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Record high temperatures in São Paulo, Brazil’s (and South America’s) biggest city, have stretched well into February 2014, with an impact being felt on both water and power supplies to the wider state.

See how paulistas, paulistanos and city visitors have been coping with the hot weather.

Filmed on location: Avenida Paulista, Parque Ibirapuera and USP Central Campus, São Paulo. All photography © Ben Tavener 2014. (Music: Cruel Summer/Bananarama © London Records 1984)

November sunrise over Cristalino

After a year in the planning, I spent three months in the north of Mato Grosso state working as part of a team guiding ecotourists at the Cristalino Jungle Lodge and Cristalino Private Nature Reserve, part of the southern extreme of the Brazilian Amazon rainforest.

Along with 410 species of birds – including the majestic harpy eagle – I also encountered a host of fantastic mammals, from spider monkeys, caimans and tapirs to anteaters, marmosets and tayras.

The photos in this album are just a taster of the wildlife extravaganza that awaits you in Brazil’s phenomenal rainforest.

US Secretary of State John Kerry has travelled in the Brazilian capital, Brasília, as part of a two-day visit to South America, which has already taken in Colombia and talks with officials and Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos.

Brazilian Minister for External Relations Antonio Patriota welcomes US Secretary of State John Kerry (right) to Brasília, photo by Antonio Cruz/ABr.

Brazilian Minister for External Relations Antonio Patriota welcomes US Secretary of State John Kerry (right) to Brasília. (Photo by Antonio Cruz/ABr)

Kerry took part in a number of meetings in Brazil, including with President Dilma Rousseff and Foreign Minister Antonio Patriota, in an attempt to deepen relations between US President Barack Obama’s administration and Latin America’s largest nation and biggest economy.

The top US diplomat had been expected to make a visit to Brazil, his first trip to the country and South America in the role, to affirm ties between the two countries before President Rousseff travels to the US for a rare state visit this October.

Kerry met his counterpart, Antonio Patriota, for talks on a number of bilateral matters and is also expected to touch on their recent visit to the Middle East and the new Iranian president, Hassan Rouhani – whose inauguration was attended by Brazil, one of 52 countries reportedly represented at the event.

The Secretary of State travelled to Brazil just a few weeks after an international scandal erupted about US surveillance programs. In Brazil, Kerry defended the programs, which threatened to cause a major rift in relations with Brazil and other Latin American nations, saying they would continue despite calls from Brazil to end them.

At a joint press conference in Brasília with his Brazilian counterpart, Kerry said the intelligence-gathering program at the heart of a spy scandal story exposed by Brazil’s O Globo daily newspaper had given “security to North Americans, Brazilians and others in the world” but that he would work to provide transparency for his Brazilian colleagues and others affronted by the surveillance.

“We believe that our intelligence service protects our nation, as well as others. We will continue to do it,” Kerry said, adding that the US had not been “surprised or upset that Brazil would ask questions” and that the regional powerhouse was “owed answers with respect to those questions and they will get them.”

“We will work together to make certain that [these issues] do not get in the way of all the other things that we talked about,” Kerry said, assuring reporters that the US was talking to their Brazilian partners about the program, although operational issues could not be discussed publicly.

Patriota said that US-Brazil relations were maturing on many fronts, but criticized the program and warned that mutual trust and bilateral relations could be damaged if the US failed to give satisfactory explanations:

“We are facing a new type of challenge in our bilateral relation. We run the risk of casting a shadow of distrust over our work. We need to stop practices that violate sovereignty.”

The Secretary of State also met President Rousseff for talks later on Tuesday afternoon, which he described as “very good”.

After Vice President Joe Biden travelled to Brazil in May, the visit by Kerry is part of a number of high-level visits that will lead to President Rousseff’s October trip to the US.

Although President Rousseff has made regular visits to the US, including for the annual opening of the UN General Assembly debate, which is traditionally opened by the Brazilian leader, this will be the first time she has done so at state level, and indeed the first such official state visit by a Brazilian leader in around twenty years.

Reciprocal high-level visits between the two nations have regularly led to the signing of bilateral agreements: President Obama’s visit to Brazil in 2011 resulted in the two nations signing ten such agreements, with five more completed when President Rousseff visited the US earlier in 2013.

Read the full articles – 1, 2 – originally written for Anadolu Agency

Brown spiders bite more than 7,000 people in Brazil every year, causing serious skin lesions and even death.

Luckily, a life-saving anti-venom is available, but it comes with its own risks – mostly to the animals involved in the production process.

For the BBC’s Health Check programme, I report from three Brazilian cities – Curitiba, São Paulo and Belo Horizonte – on a new, synthetic venom that could lead to a more humane solution.

Read the full BBC News article.

The Complexo do Alemão is a string of favelas in Rio’s Zona Norte. It was once considered one of the most dangerous places in the city.

However, a mixture of police “pacification” operations and more investment from the outside – including the installing of a cable car, the Teleférico, that unites many of the Complexo’s favelas – is gradually bringing change to the area.

Tourism is slowly trickling into the area, thanks to the cable car and the greater (although not guaranteed) security now present in the area.

The Cidade Maravilhosa, or “Marvellous City” as Rio is often called, has always been a city of enormous contrasts in terms of its population. Since the days when royalty and slaves rubbed shoulders, to now, when those from the favelas – Rio’s shantytowns – head to the city’s glamorous beaches to seek the upper classes and foreign tourists in overpriced hotels, bars and restaurants to scrape together enough coins to feed their families.

(This article was written for Anadolu Agency – a link to the original post can be found here.)

Complexo do Alemão cable car. Photo by Ben Tavener.

Complexo do Alemão cable car. Photo by Ben Tavener.

In Rio, a street is sometimes all that separates the most expensive real estate in Latin America from slums home to the most deprived communities on the continent.

Since the mid-19th Century, the city’s favelas grew massively, many of them into the steep slopes of Rio’s countless hills.

Brazil’s last census revealed that the country now has 6,329 favelas nationwide, and that they are home to 11.4 million Brazilians – six percent of the population.

To this day, the slums – which are home to a fifth of Rio’s population alone – are seen by many as lawless, no-go areas and havens for traffickers smuggling mainly drugs and arms. Until not so long ago, even the police feared to enter these favelas, so fearsome the armed gangs that ruled the roost.

In 2008, less than a year after being confirmed as host for the 2014 World Cup, the authorities in Rio began “pacifying” these vast swathes of the city – meaning police forces and tactical squads went in, rooted out the gangs and took back these areas, very much by force – with many killed in the process, including many innocent favela residents.

A boy in Rio's Palmeiras favela (Complexo do Alemão). Photo by Ben Tavener.

A boy in Rio’s Palmeiras favela (Complexo do Alemão). Photo by Ben Tavener.

One of the first to undergo this process was the favelas immortalized in the famous Brazilian movie “City of God”, which was based on real events from Rio’s Cidade de Deus favela. It was only the second favela to receive a Police Pacification Unit, known locally by its Portuguese acronym – UPP.

Once pacified, the idea was to reintegrate these areas with the city, introduce “civilization” through newly-installed public services, and break down the long-established dividing lines that kept the favela populations under-developed and with little chance of improvement.

The poorest region of Rio

In 2011, police went into one of the biggest and most complicated areas they had had to pacify to date – a great swathe of favelas in Rio’s North Zone known as the Complexo do Alemão, long considered one of the most violent parts of Rio, which is also blighted by malnutrition, disease and, as a result, high rates of infant mortality.

As the areas were cleared of gangs, a major breakthrough for the area’s outward integration came in the guise of a cable car uniting the hilltops of a string of favelas, following by the inauguration of a series of UPPs.

Daily life in Itareré favela (Complexo do Alemão). Photo by Ben Tavener.

Daily life in Itareré favela (Complexo do Alemão). Photo by Ben Tavener.

Two years after that initial battle between the area’s ruling gangs and police, the cable car is well used (it’s free for residents) and has allowed tourism to come to the area for the first time. Those whose houses were destroyed during its construction have been moved into low-cost housing.

Sailing high above the rooftops, the view from pods allows passengers to look directly into the lives of those living in the favelas below: children flying kites, sellers putting out their goods, old men playing cards in the street, teenagers riding two to a bike, and women hanging out close to dry in the fierce Rio sunshine.

However, leaving the cable car and entering the winding pathways that lead through Itareré, the smell of human waste, stagnant water and weeks of piled-up refuse hits you – wave after wave.

The people are welcoming, but many bear the signs that only basic health and sanitation services are available.

Rio guide Fábio Mendonça highlights parts of the favela that have seen steps taken to bring in public services, security and a sense of urban “normality” into the area for the first time.

Community centres have sprung up to give children activities for when they are not in school, which typically only give classes for three or four hours a day. Children are allowed to draw and paint, as well as being engaged in more dynamic activities – samba, circus tricks, dance and capoeira.

Rubber bullets for some, real ones for others

The favelas are one area that has seen improvements in Brazil – with lives being changed, albeit slowly for some, and new facilities are being brought in.

Views from Itareré favela (Complexo do Alemão). Photo by Ben Tavener.

Views from Itareré favela (Complexo do Alemão). Photo by Ben Tavener.

High streets banks have shown their confidence in the areas now by moving in and opening their doors. Things are tangibly better, Mendonça explains, but there remains much to be done – particularly with schools, and although there is now a police presence in the favelas, residents are still highly suspicious of their new guardians.

And with just cause, it would seem. Last week, an operation by military police in the Maré favela left at least nine people dead.

Human rights activists say tens of thousands of people have been killed by police in Rio, who they say often act with impunity and in cahoots with the criminals. One NGO in the Maré favela – Redes da Maré – questioned why rubber bullets had been used on protesters in upmarket areas of Rio, and real ones in the favelas.

The incident happened at the height of the recent mass protests. Protesters had already taken up the favela residents’ cause after a series of enforced evictions, but soon turned their attention to the case in Maré, accusing police of opening fire on innocent people – an accusation leveled time and time again.

Brazil’s recent protests, although predominantly attended by the country’s “middle class”, have sought to highlight the major social injustices ongoing in Latin America’s biggest country and most successful economy, and the plight of many of the country’s poorest people.

Although years of work, particularly by the leftist Workers’ Party of former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and his protégé, the incumbent president Dilma Rousseff, have given rise to social programs that have lifted 35-40 million Brazilians out of extreme poverty, the 2011 census showed 16.2 million Brazilians remain officially below the breadline, and recent World Bank data showed 10.8 percent of the country’s population live on less than US$2 a day.

Brazil’s new middle class?

Headlines about Brazil’s “booming middle class” also need a crucial footnote, as this percentile of the population is not the same as might be understood in North America or Western Europe.

The term is used in a broad sense, and its lowest rung, the so-called “Class C”, earns just US$790 a month – enough to pay a modest rent, just about feed the family and perhaps make a payment on a TV or domestic appliance bought in ten installments – purchases which the government tout as signs of the country’s economic emergence.

One major difference between the wider middle class and the “Class C” is that this lower middle class cannot afford to bypass the country’s poor public services and pay for private education and health services.

Despite Brazil’s recent economic success – driven by booming commodity exports and consumer spending – and successive governments’ bold social welfare programs, a cooling-off of the economy has left many people dissatisfied as, while incomes improved, public services did not.

At the heart of the problem, many feel, is the political apparatus – a multitude of ministries (39 at the last count, compared to the fifteen used to run the United States) and a long list of self-serving and corrupt politicians coupled together has meant that not enough of the R$611 billion (US$274 billion) spent on running the country – excluding investments – has actually reached to its final destination, instead going on administration and entitlements.

The result is that Brazil invests far less directly into its public services than any other major economy.

When taking into account the US$25 billion that Brazil is spending on hosting the World Cup and the Olympics, justified by promises of improvements to public services, infrastructure and urban mobility, the reasons why so many people have taken to the streets in the past month becomes all too clear.

Instead of those brought out of poverty in the football-mad country heading to their nearest Confederations Cup stadium to watch top-flight matches, many instead decided to voice their dismay on the streets.

Few benefiting from Brazil’s marquee events

Protesters have voiced their opposition to Brazil’s hosting of the World Cup and Olympics because, despite promises of a long-lasting legacy that would improve millions of lives, only a privileged few are benefiting from the events – including corrupt politicians.

Rio’s hotels, eyeing an opportunity with the string of major events coming to the city, have profited by bumping up their prices significantly, making them the most expensive in the world in 2012.

Property prices have also expanded dramatically, given growing demand and limited space in the most sought-after areas. The latest reports show that the average square meter of real estate in Rio costs US$4,100 – five years ago, it was under US$2,000.

However, the city’s South Zone beach favourites of Copacabana, Ipanema and Leblon can command far higher prices – indeed the highest in the whole of Latin America. Leblon property prices have shot up to US$11,000 per square meter.

The result is that even people rich enough in the past to live in such prime locations are having to move out and find cheaper places to live.

Brazil may have weathered the storm surrounding preparations for the Confederations Cup, and even emerged buoyed after being crowned champions for the fourth time, but nearly a month of countrywide mass protests has left the country reeling.

Protesters near the Maracanã stadium during Confederations Cup final. Photo by Ben Tavener.

Protesters at a stand-off with police near the Maracanã stadium during Confederations Cup final. Photo by Ben Tavener.

Many of the protests have been aimed at those responsible for spending billions of reais of public money on stadiums rather than sorely-needed public services.

However, the crowds at the protests have reduced in size significantly, and the “mega protest” predicted to coincide with the Confederations Cup final at Rio’s Maracanã stadium failed to materialise, with the 6,000 police drafted in to defend the venue outnumbering the protesters.

Some have attributed the current lull in demonstrations to “protest fatigue” and the fact that some of the protesters’ grievances have been heard, addressed and even resolved in the case of the initial spark for the protests, the rise in public transport fares at the beginning of June now revoked by many cities.

The end of the tournament will also deprive protesters of a high-profile, international soapbox on which to voice their grievances, with the next chance – the Pope’s visit for World Youth Day – weeks away.

However, others believe the protesters have spelled out their demands and, having kicked the ball into the government’s court, are merely waiting to see if pledges made by the government actually come to fruition.

Protesters speaking to me outside the Maracanã on Sunday said an end to the protests was not in their plans now the government had given their demands such urgent attention:

“This is not over. The government is spending billions on stadiums when we need investment to improve our appalling health and education systems,” vowed 27-year-old São Paulo banker Cátia Almeida.

Jefferson Santos, a 21-year-old student from São Gonçalo, was equally clear: “The people have woken up; that scares the government. We have seen that we can get change by coming to the streets and we will keep protesting until we get what we want.”

President Dilma Rousseff has attempted to placate protesters by setting out a five-pact plan for greater transparency, wide-ranging improvements to public education, health and transport, and a referendum on political reforms, which she has rushed to Congress for further action, at pains to show she is listening to protesters’ grievances:

“I would like, taking into account this energy that we’ve seen at the protests, it to be possible [to have the plebiscite in 2014],” adding that this was contingent on a number of questions and ultimately depended on the Superior Electoral Court (TSE).

All sides seem to agree that political reform is needed, and for the politicians the quicker the better, given next year’s crucial elections.

Although that wave of mass demonstrations has peaked for now, Brazil’s tinderbox may not need much of a spark to reignite.

Read the full article on The Rio Times website

It was an apparently innocuous twenty-centavo rise in the cost of a bus or metro ticket in São Paulo at the beginning of June that initially sparked mass protests that have since swept through at least twelve Brazilian states. On Monday 17 June, an estimated 200,000 people took to the streets in São Paulo and Rio alone, in protests larger than any since those against President Fernando Collor in 1992.

São Paulo protest on Monday 17 June. Photo by Ben Tavener.

The good-natured atmosphere seen at the São Paulo protest on 17 June turned was replaced by violence at other protests, with police accused of brutality towards protesters and journalists. Photo by Ben Tavener.

The Movimento Passe Livre (Free Fare Movement) demanded the increase to be reversed – which they achieved in a number of cities, including São Paulo and Rio – but their call for both free and better-quality public transport has yet to be met – meaning the wave of protests are likely to continue.

The protests, which many protesters said are “not just about 20 centavos!”, have taken a much wider form and now represent a general platform for Brazilians to vent their frustration and show their displeasure at the state of the country, whether it be the country’s multi-billion-dollar hosting of the World Cup and Olympics, poor public services, particularly health and education, or rampant political corruption.

But despite the diversity of the slogans chanted, many have been united by a concern for Brazil’s economy: the rising cost of living, particularly food and services, have hit Brazilians hard.

Even though incomes have gone up, Brazil’s new middle class has been demanding more from public services, and with billions of reais of public money being spent on World Cup preparations with public services remain poor, the 20-centavo rise in bus fares appears to have been the final straw.

A survey of families by O Globo newspaper also reported many seeing expenses go up forty percent in the last year, despite the government’s official annual inflation figure of 6.5%.

Even though the rise in bus and metro fares has been reversed in most cities, the Free Fare Movement (MPL) says it will continue its fight until quality public transport is delivered. Photo by Ben Tavener.

Even though the rise in bus and metro fares has been reversed in most cities, the Free Fare Movement (MPL) says it will continue its fight until quality public transport is delivered. Photo by Ben Tavener.

Given Brazil’s economic track record in the 1980s and early 1990s, some have pointed to concerns over inflation as the main problem to be debated.

Alexandre Macchione Saes, Professor of Economics at USP, says that those using the inflation argument are generally politicians: “Yes, the economy in general has not grown much lately, but unemployment is low and people’s spending capabilities have generally increased – people can now buy things they couldn’t buy before.”

“The only real objective argument that can be carried at these protests is about public services – education, health, public transport – things objectively of poor quality.”

For Tabiner Domingues Marques, an economics student at the University of São Paulo (USP) who has been to every one of the São Paulo protests to date, it is all about the quality of public services and galvanizing a new generation to become politically active to change the face of Brazilian politics: “People are coming to the streets because victories won over the last decade in terms of income growth and distribution have not been accompanied by an increase in quality in public services.”

The government has certainly been caught out by the number of people taking part in the mass demonstrations: President Dilma has tried to get protesters back on side by praising the protest spirit and even mimicking the protest’s “People have woken up!” slogan, and other politicians are likely to try to score personal goals from the protests, analysts say.

The big question now for the protesters is, with almost daily protests planned and no central leader yet assuming control, do the disparate movements marching together have enough steam to carry on galvanizing the population into demanding a change in Brazil, and if they do want to see real change – what their next move is.

Read the full article on The Rio Times website.