For more than 100 years waves of immigrants have made Sao Paulo grow. But more and more people are now turning their backs on the city and moving to the hinterland that's less expensive and has cleaner air.
There are few countries in the world that are home to such a large number of people with a migration background as Brazil. During the 2010 census, only one out of 230 Brazilians claimed to be a descendant of a native tribe. The US, by comparison, has a 2010 rate of one to 60, while in Australia one out of 45 citizens is of aboriginal heritage.
Brazilians have their roots scattered throughout the world. European and African influences may dominate, but Sao Paulo alone is home to around one million people of Japanese origin. Sao Paulo, the third largest urban center in the world, is the melting pot of Brazil and its settlement has been coined by diversity from the start.
Brazil, a home for immigrants
For about 300 years, the Portuguese - alongside indigenous peoples and African slaves - remained largely amongst themselves. But all this changed gradually after the country gained independence in 1822.
"By the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century hordes of people from Europe, Japan - essentially from around the world - immigrated to Brazil, especially to Sao Paulo," says Uli Reich, a linguist at the Freie Universität Berlin whose research focuses on the influence migration has on language in large cities. Throughout the so-called "big migration" period, some 50,000 to 200,000 migrants arrived in Brazil each year.
The migrants started to look for jobs - and there were plenty of them in the coffee plantations that emerged in the 19th century, particularly in the Sao Paulo plateau. Industrialization in Sao Paulo picked up pace in the middle of the 20th century. Soon, German companies such as Bosch, Siemens and Volkswagen settled in.
Sao Paulo’s population boom
New jobs emerged thanks to industrial development. This time though it was mostly people from within Brazil who came to the city in search of employment. Hordes of people, especially from the poor north-eastern part of the country, started to move south. "In the 1960s busloads of migrants from the northeast arrived in the city," Reich says.
What today's financial center (see top picture) looked like in 1902
But even as the demand for workers decreased, the influx of job seekers continued. Many of them ended up with no work and no place to stay. As a consequence huge slums emerged that stretched like a ring around the city center. Since 1890 population in the core city has increased 200-fold, rising from 65,000 to over 11 million. In 1890, New York City had a population of 2.5 million and is home to 8.2 million people today.
Nowadays, 40 out of 100 Brazilians are no longer living in their place of birth. Nevertheless, internal migration between the regions has subsided in the past decades.
"The improvement of the economic situation has led to fewer people leaving the northeast," says Reich.
Tim Wegenast, a political scientist at the University of Konstanz, thinks there is another reason for this development: "The social programs implemented over the past 15 years have contributed to curbing migration from Brazil’s poorest regions."
But a complete halt to immigration is not likely to happen soon as people from neighboring countries have started coming to Brazil. Around 50,000 Bolivians alone are working in Sao Paulo’s textile factories. They account for the fastest growing foreign community in the city. "Brazil is an aspiring emerging nation, Sao Paulo is the most important industrial site in Latin America - and Bolivia is destitute," says Reich.
Bolivia may lag only 24 spots behind Brazil on the UN Human Development Index, but it is ranked as "medium developed," whereas Brazil is regarded as a "highly developed" nation. In this context, Sao Paulo is seen as one of the wealthiest of Brazil’s regions.
Exodus from Sao Paulo
But there is also migration amongst the wealthy "Paulistanos." After primarily moving into the affluent suburbs of the metropolis in the 1990s, they have started to leave the urban area altogether since the turn of the millennium. They tend to move to mid-sized cities within the same federal state or to rural areas.
"Especially the well-educated city-slickers are moving out," says Brazil expert Reich, adding that they simply cannot stand the chaotic conditions in Sao Paulo anymore. "Besides, the city center has become so expensive that only few people can afford to live there."
Wegenast identifies two mutually dependent factors. “On the one hand, companies take advantage of tax benefits offered by many small towns, thus creating a good infrastructure with partners and suppliers and good jobs." This has led to a higher living standard: "The costs of living are usually lower, there is less crime, the air quality is better and you are much faster in traffic."