A `Day of Mourning' for Amazonian Separatists: Dom Phillips

Voters in the Brazilian state of Para went to the polls on Dec. 11 in a historic referendum. It was the first time Brazilian voters had been consulted on a territorial question: Should the sprawling, Amazonian jungle state, which covers 1.2 million square kilometers, split into three new states?

The result of the vote left Para united politically -- but more split than ever emotionally.

Para’s outlying areas of Tapajos and Carajas wanted the economic benefits of creating their own states. But Belem, the capital and most populous area, argued that a split would be too costly. Powerful political and economic forces weighed in on both sides.

Separatists argued that the new, smaller states would be more manageable. Health care would be better distributed and the new states would see a larger share of federal investment if funding wasn't funneled through the distant capital. "The state will be closer to people," said the news site Ultimo Segundo.

Those opposing the division said that smaller states didn't guarantee better services and would probably waste public money on new assemblies, government headquarters and justice departments. The new states would also be born with substantial budget deficits.

Personalities entered the charged campaign on both sides. Brazilian soccer star Ganso, a Para native, opposed a split. Veteran marketing man Duda Mendonca -- who had worked on former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva's election campaign, then been linked to an alleged vote-buying scandal that almost brought Lula’s government down -- came in on the separatist side, possibly due to his financial interests in the separatist areas.

Para's governor, Simao Jatene, said he would remain neutral -- but he predicted a grim aftermath:

“Whatever the result of this referendum, the following day will be marked by hurt, resentments and distrust which could be long-lasting,” Jatene wrote in an essay published on Nov. 22.

On Dec. 3, Jatene linked the Para referendum with similar proposals working their way through the Brazilian legal system in an interview with the news weekly Veja. The problems separatists wanted to address, he argued, wouldn't be solved by simply splitting up Para:

There is in the country a sentiment that the states don't have the capacity to respond to the demands of the population. This, in my opinion, is the reason for these separatist projects ... What the people want, here and in any other place, is more health, education, security, jobs and income. And they use the division of Para as a panacea. This is not the truth.

The biggest divide between the two sides was clearly economic. A reduced "new Para" had a lot to lose: it would be left with just 44 percent of the state's current gross domestic product.

And the separatists had a lot to fight for: Tapajos has a growing eco-tourism industry, endless beautiful forests and the enormous Tapajos River. Carajas has the presence of Brazilian mining and iron-ore giant Vale. “Carajas will be the state of Vale,” said the O Globo newspaper. "The new state will inherit the principal mineral reserves of the company, among them the biggest iron-ore mine in the world."

On referendum day, Dec. 11, voters rejected the split as polls had predicted, after a campaign "marked by increasing resentment in the areas that desire to emancipate themselves," said the Folha de Sao Paulo newspaper. Separatist voters in Tapajos and Carajas were simply outnumbered by those in the far-away capital of Belem who wanted the state to stay together. About 66 percent of total voters rejected the creation of both new states.

The result, as the Estado de Sao Paulo newspaper observed, was a bitterly divided Para:

In spite of the victory, by a large margin, of the front that defended keeping the territory intact, the fact is that Para voted divided. The proposal to divide the state was embraced with enthusiasm by the voters in the regions that could separate. In Santarem, the principal city of the West region, the creation of Tapajos received 98 percent of the vote. In Maraba, the pro-Carajas front collected nearly 94 percent of the vote. But Santarem, Maraba and the other cities of the separatist regions make up just 35 percent of the electorate -- in other words, in practice, the referendum was decided by the 65 percent of voters who are in Belem. In the capital, the "no" vote conquered 95 percent of the electorate.

Separatists were deeply disappointed.

“The atmosphere is like a wake. There is a profound sadness,” a Santarem resident told Ultimo Segundo. A day of mourning was proclaimed in the city, which would have been the capital of Tapajos state. “In Maraba, which would have been the capital of Carajas, the atmosphere too is of sadness and revolt. In Belem, the population celebrated keeping the state territory intact until the break of the day."

Elsewhere in Brazil, other proposals to split up states are winding their way through the electoral system. Brazil remains in many ways a work in progress, a continent-sized country with many isolated populations that the government has yet to provide with adequate services, such as health, education and security. The hunger for these basic provisions is likely only to grow.

“The separatist sentiment in the regions of Tapajos and Carajas didn’t end with the vote," said the news site UOL.

(Dom Phillips is the Sao Paulo correspondent for World View. The opinions expressed are his own.)

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.