largest city in the southern hemisphere and the 7th biggest city in the world. Miles and miles of favelas and outer neighbourhoods slowly fizzle into a smart, business-like centre that many consider the pride of Brazil.

MASP, the São Paulo Museum of Art, is unmissable on Avenida Paulista. Photo by Ben Tavener.

São Paulo – or Sampa as some locals call it – and its vast, sprawling metropolitan area are home to over 20 million Paulistanos (people from the city), Paulistas (people from the wider São Paulo state), and of course people from every corner of Brazil and the globe.

Whether you are here on business, or you are yearning for a couple of days in a busy NYC-esque megatropolis, this city – often described in shades of “bustling” and “chaotic” – is exciting, invigorating and chock full of things to see and do.

Aside from hustle-bustle, subway chaos and bankers, São Paulo is most definitely a place of culture, history and great cuisine.

Arriving here from Curitiba, we had two days in the city – of course, barely enough to scratch the surface.

We went on a weekend, hitting the museums on the Saturday – when some are free to visit, and spent our Sunday soaking up the historic centre.

A walk down Avenida Paulista – São Paulo’s most famous, seemingly never-ending central street lined with skyscrapers – will give you a sense of the city at large: one minute you walk past the headquarters of a world-class bank, the next you find yourself outside the internationally-recognised São Paulo Museum of Art, MASP (R$15, metrô Trianon-MASP).

São Paulo’s Estação da Luz houses the Museu da Língua Portuguesa. Photo by Ben Tavener.

The building housing MASP is considered a tourist attraction in itself: the Sixties-built concrete and glass gallery sits up on two red lateral beams, which support around 10,000 square metres of both permanent and temporary exhibitions, including Latin America’s biggest collection of Western art.

However, we started with the Jardim da Luz, where you’ll find the Pinacoteca do Estado (metrô Luz, R$6, free on Saturdays), São Paulo’s oldest art museum, which is set in a house built at the turn of the 20th century. The museum is dominated by paintings and sculptures by Brazilian artists.

Next to the Pinacoteca is the idyllic Jardim da Luz park: tall palm-lined avenues, ponds and park benches infused with modern and classical sculptures. Like a lot of the many parks dotted around São Paulo, Jardim da Luz offers a quick breather from the chaos of the city, a place to wander round a green space and hear the birds.

Opposite the park, in its enormous, Colonial-style home – and actually quite similar in style to St Pancras Station in London – is the Portuguese Language Museum (Museu da Língua Portuguesa, R$6, free on Saturdays), which pays homage to the history of the language and its various incarnations around the globe and is a must-see for anyone studying Portuguese or with an interest in languages.

Central, historic São Paulo: The Theatro Municipal, Praça Ramos de Azevedo and the Viaduto do Chá. Photo by Ben Tavener.

After that we headed for the historic centre, working our way from Luz down through to São Bento.

We walked down Avenida Ipiranga down to the Praça da República, and then through to the Theatro Municipal. We then continued over the Viaduto do Chá (noticing the jungle growing out of the top of the Prefeitura (City Hall) building across the street).

This area is full of enormous skyscrapers – home to banks and other financial institutions.

Make sure you leave time (and room in your stomach) for a visit to São Paulo’s historic Mercado Municipal (metrô São Bento), a massive open-plan fruit and meat market, known locally as the Mercadão, and is famous for its friendly fruit sellers – who will treat you to a taste of fruits which you have probably never even seen before.

In fact there was one fruit that even the seller couldn’t name: “We just call it café-com-mel (coffee with honey).” Just be careful if you have any strong allergies to exotic fruits or aversions to intimate physical contact – I had a lychee popped into my mouth without any warning whatsoever!

São Paulo Mercado Municipal, the “Mercadão”, is usually very busy, but is big enough to cope. Samples of fruit are given out constantly, so go hungry! Photo by Ben Tavener.

Round off your trip to the market with a traditional mortadella (hot ham or baloney) sandwich – just join the nearest line of salivating market-goers.

If you have time, head to Avenida 25 de Março, a Mecca for those who want to buy electrical goods on the cheap (much like Ciudad del Este on the Brazil-Paraguay border), or simply to experience the utter chaos of São Paulo most crowded shopping street. Just make sure you keep a close eye on your valuables!

Given São Paulo’s enormous Japanese community, it is hardly surprising that the city is famed for its excellent sushi restaurants: take advantage of a rodízio de sushi, where for a set fee (normally around R$40 at weekends, and a little cheaper during the week) they keep bringing you food until you can eat no more.

Again, make sure you’re really hungry to take full advantage of this wonderful experience!

Metrô Liberdade will lead you to a mishmash of Japanese, Chinese and Korean communities and a vast array of related restaurants. In fact, you might well hear locals telling you that there are only more Japanese people in one city in Tokyo, and that São Paulo is Japan’s second city. You be the judge on that one!

And if you like food, you’ll be utterly spoilt here: locals say there are over 12,000 restaurants, but they quip that 11,000 of those are out of their price range.

São Paulo really is a great place for tourists – and although the rhythm of Rio or the blissful beaches of Bahia or Santa Catarina certainly deserve their prestigious places in tourists’ hearts, this big, bustling, means-business bruiser is definitely worth visiting.