Brazil’s economy is growing fast but more than 16 million Brazilians still live in extreme poverty. In the photo, a boy eats a piece of bread as he sits in the doorway of his home in the slums of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, March 15, 2011. (Felipe Dana/AP)

Fast-growing Brazil tries to lift its poorest

The industrial complex and port here are a showcase of the region’s economic might, employing 55,000 workers and attracting billions in investments. But a couple of miles down the road, Netildes Delvina Soares, 47, lives “with much suffering,” as she put it, in a wood-plank hut without plumbing or electricity.

Although traditionally poor, Brazil’s northeast is now home to the country’s fastest-growing regional economy, making the disparity between prosperity and extreme poverty more visible here than anywhere else. And it is places such as this that the country’s new president, Dilma Rousseff, is hoping to uplift as she pursues an ambitious goal: eradicating indigence, defined as earning less than $45 a month.

Over the past decade, Brazil has lifted 20 million people out of poverty through a mix of well-funded social programs and careful economic stewardship, creating a burgeoning consumer class that has helped make the country the world’s seventh-largest economy.

Netildes Delvina Soares, 47, lives with much suffering, as she put it, in a wood-plank hut without plumbing or electricity. Her sister (right), Mara Maria da Silva, 58, worries about the abject poverty for the children in the community. (Juan Forero/TWP)

Now, what Rousseff called her administration’s “most obstinate fight” will be to eradicate extreme poverty, which affects more than 16 million Brazilians, by 2014. “There is still poverty that shames our country and prevents our full affirmation as a developed people,” Rousseff, 63, said at her Jan. 1 inauguration, as she succeeded her mentor, the popular Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva.

Government officials say that in the coming weeks Rousseff will lay out details of a broad initiative, “Brazil Without Poverty,” which will expand health, education and cash-transfer programs and direct increased development aid to poverty-stricken regions.

“These are strategic decisions for redistributing wealth, promoting big works in regions where poverty was concentrated,” Tereza Campello, minister of social development, said in an interview.

The bulk of the assistance will be funneled to the vast north, much of it Amazonia, and the densely populated northeast, regions that are home to 75 percent of the Brazilians who fall below the extreme-poverty line.

It is in the northeast that poverty’s reach has been most extensive and intractable, which historians attribute to arid conditions and the legacy of slavery. The nine northeastern states contain 27 percent of Brazil’s about 200 million people but account for 13 percent of its economic growth, said Paulo Guimaraes, regional chief of BNDES, Brazil’s development bank. In contrast, the southeast, rich in industry, churns out 56 percent of the country’s economic output with just 41 percent of the population.

Guimaraes said the poverty is also deeply entrenched, stretching from isolated peasant hamlets in the interior to the slums of the region’s bustling cities.

“Some people here don’t even have an ID card,” Guimaraes said. “They are invisible.”

Mara Maria da Silva, 58, is among the poorest, living in a squatter community. Her home is a shack on a hillside in Cabo de Santo Agostinho, sandwiched between the vast Suape port and industrial park and Recife, the capital of Pernambuco state. She laments her predicament but worries most about children growing up in abject poverty, using drugs and sleeping in the open air.

“Here, it is full of poverty,” she said. “We need many things. Pernambuco is very ignored.”

Jorge Jatoba, an economist who studies poverty, said that a confluence of violence, malnutrition and lack of services, such as potable water, has made poverty especially difficult to uproot in the northeast, despite the region’s China-like growth, 9.3 percent last year. Illiteracy hovers around 20 percent, he said, and only about half of those between the ages of 15 and 17 attend school.

Jatoba said it may be surprising that widespread misery still exists in a country that has undergone an important economic and social transformation since the 1990s. Many of Brazil’s accomplishments have been credited to Pernambuco’s most famous son, Lula, who grew up poor and was elected president in 2002.

“The city has lived for many years this kind of cruel coexistence between affluence in some areas and extreme poverty in some areas,” Jatoba said, sitting on his balcony in a high-rise apartment building in Recife, the lights of other buildings twinkling across the skyline.

Jatoba said the government must vastly improve education and other services and find ways to pull from the margins of society people who have never worked or do not read. That is not to say, he stressed, that job creation in the northeast is not chipping away at poverty.

Employment is increasing particularly quickly in Pernambuco as the state and private industry invest in highways and a $3.4 billion rail line. The linchpin of this region is the Suape port and industrial park, located on a former mangrove swamp south of Recife here in Ipojuca.

Although more than 30 years old, the complex has awakened only in recent years as investments increased dramatically. By 2014, $15 billion will be invested as Fiat completes a car plant, shipbuilding facilities are expanded and an oil refinery and petrochemical facility are opened, said Frederico da Costa Amancio, Suape’s chief executive.

Suape has 55,000 workers, 20,000 of them permanent, and Amancio expects 15,000 more in four years, many of whom will come from the ranks of rural agriculture. “It’s like an industrial revolution in our state,” he said.

Among those benefiting are workers such as Jorge Rocha, 40.

Until the end of last year, Rocha washed cars. With his meager wages, he had to bunk with relatives and, at times, struggled to pay for a good meal.

Now, Rocha is earning more than $600 a month, well above the minimum wage, driving heavy machinery at a construction site. Yet, he said, the memories of hardship are still fresh in his mind — and he reels off how many of those close to him are still struggling.

“Things are very precarious for them,” he said. “There are many people living with big necessities.”