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World Cup Stadium In The Amazon Is Nice, But Is It Needed?

Jun 21, 2014
Originally published on June 21, 2014 5:19 pm

The U.S. plays Portugal in a key World Cup match on Sunday, and it is in the tournament's most exotic locale: Manaus.

Manaus is a teeming city of nearly 2 million in the middle of the Amazon rainforest. But it's not some remote outpost; it's the sixth richest city in Brazil, thanks to its Free Trade Zone designation bringing big business like Nokia, Honda and Harley-Davidson.

Sunday's game will be the third of only four scheduled in the city's new $300 million World Cup stadium, the Arena da Amazonia. The facility and the city have been one of the focal points for critics who say Brazil should be spending money on things other than a World Cup extravaganza.

At the Manaus fish market, 42-year-old vendor Wanderson Desoza Decarvalho says the World Cup has been good business.

"It's helped a lot," he says. Thanks to the tourists, he is selling more fish. But the Brazilian press says that the Arena da Amazonia will cost $250,000 a month just for upkeep once the World Cup is over.

When asked if he thought it was money well spent, Decarvalho says he doesn't feel comfortable answering that.

Hamilton Leao is not so shy. The 45-year-old social and environmental activist has lived in Manaus his whole life, and his reaction to the gleaming white stadium is not one of admiration.

"I look at that, and I think, 'Oh my God,' " Leao says.

To understand that reaction, you have to understand that Leao sees parts of Manaus most don't, like the neighborhood called Educandos.

The 6,000 or so residents here live near the banks of the Black River, a huge tributary of the Amazon. Every year around this time — the height of flood season — they essentially live in a plank city.

Two- to three-foot-wide wooden planks are their streets, connecting houses, and their hallways, connecting rooms. The planks are built above standing, fetid water everywhere. The water is filled with floating garbage and disease that regularly sends residents, especially kids, to the local hospital.

Leao says the government needs to do something to help, such as coming up with a plan to move these people. Short of that, he says, there needs to be better sanitation and better health care, issues protesters have raised throughout the country.

A colleague of Leao's says there is money for both the World Cup and to help the people, another common criticism from activists. It's just a matter of political will, he says, and right now there's more political will to put on a big World Cup party.

Ironically, this big party is even happening in Educandos. Above the garbage-filled water, residents have strung lines from house to house with small, plastic flags in colors of Brazil and the World Cup.

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ARUN RATH, HOST:

It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR West. I'm Arun Rath. The U.S. plays Portugal in a key World Cup match tomorrow. It's in the tournament's most exotic local, Manaus. Manaus is a city of nearly two million, right in the middle of the Amazon rain forest. Tomorrow's game will be the third of only four scheduled in the Manaus' new $300 million World Cup stadium. The facility and the city have been targets for critics, who say Brazil should be spending money on things other than a World Cup extravaganza. From Manaus, NPR's Tom Goldman reports.

TOM GOLDMAN, BYLINE: Why not the World Cup in Manaus? We're not talking about a remote outpost on the Amazon. There's culture, with the famous Amazonas Theatre opened in 1896. There's prosperity. Manaus is the sixth richest city in Brazil, thanks to its free-trade zone designation bringing big business, like Nokia, Honda, Harley-Davidson.

(SOUNDBITE OF FISH MARKET)

GOLDMAN: At the Manaus fish market, a vendor guts Amazon River paku and bags them up for customers.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Portuguese spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Portuguese spoken).

GOLDMAN: The World Cup has been good business for fish vendors like 42-year-old Wanderson Desoza de Carvillo.

WANDERSON DESOZA DE CARVILLO: (Portuguese spoken).

GOLDMAN: It's helped a lot, he says. He's selling more fish, selling to tourists. I ask about the Arena da Amazonia. The stadium cost more than $300 million to build. The Brazilian press says, it'll cost $250,000 a month just for upkeep once the World Cup is over. Is it money well spent? He pauses and smiles at translator Fernando Cavalcanti.

GOLDMAN: Doesn't want to answer?

FERNANDO CAVALCANTI: Yeah. He doesn't want to answer. He doesn't feel very comfortable answering.

GOLDMAN: Hamilton Leon (ph) does. The 45-year-old social and environmental activist has lived in Manaus his whole life. His reaction, when he drives by the gleaming white stadium...

HAMILTON LEON: I look at that, and I think, oh. Oh, my God.

GOLDMAN: To understand that reaction, you have to understand that Hamilton Leon sees parts of Manaus most don't, like the neighborhood called Educandos.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOG BARKING)

GOLDMAN: The 6,000 or so residents here live near the banks of the Black River, a huge tributary of the Amazon. And every year, around this time - the height of flood season - they essentially live in a plank city. Two- to three-foot wide wooden planks are their streets connecting houses, their hallways connecting rooms. The planks are built above standing, fetid water, everywhere. The water is filled with floating garbage and disease that regularly sends residents, especially kids, to the local hospital.

Fifty-eight-year-old Angela Maria, mother of five, grandmother of seven, invites me in. We're now inside the house, and there are planks everywhere with about - I would say a half a foot to a foot of water that there - that the planks are over. We're now in the kitchen, and you can look into another room with pots and pans. Here's a bedroom with a bed. Here's a small bed with a fan going. It's very, very hot and humid.

I asked Leon what the government can do to help. Anything, he says, A plan to move these people. Short of that, better sanitation, better health care - issues protesters have raised throughout the country. A colleague of his, who's come along, says, there's money to help and money for the World Cup - money for both. It's just, he says, a matter of political will. And there's more political will, he says, to put on the big party, which, ironically, even is taking place in Educandos. Above the garbage-filled water, residents have strung lines from house to house with small plastic green, yellow and blue flags of Brazil and the World Cup. Tom Goldman, NPR News, Manaus. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.