I went to the Amazon expecting peace, and instead found myself in the middle of the Brazilian economic boom

When Tracy and I landed in Santarém on Friday, we expected to find ourselves in an Amazonian backwater. The airport certainly met our expectations—it was the size of a house.

The town, on the other hand, surprised us. As we drove from the airport, we saw the cement block buildings and crumbling sidewalks we expected, along with a pilates studio a few Fiat dealerships, and a three-story mall. It turns out the Santarém has recently experienced extraordinary economic growth. In a period of five-years, the municipal GDP doubled. Additionally, in the past two years, a friend told me, the number of cars increased from 30,000 to 65,000.

Why all the growth? There are a couple of possible answers that come to mind:

  • Commerce is booming. Last year, Cargill opened a soy shipping facility here. In general, Santarem is turning into a major transportation hub because it is halfway between two major cities (Belem and Manaus) and it lies at the intersection of the Amazon River and the Tapajos River. The government just decided to build a railroad line that will connect the port here with more fertile states down south.
  • Credit is booming. Every store accepts Visa, which is a big deal because the guys who had my post last year said that I would seldom use my credit card. You can also buy virtually any good on an installment plan—even a $20 pair of shoes.

I don’t think I have ever found myself living in an economy that was on such a rapid boil and possibly developing such a big bubble. While I am here, I plan to keep up with local economic indicators so that I can understand what exactly is going on. A few questions I already have:

  • Why all the real estate development?
  • Where do the used cars go?
  • Are salaries keeping up with the rise in spending opportunities?
  • And how much credit do people actually use?

And the biggest question I ask myself—what role am I going to play in all of this? As a member of the Fulbright English Teaching Assistant Program, I’ve been sent to Santarem to not just observe, but also to teach at the first university-level English program in a region with almost no native English speakers. When I stop and think about it, my job is not just to grade papers. It’s also to connect a rural Brazilian city to the global economy.

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