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Deep in Brazil's jungle, host city poses wild challenge for World Cup

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MANAUS, Brazil — In the 1960s, Brazil's military rulers decided they had to populate the Amazon or risk losing control over the vast, isolated region. So they granted special tax breaks to Manaus, reviving a faded rubber-baron town in the middle of the jungle.

Manaus is still governed by special rules that keep it alive as a manufacturing center, though it remains connected to the rest of Brazil only by boat or plane. The city, which could easily retreat back into the jungle if not for government support, got another boost when it was selected as the only Amazonian site to be a host for the upcoming World Cup soccer tournament.

But Manaus' special problems will also be on full display during the games. After controversial and even fatal preparations here, residents are nervously hoping their city of nearly 2 million can pull off the event while taking advantage of the global spotlight.

"We'll have more tourists at one time than Manaus has ever seen," said Roberio Braga, secretary of culture for the state of Amazonas. "So we're planning 1,200 special events."

Most of the action will be on the field. And in the run-up to a World Cup dominated by nationwide scandals and protests, Manaus gained unwanted attention late last year when British media and the England football team manager questioned the wisdom of holding games here. England will take on Italy in the city on June 14, and the United States plays Portugal on June 22.

England manager Roy Hodgson initially said he would like to avoid playing in Manaus because of the heat and humidity. The Daily Mirror called it a "crime-ridden hellhole" and complained of the cost and difficulty of getting to the city, more than 700 miles inland from the Atlantic.

The proud Amazonian citizens were offended, and Mayor Arthur Virgilio said England was not welcome.

"Those were unfortunate comments and prejudiced," said Sandro Queiroz, a student and human resources manager at construction company JB Andaimes in Manaus, sitting in front of the 19th century Teatro Amazonas, a belle epoque relic of the rubber boom years. "Perhaps we spent too much on our stadium, but tourists will probably be well received."

In the last few months, Virgilio and Hodgson have patched up their differences. But their spat fed the debate over whether Brazil went too far to try to use the World Cup as an economic booster, insisting on 12 host cities instead of eight and erecting towering, glittering stadiums in places with little football culture or transportation infrastructure.

Manaus' new Arena da Amazonia, match-ready but still being worked on, is probably the most impressive structure in the region. Its 42,000 seats rise high above the flat city, its reds and yellows a tribute to the surrounding jungle.

But the stadium came at a price. In addition to the more than $275 million paid out, three workers died during construction.

Miguel Capobiango, director of the World Cup Management project in Amazonas, said he "does not believe" the accidents had anything to do with the rush to finish the stadium in time for the June kickoff.

"After the accidents, however, the local courts ordered that workers could not work on the roof or up high at night, which they were doing before," Capobiango said, standing near the field as a high-tech drone flew over the grass, analyzing it for faults.

"Negative comments about our city, made because of pure ignorance, just reinforce our belief that now is the time for the world to get to know Manaus and its culture."

Residents say they are anxious to see which way things go in June and July, as Manaus offers ample opportunities both for logistical disasters and for the world to become enchanted with their culture and exotic natural surroundings.

More than most of the host cities, Manaus is gearing up to showcase its cuisine — often considered the best in Brazil — as well as dance, opera, music and indigenous culture.

However, the city is nestled so tightly into the jungle that the heavy daily rains can knock out electricity and Internet service in places, sometimes for hours. It can be intensely hot and humid. There is little public transportation, and even under normal conditions traffic can grind to a halt. Crime is a problem, though the homicide rate is not one of Brazil's highest.

But the main problem is Manaus' location and infrastructure, a messy consequence of the tax breaks that started in the 1960s, experts say.

"Manaus is a perfect example of the lack of strategic planning. You have an industrial base but no logistical connections for the goods, and the heritage of the tax system has to be kept in place politically to safeguard the jobs and people that moved there because of the policy," said Paulo Resende, an infrastructure specialist at the Fundacao Dom Cabral business school. "The reasoning for this type of development in Manaus was not economic, it was entirely geopolitical, with the aim that Brazil would remain the guardian of the jungle."

Since there are no highways to the city, those who aren't willing to spend days traveling up the Amazon by boat will rely on Brazil's overstretched air transportation system, taking a four-hour flight that costs about $400 from Rio de Janeiro. One recent trip by air from Manaus to the coastal city of Natal, another World Cup city, required three stops and took more than 10 hours.

But development based on manufacturing has helped to conserve the natural environment around the city, since it provides jobs that don't involve deforesting — for wood, agriculture or meat production — as happens in most of the jungle regions in Brazil where roads have arrived, said Alex Rivas, a professor at the Federal University of Amazonas.

That has made Manaus a site for eco-tourism, a sector the government wants to boost with the spotlight of the World Cup. Alligators scurry into the Rio Negro near private roads to the houses of the elite, and visitors and residents take small boats to nearby reserves run by indigenous tribes.

Political insiders have questioned whether Manaus won the right to host games over Belem, a coastal city in the Amazon that is perhaps more tourist-friendly, as political support for an important figure in the government's coalition, former Gov. Eduardo Braga. Even if the World Cup's likely legacy for cities is still ambiguous, it's good business for construction companies that are essential political donors.

Construction has been good business in the Amazon recently, because of the fiscal policy as well as the World Cup project. Queiroz rose to human resources manager of his family's company at just 18, and now has 45 people under him. He's optimistic the World Cup will go well, on balance.

"But if the government's push to develop here disappeared," he says, "so might more than half of the city."

Bevins is a special correspondent.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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