Brazil's northeast -- bigger than Texas -- gallops toward prosperity

Brazil's northeast is twice the size of Texas, yet it has slumbered in un-Texas-like backwardness for generations.

Now it is showing signs of awakening. Brazil's northeast is beginning to lift itself out of the 19th and into the 20th century.

''It's as if the northeast had suddenly shucked off its cocoon,'' says Wilson Ferreira Reis da Silva, a Salvador furniture-store owner who has happily watched his sales triple over the past five years.

The signs of change are many. New industry has arrived in the northeast with government and private investment of more than $12 billion during the last decade. Some of this money built a mammoth petrochemical facility in Salvador. Huge hydroelectric complexes are being built. Dams already are supplying abundant and inexpensive power as well as water for irrigation projects on drought-ravaged land.

Many of the region's 40 million inhabitants - about a third of the nation's population - are trying to take advantage of this new opportunity.

''The northeast may still be a problem child for Brazil,'' says a Banco do Brasil economist here, ''but the child is somewhat less of a problem today than it was 10 and 15 years ago.'' During the 1960s and early 1970s, many Brazilians had written off the northeast as a hopeless case. Their thinking: ignore that region; concentrate instead on building the rest of Brazil, where economic success and progress seemed more promising.

In the 1970s, that policy led, at least in part, to the so-called ''Brazilian miracle,'' under which the nation racked up annual growth rates of 10 percent and more, becoming the world's eighth-largest economy.

Meanwhile, newspaper and magazine stories lamented the backwardness of the northeast region and made unfavorable comparisons between that ''hapless area,'' as the magazine Manchete called it, and dynamic Sao Paulo, the heart of modern Brazil's economic machine.

But the northeast was far from slumbering at that time. It was like a giant awakening slowly and tentatively flexing its muscles. The northeast began to experience some spinoff from the economic progress of southern Brazil. It came slowly at first: small investments, sometimes for subsidiaries of firms based elsewhere, hoping to take advantage of the unskilled labor pool of the northeast.

But then the pace of private and public investment began to pick up speed. Even foreigners began to invest in northeast Brazil. Today foreigners contribute about 25 percent of total investment here.

Today a number of cities in the northeast - Salvador (or Bahia), Recife, and Natal - are experiencing a boom.

The boom has drawn other investers. But for the most part the people reaping the fruits of this boom are the Nordestinosm themselves, and it is a rather heady experience for them.

Individual income is up. The northeast's annual per capita income of $500 lags far behind that of Brazil as a whole ($2,000) but it has jumped dramatically from the $300 income of about five years ago.

In some places, northeast annual income is higher, reacing $1,200 in Salvador and $700 in Recife. This is ''remarkable,'' say Banco do Brasil officials, who note that the effects of the northeast's backwardness were most evident in places like Recife.

Measured another way, the region's newfound prosperity is translating into the purchase of consumer goods. The owner of a Ford agency here, which sells Brazilian-made Ford cars and other vehicles, says his business has increased tenfold in the past five years.

Another measure of the transformation is the building of small homes. A construction increase is under way, slowed slightly this year by the nationwide recession afflicting Brazil. But more than 10,000 units will be built in Salvador in 1982 for the city's population of 1.3 million.

At the same time, there have been relatively few layoffs here - compared to some significant layoffs in the more industrialized south. Job creation has not kept up with need, but at least layoffs have not added to the problem.

A small, but important part of the growth is tourism. Both Bahia, the nation's first capital, and Recife have developed thriving tourist industries. Air France flies to Recife, British Caledonian to Bahia, bearing a variety of foreigners, although the largest number of tourists come from other parts of Brazil.

Tourist officials in Salvador indicate tourism has grown 8 percent a year on the average for the past decade. In 1982, tourism here expect to net close to $ 70 million.

Tourism also creates jobs and the industry tends to be less seasonal here than elsewhere since the weather remains generally good throughout the year.

Weather is also a factor favoring agriculture. In parts of the northeast, it is possible to get two crops a year because of fine weather and irrigation. The hydroelectric plants are helping agriculture. Farm officials in the state of Bahia say they expect a 40 percent increase in food production alone this year, partly as a result of irrigation. Much of this will come from agribusiness that has come to the northeast from the south.

Both the industrial and agricultural growth of the region has tended to keep more Nordestinosm in their homeland, slowing some of the traditional flow to the south where opportunity was believed to be greater.

In many ways, the south of Brazil is still the land of opportunity. The problems of the northeast still are many. Perhaps the biggest challenge for the northeast is the sheer weight of the past. Descriptions of the northwest as backward must be overcome before it can really measure up economically with the rest of Brazil.

Too few people in the northeast share yet in the boom beginning to flow out from cities like Salvador and Recife to the whole northeast. At least 30 million northeast residents still live in poverty - an albatross around the neck of progress in Brazil.

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