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Notes on the Geography of Brazil: Ribeirão Preto

Ribeirão Preto, "Black Brook," is a city of about 700,000 people about 200 miles northwest of São Paulo--say a third of the way to Brasilia. Ribeirão Preto is also a modern city, but the world has lots of those, so what draws us here? Answer: the city is only a few miles from what used to be the world's two biggest coffee plantations. They're gone now, though there's still coffee in the region. The replacement crop is sugarcane. Brazil ranks number one in the world, São Paulo produces more sugar than any other state in Brazil, and Ribeirão Preto is close to the center of sugar production in São Paulo.

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Not what you expect, right? Well, that's Brazil for you. We've just pulled off the beltway that wraps the city on its southern site. Yes, this is the growing edge of Ribeirão Preto, but it's still pretty impressive--or discouraging, if that's your inclination. It's not my cup of tea, but nobody's asking.

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The city has an old core, a grid of blocks each measuring 100 meters square. Spot the cathedral? We'll head down there.

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The town was established about 1850 by agricultural pioneers, and it took off in the 1880's, when a railway reached here from Campinas and metropolitan São Paulo.

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Some got rich off coffee.

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Somebody is planning a renovation.

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Coffee was at its height when the house was built in 1922: the crash would come with the Great Depression. Ironically, the renovator is located on Santos Dumont Street, named for the man who inherited the Dumont Coffee Company, one of the two giants a century ago.

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Style-conscious.

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The cathedral of St. Sebastian, completed in 1870, is probably older than almost everything else in the neighborhood.

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Twenty years after arriving here, settlers had created a church that might easily be confused with one in Europe.

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We've hopped back near where we started.

Some cities recover from economic collapse; others don't. You can guess which group Ribeirão Preto belongs to. Economic growth doesn't necessarily make a place attractive, however, and this brave posting of a tourist-information map assumes that tourists will want to stroll through a glorified median so they can inspect the highrises lined up along João Fiusa Avenue. The odds aren't good, but then again, we're here.

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Does anyone live in a a single-family home? Sure. These aren't cheap, but they are a little grim. You'd think we were in the Sahara.

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Here's a prosperous neighborhood called City Ribeirão. See anything strange about the street alignment?

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Does this vacant lot give you a cue?

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Here's another. The lot isn't rectangular, because the sides aren't parallel; they're converging in the distance because the streets are laid out as concentric circles. Looks tidy on a map, but there's not a lot of curb appeal.

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Home, Sweet Tortoise Shell.

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Ribeirão Preto advertises itself as Brazil's California, and this developer picked up the idea and ran with it.

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Here's someone who's trying to lose the fortress look but still feels a need for electric fencing.

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There are two interpretations: one is that the owner is from northern California and wants eggs from her own birds; the other is that money's very, very tight.

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Money in Brazil in mid-2016 was very, very tight for a lot of people. The president's message on many billboards seemed a little ambiguous, though: surely he wasn't counselling Brazilians to work without thinking.

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At the edge of town, the developers were taking a short break.

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Here's their latest subdivision, but there were as yet no houses beyond the gate.

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The wall is topped with razor fencing topped with electric wires. Look! There's Jodie Foster barking orders to her security officers. She has such great posture.

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We can go shopping at the mall if you insist.

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Or we can buy a car.

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Ever see such a big Hyundai/Suburu dealership?

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We've come over to about nine o'clock on the city map. This is the Ribeirão Preto campus of the University of São Paulo. It's not that I'm keen on visiting universities: it's that the state bought this property in 1942 from the Fazenda Monte Alegre. A few decades earlier, this had been the world's biggest coffee farm, with 3.8 million trees spread over 55,000 acres. You're looking at the driveway to the "big house."

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Well, this is sort of the Big House. The problem is that the arcades were added in the 1950s, when all the interior walls were removed to make way for a coffee museum--closed today, tomorrow, and for God knows how long. So what you really see is the footprint of the house and maybe a bit of its setting. It belonged to Franz Schmidt, who arrived in Brazil at age eight in 1858. In 1890, as Francisco Schmidt, he bought Monte Alegre and began expanding it. (A fervently patriotic Brazilian, Schmidt was judged a traitor by some other German immigrants. And this was in World War I, before the corporal got going.)

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The nearby plantation-administration building.

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Just a wall, but what a wall. Whatever was up top is now buried in forest.

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A ceremonial gate recounts the history of the farm.

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Panel One: the land is cleared. The quote up top is from a German plant explorer, Carl Friedrich Phillip von Martius. Here he appears to lament the destruction of the splendid virgin forest.

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Panel Two: the farm gets started with a little help from Virgil.

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They're planting coffee, no? Isn't that tantamount to "ruling the forest"?

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Harvest.

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Oops! A problem arises but is fixed.

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The nearby city grows.

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We can go about 15 miles northwest of the campus, to a point between Sertãozinho and Pontal where there's a railway station named for Schmidt. The rails have been lifted.

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What was the track (a spur line) built for? Here's the answer. We're at the engenho central, the "central mill" that Schmidt built to process the crop he introduced to the neighborhood about 1900. Ahead of his time? Maybe in more ways than one, because he wangled a tax exemption from Ribeirão Preto on the grounds that he was developing a new industry. By 1906, Schmidt was exporting sugar to Germany.

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The mill is a privately-owned museum now (the Museu da Cana), well cared-for and (can you believe it?) free. Not even a bucket for donations.

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Cane came in and was crushed behind these gears.

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French steampower.

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Copper tanks. (I know: anybody who uses as much sugar as I do should at least know how it's made. Guilty as charged.)

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Funny thing: it's a warm day, but there's a strong and cool breeze blowing stiffly from the base of the stack.

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The mill's closed but it's still surrounded with cane. We'll have to drive for an hour to find coffee.

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Before we do that, check this. We've gone less than a mile.

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Hmm.

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Aha! I'm guessing ethanol.

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We've jumped 10 miles to the southeast and have come to the town of Dumont, named not for the famous aviator Albert Santos-Dumont but for his father, Henrique, who was the coffee king in the generation before Schmidt. This is Dumont's town office.

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A central room has some reminders of the glory days. That's Albert on the wall, of course. Maybe the furniture's antique. Nice floor.

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Albert lived most of his adult life in France, but he grew up on dad's coffee plantations and loved to drive the locomotives. Yep, it's a Baldwin, made in Philadelphia.

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Sorry about the 50-mile drive, but the road's good. We're going uphill, too, from 2,000 to 4,000 feet above sea level. Notice the forest, easy to forget when you've been swimming in an ocean of cane. A little mnemonic to remember the forest: the town between the Schmidt mill and Dumont isn't called Sertãozinho for nothing: "little wilderness." That's what it was in 1850.

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See anything?

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Sure you do.

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How explicit do I have to be?

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There you go, in black and white. Or blue.

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The lintel carries the date 1921, toward the end of the coffee boom.

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No date but probably not much later.

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The Catholic church.

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The competition. The Presbyterian Church in Brazil was established in 1859 by an American missionary, Ashbel Green Simonton. He worked fast, because the church today has a million members even though Simonton died in 1867 of yellow fever. He was 34.

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Do you doubt that coffee can grow next to sugarcane? Well, doubt no more. We're on the outskirts of Altinopolis.

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We're heading west 40 miles to Orlandia but have been waylaid here at Batatais. What's going on?

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This we recognize: a subdivision taking shape.

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This we know, too: entry-level tract homes.

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Want to see inside?

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We're in the front or living room; the kitchen is to the right through the door; there are two bedrooms on the left, with a bathroom in between. Hollow clay-block walls.

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Steel joists with temporary supports.

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Finished walls in the house next door.

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Kitchen tiling.

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I know: you want to know who's building those homes and who will buy them and how much they will pay. Don't know. But the residents of Batatais probably have a long connection to the coffee and cane fields around the town.

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The coffee here is kept as low as a vineyard. It still needs lots of attention.

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Looks like the station at Schmidt, no? Well, that's because this is the same line. It's the Mogiana (or Mogyana) Railroad, which by 1920 operated over a thousand miles of narrow-gauge track from Campinas north across Sao Paulo State to western Minas Gerais. With the track gone, the building now houses the town's public library.

The faded name recalls Francisco Orlando Diniz Junqueira, a coffee planter who took advantage of the railway's arrival in 1900 and laid out a town in part of his Bela Vista Farm.

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Orlando laid out the town with super-wide streets.

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Lots of boulevards. Today, when the town has about 40,000 people, traffic is still a non-issue.

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The biggest employer in town is Brejeiro, set up in 1944 by an Italian immigrant who apparently was the first businessman in Brazil to sell mill-packaged rice. Since then the company has branched out to lots of other foods and oils.

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Palm oil, for example.

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Across the street from the mill is this Casa da Cultura or community center. Probably at one time a school called the Lyceum.

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Church in the town plaza.

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The Brazilian obsession. It's the Edificio Orlandia, and I'm just Freudian enough to wonder.

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Call it the pretty sunset picture minus the sunset. It's also a better way to remember this prime agricultural region.


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