Brazil’s Central-West was first explored in the early 17th century by Spanish and Portuguese colonists whose initial efforts were rebuffed by a combination of inhospitable landscapes and fierce Indian attacks from local groups such as the Bororo, Kaiapó, and Paiaguá. It wasn’t until a century later when, having struck gold in neighboring Minas Gerais, intrepid Paulistano bandeirantes began sending expeditions into the region, propelled by dreams of making fortunes.
In 1682, a bandeirante by the name of Bartolomeu Bueno da Silva encountered some Goiaz Indians adorned with accessories made from pure gold. According to local legend, when the Indians refused to tell him the source of the precious metal, Silva promptly set a vessel of water (in reality cachaça) aflame and threatened to do the same to all the region’s rivers if they didn’t show him to the gold.
Within a decade, a new gold rush was on. Bandeirantes, followed by Portuguese settlers and soldiers, and hundreds of African slaves descended upon the outposts that grew into the towns subsequently known as Goiás Velho (Goiás) and Cuiabá (Mato Grosso). Although some fabulous fortunes were made, many more adventurers died due to disease, poverty (the price of imported goods was astronomical), and the hardships of the months-long journey through the wilderness from São Paulo.
Meanwhile, despite some brave shows of resistance, most of the region’s Indians were no match for the combination of gunpowder and viruses that the white intruders carried with them (although to this day, some surviving communities—most notably the Terena and Bororo of Mato Grosso and Mato Grosso do Sul—continue to live much as their ancestors did).
By the end of the 18th century, many Indians had been decimated and much of the gold had dried up. However, an abundance of fertile land fed by rivers lured cattle ranchers from São Paulo and the South to settle Goiás and Mato Grosso. The herds thrived, in particular, amid the otherwise deserted wetlands of the Pantanal.
Until well into the 20th century, the Central-West remained a sparsely populated wilderness whose urban outposts were quite isolated from the bustling capitals of coastal Brazil. The region’s fortunes changed radically, however, with the concretization of the long-held dream of building a new Brazilian capital in the heart of the country. Under the bold and visionary leadership of Juscelino Kubitschek, who became president in 1956, an area known as the Distrito Federal (Federal District) was carved out of the highland plains of Goiás, and within four years, a shiny brand-new capital had risen out of the deep red earth of the Planalto.
While Brasília has its ardent supporters and critics, there is no denying that the city led to the opening up of the entire Central-West, connecting it to the rest of Brazil and ushering in a period of thriving agro-industry that has continued to this day. Currently Goiás, Mato Grosso, and Mato Grosso do Sul (which was created out of the formerly immense state of Mato Grosso in the late 1970s) are Brazil’s fastest-growing regions and the leading national producers of lucrative cash crops such as sugarcane, soybeans, rice, cotton, and corn along with beef.
Increasingly, vast high-tech farms vie for space with nature reserves, the largest of which, the immense Parque Nacional do Pantanal Matogrossense, has managed (for now) to protect many of the natural treasures enclosed within the watery borders of the Pantanal. Indeed, at the beginning of the 21st century, the biggest issue in the region is one of sustainable development; how to balance continued economic growth with preservation of the region’s unique, yet increasingly threatened ecosystems.
© Michael Sommers from Moon Brazil, 2nd Edition