Minas Gerais in Brazil

The state of Minas Gerais is a little larger than France and almost as mountainous. In the south the land rises to over 2700 m on the border of Itatiaia national park in Rio, and in the east, to 2890 m at the Pico da Bandeira in the Caparaó national park. Both these areas of highland are part of the chain of forest-clad mountains that forms the escarpment, which cuts Minas Gerais off from the coastal lowlands of the states of Rio de Janeiro and Espírito Santo. The north of Minas is a dry and desolate region known as the sertão, protected by the large national park, Grande Sertão Veredas, which contains significant areas of cerrado forest and the groves of buriti palms (veredas), which give the park its name. Some of the country's rarest and most intriguing animals, such as the maned wolf and giant anteater, live here. The foremost of the colonial towns are Tiradentes, Ouro Preto and Diamantina. Many of these have churches decorated with carvings by the country's most celebrated sculptor, Aleijadinho. The state capital, Belo Horizonte, has few attractions but good transport links.

Background

Like the Spanish, the Portuguese looked to their colonies for easy money. Outside the Jesuit reduction cities, there were never plans to invest in empire, only to exploit the land and the local people as ruthlessly as possible. At first it was wood that attracted the Portuguese, and then indigenous slaves for the cane plantations that stretched along the northern coast. But it was the ultimate in rich pickings that led to colonial Brazil becoming more than a coastline empire. In 1693, whilst out on a marauding expedition, a Paulista bandeirante found ouro preto - gold made black by a coat of iron oxide - in a stream south of modern Belo Horizonte. When news reached home, an influx of adventurers trekked their way from São Paulo through the forests to set up makeshift camps along the gold streams. These camps developed into wealthy towns such as Ouro Preto and Mariana. Later, with the discovery of diamonds and other gemstones, a captaincy was established and named, prosaically, 'General Mines'.

The wealth of Minas was reflected in its streets and in the baroque churches, whose interiors were covered in gold plate and decorated with sculptures by the best artisans in Brazil. And with the wealth came growing self-importance. The Inconfidência Mineira , the most important rebellion in colonial Brazil, began in Ouro Preto in the late 18th century under a group of intellectuals educated in Portugal who were in contact with Thomas Jefferson and English industrialists. The Inconfidência never got beyond discussion but it was decided that the only non-aristocratic member of the group, José Joaquim da Silva, would be in charge of taking the governor's palace, occupied by the hated Visconde of Barbacena, who was responsible for levying the imperial taxes. Da Silva was derisively known as Tiradentes (the tooth puller) by his compatriots. Today he is the only Inconfidênte rebel that most Brazilians can name and he is celebrated as a folk hero - one of the common people who dared to challenge the powerful elite, and who was cruelly martyred as a result.

After Brazil changed from an empire into a republic, Minas Gerais vied for power with the coffee barons of São Paulo and, in the 20th century, produced two Brazilian presidents. Juscelino Kubitschek, an establishment figure chosen by the electorate as the best alternative to the military, opened up Brazil to foreign investment in the 1960s, and founded Brasília. Tancredo Neves also opposed the Brazilian military, was elected to power in 1985. A few days before his inauguration, he died in mysterious circumstances. His last words were reportedly “I did not deserve this”. He was replaced by José Sarney, a leading figure in the Brazilian landowning oligarchy.

This is edited copy from Footprint Handbooks. For comprehensive details (incl address, tel no, directions, opening times and prices) please refer to book or individual chapter PDF
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